Real Madrid: Studying Karim Benzema

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 15: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Rayo Vallecano de Madrid at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 15, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 15: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Rayo Vallecano de Madrid at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 15, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images) /

Karim Benzema is the most underappreciated legend of the modern game. He will be remembered for as long as the sport is played as one of the greatest goalscorers to ever play the game.

With a certain Portuguese forward no longer in the fold and Gareth Bale continuing to face injury, Real Madrid turned to the most proven goalscorer they had, Karim Benzema. Benzema has been with the club for years, was the consistent preferred 9 for Zinedine Zidane, and also a favorite teammate of Cristiano Ronaldo’s due to his unselfishness and movement off the ball.

He has seen challenges to his position from Gonzalo Higuain, Alvaro Morata, and others, but has outlasted each and every one of them. He is the sixth highest goalscorer in Real Madrid history and has outscored every single person to ever compete in the UEFA Champions League besides Cristiano, Lionel Messi, and Raul. In what follows we will discuss how he has done all this and why he has received so little appreciation for it.

Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo during their time at Real Madrid
Real Madrid’s French forward Karim Benzema (L) and Real Madrid’s Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo warm up prior to the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Real Madrid on March 6, 2018, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images) /

Many football fans have a very narrow view of what a number 9 can be. Stay central, battle center backs, win headers in the box, and latch on to through balls. Finish, finish, finish. Goals, goals, goals. If goals are not coming, then the 9 is not doing his job.

However, this two-dimensional view of the position is antiquated and does not reflect the complexities of how the game is played today. We are in the golden age of the 4-3-3 formation, and the front line of any team who runs it finds themselves a living organism unto themselves from the rest of the team.

The BBC of Real Madrid or the MSN of Barcelona were not dominant simply because they had three great goalscorers, but because the styles of the players involved paired up in the right way to produce the most effective cumulative offense.

As is well documented, Cristiano Ronaldo gradually became a purer and purer finisher during his time at Real Madrid. He spent less time with the ball at his feet and more time close to goal, receiving and finishing. If he had been paired with a 9 who played the same way, the two players would have suffered for service and been in each other’s way. S

Seeing this, Karim Benzema modified his own game to be the perfect foil to the incredibly efficient Portuguese, he improved his movement, his passing, and became less focused on scoring goals.

What you see below is Karim Benzema’s heat map from the first Clasico against Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey. As you can see, his positioning is not what you would expect from a typical goal-scoring center forward. Instead, he profiles more like a winger or wide attacking midfielder.

It is no accident that his drifting is primarily to the left, as Vinicius Jr plays that side and Vini also spent the most time centrally of any of our three forwards in that match. Benzema created space for the teenager by playing interchanges with him and letting him take the central channel for large sections of the match. This plays itself out in the pass map you see below.

No one played more passes to Vinicius than Benzema, and both Marcelo and Kroos played a significant number of balls to him as well. He was central to all our moves on that side of the pitch, seeing fifty total touches and forty total passes, one of them an assist to Lucas Vazquez. Since coming to Real Madrid in 2009-2010, Benzema has 89 such assists in Champions League and La Liga matches, not even counting the Copa Del Rey or Club World Cup.

For comparison, Robert Lewandowski, just one year younger than Benzema and playing in the weaker German League, has only 52 assists in only one less season of play. The Polish striker is more of the classic direct 9 and his game is not nearly as nuanced as our Frenchman.

This point is further emphasized when we look at key passes where Lewandowski is averaging a career-best 1.6 key passes per 90 in the league. That number would tie Benzema’s career low for his time at Real Madrid (his best season was 2.3 per 90).

The fact that Benzema’s game is so self-sacrificing and yet still results in all-time great goal scoring feats is incredible. He once described himself as a 9 who has “the soul of a 10” and I absolutely agree with him. He has always put his teammates, and the club, ahead of his own glory.

In more recent comments, Benzema has talked about how his role has changed since Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid:

"Before I played according to Cristiano. I was always looking for him to help him to score even more goals. I was in a supporting role. Now it’s up to me to score and carry my team. That’s what I like."

I want to show you a Benzema heat map from a game where he scored two open play goals so that you can appreciate what KB9 ‘carrying the team’ with goalscoring looks like. You will notice that he does spend more time centrally in this match, but the focus on left flank buildup is still there.

A striker who is willing to cover that much ground is a rare and valuable thing indeed. The fact that Benzema is willing to cover this much ground and do this much buildup work at over 30 years old makes him one of the most selfless great strikers of his generation. His ability to bag goal after goal in the midst of all of this just further underscores that greatness.

Next. The Solari Debate. dark

One day, probably sooner rather than later, Karim Benzema will move on from Real Madrid. French football politics will have robbed him of his deserved World Cup winners medal, and most of his career in the Spanish capital will have been in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo.

But for those who were paying attention, he will be remembered as a crucial piece and the perfect striker for an unparalleled era of success at the greatest football club in the world. He is the best striker of his generation and is among the pantheon of greats to ever play the position.

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