The Importance of Being Benzema

Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema has long been the target of criticism by fans and the press, but Inside Spanish Football’s Max Bluer delves deeper into the attributes of the top-class centre-forward who isn’t obsessed with scoring goals.

For the first time in four years, Real Madrid endured two consecutive games without troubling the scoreboard. If those two pre-season games, against Valerenga and Bayern Munich in the final of the Audi Cup, were a concern, then Los Blancos’ failure to even trouble Sporting Gijón goalkeeper Pichu Cuellar in the club’s season opening 0-0 draw at El Molinón stadium brought genuine concern amongst Madristas.

Although little noted at the time, striker Karim Benzema’s absence throughout pre-season, and in Asturias, was a key reason for Madrid’s early lack of attacking potency.

Instead of lamenting the Frenchman’s absence, the blame for this bluntness at the front of the pitch was placed upon other figures; sports paper AS reproached Gareth Bale as ‘not the leader Madrid needed’ in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo at the Audi Cup due to his own injury. Indeed, the Welshman only scored one goal in pre-season and looked lost in the position behind the central striker that he has been afforded by new manager Rafael Benítez. Bale’s defining characteristics of pace, power and a cannon of a left foot are not those needed of the no. 10 in a team like Real. Most visiting teams to the Santiago Bernabéu look to defend in numbers in a tight block in front their own penalty area, thereby denying space centrally to Madrid’s attackers.

The skills needed for the position Bale is hoping to make his own are the dexterity of foot and mind with which Isco and James Rodriguez are blessed. Quick feet and an ever quicker mind are vital to play in the area in front of the penalty area, making either one of those the free man behind the centre forward would free Bale to exploit the open spaces inevitably left out wide by those teams that look to pack the middle with bodies. The Welshman’s famous goal in the final of the 2014 Copa del Rey against Barcelona was a perfect example of the havoc he can wreak when given space by – or even beyond – the touchline.

Yet playing in a position he is not suited for – even if he proclaims himself to be so – was not Bale’s biggest problem, nor was it that of the team. Missing due to injury throughout pre-season and the season opener in Gijón, the return of Karim Benzema opened the floodgates for Los Merengues; his first game of the season was a 5-0 win over Real Betis, the next a 6-0 victory over Espanyol followed by a 4-0 dismissal of Shakhtar Donetsk. He then scored the only goal in the frustrating 1-0 win over Granada.

Benzema headed in the winner against Granada, but it's his other attributes that are most valuable to Los Blancos.
Benzema headed in the winner against Granada, but his other attributes are most valuable to Los Blancos.

Both Bale and Ronaldo have thrived in recent years from playing in the same team as Karim Benzema (the BBC moniker is, after all, not just a silly media invention). The Frenchman’s intelligent, unselfish movement creates space that the rampaging wide-men have been able to exploit. A typical Real Madrid move last season saw the Frenchman drift out wide in the hope of dragging a defender with him, thereby leaving a gap for Bale/Ronaldo to run into, looking to be fed by a pass from midfield.

Added to Benzema’s supremely intelligent movement is his silky smooth touch. Like Isco and James, Madrid’s no. 9 is capable of the moments of magic that can unlock the tightest, and deepest, of defences.

Madrid clearly missed the influence of the injured Benzema in their opening game of the season at Sporting Gijón’s El Molinón stadium when a deep-lying and well organised team held the aristocrats of the capital to a 0-0 draw.

Yet although the following day’s edition of Marca ran with a relieved article welcoming Benzema back to training, the media focus was on Gareth Bale who was typically subdued in the no.10 position that Benitez (or just as likely President Florentino Pérez) has assigned to him – and that he has allegedly agitated for – but shone when drifting out to his natural territory, the left wing.

 Benzema’s movement is highlighted by Spanish football coach Carlos Pintado.

It has not been simply tactical reasons that has prevented Benzema’s departure from the club in recent years – with a move to Arsenal mooted throughout all of the most recent summer. Just as Real Madrid’s President invested a great deal of money and effort in bringing Gareth Bale to the club in 2013, Florentino invested almost as much in luring the man they were comparing to the original Ronaldo to Madrid back in 2009. Olympique Lyonnais’ breath-taking young talent was being courted by Manchester United, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and a host of Europe’s footballing elite. Yet it was Florentino that won the race for his signature, Florentino who stood by him through the whistles of football’s most demanding set of fans, and Florentino who hoodwinked Napoli into paying €37m for Benzema’s rival for the centre forward role, Gonzalo Higuaín – the clearest show of faith in his protégé he could give.

This season, Peréz even went so far as to not bring in another no. 9 as competition for Benzema, with the relatively unproven Jesé, who has returned from injury, earmarked as Benzema’s understudy despite their markedly different playing styles.

More interestingly, Benitez is strongly considering utilizing Cristiano Ronaldo as the team’s central striker, a role that the Portuguese was evolving towards throughout last season as he came to take up increasingly central starting positions. Ronaldo’s typical goal for the last two to three years has been less that of the rampaging winger of old, and more in the style of a pure finisher – his five goals in the 0-6 demolition of Espanyol were all one touch ‘fox-in-the-box’ finishes.

Yet Cristiano’s evolution into the more static no. 9 that his inevitably declining (yet still remarkable) physical powers may soon come to demand is far from complete. It is still unclear as to whether Ronaldo is even happy to shift his style so irreversibly.

And with Jesé far from a proven performer at this level and in this position, Benzema’s importance as the only true centre-forward in the squad cannot be overstated. It is his unselfish movement, outstanding technique and understated tactical intelligence that enables the more baroque, marauding talents of the more heralded components of the BBC to shine. After drawing five blanks in his first nine games as manager, Benitez will be joining Bale and Cristiano in thanking their lucky stars that the central component of the BBC chose to extend his stay in the Spanish capital.

This content was originally published here.

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Inside Spanish Football was established to bring the latest Spanish football news, features and opinions. They offer full coverage of all twenty La Liga teams, all the Spanish teams competing in the Champions League and the Europa League, plus all the latest news and information about the Copa del Rey, plus the Spanish national teams.