The year was 2009. Barcelona had been crowned the undisputed kings of Europe. Real Madrid’s position as the best side in Europe looked shaky and in such circumstances, Florentino Perez took up the mantle for the second time. He signed Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Raul Albiol. David Villa was the main target man, but Valencia refused to sell their prized asset and upon the recommendation of the French legend and his advisor, Zinedine Zidane, Perez shelled out £35m pounds for supposedly “the best young player in the French league”. Sir Alex Ferguson’s offer for the Lyon hit man was rejected and Karim Benzema was presented to the Santiago Bernabeu in the presence of 15000 people cheering for their latest Galactico.
Fast forward to January 2010. Karim Benzema is the only striker available for the coach Jose Mourinho, after the surgery to Gonzalo Higuain, and Mourinho decides to leave him out of his first team and worse, not even play him in the match. For Real Madrid, traditionally believed to be the most attacking club in the modern era, this choice seemed not so surprising for many reasons. In an interview recently, the Brazilian playmaker, Kaka said, “Benzema is a great forward, but he sometimes isn’t completely involved in the game and we think he can do a little more. He has the talent. We see how good he is during training. He can be an important player for Real Madrid. It’s up to him.” So what’s happening with Benzema? Is he a misfit in this set of Los Blancos?
A Bit of History
Benzema joined Lyon’s youth academy at the age of nine and progressed through club’s ranks before making his first-team debut at the age of 17. He was sensationally brilliant in his youth days and it was only a matter of time before he made his mark for the first team. After the appointment of Gerard Houllier, Benzema’s first team chances slightly diminished as Houllier was less interested in the youth at his disposal. But after Alain Perrin took over, he named Benzema in his first squad and made him the main striker at the age of 19. Benzema repayed his coach’s confidence in him as he went on to score 31 goals in 51 games in 2007-08 season to finish top scorer in Ligue 1. He earned a new contract, which made him one of the highest-paid footballers in France.
In one of his sensational displays, against Manchester United in the Champions League, Benzema earned special praise from Sir Alex Ferguson which led too rumors linking him with Manchester United. He was named the Ligue 1 Player of the Year, selected to the Team of the Year, and awarded the Trophée du Meilleur Buteur for being the league’s top scorer. He was also shortlisted by the French magazine France Football for the 2008 Ballon d’Or award, which was later won by Cristiano Ronaldo. The next year was no different as Benzema went on scoring goals and rumours of him leaving France started to intensify. After receiving bids from Manchester United and Real Madrid, Benzema decided to sign with Real Madrid citing it as a childhood dream.
Unimpressive at Real Madrid
After his goal scoring exploits at Lyon, Benzema was all set to set La Liga on fire, but he failed miserably to do so. He was supposed to be the main striker for Los Galacticos but his performances had failed to impress the coach, as Pellegrini set aside Benzema and instated Gonzalo Higuain as the primary hit man for Real Madrid. Higuain continued to impress and Benzema’s performances deteriorated. It didn’t help matters much as rumours of him being casual in training and lazy on the pitch began to do rounds. As the season 2009-10 ended in disappointment for Real Madrid, it was no different for Benzema. He was still trying to settle down and Higuain had taken over as the main striker at Real Madrid but the departure of Raul seemed as a chance for Benzema to make his mark again.
The signing of Jose Mourinho was meant to start a new chapter in Real Madrid’s history. It is common knowledge that Mourinho prefers hard work and discipline to any other thing in training and on the pitch. On one occasion, Mourinho admonished Benzema, in front of his team mates, on the training ground: “If it was just for you I would make training at midday because you arrived at 10 o’clock half asleep and then by 11 you are already sleeping again.” And on another occasion in a press conference, “Benzema must understand that he is extremely talented but that in itself is not enough. I need Karim. For me he is a very important player but he has to put himself out there.” Such statements indicated that Benzema had fallen out of favor and Mourinho clearly wanted another striker instead of the Frenchman.
Tactical Misfit under Mourinho?
Jose Mourinho plays a 4-2-3-1 with his preferred front four being Ronaldo, Di Maria, Ozil and Higuain, who are deadly in counter attack and have lethal pace. The pace of all the front men helped the team move together; when Ronaldo and Di Maria moved towards the goal from the wings, they always found support from Higuain and Ozil, who made their runs into the box and got into good positions. For this reason, Real Madrid set goal scoring records at the start of the season. As Higuan got injured and Benzema took his place, the goals dried up, with Real Madrid relying too heavily on Cristiano Ronaldo.
Benzema’s biggest flaw in Real Madrid’s tactical set-up is his movement off the ball. He is very good with the ball, but considering Madrid’s play, it is Benzema’s duty to get into good positions to receive the ball from his team mates rather than wait for the ball and then make his run. Also, Benzema has this habit of dropping a bit deep. When Madrid attack, he is outrun by his wingers and when Ronaldo or Di Maria arrive in the box, they don’t find their target-man, and hence have to resort to taking a shot or waiting for Benzema to make his run. Because of this, many attacks have failed to deliver an end product for the Galacticos. Benzema is undoubtedly good with the ball, holding off defenders and taking a shot, but he needs to understand that this is not Lyon, where he was the heart of the team, and that he has to play according to the Real Madrid system, which hinges on the brilliance of Ronaldo, Ozil and Alonso.
Also, Benzema’s inability to move wide, taking his markers away from the goal and opening up spaces for others, is also a big drawback. He tends to stay in the box waiting for the ball rather than move around and open up spaces in defenses. In France, he had the luxury of French teams playing a very high defensive line; also, the defenders were not as technically brilliant as they are in Spain. It’s amazing how quickly Ozil and Khedira have got used to the system and have become an integral part of the squad. Ozil never used to track back to help his defenders and was not physically well built to suit the Spanish giants’ demands. But he seems to have worked hard on his short-comings, which is evident from his time on the pitch.
It is this ability of players to adapt to situations in different clubs that makes them versatile and great players. Benzema lacks this attitude of learning from his mistakes and has failed to address his shortcomings, which can prove to be suicidal for him at Real Madrid. It is an obligation at Real Madrid to play for the pride of the shirt which Benzema clearly doesn’t identify with. He looks disinterested and roams aimlessly on the pitch at times, an attitude which neither helps him nor his team mates. His work rate is questionable. Also, his fitness and finishing abilities aren’t exactly top notch as expected from a Real Madrid striker. He needs to start working on his game or he will be dumped in favor of other strikers such as Morata, the Real Madrid castilla striker, who seems to be the solution for Real Madrid’s striker problems.
Great forwards such as Ronaldo, Raul, Morientes, Owen and Nistelrooy have wore the shirt of Real Madrid with great pride and have contributed a great deal in keeping alive the traditional and cultural offensive ability of Real Madrid. Higuain clearly isn’t a striker who is naturally brilliant but has achieved his status as Real Madrid’s premier striker by giving his all on the pitch and adjusting himself to the tactical demands of the coaches. Benzema, on the other hand, is a fabulously talented player who has failed to develop tactically as well as technically after his switch to Real Madrid. The fans have been extremely patient with Benzema and have supported the Frenchman all along. Benzema has also displayed maturity by remaining calm whenever he has been dropped and has never made any remarks that could embarrass the club. But he has to realize that the job at Real Madrid comes with great demands. He also has a reason to be extremely grateful to the Madrid hierarchy especially Jorge Valdano, who has supported Benzema every time, and it is time the Frenchman repays the faith shown in him.