The Benzema Debate

In the overblown controversy between Gary Lineker and Zinedine Zidane over Karim Benzema’s talents (or lack thereof), some have missed the obvious. One of them is a pundit doing his job: opinions on the game, including his personal preferences about players, even if he does not watch them play that often. The other is a coach also doing his job: defending his squad no matter what, especially against any outside critics.

Debates about Benzema’s right to start for Real Madrid begin with a very misleading fact: he wears the number 9 shirt. In an era in which shirt numbers have almost lost their meaning in football, it’s bizarre how much importance is given to the fact that the French forward wears a shirt that assumes he’s the team’s centre-forward. After eight seasons and more than 370 matches played for Real Madrid, it should be blatantly obvious that Benzema is a forward, but not a striker; more of a playmaker than a finisher; a facilitator, but not the focal point of the team’s attack. If he played with #11, this conversation would not be the same.

However, he insists on wearing the 9, and that has a certain weight. Benzema scores quite often – 182 goals in 374 is almost half a goal per match, a higher average than Raul Gonzalez or Carlos Santillana, two unanimously recognized Real Madrid scorers –, but we know that’s not enough. We all remember bizarre misses. His record in the knockout stages of the Champions League is poor. The 2015/16 season, in which he scored 24 times in 27 La Liga matches, seems now like a mirage.

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His performance last Sunday at the Santiago Bernabeu was vintage Benzema. He replaced Marco Asensio after 63 minutes; one of his first interventions was a shot well over the bar after Eibar’s goalie had parried Ronaldo’s strike. As is usually the case with Benzema, the half of the stadium who wants a new #9 started the classic Bernabeu murmur of distrust, a sound that has broken the nerves of an endless number of players in the past. Benz knows it well after eight years and does not really care.

My neighbour to the right, an anti-Benz if there was ever one, yelled his discontent: “He would not score on a goal the size of the rainbow”. But Benz kept working on what he does best, link-up play, and starred in the best choral play of the evening, Marcelo’s final goal. Two great touches by the French forward built a fantastic move that showed how brilliantly this team can play and the amount of good that the stability of keeping talent together for a few years can bring to any side.

When Marcelo scored, I couldn’t help thinking that, had he crossed and someone else (Cristiano?) finished the play, Benz wouldn’t have even had a meagre assist to call its own after such a great play. But in all truth, that would have been even more Benzematic.

To even things out, the socio on my left loves Benzema, so in most matches I’m the collateral in a huge war of attrition between two factions that see football quite differently. When Marcelo scored on Sunday, the one in favour of Benz simply stated: “What a player”, while the one on the right coolly replied: “Garbage time…”. Needless to say, when the stakes are high, the level of discussion goes a lot louder than that and is not at all that polite.

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Is he the perfect partner for Cristiano? Is Benzema the best option to a high scoring offense, even if he “only” scores once every two matches? He’s obviously not perfect, but at this point, even if his finishing is a bit off at times, he’s one important piece of the way this team plays. His level of coordination not only with Ronaldo, but with Marcelo, Modric and Isco especially, makes him a great asset in the creative side of matches. Yes, he can drive most Real Madrid supporters crazy with a couple of untimely misses, but one of the strengths of this squad is how well they know each other and how long they’ve been playing together, and Benzema is a key piece on the puzzle, at least for now.

As for the Bernabeu, there are very few unanimously accepted players there. That’s what keep the side on their toes, or at least they like to think that way.

 

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