Who else but Karim Benzema would score the opening goal and decisive penalty in Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over Villarreal that crowned Zinedine Zidane’s side its 34th La Liga trophy? The goals, skills, and assists from the 32-year-old striker defined the season post-lockdown, rising amid the noise and cluster of 32 consecutive matchdays. Benzema had seven goals and two assists as Madrid won 11 games in a row to top the table, though we know by now not to judge his contributions only on raw numbers. Though one does not need a nuanced eye to understand what Benzema does. His dribbles and flicks are obvious, his movement especially elegant considering his 6-foot-1 frame.
We can wonder why Benzema is having his moment now, his 11th season with Madrid. He’s never been defined by his own individual terms, but in relation to others, namely his sacrificial role playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in the “BBC” era. During the relatively lean years of goalscoring in which he combined for 16 goals over a two-year period from 2016-2018, his relationship with Ronaldo was the justification in remaining in the starting lineup. It was a simple equation: Ronaldo is probably Madrid’s most popular player in club history, Benzema made Ronaldo’s life easier on the field, thus Benzema plays even if he only scored five goals in a season as he did in 2017. So then how effective could Benzema be without Ronaldo?
The Benzema-centric era started slowly. Julen Lopetegui was sacked early last season due to a lack of goalscoring, that Ronaldo-esque ability to decide ugly, disjointed matches when Real Madrid played poorly. Yet here was Benzema, in his second season without Ronaldo, carrying Zidane’s attack. He finished this season with 21 goals, with Sergio Ramos the only other player in double figures with 11. Casemiro and Toni Kroos tied for third with four goals. Eden Hazard finished the season with 1 goal. That Zidane could build a title-winning side around Benzema was no surprise to the striker, who has never been shy about expressing how much he gave up playing with Ronaldo. His focus was “in the construction of moves and trying to open up spaces” rather than outright scoring.
But even this recognition is a year, two years, or even six years too late. Ronaldo said Benzema was the best striker in La Liga in 2014. Even in 2016, during the height of the “BBC” era, he was perceived as the most essential part of the trio. His best statistical season came in 2015, where he scored 24 goals in 27 matches and averaged 1.42 goals and assists per match. Yet there was still a sense that he was overlooked in the discussion of the top strikers in the world.
“I’ve read and heard some media say for years that Madrid need to sign a No. 9 when the reality clearly shows Karim Benzema is the best striker in the world,” said Florentino Perez over the winter. Zidane would add that he was as important to the club as Ronaldo.
Of course, there was that no-look backheel nutmeg assist against Espanyol, a creation of instinctive genius under pressure, moving away from goal, with a defender on his back. It was the defining single skill of the post-lockdown season. Mirroring the efficiency of the Zidane era, the skill was not only for the aesthetics, but also resulted in the decisive goal of a 1-0 win. The backheel also came full circle, drawing a historic comparison with Guti’s no-look backheel a decade ago, in which Benzema was the goalscorer (Guti described Benzema’s pass as “magic” and “brutal”). It was also a reminder of how we not only remember results or trophies, but also measure time in singular moments of skill, bound through the history of a club.
“We know that his quality is not just a #9, it is a #10. The goal is Karim’s,” said Casemiro, who was officially credited for the goal.
Benzema created a template for a modern center forward able to start and finish moves, while retaining the focal point and outlet of a traditional target striker. Yet with front threes and midfields built upon directness, transitions, and physicality, it is up to the Benzema-like striker to find space in between the lines to unlock organized defenses with a definitive pass. He describes his playmaking ability in seemingly contradictory terms, saying that his footballing inspiration comes from within, but also from how he outwardly “sees” the game. But that inability to put an instantaneous decision into words is a failure of language. We’ll make due with watching the highlights on repeat for now.
“You can’t confuse an F1 car with a go-kart,” scoffed Benzema in describing the difference between himself and Olivier Giroud when playing for the French national side.
You could partly explain his relative anonymity within the pop footballing consciousness to a lack of impact at the international level (he has just 27 goals in 81 matches for France, as compared to 248 goals in 512 matches for Madrid). Benzema hasn’t represented France since 2015. He accused Didier Deschamps of bowing to the “pressure of a racist part of France” after being dropped from the 2016 Euro squad, and was also left out of the 2018 World Cup winning side. In his place was Giroud, another striker known for his ability to sacrifice personal glory to make the larger team function. While they both embody similar ideas, they arrive through different means: Giroud with his physicality and suffering as the lead striker, Benzema with backheels. An F1 and a go-kart are each used in racing, though only one pushes the limits of engineering and imagination (adding on to the respect of his peers, Zlatan Ibrahimovic said that France should choose Benzema over Deschamps).
There are other generational comparisons at the position. Robert Lewandowski has his direct, powerful goalscoring form. And there’s also Ronaldo himself. But choosing an F1 car, a go-kart, or another option is also a matter of context and taste. Does one judge strikers on cold, hard goals, or in the vision of running an attack? Should a striker drop deep and help construct possession, or stretch opponents through runs behind defensive lines? And how will the value of a center forward change as we dive deeper into analytics?
Or maybe we can ask for all of the above, all while sparking the imagination. My favorite Benzema moment is this skill against Atletico Madrid, in the second leg of the 2017 Champions League semifinals, in which he took on three defenders to create a chance ultimately scored by Isco. He received the ball in a difficult situation as usual, back to goal like a proper target striker, with aggressive defenders closing quickly. If constraints force creativity, he used the endline to lull his opponents into a sense of safety, accelerating with small touches using both feet, then finding a late runner. In studying the signature ways in which world class players create goals out of nothing, Benzema is a combination of unhurried touches and balletic elegance. Plus it amounts to something tangible, into domestic and European titles. But according to those who know him best, he has been doing this for years.