In a technologically advanced world, football is becoming more and more binary by the day. The unelected statisticians are beginning to run the rule over who qualifies as a 'good' footballer.
How many clean sheets does David de Gea have compared to Manuel Neuer? How many trophies has Pep Guardiola won compared to Jose Mourinho? And, of course, the incessant need to analyse every single of one Lionel Messi's movements in comparison to Cristiano Ronaldo in order to determine who truly is the best player walking the planet.
This consistent scrutiny over stats is driving the art out of football, and in doing so, is tarnishing the perceived abilities of world class players; none more so than Karim Benzema. Perhaps the most underrated striker in this day and age, Benzema is constantly written off by the footballing world because he doesn't get on the score-sheet week in, week out. Let's rectify that.
It's that time of year where the Ballon d'Or shortlist has been announced, and once again it will be a toss up between the two gods in Ronaldo and Messi. However, for the seventh time in his career, Benzema has made the cut (only Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini have bettered that in French history), and of course this news has been met by armchair pundits diminishing the 29-year-old's brilliance because his stats don't match up to that of Gonzalo Higuain or Robert Lewandowski.
A traditional striker's job is to score goals. That's a given, but our dear Karim is not a traditional striker. Benzema epitomises the 'false nine' role. In fact, he may be unrivalled when it comes to one's ability at executing such an arduous position. It isn't pretty, but it's relentlessly effective, and has played a huge role in Real Madrid's success over the last decade.
Benzema's role is to support, rather than attack. With world-beating wide men Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the goals in this Madrid side are intended to come from flanks - and it's Benzema's job to ensure that.
He sits deeper, invites defenders onto him whilst his blisteringly fast teammates run central, beyond the Frenchman. Imagine a child tying their shoelaces, Ronaldo and Bale are the two ends of the string looping over, and Benzema is the thumb holding it all in place. If the thumb isn't there, you're never getting those shoes done up.
He does Ronaldo's dirty work. The Portuguese attacker's ego is far too enlarged to commit to the peasantry of tracking back anymore - so Karim fills in. Benzema's job is to hassle defenders and deep midfielders on the opposing side. He presses high up the pitch, relieving Madrid's defence, and (when successful) catching his opponent off guard, ready to spark a new attack.
Benzema is a striker and creative midfielder embodied into one bearded Frenchman with a buzz-cut to match his playing style - nothing flashy, but it gets the job done.
The man's precise vision is truly unquestionable. Match that with a passing ability eerily good for a striker and you've got a Xavi-like marksman. Alas, it goes unnoticed because the hard work doesn't make the highlight reel. Anything that comes out of the Bernabeu that isn't Cristiano Ronaldo isn't worth watching in the eyes of the world - and while the unselfish Frenchman doesn't care for the spotlight, it's a damning shame that his art remains in the shadows.
It's often claimed that a footballer's actions off the ball are just as (if not more) important than with the ball at his feet; and again, Benzema is a prime example of this. Dummy runs are his bread and butter.
Picture Isco driving forward into the final third with the ball. The Madrid front three are in their natural 4-3-3 structure - Benzema has to move into a channel in order for space to open up within the defence, dragging his marker away for a clean through ball into the converging wingers. Again, it's not glamorous - but Los Blancos have just scored. If Karim remains static, that ball doesn't get through and the attack dies.
Now, these words simply be dismissed as hearsay, conjecture. You'll have to watch for yourself in order to make your own judgement. However, facts cannot be disputed.
The following table shows Benzema compared to his peers - other 29-year-old strikers - in regards to their goal contributions (goals scored and assists) since 2009.
|Player Name||Avg. Goal Contributions per Match|
These stats (courtesy of WhoScored.com), give an obvious indication towards who should be considered as 'world class' strikers. Each of these attackers are out and out forwards for their respective sides, expected to be the focal point of their team, winning golden boots every season (except maybe Chicharito). All, except Benzema.
As previously stated, the false nine is not intended to score an outrageous amount of goals. Karim is the lowly pawn in a drawn out game of chess where Cristiano Ronaldo is the queen. Yet, he still competes with the top tier strikers. Benzema is strong, fast, good in the air and a devastating finisher - but he has an unequivocal amount more to his game than most forwards.
In a team constantly swapping out players for better ones, Benzema has never been replaced. He's seen of competition from Higuain and Alvaro Morata and several others. He's integral to Los Blancos' style of play. In a game that has undergone so much tactical change in the last decade - Benzema has stayed relevant. He's always been there, and there's a very good reason for that.
The current best team in the world have built their team around him. Do not write off Karim Benzema.