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Karim Benzema: Genius in Progress

He's been around seemingly for ages but the French star is still getting better with age.

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Karim Benzema has had an eventful career at Real Madrid. We all know of Mourinho's dog/cat quote, the questions over his effort levels, the consistency discussions and the seemingly never-ending transfer speculations. With talk of Falcao being available yet again this summer, his name has naturally been linked to Madrid again, not to mention peers such as Sergio Aguero and Marco Reus being tipped to replace the French playmaker. However, would they be any kind of upgrade to what we're currently seeing out of big Benz? In my opinion, no.

While Cristiano Ronaldo started the season in a form that the world hadn't seen before and while Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez served as the high-priced offensive Galacticos, it was actually Benzema who's provided some of the most important goals this season. When you look at the goals he's scored and the situations he's scored them in, you'd see that he's been one of the most important scorers in the world. He's provided the goal which took the lead for Madrid or drew them level in eight games. While that may not seem particularly amazing given Ronaldo's form, ask yourself who the second most important attacker on this team has been after the star Portuguese man. Of the 22 league games he's participated in, Benzema has contributed a goal or assist in 15 of them. In six Champions League appearances, Benzema boasts five goals to his name including the late game-winner against Ludogorets when Madrid was looking absolutely inept prior to his entrance into the game. For someone with consistency issues in the past, this season has shown a remarkable turnaround in that aspect as the longest goalless or assistless stretch for him was four games, with on two occasions Atleti being the opponent.


Across Europe, the only players with more goals to their names are Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, Alexandre Lacazette, Neymar, Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane. Of those players, five of them are the primary shooters on their team who take the first choice shooting opportunities, at Madrid Benzema just barely takes more shots per game than James Rodriguez and sits third in the pecking order behind Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. He boasts a staggering 30.2 percent conversion rate in the league and a downright silly 50 percent rate in the Champions League. He may not get a large amount of chances but when he does he generally makes good use of them.

Speaking of the Champions League, that's where he shines as he has 41 Champions League goals on his resume which places him 12th all time. As the only active players ahead of him being Ronaldo, Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it's not inconceivable to think that Benzema will crack the top-5 all-time in the next two or three seasons (Thierry Henry is fifth with 50 goals). For his overall Madrid career, he's scored against 29 La Liga sides and his 130 goals in all competitions places him 11th in the club's overall scoring list.

When looking at the goals, the critique against him was the he often scores in exceedingly pretty moves but that he doesn't have the poaching skills of a true killer in the box and in the air. That theory can be put to bed this season. Of his 13 league goals, eight came via his right foot, three via his left and two in the air. Of his five Champions League goals, he's scored two via each foot and one in the air. Perhaps the most astounding stat he's put up this season is that of all his goals, a whopping 18 have come via one touch! Poachers are often praised by how quickly they fire on goal and give defenses no time to react, a past weakness in Benzema's game, but his aerial success and quick-firing rate shows that even at age 27 he's still developing his repertoire of tricks and is becoming more than a hybrid striker but can also serve as that poacher that many fans have been clamoring for.

But as we know, what makes Benzema special and so invaluable to this side is his playmaking ability and selflessness when he defers to others. Gareth Bale, a man who from the get-go was willing to please Ronaldo and pass to him as often as possible, has been called selfish of late but that tag has never applied to Benzema and his numbers reflect this. Only six players across Europe's main competitions have registered more assists than Benzema and aside from maybe Ronaldo not one of them plays the striker role. Benzema himself isn't an out-and-out striker either but the fact that he's top-7 in both goals scored and goals assisted shows that he should finally be treated in the same company as the world's elite strikers such as Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez and Aguero. In another world, we would be seeing Benzema play as an attacking midfielder and most likely to devastating effect. His movement, especially during breaks on the counter, can't be quantified as he'll often be drawing defenders out wide or holding up the ball, thus allowing his teammates to get open and find room which he then uses his passing skills to exploit. His heatmaps in his best back-to-back games this season, Liverpool and Barca, show how big of an influence he is dropping back.


Benzema versus Liverpool (playing right to left)


Benzema versus Barcelona (playing left to right)

Is he perfect? Not by any means. He still can't seem to do a single thing against Atleti and other physical sides, he'll still miss some sitters and is still too hesitant to shoot on occasions. This was evident this past weekend against Elche where he passed up a couple of good opportunities on goal in order to feed a teammate instead. He's never going to be that large target man to serve as a focal point in the box, but what he does provide is someone who's capable of playing as the 9, a makeshift 10 and a wide player on the left who'll allow Ronaldo to drift up top into more advantageous situations. He never complains, has shown a willingness to cast off the "lazy" tag of past and will genuinely do everything in his power to help this team win. Of course, much of his statistical output is due to playing on a loaded team but other talented players have come and go without putting up such performances so it wouldn't be fair to just attribute his numbers to just the teammate effect alone. This is a guy genuinely getting better and better.

His goal against Real Sociedad exemplifies his superb touch, off-ball movement and passing

He's not the the fastest, strongest or tallest player, but as someone who's carved out a niche role in this side and is keenly aware of his surrounding both on the pitch and in the club's hierarchy, players like Benzema simply don't have a price tag slapped on them.

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