As everyone knows by now, the Real Madrid fanbase is incredibly fickle. With this fickle nature, misconceptions formed off criticism about players and people within the club can arise. I decided to examine 4 of the most common myths surrounding Real Madrid and researched the validity of these claims.
Is Karim Benzema a Poor Finisher and not critical to Madrid’s Success?
The player most often criticized by Madrid faithful (outside of Casemiro of course) is undeniably Karim Benzema. Despite impressive recent performances at home against Napoli, or away at Eibar, the French striker continues to receive heat for his perceived “poor finishing”.
As the chart shows, Karim Benzema has scored 10 goals from 10.48 expected goals. This means that he has essentially matched his expected goals to a tee. Benzema also possesses a better big chance conversion rate than both Lewandowski and Aguero. The truth is, people have a very skewed idea of what a big, quality chance is. Just because a shot is in the box does not automatically qualify it as a “sitter”.
The narrative that Benzema is a poor finisher is an incorrect one. The French striker’s finishing is almost exactly on par with what it’s supposed to be. While the myth that Benzema is not a strong finisher is false, the claim that there are better scorers in world football, does hold validity. Strikers such as Cavani, Aubameyang, Suarez, Lewandowski, Higuain, Aguero and Costa are all statistically more efficient than the Real Madrid man.
But does this mean that Benzema isn’t an elite striker, and not critical to Real Madrid’s success? Well, it depends on how much one values Karim Benzema’s contributions outside of scoring goals. Karim is not a traditional Center Forward, but he is invaluable to Madrid’s forward line. While he hasn’t scored as many goals as other elite strikers in Europe, scoring goals is not his only role in the team. When a team has elite goal-scoring wingers such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, it needs to have a striker that can link the midfield with the attack. Having a support striker like Karim can yield devastating results for an opposing defense. At times Benzema’s contribution to the attack can be lower than it should due to the cross-heavy scheme Real Madrid employs, but in most instances Karim is vital to the team’s success. Los Blancos are unbeaten this season when Benzema registers either a goal or assist (11 wins, 4 draws).
Is Zidane really just a Player Manager that lacks any real Tactical Acumen?
Another common misconception by Madrid fans is that Zidane has little to no tactical knowledge, even being referred to by some as a “Tactical Banana”. The notion that Zidane is not a world class tactician can’t be denied, as the French manager is still learning on the job. But to say that Zidane has little to no tactical acumen at all is blatantly wrong.
As much as we criticize Zidane for his cross-heavy offensive gameplan, one thing we can be thankful for is his effectiveness in big matches. Rather than throw endless crosses into the box while still being exposed at the back, Zidane opts for a more defensive approach against strong league teams as well as in the Champions League. Naturally fans will complain because Real Madrid is historically known for its beautiful attack and electric counters, but Zidane has rode his plan to multiple great away results. Wins at the Camp Nou, Calderon, Sanchez Pizjuan, Anoeta and the Stadio Olimpico are just some of the impressive notches on Zidane’s belt.
Some will argue that playing so defensively and countering is a basic and simple tactic to employ. As PSG showed last week, there is a lot more that goes into sitting back than just merely sitting back. The team must have structure, but also must make sure to remain compact when they venture forward to make the other team uncomfortable. When playing defensively, Zidane’s tactics play directly into Casemiro’s strengths, which is to destroy any and all attacks that approach the box. This also helps minimize the defensive liabilities of players like Marcelo, as they are forced to defend less open space as a team. As stated above, this has been used to great success, winning Madrid a Champions League trophy, and La Liga lead in the process.
Zidane [169 pts] is now the RM manager with the BEST start after 70 matches in the HISTORY of the club [overtaking Ancelotti - 165 pts]. pic.twitter.com/Mz5xt9EPtK— Real Madrid Stats (@RMadrid_Stats) March 12, 2017
The 3-0 result away to Atletico is perhaps the most obvious example of the effectiveness of this approach. Missing defensive stalwarts such as Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Casemiro, the manager used a 4-4-1-1 scheme to stifle the hosts. A counter-attacking clinic buried Atletico, and Real Madrid had one of its most impressive results of the past few seasons.
I’ll be the first to admit that Zidane is far from perfect, but his lack of tactical capability is way overblown. The results in big matches speak for themselves, and after more than a year with the team, it is easy to see that Zidane can coach. While it may frustrate fans to struggle in some matches the team shouldn’t, ultimately Zidane wins the matches that matter most.
Does Zidane have a bias towards Karim Benzema over Alvaro Morata?
Our next myth involves the two people previously mentioned in the article. Many fans argue that Benzema plays more than Alvaro Morata because Zidane is biased towards the former. Some point to the shared nationality between the two as the driving cause of more playing time. If that were the case, then how was Benzema the starting striker when the manager was not French? There are two possible answers for this, although the first does not involve Zinedine Zidane at all. Instead, it could actually be Real Madrid President Florentino Perez that might be the primary influence behind Karim’s minutes.
Before I begin to sound like another cheap Spanish newspaper headline, look at the evidence over the years. Perez has always been a huge fan of Benzema upon his initial purchase from Lyon years ago in 2009. In multiple interviews/statements, Perez has voiced his support for Benzema. I encourage you all to look at the strikers that have left the club while Karim has stayed put: Ruud van Nistelrooy, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Alvaro Negredo, and Gonzalo Higuain. Perez has always had the utmost faith in Benzema, and most notably chose the Frenchman over Gonzalo Higuain, who has become a world class striker in his own right. Considering how much influence Perez can have over the team at times, the idea that he could potentially be the driving force behind Benzema’s minutes is not out of the realm of possibility.
The second potential reason Benzema gets more minutes, and the much more likely one is simply because he is a better striker than Morata, or at the very least a better starting striker. When Morata comes off the bench he has proven far more influential than when he actually starts matches. The Spaniard is sometimes too eager to impress, and can let his energy get the best of him through stupid yellow cards or by being too unselfish when opting to pass rather than go for goal as he should. Morata is an incredibly talented player, but as the recent matches at home against Napoli and on the road playing Eibar have shown, he is not able to influence matches quite the way Karim can when at his best. Benzema, despite his “average” year is still Madrid’s best starting striker, and deserves to enjoy the majority of minutes for the rest of the season. All things said, Morata deserves more minutes than he is getting, however, this problem was bound to occur when two strikers of this quality started the season in the same squad.
Does James Rodríguez struggle to play on the Wing?
Since Zidane’s hiring, James Rodriguez’ spot in midfield has been an unfortunate casualty in the team. Due to fierce competition in the squad for the 3 central midfield spots, the Colombian is often forced to play on the right wing for minutes. Due to Bale’s nagging injury problems, the spot on the right tends to be open for close to 1⁄3 of the season. Rodriguez’ primary competitor for the spot is Lucas Vazquez, a more traditional winger. Although James is unquestionably a better player, Vazquez’s ability to beat opponents off the dribble and consistently put crosses into the box make him a better fit for Zidane’s system. Some attempt to justify this by saying that James does not play well on the wing, an attempt that is contended by many.
When playing on the wing, James is not what is known as a traditional winger, but rather an inverted winger. The latter is able to cut inside on their strong foot and move more centrally. Under Carlo Ancelotti, James Rodriguez enjoyed an impressive season where he spent a large portion of his time on the right side of a 4-4-2. He was given the freedom to roam and create for the team whenever possible. Even before he came to Madrid, the Colombian played both wings at clubs like Porto, Monaco and even his national team. In his first and only season with Monaco, a year which he spent his entire season on the wings, the 22 year old James led the entire league in assists.
Regardless, James still prefers to play in a free roaming central role as a number 10. Zidane’s tactics don’t allow for this to happen, so James has been forced to adjust to playing nearly all of his minutes on the wing, or out of position in the center of midfield. The statistics and successes of the teams that James played wing for speak volumes. The notion that James struggles playing on the wings is false, but the narrative will continue to persist as long as James continues to be denied first team minutes. Of course James prefers to play centrally, but on the wing he is still deadly and capable of playing killer passes from out wide. The years before he joined Madrid along with his current performances are evidence that James thrives on the wing, and is plenty effective when receiving time at the position.
Benzema is not a poor finisher. Zidane is more tactically astute than we give him credit for. Karim Benzema plays more than Morata because of club politics, and/or because he is a better striker. James Rodriguez can play on the wings effectively. As fans we have preconceived notions about certain players or people that arise from our biases. We tend to unfairly blame players, coaches and managers even when they committed no wrong doing. It is important to overlook these biases and take a glimpse of the truth. Whether that truth comes in the form of advanced statistics, observation, rumors, or history, these myths will persist regardless of the evidence presented.