Karim Benzema doesn’t always have the best reputation when it comes to defending. He’s often perceived to be a lazy player who couldn’t be arsed to chase the ball.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
If you watch the Frenchman closely, you will notice that he works smarter and defends better than most forwards in the game. Unlike some strikers, his defensive work is predicated on excellent anticipation, clever movements, and short bursts of running. None of those qualities are sexy and it’s likely you’ll miss all of this if you only keep half an eye on Karim throughout a game. Instead, what really tends to be noticed is constant running and sprinting, even if it wastes energy and serves no real purpose.
But Benzema is the Toni Kroos of defensive forward duties. He’s all about guile and lacks that “look” of being engrossed in hard work. His lope can look labored and clumsy and his natural body shape leaves him with the image of a slight paunch (all qualities that people associate with lethargy).
But what appears to be so should never determine your reality. Any serious examination of Karim’s work shows him to be a committed defender who is crucial to Zidane’s pressing system. This was most obvious against FC Barcelona in the 2nd leg of the Spanish Super Cup, where he led Zidane’s pressing campaign imperiously.
Let’s start with the more obvious stuff first: 4 tackles. Even for a defensive player that’s excellent; but for a forward that’s extraordinary. And if you look at all of his challenges in the video embedded above, you’ll see that his brain is doing most of the work. Benz picked his moments when his prey lost track of him, allowing the lurking striker to rush in on the blind-side and pickpocket his opponents.
However, these types of statistical actions are sporadic and only occur in a handful of games for any pressing forward. This means that they are not fully representative of the total defensive work they do. To get the full picture, you have to pay attention to the way Benzema affects the game without the ball.
That’s where you have to really start looking out for how he closes down passing lanes and pressures players into making subpar passes. Against Barcelona, he was instrumental in guiding Mascherano, Pique, and Umtiti’s passes into areas where his teammates could challenge for possession. His most common movement was a pressing action on the center back while covershadowing the vertical passing option behind him. This either forced the ball back to the keeper or out wide where Real’s fullbacks lay in wait.
When Barcelona progressed into the final third, Karim didn’t stop working. He kept a constant eye on Rakitic and Busquets in order to prevent them from receiving the ball in-between the lines without any pressure. Thanks to him (and the work of others of course), the two midfielders hardly had any impact on the game. They lacked the time and space to turn and rarely managed to play clever passes into the waiting legs of Messi and Suarez.
Again, if you weren’t necessarily looking out for these kinds of movements, you’d probably miss them. And you know what? That’s ok. It’s hard to keep track of the two thousand different things that go on in a football game. Sometimes you just want to sit back and enjoy whatever your eye happens to fall on (that’s why you’ve got dozens of analysts who break things down for you). But remember to be self-aware of that the next time you decide to trash Benzema for being lazy. His hard work doesn’t not exist just because it’s difficult to notice.