38 games played and 37 of those as a starter, Karim Benzema has already amassed 2,992 minutes this season. Without context, those numbers bear little significance, but if Santiago Solari and the Madrid coaching staff continue to follow the current trajectory of minutes, Benzema likely will not make it to the crucial part of the season in his current unparalleled form. At 31 years old, Karim Benzema is leading the team in outfield minutes played followed by fellow veteran, Sergio Ramos (3,122 minutes).
Let’s flashback to May 24th, 2014 —a historic day in Real Madrid's history, the long-awaited conquest of La Decima—the tenth Champions League trophy. What may be often forgotten, is that Karim Benzema hobbled his way through the match. He was far from his best, due to a niggling knee injury that saw him come into the match as a major doubt to even play. Injuries can impact a player at any moment, but muscle injuries and niggling re-occurring injuries are often at the fault of over exertion, or in other words, too much game time. Carlo Ancelotti will long be remembered in Madrid folklore as the Decima winning coach, the perfect balance between tactician and man-manager. But Carlo had one fatal flaw at Madrid, he failed to rotate. Be it for lack of confidence in the remainder of his squad or the pressure to maintain positive results, many players were burned out come to the end of the season. Karim Benzema, in his prime years (age 26), played an astounding 4,055 minutes in the 2013-2014 Decima campaign. In total, he played 52 games and started 49 games. When did the injury bug and poor form due to burn out hit? Mid-April of 2014 was the first reports of inflammation around Benzema’s knee, something he continued to play through as Madrid trudged through the Champions League and just fell short of winning La Liga.
In the 2014-2015 season, again under Ancelotti, Karim played 3,669 minutes. As Madrid again pursued the Champions League and La Liga double into the vital final months of the season, Karim Benzema fell injured with a niggling—yes, you guessed it—knee injury and hamstring discomfort. Nearly the same exact injury as the season prior and at just the same time (Mid-April). The injuries forced Benzema to miss six matches, including the quarter final 2nd leg against Atletico and the 1st leg of the semifinal against Juventus that Madrid lost 2-1. Had Benzema been fit and rested heading into those matches, could the narrative of Ancelotti’ s second season be different? It’s all “ifs” and “buts”, though the reality is once a player his the 3,400 - 3,500 minute mark —injury and form drop-off are likely to ensue.
So where is Benzema heading this season? There are 16 games remaining, 24 if Madrid make it to both the UCL final and CDR final, so for a conservative estimate we could say 18 games remaining. Of all the matches he has played in this season, Benzema has played 85 or more minutes in 63% of those matches. Now this is rough math, but If we take the remaining matches (18) which is equivalent to a total of 1,620 minutes and multiply it by his current trend of playing just about 90 in 63% of those games, the result is 1,020 minutes. Now if we conservatively estimate an additional 140 minutes for substitute appearances and injury time, we get to a round number of 1,160 additional minutes for Karim Benzema in the 2018/2019 season. Add that total to the current minutes already played this season, and Benzema is well past the 3,500 threshold—he is projected to play 4,152 minutes at 31 years old. It would be his most minutes in a single campaign ever for Madrid. Not even Cristiano Ronaldo, who meticulously cares for his body, could make it to then end of the season in one piece with those numbers. His 2014 CL final performance was marred by niggling injuries as well. The visuals below break down Benzema’s projected minutes, his minutes in previous seasons, and how they compare against each other:
Even if Madrid fail to progress past the CL round of 16, Benzema— at his current rate of game-time — is projected to hit 3,992 minutes. If Madrid make it to both CL final and the CDR final, Big Benz would come in at 4,632 minutes!
Zidane believed in sports science. He used the data available to him and the exponential growth of technology to measure where a player’s fitness levels were during a nine month season. Benzema’s minute distribution is within two minutes of each other in Zidane’s two full seasons. He was never pushed past the 3,500 minute mark and thus he was one of the best players in the crucial moments of the season in the build up to the 12th and 13th Champions League victories.
What is the solution heading into March, April, and May with Madrid’s season on the line and Solari’s future up in the air? It is essential that Benzema gets significant rest. Mariano Diaz, who has failed to stay healthy this season, needs to be an alternative. If Mariano is not available, then slot Marco Asensio into the false nine role. The Spaniard can swap positions with Vinicuis JR, much like they did in the final minutes of the Ajax game to great effect. Whatever Solari decides, he needs to be mindful of the minutes Karim Benzema is playing. If the current trend continues, the Frenchman and Madrid as a team will more than likely suffer in the silverware-defining months of the season.