2022 was supposed to be the year that crowned Karim Benzema’s dynasty. The first six months went according to plan. The Champions League was won. The Ballon d’Or is on the horizon. But now, all of a sudden, his form has gone off the rails and his 2022/23 campaign has gotten off to a disappointing start.
Disrupted by injury, Benzema has struggled to build up momentum. He has just four goals in eight games, which pitches him among LaLiga’s top scorers but remains below his averages. MARCA claimed that he “is stuck in front of goal”, while fans have shown concern. And they’re right. Something is not quite right with the French international.
The first point to consider is Benzema’s performance is his goal return. There has been a noticeable drop-off, going from 0.96 goals per 90 minutes in 2021/22 to almost half of that figure at 0.5 goals per 90 in 2022/23.
To understand why that is, we can dig into the stats of his performances. Intriguingly, Benzema is not scoring less because he is having fewer chances. Much has been made of Benzema’s new role, where he is playing in a slightly deeper position, and the possibility that the transition has impacted his opportunities in front of goal. But the statistics prove that such an assumption simply isn’t true.
Benzema’s number of shots per 90 has skyrocketed to 5.04 shots per 90, recording eight shots in three different matches against Almería, Espanyol and Shakhtar Donetsk. His number of shots is up to 5.04 from 3.15 shots per 90 on average across the last five seasons.
A rising number of shots while the number of goals is falling could show two things. One is that the quality of the chances is falling. Again though, that is not the case here. His xG per shot, showing the chance of scoring from an average shot, this season sits at 0.17. That is a slight decrease from his 2021/22 figure of 0.20, but is on a par with 2020/21 (0.16), 2019/20 (0.17) and 2018/19 (0.16).
That leads us to only one possible solution - Benzema’s shooting has decreased in quality. The change in his conversion rate in front of goal has been dramatic. As can be seen here below, Benzema’s rolling 5-game average xG performance reflects the fact that he has underperformed xG throughout the 2022/23 campaign, something that has not been the case since Cristiano Ronaldo departed the club.
That is reinforced by Benzema’s shot conversion rate. In 2021/22, Benzema converted 24.9% of his shots, but that figure has sunk to 9.9% in 2022/23. 2021/22 was Benzema’s best ever conversion rate, but even still, his conversion rate over the past seven years sits at 18.5%, or almost double his rate this season.
When we take a look at his shot map, we can see the kind of chances that Benzema is missing. As can be seen below, the chances that Benzema has been missing have been chances within the box. Benzema’s last 75 shots in 2021/22 show that he scored 92.3% of his goals from inside the box, whereas that figure is down to 60% in his goals from 2022/23. In particular, the area around eight yards out in a central position led to more than three quarters of Benzema’s goals in this spell, whereas it Benzema has only scored from that area twice this season.
This extends beyond just his conversion rate, but also into shots on target. This season, only 40% of his shots have been on target. This is the lowest figure since at least 2015/16, and his average between August 2015 and August 2022 sits at 47%, never dropping below 43% for a full season. This element adds to the fear that there cannot even be the excuse of goalkeepers producing miracles.
These figures are concerning. It is still incredibly early days to be looking to take any conclusion from Benzema’s early form this season, particularly given his fitness struggles, but these figures for finishing do show cause for concern. They indicate that this is his worst performance in terms of finishing for some time.
The most similar case from previously in his career would be the 2016/17 season, when Benzema underscored his xG by 0.1 per 90, but even that pales into insignificance compared to his 0.37 xG per 90 underperformance in 2022/23.
When we look into why that might be, one statistic that stands out is Benzema’s number of touches in the penalty box. This season, He is averaging 6.97 touches in the box per 90, the highest he has recorded in his career. Over the past seven seasons, he had averaged 5.66.
That is also changing. Against Almería, Benzema was involved in 13 actions inside the penalty box. Of those, 11 were first time shots or passes. Against Shakhtar, he was involved in 10 actions, yet that figure was only 2. Another example could be this case from the match against Osasuna.
Benzema receives the ball on the edge of the box, and opens up to see that he has space and while Osasuna defenders are in his vicinity, there is a route through to goal. Last season, or even early in the season, it is hard to imagine that he would do anything other than attempt his luck with a shot curling into the corner.
Instead, Benzema takes one too many touches and ends up taking the ball back into trouble. To his credit, he eventually ends up passing the ball across to Toni Kroos in a wide position to keep the offensive move going, but Benzema killed the chance of a move on goal when spaces were open. That was rare against a low block like Osasuna and such wastage reflects his lack of confidence.
What is visible is that Benzema’s involvement has become more constructive, rather than finishing moves. By hesitating more on the ball, he is taking more touches and passing the ball in the final third more often. While Benzema is yet to record an assist this season, he is averaging 0.21 xA per match, only 0.01 xA behind his average last season and ahead of any other season in recent years.
Significantly though, we can see that Benzema is more involved in a deeper position. His involvement in the build up to play has changed significantly, and this is where we do see more similarities to his role in the famous BBC front line with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
His number of second assists, the pass prior to the assist, sits at 0.25 per 90, which is the highest it has been since the stat started being recorded. It is also more than double the figure that he generated in 2021/22. That shows his presence in attacking moves in a deeper role, initiating moves before they get into the final stage.
As shown here, his heat maps reflect that. Benzema is spending less time in the box and more time in deeper positions. While he continues to tend towards the left, his gradual transition to the right side has increased in recent seasons, but he is now moving into deeper, more central areas.
In particular, the central area in the D of the penalty box is an area where Benzema has rarely been seen at times in the past. Instead he has usually been seen making runs into the box or drifting deeper to get involved in play. Now, he can be seen there, acting more like an advanced playmaker operating from deep. That allows Rodrygo Goes and Vinícius Júnior more freedom in the box.
What this all combines to suggest is that Benzema’s game in 2022/23 is changing. At present, it is hard to say if this is a long-term evolution of his game, or a temporary solution while he overcomes his fitness challenges.
In front of goal, Benzema is lacking in confidence more than he has at any point since 2017/18, but he is creating opportunities and finding himself in goalscoring positions. That would suggest that this dry spell is only short-lived, and he should soon return to performance closer to xG.
His build-up play involvement is intriguing though, and Carlo Ancelotti may well welcome this change in his game. The young Brazilians and Fede Valverde are thriving with Benzema’s deeper positioning, exploding into the box with pace and energy, and he is showing great vision.
As Benzema returns to the team after a month on the sidelines, he will soon regain momentum and confidence. The ability to combine his build-up play with taking even close to his normal rate of the increased chances he has could prove to be truly lethal.