Golden Boys of Yesteryear: Karim Benzema

Seasons watched: 2007–2008 to 2009–10 (Age 19–21 seasons according to FBref)

For the majority of the past 10 years, Ligue 1 has been dominated by Paris Saint-Germain. Through state-sponsorship as a form of soft power to improve its image worldwide (a trend that’s become all too familiar in football), PSG won seven of the past 10 league titles in France while continuously boasting an obscene amount of superstars. This isn’t the first time that a dynasty has existed within French football. Saint-Étienne had their own stretch of winning seven out of 10 titles from 1966–67 to 1975–76, and Marseille won four in a row from 1988–89 to 1991–92 (their 1993 title was later vacated). Following Marseille’s decline after their infamous match-fixing scandal, Ligue 1 went back to having strong levels of parity as no team achieved back-to-back title victories until the early 2000’s.

Olympique Lyonnais’ dominance throughout the 2000’s was largely a combination of them having a run where they smartly signed players who helped in the present while also could generate large transfer fees in the future, alongside the academy’s constant developing of high-end talent. The strategy paid off very well domestically, albeit a notable reason why they never made it very far in the Champions League stemmed from their inability to find a top striker after Sonny Anderson’s departure in 2003. In the following seasons, Juninho Pernambucano ended up being the most reliable source of goals from midfield.

In that sense, Karim Benzema’s emergence during the tail-end of Lyon’s dynasty makes for an interesting thought exercise. Just how much could he have improved them if his leap into stardom had occurred 2–3 years earlier to compliment what was then one of the game’s better midfield cores. With European football being in relative flux throughout large portions of the 2000’s, it’s not out of the realms of possibility that a Benzema-led Lyon side could’ve made a deep CL run. While the timing never quite worked out, the adaptability he showed in his two seasons as a starter in France and his first season with Real Madrid helped propel him to massive success.

Scouting Report

A major reason why Benzema became one of the most valuable forwards of his generation stems from his flexibility as a passer, which helps him maintain value alongside premium attacking talents. This level of passing versatility was largely present in his early years. He could be used as an outlet to progress play in the middle third, in part due to his first touch even while pressured. Teammates could make corresponding movement off of him, with his touch also translating to quick flicks and back heel passes to quicken tempo while having his back to goal.

In terms of overall forward passing, he showed promise but wasn’t quite the refined playmaker he later became. When situated closer to the touchline, he would constantly look to initiate quick combination sequences to get into the penalty box. To help compensate some for not being able to consistently beat his man, he was a willing crosser and had decent touch on these deliveries from shorter range. During the 2009–10 season with Real Madrid, Benzema’s chance creation opportunities shifted slightly towards attempting passes around zone 14, and he performed solidly when operating in this area.

The passing and interior ball-carrying were amplified with the ease Benzema already possessed for juggling the off-ball responsibilities he had when leading the line. That kind of balancing act as a 9.5 is something he’s made mention of in recent years. He’d constantly look to find space between the lines to connect with teammates, whether against a low block or in transition. What helped him was his instincts for not just lingering out of position afterwards for a prolonged period of time, but rather getting back into more traditional striker areas to help pin the opposition backline. While not the quickest runner, he had good timing for lingering in the blindside of central defenders.

To compliment the other attacking talents who were already present in Madrid, his game in 2009–10 almost resembled a second striker to allow the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, and Gonzalo Higuain to access the central spaces. This also included moments of him dragging defenders out of position with his movement. In the box, it was common throughout the three seasons to see him peel away from defenders to be on the receiving end of cut-back opportunities.

Similar to the likes of Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero, Benzema was a versatile shooter and that helped him compensate for sometimes not having loads of breathing room to operate. He could quickly get his shot off while in traffic because of the minimal backlift necessary with his different striking techniques. Up to around~20 yards, he was relatively comfortable using the inside of his right foot to strike the ball and could get decent power while not losing a lot of accuracy. Although he wasn’t quite the two-footed shooter he later became, his willingness to be a threat with both feet alongside his movement in the final third allowed him to generate shots from multiple zones.

Analysis

Benzema’s motor off the ball was great, constantly trying to find pockets of space to receive and help with ball progression, while still making ample runs into the box further forward. Although there were moments of needlessly overloading the halfspaces, particularly in 2010, the positives outweighed the negatives by a considerable amount in those situations. An argument could be made that Benzema was already a net-positive as a finisher, especially when accounting for how he could reliably get his shot off while not totally set.

Once fully entrenched as a starter for the 2007–08 season, Benzema’s individual production held up well over the next three seasons. Producing 0.95 non-penalty goals and assist per 90 minutes placed him in the top 10 among qualified individuals, and tops among those 21 years or under. He suffered a noticeable dip the next season, dropping to 0.55 NPGA per 90, which was still above average and had him 12th among those in the U21 age bracket. His first season in Madrid placed him in the top 30 along with impressive expected goal output, although he played less than 1500 league minutes and started only 14/27 matches, so there’s likely some substitute effects baked in.

It’s interesting to see Benzema‘s goal output declined noticeably from 2008 to 2009 in France. Some of it is due to variance in finishing, although it’s hard to definitively say with the absence of granular event data. He attempted 3.3 shots per 90 in 2008, and upped it to 4.0 per 90 in 2009. The increased shot quantity in attack also occurred on a team level, and combined with a decline in percentage of shots on target, it gives us a slight indication that perhaps there was a trade-off in leaning towards quantity rather than quality. This could have been a way to make up for the club’s decline in squad talent, particularly with Hatem Ben Arfa’s departure in the summer of 2008. The two of them had good chemistry in attack, and worked off of each other on a regular basis in the final third to create scoring chances. 2008 marked the end of Lyon’s dynasty and their time as a upper echelon European club, as their obsession for CL success drove Jean-Michel Aulas to spend recklessly and undo what originally made them successful.

What happened with Benzema in 2009 was almost a junior version of Wayne Rooney’s situation in 2010 once Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez left Manchester United, where he upped his individual shot numbers considerably to keep the attack at a credible mark, sacrificing creation opportunities for others in the process. Benzema saw his key passes per 90 rate drop from 1.5 in 2008 to 1.1 in 2009. It does show that both were able to ramp up their own play in the final third to help maintain a respectable attack for lesser sides, and while it likely wasn’t their most optimal role, they could still be unambiguous positive contributors.

Moving to Spain meant having to share time alongside numerous attackers who needed the ball, so Benzema’s on-ball workload lessened. Instead, he relied more on manipulating the opposition off-ball by creating space for others, and having more diagonal runs in behind that started from wide. Of the main guys, Benzema was arguably the one who could lessen his time on the ball and be impacted the least. It didn’t necessarily come off perfectly for Madrid, with their attack being death by a thousand cuts. They averaged 21.5 shots per game, a ludicrous volume that only 2009–10 Chelsea (21.9) have topped since the 2009–10 season. With clubs having made the shift to valuing the quality of shots on average, we’re seeing less of them than before so Madrid’s profile is a symbol for how teams previously didn’t prioritized shot locations with the same level of care.

If this profile sounds like a broken record with how much the focus has been on Benzema’s all-around game, it’s because you don’t tend to see U21 forwards display such a varied skillset. He’s been the football equivalent of a chameleon throughout his career, being able to adapt to different environments. Just examining these three seasons alone, his craft was stress tested in a credible manner by having to be the lead guy for Lyon (especially in 2009) before moving into a more secondary on-ball role in Spain. Although it’s likely he worked best when scaling up to better quality of teammates, which we saw some hints of in 2010, he did a commendable job when having to shoulder more of the attacking burden. I wonder what him and Ben Arfa could’ve been as a duo if given more time, and wished we had a bigger sample size in 2010 to be a bit more confident in his scalability at this stage. I still think that the combination of dynamic off-ball movement and high work rate, strong passing, and decent on-ball gravity made Karim Benzema a great attacking prospect during these three seasons.

Special thanks to Abhishek Sharma for help with the expected goal modelling, and Julien Assunção for tracking down archived Olympique Lyonnais matches from 2007–09.

A big thank you once again to Maram AlBaharna for her contributions to this piece. Please support her work so she can continue to make quality content that’s publicly available to all. If you want to support my series, that would be greatly appreciated but it is totally understandable if this isn’t an option given the unprecedented times we’re living in.

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Previously wrote about current football, now I focus on producing historical football pieces to help fill the gaps