How Karim Benzema survived more than a decade at Real Madrid
- In the constantly changing roster of Real Madrid, Karim Benzema has managed to be a mainstay for a decade.
- The secret to Benzema's longevity has been in his ability to adapt to the ever-changing environment he plays within.
Karim Benzema made his 500th appearance for Real Madrid before the La Liga season was brought to an unexpected halt by the COVID-19 crisis.
With players now taking the first tentative steps back to training ahead of the recommencement of the campaign, Benzema is set to complete his 11th season at the Santiago Bernabéu. This is an achievement that never seemed remotely possible as he struggled to adapt upon his arrival back in 2009.
Few players experience such longevity in the Spanish capital. It is a testament to the determination shown by Benzema, coupled with his ability to transform his game and attitude to the changing demands of playing in the hotbed of European football.
With 241 goals from 501 appearances for Real Madrid, Benzema has registered a remarkably consistent return. In fact, it is comparable with his career average of 322 goals from 669 games.
Now 32, the striker is closing in on the final stages of his time at the club, and for his statistical record alone he deserves to be remembered as one of the all-time greats.
However, the facts behind his performances are not consistent with the love felt for previous strikers at Real Madrid. Players like Raúl, Ivan Zamorano, Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano, the Brazilian Ronaldo and Cristiano Ronaldo are revered for their achievements more than Benzema. Gareth Bale can feel an equal frustration given his contribution to the cause.
Benzema and Bale have largely played in the shadow of Ronaldo during their time at the Santiago Bernabéu. Yet the departure of the record-goalscorer has not propelled either figure to popular prominence with the Madridistas.
Karim Benzema's evolution at Real Madrid
Benzema has developed into a clinical striker, and there is comfort in familiarity with his extended stay at Real Madrid. At a club that is used to regular player rotation, Benzema has seen off challenges to his position with his consistent performances. Additionally, he also showed the right attitude when he fell out of favour.
Players tend to last longer than managers at the Santiago Bernabéu. And it is that element of player power that has offered him an incentive to bide his time when his services to the team were being taken for granted. He has suffered public criticism and has shown the right reaction each and every time.
The mental strength that Benzema has shown to last over a decade at Real Madrid is a key quality in what he has achieved since his arrival from Lyon. He has won 17 major honours with the club, including four UEFA Champions League triumphs. This is a feat in itself as it coincided with the period of dominance enjoyed by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.
But controversy has also followed Benzema's career and his success has been tarnished by a string of charges and accusations outside of the game. The most recent one resulted in his omission from UEFA EURO 2016 and the World Cup-winning France squad in the summer of 2018.
However, Benzema's time at Real Madrid should be remembered for his achievements on the field. The Frenchman successfully adapted his game to a tactical shift across the continent that was prompted by the success enjoyed by Guardiola's revolutionary Barcelona side.
The popularisation of false strikers in order to achieve numerical supremacy in midfield was not conducive to Benzema's natural finishing ability. A traditional penalty box striker, Benzema's strength is being in the right place and the right time to compliment the creativity of those performing in deeper roles within the system.
From his early fitness concerns to adapting to the Spanish language and culture, Benzema has hurdled numerous barriers to establish himself as an all-time hero in the colours of Los Blancos. His game is clinical more than creative, and there is a steely-determination in his character that is similar to that of his fellow countryman and manager, Zinedine Zidane.
However, under the guidance of Zidane, Benzema has recorded his lowest goal return. Failing to hit 20 goals in 2016/17 and 2017/18. And so far in 2019/20, the only time he has not achieved that milestone since his debut season in 2009/10.
During 2018/19 he hit an incredible 30 goals from 53 games under Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari. Zidane returned for his second spell that March.
The difference is a direct implication of Zidane's tactical experimentation and flexibility, together with the fluid profile that he attaches to the performances of his forward players.
Benzema has been encouraged to play deeper and wider under Zidane in an evolving attacking process during the course of 90 minutes. And it is important not to just measure his contribution in terms of goals.
"You ask me about two players but what interests me is the group,” explained Zidane in 2019.
“Karim is important for the team, not just for his goals. Casemiro gives a lot of balance, but not only that. Everyone contributes something to the team in their own way on the field.”
It should be noted that Benzema remained a key part of Zidane's plans despite his name appearing less on the scoresheet.
Constantly adapting, developing, and reinventing his game in the continually evolving environment of Real Madrid has been the key to Benzema surpassing 500 appearances for the club. His contribution is valued, but the true appreciation for what he achieved may not be realised until he departs.