The 33-year-old turned out for Les Bleus after six years in a friendly on Wednesday.
Karim Benzema ended his six-year France exile in the 3-0 victory against Wales in an international friendly. The Real Madrid marksman played all 90 minutes against Wales in his first appearance for the country in a long time and connected well with Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe on either side of him. But do France really need him in Euro 2020? Les Bleus have found success without him in the setup. They made the Euro 2016 final, won the 2018 World Cup and are the second-best in the world.
Imagine you are one of the most talented national teams in the world. Loaded in all positions with players that are redefining the game for their respective clubs. So much so that, all you need is 11 of these players playing on the field, that you win based on talent alone. Now, there is this small issue in one spot. Although the talent is there, the players in that spot are not as world-class as the others in the squad. Then you add the right piece to the mix and eliminate the weakness. If this is the case, then you are the French national football team.
Karim Benzema is underrated. There, I said it. The absolute truth that no one wants to acknowledge out loud, but everyone secretly knows deep inside their hearts. It is not just that he remains a valuable piece in the Real Madrid roster. It is the fact that he is the centerpiece of the Los Blancos attack, connecting the dependable midfielders to the pacy and direct wingers.
He manages to tap into his rich experience as well as his wide array of passes and moves to bring out the best in a young and developing attack. His hold-up play is one of the best in the world, while his shooting ability is extraordinary. Benzema’s role and usefulness in the Real Madrid squad can fit a whole feature. However, what we are looking at here, is how France becomes near unstoppable with the former Lyon striker within their ranks.
The strikers of France
Over the last two international competitions, France has operated a two-man strike unit. One striker plays upfront while the second striker plays further behind, similar to a No.10. Giroud and Griezman filled these roles respectively. France has listed seven strikers for the upcoming tournament.
They are Kylian Mbappe, Marcus Thuram, Wissam Ben Yedder and Ousmane Dembele to go along with Giroud, Griezmann and Benzema. It is near impossible to come up with a true comparison for these 7 players as player roles and ideologies are different for different teams. However, what we are attempting to do is a generalization of the stats.
Looking at the 2020-21 season, Benzema stands out easily amongst the bunch. The Real Madrid forward scored 23 goals in La Liga, which is good for second-best in the list. But he outshines his compatriots with respect to his finishing. Benzema’s xG (goals he was expected to score based on the chances he received) for the season was 17.8. The number means that he has scored 5.2 goals more than he was expected to.
Mbappe, who scored 27 goals, was second with a distant 2.4 more goals than expected. The biggest drop-off in this category is Griezmann, who had a positive 6.4 difference in 2018, the year he led France to World Cup glory. This year, he has scored lesser goals than expected (-0.9). This number favours Benzema more when excluding penalty situations (+5.0 to Mbape’s +0.9).
The primary striker in the France system is expected to hold up the ball and bring the wingers into the game. Solely relying on the eye-test, it is easy to see that the former Lyon striker is one of the best at holding up play while the team is attacking. The numbers also validate that. Benzema has the second-best passing accuracy of all the strikers in the French squad (83.6%). He is only behind Griezmann (87.4%), who plays for a ball possession-reliant side in FC Barcelona.
But what makes him truly stand out is that Benzema (82) has attempted the most progressive passes in the list. This is despite having played lesser total passes than Griezmann (70). He is also second in completed passes into the final third (56) behind Griezmann (64) as well as second in passes completed into the penalty box (37) behind Ousmane Dembele (44).
To make things sweet, the once-France outcast leads all seven players in assists made (9). Griezmann, Mbappe and Ben Yeddar have 7 each for the season.
Benzema’s ability to link up with play is a crucial part of Real Madrid’s attack. He has the second-highest touches amongst all of France’s forwards (1521), only behind Griezmann (1618). But where Benzema leads the pack is in touches in the middle of the park (683) which is more than any other player in the list. 44.9% of Benzema’s touches come in the middle of the park.
Benzema provides a well-rounded presence up front for France and rather than treat him as an auxiliary piece, Deschamps will be looking to incorporate the Real Madrid forward into his attack. Despite his past antics off the field, Benzema would be a clear improvement over Olivier Giroud.
Their Group of death, containing a blood-seeking Germany and an upgraded Portugal, would be a tough nut to crack. The inclusion of Benzema in the squad is essential to push Les Bleus over the hump and Deschamps has thrown caution to the wind in doing so. But all signs indicate that this move is bound to be highly successful for the French squad.
All I have to say to all the naysayers who don’t believe in France this year is this: I hope you like your coffee, with a little bit of Karim.