Karim Benzema should have won the Ballon d’Or 2021 – Here’s why
A drop of the shoulder, a slight shimmy to open the space – César Azpilicueta could do nothing but watch helplessly as Karim Benzema curled his effort beyond Unai Simón and into the top corner in the UEFA Nations League final.
A sublime effort from a player on the ultimate redemption arc, sharing the stage with superstars, his star shines the brightest. A goal befitting of a Ballon d'Or winner. However, for Benzema, it was business as usual.
For the better part of a decade, the Frenchman has been a silent operator. A player that was respected but often remained forgotten and left in the shadows of his colleagues.
Since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid, the former Olympique Lyonnais man has emphatically reminded the footballing world of who he is, so much so that he now finds himself battling amongst the best for the biggest individual prize in football – something which is absolutely warranted.
Whilst the Real Madrid man may don the number nine, he has shown he is anything but the prototypical striker. Since the 2009/10 season, only Lionel Messi has registered more assists than the Los Blancos forward – perhaps even more impressively, since Cristiano’s departure, Benzema had contributed to 114 goals and assists prior to the 2021/22 campaign. The next best player at Real Madrid? Luka Modrić with 36.
Karim has assumed centre stage within the Spanish capital and is thriving within it, Real Madrid may not have won LaLiga on the final day of last season, as they were close to doing, but once again, Benzema was there to score against Villarreal to push them all the way.
Through the 2020/21 campaign, Real Madrid were obliterated by injuries – suffering more than any other club on the continent when it came to players getting injured. Yet, this instability within the roster did not stop Benzema racking up 30 goals and 9 assists, and, even more impressively, just the one was a penalty.
For Real Madrid, it was often Benzema or bust. Unlike other teams in the league, Los Blancos have not had consistent high scoring players and Benzema-dependecia has become a real factor. Taking a look at the charts in recent years and looking beyond Benzema, you would often see names such as Sergio Ramos and Casemiro as the second top scorer.
In 2020/21, Benzema led with 30 goals, the next best total? Marco Asensio and Casemiro with 7 each in all competitions. Meanwhile Barcelona had Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé both strike at least 10 or more, Atlético Madrid had three players in double digits, with Marcos Llorente and João Félix joining Luis Suárez.
Perhaps more impressively, eight of Benzema’s goals were match winners. He was consistent too, scoring at a near even rate home and away – 12 at the Estadio Alfredo di Stéfano and 11 on the road. Had the Frenchman been stricken by injury, Real Madrid would have been considerably worse off, arguably just as much, if not more so, than in the case of Lionel Messi and Barcelona.
A deeper dive into the stats for last season shows that Benzema was the only Real Madrid player averaging over one shot per 90 minutes for them in LaLiga, while he was also second for big chances created and second for assists in the league, though he came out on top overall in all competitions.
If Benzema is taken out of that squad last season, the team’s goal tally falls from 88 to 49 in all competitions. This just further shows the influence that he had in Zinedine Zidane’s side and how he continued to keep them running to the last day with a shot of the league title. Whether his critics may like it or not, Real Madrid remaining in a title race was very much down to Benzema and his superb form.
Interestingly enough, after the departure of Ronaldo, it was not Benzema who was expected to be the man to step up how he has. Everyone expected the €100 million man Gareth Bale to become the focal point, but the Welshman floundered. Or maybe even the shiny new arrival of Eden Hazard, but he’s barely made it out of the physio room. Instead, it has been the man who had been dismissed, the man who scored only three goals from open play the season prior, who became Real’s superstar.
It was not Bale who was freed of the Ronaldo shackles, but instead it was Benzema. The Frenchman had long been the tireless operator who changed his game to play alongside Ronaldo.
"With Cristiano I changed my style, I played for him,” Benzema told Movistar of their partnership on the field, speaking in 2020. “I had someone who scored double or triple as many goals as me, and I had to adapt. I thought it wouldn't cost me anything, I just had to change my way of playing and pass it on to him more. I put my goalscoring aside."
Often you would see Benzema running the channels, selflessly looking to create for Cristiano. Much of that still holds true about Benzema now. He still tirelessly runs but now scores himself, whilst still setting up teammates.
The story this season has been more of the same, except the striker finally has an able deputy in Vinícius Júnior to share the load with. Yet, that has not seen a drop in numbers from the forward – he has still registered 15 goals and eight assists in 17 games.
Putting that into context, he has contributed a total of 52% of Real Madrid’s goals this season. As it stands, Real Madrid’s chief gunslinger is second only to Mohamed Salah for goal contributions across all competitions in Europe this term.
Beyond just his success at club level, Benzema inspired France to the UEFA Nations League trophy, leading the line as France’s top scorer of 2021. Domestically, his form has also fired Real Madrid to the top of LaLiga, some way clear of traditional rivals Barcelona and Atlético Madrid.
However, much like the brilliance shown against Spain as he scored an equaliser for France to fight back and win the Nations League, it is no surprise to see Benzema sparkling.
Across the previous calendar year, no matter the opponent, he has contributed. Whether it was the deft flick to score against Barcelona, or the thunderbolt curling effort against Spain, Real’s number nine has shone and has done so very brightly.
Solo efforts and emphatic finishes, simple passes or running the length of the field, he has done and can do it all.
Nobody has been doing it like Benzema for the last year. While he may not have the same silverware to show for it as some of his rivals, his influence cannot be understated: without him, Real Madrid would be in a considerably different position.
Whilst Benzema did indeed secure a top five finish, landing in fourth spot, there is still a sense of disappointment for the Los Blancos faithful. Their striker scored 43 goals in 2021 alone, many of which were in crucial games such as El Clásico.
It is perplexing that he is placed behind a player like Jorginho, who is arguably not even amongst the best players in his own team, but rather a part of two teams who won the biggest honours.
The Ballon d'Or is supposedly awarded to the best player in the world. Given the stats and performances on the pitch, is anything other than at least a podium finish acceptable for Benzema?
For Madridistas, there is a sense of pride knowing that one of their own is finally getting recognition, even if he did not win outright as he deserved. Having been underappreciated for a decade, it seems the world is finally taking notice of Real Madrid's fabulous Frenchman.
To see Has' campaign for Vinícius Júnior to win the Ballon d'Or in 2022, follow us on Twitter at @LaLigaLowdown.