“Someone who’s a starter at Real Madrid can’t be as bad as that.” French Football Federation (FFF) president Noel Le Graet made a few jaws drop with his frank assessment of Karim Benzema in the immediate aftermath of France’s tame goalless draw in Georgia. Yet desperate times tend to drive people to distraction from the party line. France have not scored for four matches, and Benzema is without a goal for 1,217 minutes with Les Bleus. Whether a high-ranking administrative official should be coming out with something like this is highly doubtful, but it is clear that Le Graet was voicing exactly what a lot of people are thinking.
Some of those who know Benzema best have rejected the notion of there being a Real Madrid version of the striker, and an inferior, photocopied one for France. Zinedine Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant and now close to Benzema after a sticky start to the pair’s relationship, defended his team’s striker on French television on Sunday night. “There’s only one Karim Benzema,” Zidane told Canal Football Club. “He’s a talented player who can give a lot to both France and Madrid at the same time.”
Yet the 25-year-old does seem markedly different on international duty. He has started La Liga’s season well, scoring 2 and providing 2 more in Real Madrid’s three games to date. The level of anger that Benzema provokes back home is partly informed by his friendship with bad boy rappers and his perceived truculence, but most of all, people are annoyed because of the extraordinary ability he possesses – which, of course, doesn’t tally with his current productivity or lack thereof.
The differences between the players surrounding him in the national set-up and those doing so daily in Madrid are significant, of course, but not just in terms of quality and how well they know one another. Valenciennes head coach Daniel Sanchez, asked for his views by L’Equipe after the game, pointed out that Benzema and Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud – who partnered in Georgia - have rarely played together.
Sanchez’s bottom line was a simple - and interesting – one, though. “I’m often astonished to see the strikers looking for a one-two with our wide players,” he said, “with (Mathieu) Valbuena and (Franck) Ribéry. The place that forwards should be is in front of the goal.”
This sentence could have been specifically crafted to describe Benzema’s current difficulties for France. Well aware of his own technical ability, he will never be the sort of forward to stand and wait for a chance. He needs to drop deep and link. He has an intuitive technical relationship with Ribéry, just as he does with Cristiano Ronaldo. The major difference between the two pairings is that Benzema and Ronaldo’s interchanges tend to take place a lot closer to the opposition goal.
Didier Deschamps has tried to tinker with his system to get the best out of Benzema, even though he is not a coach known for his teams’ expansive brand of football. “It can’t always be the fault of others,” wrote Raphael Raymond in Saturday’s L’Equipe in a scathing review of Benzema’s display on Friday. It’s easy to see, though, why Benzema wouldn’t want to change his game.
As well as scoring 80 goals for Real Madrid in all competitions since the start of 2010/11, he has set up 45. Last season, Benzema’s 11 assists in 30 La Liga matches (only 19 of which were starts) put him second for Real Madrid, behind only Mesut Özil, and fourth in the whole division. Benzema’s dropping into deeper positions isn’t merely to service his own ego. It has tangible benefit.
His problems with France, though, predate Deschamps’ arrival. The opening match of Euro 2012, against England, was a case in point. France dominated the match, a 1-1 draw, yet WhoScored’s Player Positions from the game show Benzema in a deep role, barley separable from Ribéry and Samir Nasri. Benzema had 6 shots on goal during the game, but 4 were from outside the penalty area, one from the edge of the box and the other from an acute angle. He was behaving more typically of the number ten on his back rather than the ‘nine’ that he was supposed to be. Laurent Blanc’s team had no attacking focal point, which probably cost them the win.
Some sort of attempt at linking up Benzema with Giroud has been long overdue, and might deserve perseverance, even given the slim returns on offer against Georgia. It seems natural that it would take time. One can probably count the amount of times Benzema has played in a 4-4-2 on the fingers of one hand, though he may get some practice with his club this season, with Ancelotti using two centre-forwards to good effect in the second half of the last campaign at Paris Saint-Germain.
It’s not just Benzema who’s suffering in the current France line-up. Too many players are being shoe-horned into roles that don’t suit them, or that they don’t regularly fulfil for their clubs, at least. Ribéry is in the left-wing role that he occupies for Bayern, but he is the only forward player who does faithfully reprise his domestic role. Valbuena – one of France’s better players in recent months – was stationed on the right in Tbilisi, and spent most of the game sneaking infield to the position just off the main attacker that he so enjoys at Marseille.
Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko is perhaps the biggest victim. Having been trumpeted as “a number 10 from now on” by Deschamps in the wake of his effervescent early performances in England, he’s been played everywhere but since – firstly wide right, and then in a deep central position against Georgia.
Maybe Sissoko’s new clubmate Loïc Rémy could be the eventual answer, a wide attacker genuinely comfortable on the right, with the pace and goal instinct to get closer to Benzema within a 4-2-3-1 framework. For now, only two things are certain for Deschamps; Benzema simply can’t go on like this but he is far, far too good to give up on.