A Mercedes-Benz is, perhaps, the most advanced, luxurious, and performance-oriented automobile on planet earth. Take the German superpower out of the equation, and let’s reword that sentence. Karim Benzema is perhaps the most advanced, luxurious and performance-oriented centre forward on the planet. It works, doesn’t it?
KArim Benzema, France’s New Addition
Last Tuesday, we all heard the news about the maestro that is Karim Benzema and his addition back into the French national team for the first time since 2015. It has been a long time coming for the Real Madrid star, who has spent the last three seasons carrying Los Blancos with little to no support from a cast, including Eden Hazard, who, rumour has it, is now wanted rid of by Real Madrid.
But how will this impact the French side, and do they need to add Benzema? After all, they won the World Cup in 2018 with relative ease. Outside of the last 16, they never trailed, and even that tie had a sense of inevitability of France pulling away from Messi’s misfits.
Why mess up a good thing? Well, if you remember the 2018 tournament, more specifically the French, and have followed them in the ensuing 36 months, you will have noted how they struggle against teams who play with a low-block defensive system. A team that packs players behind the ball, blocking space and relying on their centre backs to deal with any French striker. These struggles are primarily due to the personnel and system the French use – it’s usually some variation of a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1.
If we look at the selected French squad, along with coach Didier Deschamps’ history of team picks, and excluding the Benzema inclusion, who would the front six be in this jam-packed team of stars?
So, for what it’s worth, I doubt there will be many variations in the midfield pivot that won the World Cup. Paul Pogba and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, who rediscovered his form towards the end of the season with a dominant display against a midfield three of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro in the Champions League Semi-final, will likely retain their place. Now while Pogba is a creator in his own right, he’s not among the very best in the world in that area. He’s not the type that breaks down stiff blocks of this regard. Nonetheless, he’s a talent. Plus, he’s too far from the goal to have a significant impact on attacking output. For that reason, we need more options.
The man who plays off the centre forward is often Antoine Griezmann. He is, like Pogba, a top player, but not a natural playmaker for others. A top ball-striker and someone who provides the glue to the side, especially when dealing with the defensive shape for Deschamps, the man who was known as the water carrier in his career, but a playmaker Griezmann is not. He’s not a tight space dribbler of the highest level, nor has the quickness and lacks the instinct of a playmaker to provide for others in the way other top-tier forwards do.
Off the wing is the star boy from Paris, Kylian Mbappé. The enigma who took over the Champions League against Europe’s elite. Four goals against Barcelona and a brace against the Bavarians – he was present. His speed, strength, tricky dribbling, and ruthless finishing left him playing the role of mass destructor against these European giants. They couldn’t live with him, and yet, for all his talents, Mbappe cannot destroy a low block by himself. He is not Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. He is not Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi. He, unfortunately for France, is not equipped with the level of natural talent to do this. Or at least, not yet.
Mbappe has improved his playmaking to a supreme level this year. The early, clipped passing into space to stretch the defence a speciality of the speed demon along with his patented 1-2 with whoever the centre-forward is. But Mbappe is a secondary playmaker, and he should not be tasked with that role. It limits his effectiveness to a certain degree, though he’s still the best player on the planet and certainly the most destructive, even when tasked with this.
Onto the ‘other’ winger – last time out, it was Blaise Matuidi, filling the role of workhorse perfectly with him breaking up play, carrying the ball upfield and supplying France’s attacking unit. This time, I sense a spot for Kingsley Coman. The explosive, tricky winger is an expert, much like his opposite in Mbappe in breaking down his man 1v1 and delivering a cross. But again, Coman is not a natural playmaker. There is no one to drop deep and set the pace for the front 4.
But what about Giroud? Giroud is an excellent target man and one who can act as a wall for Mbappe and Conan to bounce their 1-2s off, but a playmaking false 9, he is not.
Benzema, The Fit
What Benzema’s presence will do is give Griezmann someone to play off and dump the ball to. He provides a focal point for Paul Pogba to hit in transitions and low blocks, whether it’s aerially or to the feather-soft control of the Los Blancos frontman. He presents a threat in the box and gives an elite reading of the game to Coman and Mbappe, where he can time the 1-2 return pass to perfection. Benzema can drop in and rotate over to the side, vacating space for the ever-mobile Mbappe to penetrate into and even hit him in the soft pocket of the defence (often the half-spaces).
What Benzema’s versatility gives to the forward line of the French side due to his physical attributes and footballing IQ is invaluable. The 6″4 Giroud is superior in the air compared to Benzema, but that is where it ends. Even when holding up the ball, Benzema’s elite strength, feel, and ball control is more dependable than Giroud.
Benzema is a unique, special striker. The best in the world. You can have Lewandowski, Kane, or Haaland, but introduce Benzema to a side with players who are equally impressive in their respective positions around him, and they will come up trumps.
The touch, the dribbling, the ball-striking, the feel, and the lethal instincts merged with his IQ, all fused inside of a 6″1, thick and sturdy athlete, forms the best centre-forward to play on the planet.
With his addition and the flexibility he brings, I will do something I never do before international tournaments. I’m doing this in the knowledge of the weaknesses the French still have (which I will detail closer to Euro 2020) that teams like Portugal or Belgium could potentially exploit and leave me with egg on my face. I am declaring the winner of the Euros. The addition of Karim Benzema fixes a considerable issue for the French offensively. The partnership he will inevitably develop with future teammate (?) Kylian Mbappé addresses them as potentially the most potent team at both ends of the pitch at the upcoming tournament.
The winner of the European Championship this summer will be the French National Team. Karim Benzema has ensured that. If I was a betting man, France is where my money would be.
Words by Mustafa Jawad – @Mussy__J10
Graphic by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_