Euro 2020: How France exile Karim Benzema reformed his game

Euro 2020: How France exile Karim Benzema reformed his game

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Benzema celebrates with Mbappe
Can Benzema (left) and Mbappe (centre) fire France to Euro 2020 glory?
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After an absence from the France squad of nearly six years, Karim Benzema’s international exile has been ended by boss Didier Deschamps in time for Euro 2020.

Maybe the threat posed by being drawn in a testing Group F alongside Portugal and Germany twisted Deschamps’ arm, or perhaps the Real Madrid striker’s form was too good to ignore.

But it presents an intriguing tactical conundrum for the manager – how to integrate yet another world-class player into his World Cup-winning team.

The world champions begin their Euros campaign against Germany in Munich on Wednesday – so what will Benzema bring after such a long absence, and what’s changed for him?

Benzema shines as Ronaldo & Bale depart

Over the past six years, Benzema’s game has transformed. He has turned from a forward acting as a facilitator and creating for others into a striker who prioritises scoring goals himself.

This was a product of his environment at Real Madrid where the goalscoring onus used to be placed on Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

However, with Ronaldo sold, Eden Hazard struggling with injuries and Bale’s fractious relationship with former boss Zinedine Zidane eventually leading to a season’s loan at Tottenham, the emphasis has been on Benzema to shoulder the goalscoring burden.

He has stepped up, finishing as Real’s top scorer in each of the past three seasons.

Benzema heat maps showing how he has started playing further forward
The heat map on the left shows how Benzema started the La Liga opener against Real Sociedad deeper and with less of an impact, but the right map shows he was much further forward and involved against Villarreal in May

Benzema’s change of role has come about partly because of Zidane’s tactical tweak with the 4-3-3 he used in his second spell in charge of the club.

The striker still involves himself in build-up play – he has averaged 39 passes per 90 minutes in the league and Champions League since football resumed last June, which places him in the top 3% of forwards in Europe for such figures. But he often combines this with more intelligent runs in more advanced areas of the pitch.

He is the main penalty box presence because, unlike Ronaldo and Bale, Real Madrid’s current wide players are not prolific, with Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio scoring one, three and five league goals respectively.

Benzema has also significantly improved his finishing.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season, he has overperformed his La Liga expected goals tally by 5.63 goals – in short, he has scored six more goals than would be expected from the chances presented to him). By contrast, he underperformed by 11.49 goals during the two full seasons of Zidane’s first stint as manager.

Season League goals Shorts per 90 mins Chances made per 90 mins
2016-17 11 3.22 1.77
2017-18 5 2.62 1.83
2018-19 21 3.15 1.45
2019-20 21 3.51 1.67
2020-21 23 3.80 1.17

Can Benzema solve a French problem?

It would be hard to suggest the 2018 World Cup winners have room for improvement, but Benzema’s presence could offer a solution to a minor weakness they had at that tournament.

Olivier Giroud played an important role as a focal point for Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to link with, but he failed to score a goal and contributed just one assist during the competition.

The evidence from Benzema’s past three seasons suggests he can simultaneously fulfil Giroud’s tactical role while providing more end product in the box.

Benzema demonstrated this in the 3-0 friendly win over Wales on 2 June. He was a key figure in their build-up play, with 52 passes completed from 54 attempted, but fired off nine shots on goal as well.

His equaliser against the run of play, as Real drew 1-1 in their Champions League semi-final first leg against Chelsea on 27 April, epitomised the level of finishing quality he can add to this France side. He smashed in a volley while off balance – illustrating his ability to conjure goals from almost nothing in the penalty area.

Giroud Benzema
Minutes per league goal this season 184 139

Giroud can also still play a vital role as a substitute, with a career littered with “super sub” appearances, and he remains the second-highest scoring substitute in Premier League history, while Wissam Ben Yedder is France’s other substitute striker option.

How France have changed to accommodate Benzema

Deschamps’ belief in Benzema as a difference maker has been signified by his willingness to change formation to accommodate him.

He has moved away from the 4-2-3-1 formation that brought France glory at the World Cup, in favour of a 4-4-2 diamond system, deployed in warm-up games against Wales and Bulgaria.

A common sight in both games was Benzema dropping deep to receive passes from Griezmann, the midfield or the full-backs.

He would then often supply Mbappe in a high inside-left position or link with Griezmann, who had the freedom to roam – sometimes even beyond Benzema – in the final third from his number 10 role.

How Deschamps has made room for Benzema from his World Cup final XI
How Deschamps has made room for Benzema amid the changes made since the 2018 World Cup final

This system also relies on the full-backs to supply the width, so when Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez had the ball in crossing positions, Benzema would be the target – as he was when his shot rebounded off the post for Ousmane Dembele to then turn in against Wales.

Benzema’s instant adaptation may be explained by his previous experience for Real Madrid in a similar 4-4-2 diamond system during their second and third successive Champions League victories under Zidane. In that set-up, Ronaldo fulfilled Mbappe’s role as Benzema’s strike partner and Isco floated around as the number 10.

If Deschamps can bring Benzema’s new-found facets to his squad of world champions, France could well be on course for back-to-back major tournament success.

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