Karim Benzema is the perfect striker for Real, plus praise for Villarreal
There is currently a "What good is Karim Benzema?" sentiment circulating among sections of the Bernabeu crowd and the partisan Madrid media. Jeering from the paying punter, scorn from the fans with typewriters.
To reduce the sentiment to a phrase, it is simple: "He doesn't score enough for a centre-forward." Even though there are traditional things that Benzema perhaps doesn't do, I'd argue that it's a piece of "Cyclopic" nonsense to look at the Frenchman this way -- a blatant ignoring of the changing landscape at Real Madrid.
Since Los Blancos began putting Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo in the same team, the yield has been 80-plus goals in just over a season. It's the kind of total that you'd once expect two top-class strikers to take a couple of seasons to notch.
Some decent sides struggle to score that many across their entire squad over the same amount of time. It's also a total that has brought three trophies in just more than 12 months and will surely make Madrid world club champions before the turn of the year.
Now just because the two "superstar" players combine to score quite outrageous quantities of goals doesn't mean that you don't want more from your No. 9. But, to begin with, what seems to be ignored is that for four of the five seasons the Frenchman has been at the Bernabeu, he's scored 20 times or more -- indeed his average over that span is 25.5 goals.
If you were buying a striker, pushing the boat out price-wise because your fairy godmother gave you three wishes and you were suddenly in charge at the club you love instead of saving up for your season ticket, wouldn't you be persuaded by a striker who carried a "25 goals per season" guarantee?
Thierry Henry -- a class above Benzema, no question -- had an average of 28 per season during his time at Arsenal, which, if nothing else, indicates that the Madrid man isn't ticking along too badly.
But, I think, more important than stats is the concept of what Benzema is currently for.
The first thing to say is that the 26-year-old -- yes, he's still only 26, can you believe it? -- fits into that category of "protected species" at Madrid. Ronaldo adores him, both as a playing partner and as a person -- Karim's definitely in with the "in-crowd."
Now, this ain't a "teflon Don" guarantee. Angel Di Maria confirmed a couple of weeks ago that he'd only managed to stay at Madrid for the last 12 months [during which he was patently their second-most influential player] thanks to Ronaldo's political influence. But, eventually, he was still sold.
Thus it's not just because he's BFF with CR7 that Benzema's been given a new five-year deal with the European champions. Political clout only goes so far. No; Benzema's a fine footballer -- that's the long and short of it.
But, here's the rub. It's a better-than-even bet that he'd be scoring more than last season's 24 goals if he didn't second himself and his movements to being the creative fulcrum for Madrid's twin-pronged Ronaldo-Bale attack force.
In short, Benzema is underappreciated.
I'm not advocating the general adoption of a new phrase to apply to him, but I'm going to use the one I think sums up the situation. If Leo Messi, when Pep Guardiola redesigned his role, his position and his duties, became a "False 9," then if you apply the same criteria, Benzema has become a "Hidden 10."
There's no need to be precious about the phrase: It's just a hook upon which to hang an accurate description of his repertoire. Messi was called a "False 9" because he nominally played in the outright striker position but instead of tying up centre-halves, playing with his back to goal or looking for crosses from the wingers/wing-backs, he'd drift back into space normally occupied by an attacking midfielder. A No. 10. From there he'd pick up the ball, run at defences, confuse defensive midfielders, play convoluted wall-passes with available teammates -- basically wreak havoc.
Benzema's positional work is different, but there's a thematic link. He wears 9 on his back. He's listed as the centre-forward in a three-man attack. He'll occasionally be the player asked to get on the end of a cross. But from the moment that his partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo began to flourish, the Frenchman was, effectively, playing like a 10.
As far as I'm concerned, the No. 10 -- brilliantly named the Fantasista or Trequartista in Mediterranean football, the "fantasy" player, or the guy who does his work three-quarters of the way up the pitch -- has a role to associate with other creative-scoring teammates. He facilitates others with invention, wit, imagination and innate positional brilliance. You know the story. He's the creative fulcrum.
I'd argue that Benzema does this. Some of his interplay with Ronaldo is dazzling -- they appear to be the yin and yang of the Madrid attack. Like-minded, equally visionary on the pitch, patently enjoying their "Butch and Sundance" partnership. It works.
Okay, if Madrid were offered a player -- let's say Luis Suarez -- who was just as diligent, associative, intelligent, technically able and supportive as Benzema is, but who averaged 28 or 30 per season, would they turn him down in order to keep Benzema?
I'm not constructing a case that Benzema is, secretly, the best player on the planet. What I'm arguing is that Benzema has a worth and an impact far, far above the perception that currently seems to be hanging around him like a bad smell. He's effective, intelligent, self-sacrificing, hard-working in his association play ... and frustrating, not clinical and occasionally lackadaisical in terms of his outright finishing.
That's not to overlook his decent share of Clasico goals, his Cup final assist last season or his winner against Bayern in the Champions League semifinal, either. It's just that if (or when) Cristiano and Bale dry up that the "B" in the infamous "BBC" gets examined -- and when he is required to pony up with goals ahead of subtle invention.
It's probably for this last part that the Bernabeu crowd is unnecessarily harsh -- they worry that if their totemic players go missing, they may be left with a shaman who's actually a sham.
I personally think they worry too much. If, for example, Madrid's back four were as assiduous, productive and effective as Benzema the brave, then Los Blancos wouldn't be shipping so many unnecessary goals.
An acquired taste he may well be. But what a tasty footballer -- the prototype of the "Hidden 10." That's Karim Benzema.
Big clubs could learn a lot from Villarreal
Not for the first or last time this season, there was a heck of a game at the Madrigal this weekend. Rayo romped to a 2-0 away lead before Villarreal comprehensively overhauled them and sent them home with a very sore 4-2 defeat.
It was a big enough performance in any case but particularly notable given that it came after drawing away to Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Europa League, a result that bucked the trend of Athletic Club and Atletico Madrid dropping really valuable home points as the "UEFA virus" claimed two more victims.
It's hard to cope with the emotional and physical impact of a high-pressure European tie -- the travel, the media, the hype, the three-game week. It's part of the reason that the pedigree European teams repeatedly come out on top, they are used to the demands.
But a couple of other things stood out to me about the victory.
In the summer, Villarreal spent 5.5 million euros on buying "Lucky" Luciano Vietto, a 20-year-old Argentinian young buck who was given his debut aged just 17 under Diego Simeone back in 2011, from Racing Club de Avellaneda. This weekend he came on and scored two diamond goals, which were worth the 3-2 and 4-2 parts of the result -- early dividends for a player who should still be undergoing his adaptation.
Villarreal are an exemplary club in many ways. Fans can watch the entire season at El Madrigal for the price of one big match ticket at the Camp Nou, Bernabeu, Old Trafford or the Emirates. They recently invited a 13-year-old cancer patient to play for them -- and score -- in a friendly against Celtic. They also took 10,000 fans to Barça B in the crucial promotion game a year and a half ago -- in short, they're a club that bucks many trends.
What I also appreciate, very much, is that in the near future, it won't be the likes of Vietto who'll be sustaining the Yellow Submarine but their own, locally harvested, youth products. The motif for this is their left-back, Adrián Marín -- home-bred and already a first-team starter at 17 years old.
Club president Fernando Roig recently underlined that the club is committed to investing 10 million euros per season in youth development -- a sum that could oh so easily be punted into the transfer market or wages in order to try and ensure that Villarreal stay in La Primera or push for European competition in the short term. In terms of budget percentage, I'd say that's like Barcelona or Madrid investing 50 million euros per season in youth -- which they don't.
More than that, Villarreal have so many young kids, admittedly of all ability levels, training with them every week (around 800) that they are currently constructing a second training ground, but when it's open and functioning, they'll continue to use their current facility, too.
Villarreal is in a relatively small community with high unemployment, and the club is a beacon of pride, hope and optimism. Their level of involvement in the community is commendable, so when and if their visionary investment in youth development pays dividends, it'll be one of the most uplifting stories in Spanish football.
Youth League expansion a boon for football
Great news from Nyon. The UEFA Youth League, which is effectively a Champions League competition for the U-19s, was recently endorsed as a permanent fixture in the calendar and was expanded, beyond the mirroring the participant clubs in the senior Champions League, to include clubs who are champions at youth level in their countries but whose senior side hasn't qualified for the big competition.
Hats off, too, to the forerunner that inspired this UEFA development -- the Next Generation Series. It was there, a few years ago, that I saw Sergi Samper for the first time, tormenting Celtic in Glasgow; he's now been the recipient of rave reviews for his full Champions League debut, aged 19, last week versus APOEL Nicosia.
Munir El Haddadi, the darling of the Spanish game at the moment, made his big breakthrough in the UEFA Youth League last season, top scoring and winning the competition against Benfica.
Last week I watched two more young stars, Wilfrid Kaptoum and Lionel Enguene, setting the pulse racing against young APOEL as Barcelona began their title defence. Meanwhile, Jack Harper, a young Scot who's got a big future at Madrid, was dominating Los Blancos' start to the tournament with a goal and a man-of-the-match display against young Basel.
It's thrilling to see the 16- and 17-year-olds emerge, and to witness the 18-year-olds knocking on the door of the first team in the way it used to be with 20- or 21-year-olds in the not-too-distant past.
This is one of those developments that, after a year, already feels like: "Why on earth hasn't this always taken place?" It's a gem of a tournament. It will also, I believe, begin to do away with the great dropoff in performances where a team can go away in the Champions League or Europa League and shine, only to then come back and drop points domestically.
It's a hard shift to get used to with that three-games-per-week cycle and this will be one of the great hidden benefits of the UEFA Youth League. Talented kids will grow up with it being the absolute norm until the level of football between the elite Champions League and domestic leagues is homogenized -- for the better.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.