Karim Benzema suffers tinnitus every time he is substituted at the Santiago Bernabeu. When the fourth official raises the board to show No. 9 written in red lights, a hiss of whistles roll down the stands. Benzema’s walk to the touchline — punctuated by cursory applause to the fans that deride him — must last for an eternity.
The problem is self-perpetuating. Benzema’s confidence is low. He isn’t scoring because his confidence is low, then the crowd derides him because he isn’t scoring.
Zinedine Zidane sacrificed Benzema in the 66th minute of Real Madrid’s humiliating defeat to Barcelona. Dani Carvajal received a red card for preventing a goal with his outstretched arm, and Nacho came on to bolster the defence. It is embarrassing to be the player sacrificed after a teammate is sent off. Sure, someone has to go. That provides some consolation. But the lurking reality is that you are the dispensable one.
Benzema was absent when the squad returned to training after Christmas. Madrid released a statement confirming that he had suffered a hamstring injury. Although the club did not disclose the severity of the injury or provide a time frame for recovery, it is thought that Benzema will be unavailable for about three weeks.
The Madrid newspapers called the injury “mysterious,” as Benzema did not limp off the pitch. Speaking in the news conference ahead of Madrid’s Copa del Rey match against Numancia, Zidane assured that Benzema picked up the injury during the match. “It’s a lie that he was injured before,” he said, a flicker of annoyance crossing his face.
The journalists gathered at Valdebebas did not let the matter lie. If Benzema were injured during the match, why did the club wait several days before assessing him?
“We didn’t think much of it at the time,” Zidane said. “We thought he was a bit tired and during the holidays we realised that it was more important.”
Whether it is a long-standing niggle or a strain suffered while putting up the festive fairy lights, Benzema will escape the Bernabeu tinnitus for a while.
That is positive for Real Madrid. Benzema has not scored in La Liga since Nov. 25 and has just two goals to his name this season. The mechanic response to criticism of Benzema’s goal record is that he creates for other players, that he fulfils a sacrificial role that allows his teammates to flourish.
This argument has high-profile backers. “There have always been these players. The players that wear down defences,” said Diego Maradona when asked recently about Benzema. Yet the portrayal of Benzema as a selfless facilitator needs scrutiny.
Benzema has assisted three league goals in the 2017-18 season. He assisted those goals in comfortable victories over Deportivo La Coruna, Eibar and Sevilla, which Real Madrid won by an aggregate score of 11-0. Benzema is not a prolific provider of goals, particularly in tight matches where points are at stake.
Nor is he a chisel that weakens defences so other players can exploit them. Benzema does not hassle opposition defenders with intensity. The 30-year-old has averaged under 0.2 interceptions per match and 0.3 tackles per match this La Liga campaign. Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino — who also plays as a No. 9 — averages 0.5 interceptions and 1.1 tackles per match in the Premier League. Tactical differences mean the comparison is not entirely smooth. Jurgen Klopp uses a gegenpressing style in which his attackers must “defend from the front.” Zidane does not. But fundamentally, Benzema’s contribution is not good enough for a player who justifies his presence in the team by doing things other than scoring.
Benzema’s absence will force Zidane to reflect on how best to use his resources. The manager will not be able to sacrifice pragmatism for loyalty, as he appears to have done for much of this season.
Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Isco watched from the bench as Benzema left the pitch during the Clasico. Along with those three, Cristiano Ronaldo is available for Zidane to mix in an attacking cocktail. If Borja Mayoral impresses against Numancia, he will also enter the conversation. It is clear that Real Madrid need to buy a new striker in the summer. But in the short term, this mysterious injury could demonstrate to Zidane that the grass is greener on the other side of Benzema.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC’s Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93