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Quick Hits: Benzema and Hazard leave Real Madrid
One is going to Saudi Arabia, the other to who knows where
Hi, I’m Grace and I write about football, or soccer if you want to be American about it. Let’s talk about two very different players leaving the Santiago Bernabéu.
Do you remember Karim Benzema’s first season at Real Madrid?
He was not the highest-profile signing that summer. That title obviously belonged to Cristiano Ronaldo, the man bought as Madrid’s answer to Lionel Messi. Kaká brought his own stardust as the Ballon d’Or winner two years earlier. Xabi Alonso, meanwhile, would bring the all-important Spanish passing game to the country’s most successful club.
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But Benzema was a little underwhelming, mainly because it wasn’t supposed to be him. It was supposed to be David Villa, one of Spain’s great new stars who couldn’t stop scoring goals for club and country. But they couldn’t agree a deal for the Spaniard, so French prodigy Benzema would have to do instead.
Madrid fans might have wondered why they bothered. He scored just eight La Liga goals in his first season at the Bernabéu, with manager Manuel Pellegrini strongly preferring Gonzalo Higuaín. Madrid lost the title by just three points that season. It might’ve been reasonable to ask if Villa would’ve scored enough goals to make up that gap and bring the title back to the capital.
His next season didn’t start any better. New manager José Mourinho didn’t seem happy with his striking options, and viewed Benzema as little more than a busted flush. Such was the situation that Madrid signed Emmanuel Adebayor on loan that January to fill an apparently desperate void. They had Ronaldo scoring for fun on the left, but they just couldn’t figure out the right striker to support him.
Then Benzema figured it out.
He figured out how to score goals while also facilitating Ronaldo. He adjusted to exactly what the team needed. When the time came to sell a striker in 2013, Madrid chose to let Higuaín leave and keep Benzema, largely because Ronaldo preferred playing with the Frenchman (well, they’re technically both French, but only Benzema played for France). Florentino Pérez changed the balance of the side that summer by selling Mesut Özil and buying Gareth Bale, taking away a selfless creator and adding in someone who scored more than he assisted. Benzema had to adjust again, dropping deeper at times, but it wasn’t a problem for him.
When the time came to sell Ronaldo in 2018, there was a lot of pressure on Benzema to step up as the team’s primary goalscorer. I think this is harder than people realise. Footballers rely so much on instinct and muscle memory in attacking situations, so it’s not easy for someone like Benzema to change the voice in his head to say “shoot” instead of “pass”. He adjusted. He figured it out. He always figures it out. Benzema wasn’t just a great goalscorer but someone who could do whatever the team needed. The great former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said a football team needs “eight men to carry the piano and three to play the damn thing”. Benzema could both play and carry the piano whenever you needed him to.
Eden Hazard, on the other hand, is strictly a piano player and always has been. His Chelsea career really took off under José Mourinho, when he became clearly one of the best in the Premier League. For almost his entire time at Chelsea, Hazard was the one player with genuine tactical freedom in the side. Typically you’d see Hazard on the left with Willian playing a very disciplined role on the opposite flank and the midfielders doing more industrious work (apart from Cesc Fàbregas). Despite generally working for disciplinarians, Hazard had genuine freedom to express himself with and without the ball.
He wasn’t a prolific goalscorer, averaging under 10 non-penalty strikes a season in the league. But what he did was cause problems through his sublime dribbling and creativity, sucking opponents towards the ball and always finding the right pass to a teammate in space. As I wrote in 2018,
“Hazard is, to put it plainly, really good at football. He was the only player in the Premier League last season [2017/18] to achieve more than 3 dribbles per 90 (of those who played at least 2000 minutes). While another three players (Wilfried Zaha, Rajiv van La Parra and Ruben Loftus-Cheek) amassed over 2.5, none came close to combining the dribbling threat with Hazard’s deep progressions. When it comes to moving the ball into dangerous areas, there is simply no player in England’s top flight like Hazard. That he still manages to advance the ball so much and then add 0.28 xG assisted in open play is absurd. His status as one of the Premier League’s very best players should be in no doubt. Just don’t expect him to be a prolific goalscorer.”
Real Madrid signed him after a disastrous first season without Ronaldo. I don’t quite know what they thought they were getting. Hazard isn’t anything like the Portuguese megastar. As Logan Roy would put it, he’s not a killer. You have to be a killer to make it as a Real Madrid forward. Even in his very best seasons, his work was about progressing the ball rather than goals or assists. It didn’t make sense with the pieces they had.
Of course, Hazard didn’t help with his form. Injuries might have played a part, but Hazard never looked dedicated enough. In all honesty, he might not have struggled with injuries so much if he was taking better care of his body. His Real Madrid career was about totally failing to adapt to the environment he was in. Benzema understood every challenge asked of him while Hazard didn’t, and that’s why one is getting a massive payday in Saudi Arabia while the other might be considering retirement.