It’s high time that Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane made a decision which is only a matter of time but he has been putting off for some time: Karim Benzema should be dropped, and Marco Asensio should replace him.
Benzema has enjoyed protected species status ever since he arrived from Lyon at the behest of club president Florentino Perez in the summer of 2009.
Since that time various managers have come and gone, with Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez and now Zidane all occupying the hotseat and making their way through a plethora of big-name superstars.
Those coaches have employed different tactics and personnel, but they have all made Benzema a more or less unquestioned member of their starting eleven, with the French forward playing at least 27 league games every season since he joined.
And of course, Benzema has displayed some outstanding qualities during his eight years at the Bernabeu, combining 185 goals with an excellent ability to link play between midfield and attack, bringing his team-mates into the game with intelligence and a wonderfully deft touch.
Now, though, he is rapidly approaching his 30th birthday (next week) and time is starting to run out on his career.
Quite simply, he is not as good as he used to be, and he hasn’t been for quite some time.
Last season was Benzema’s worst goalscoring season in Madrid since his first, managing just 19 goals in 48 appearances in all competitions. And the current campaign has been even worse, with five goals in 17 outings.
Past his best? Benzema.
Despite that deterioration, Zidane has persisted with Benzema for his team’s most important games, with Alvaro Morata repeatedly left on the bench last season despite significantly outscoring his rival and eventually being forced to leave, for the second time, to join Chelsea.
It’s easy to say in retrospect, but Madrid sold the wrong striker. Would you rather have a 24-year-old who is getting better with each passing season, or a 29-year-old whose best days are behind him?
The answer is obvious, but Zidane and Perez decided, for whatever reasons, to retain faith with the fading Benzema when they should have installed Morata as first-choice, and now the foolishness of that decision is being made plain.
Morata is gone, but this season Benzema is facing a fresh challenge in the form of Marco Asensio, whose almost unlimited potential was again on fully display as he produced a brilliant display – while Benzema treaded water – in the 5-0 thrashing of Sevilla on Saturday.
The future for Real: Asensio.
Whatever performance metric you wish to use, Asensio is outperforming Benzema this season. He has scored more goals, registered more assists, created more chances, completed a higher percentage of passes, and had more touches of the ball.
At the age of 21, Asensio is clearly Madrid’s future, with everything it takes to become a key player for Los Blancos for the next decade.
But he shouldn’t just be the future: he should be the present, because he is already providing more to Madrid than Benzema, who quite clearly isn’t doing enough to justify an automatic starting place for the reigning Spanish and European champions.
It might be objected that Asensio couldn’t directly replace Benzema because the Frenchman is a centre forward whereas the young pretender has made most of his appearances to date as a winger.
But one of Asensio’s strengths is his versatility, with ability to influence play from a central position showcased against Sevilla on Saturday, when he cut inside to deliver a perfect pass into the stride of Cristiano Ronaldo for the Portuguese star’s second goal.
Indeed, Ronaldo’s evolution from a box-to-box marauder into a penalty box predator has changed the kind of player needed to accompany him. As long as Madrid have Ronaldo, which we can assume will be at least another couple of years, they need a facilitator rather than a finisher, and Asensio can certainly fill that role perfectly.
By overlooking Asensio and retaining faith in Benzema, Zidane is only delaying the inevitable and harming his team in the process.
The Frenchman still has a role to play at Madrid from the bench or starting lesser games, but he is increasingly being eclipsed by Asensio. Rather than fighting that process, Zidane should embrace it – starting with the Clasico against Barcelona in a couple of weeks.