Using xGold to identify Karim Benzema’s replacement at Real Madrid – data analysis
Karim Benzema’s exit was a quick one.
With Saudi Arabia offering €120 million a year, they quickly sealed Benzema’s transfer to Al-Ittihad.
The transfer sent shock waves through Madrid. At one point, there were rumours that little investment would be made in the transfer market. Now that Karim Benzema has moved on, Revitalizing Real Madrid 2.0 is underway.
When Cristiano Ronaldo left the club, their goals per game plummeted as did their season expectations the following year. It took the return of Zinedine Zidane and a highly pragmatic approach, led by one of Europe’s best defences, that led to a La Liga title two years post-Cristiano. To this day, the “Ronaldo replacements” have yet to replace his goal-scoring output or boost the team’s prolificacy in front of goal, which may signal that it’s an impossible task.
Without Benzema, the club finds itself in a comparable situation. But this time, it must at least replace the goals. This data analysis will look at the best way to not only replace the goals but to produce a comparable skill set. Using xGold, we’ll use statistics to identify players with the best data profiles to replace the Frenchman.
We’ll first look at a few specifics in Benzema’s style of play, assess the transfer options put forth by the rumour mills, identify replacements with xGold and offer a couple of creative solutions at the #9 spot. Finally, we’ll look at the most creative solution of all…not replacing Benzema.
Benzema’s style of play
Benzema is a household name and doesn’t require a full scouting report. The Ballon d’Or winner’s qualities are well known, but we still want to grasp his role within Real Madrid’s tactics. Additionally, we want to blend our analysis of Benzema through data and tactical images. The statistics will show his impact while the few still images we’ll use show how he used his talents.
Starting with the data, 2022/23 was a bit of a drop from his Ballon d’Or winning 2021/22 campaign, but we still have a nice overview of his significance in the squad. Goal contributions P90 were down this year, though each of his other metrics relating to actions in the box was in the 92nd percentile or higher.
He had less to do defensively, which is expected given Real Madrid’s dominance in possession and an attempt to preserve Benzema’s legs for the attack. We won’t focus too much on those statistics. Instead, we’ll look at perhaps the most consistent part of Benzema’s game, dating back to the BBC years, his participation in developing the attack.
Big Benz had a unique combination of prototypical #9 size and traditional #10 playmaking. No #9 in the world can compete with his playmaking ability. Benzema’s impact dropping into midfield to participate in attacking sequences before pushing into the box to finish them off was foundational to his success as the main man at Madrid since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure.
Looking at Benzema’s heat map, we do see a tendency to slide towards the left-hand side, particularly in that left half space to link up with Vinícius Júnior. That approach continued into the box, setting up his preferred right foot while cutting in from the left half space.
Benzema’s connection with Vinícius Júnior was the primary catalyst for the club’s success in the final third. In the Copa del Rey against Barcelona, Benzema’s overlap of the Brazilian allowed Vinícius Júnior to cut inside on his right foot. As his path was blocked, he played back to Modrić who then played forward to Benzema.
That left-sided connection was Real Madrid’s preferred final third target because it set him to goal on his right foot. The link between the two players was also so strong that there was an element of trust that they could break down the opposition and create a path to goal, either for themselves or for their teammates.
But he was not limited to that left-hand side. Look towards the right and we again see the tendency to slide into the half-space to connect with his right forward, typically Rodrygo.
You may recall a deflected goal Benzema scored against Liverpool in the Champions League Round of 16. It was Benzema sliding to his right and combining with Rodrygo that created the goal. This was one of the tactics they frequently put to use. Getting three players near the ball and either of the two half-spaces, they would get Benzema to a forward-facing position and look for give-and-goes to get behind the opposition’s backline and into a shooting lane.
That’s exactly what happens in this sequence. A give-and-go between Benzema and Rodrygo put the Frenchman between the lines and his shot is deflected past Alisson. Benzema’s ability to adapt and link play in the final third is exactly what Real Madrid will miss most. They can probably find another player with comparable efficiency in front of goal, but it’s this type of sequence before the shot that they’ll miss most.
That final third creativity will be the most difficult to replace. Let’s see what xGold generated in terms of a possible replacement.
Potential Benzema replacements identified through xGold
We’re going to deviate from the typical player identification template we use on these xGold reports. Like Benzema, all the players are well-known. To match the standard of the club, a world-class player is needed to replace the legendary Frenchman.
Instead, we’ll start with the popular replacement demands, then look at a couple of creative solutions and finish with the top recommendations based on Benzema’s statistical profile.
First up, the name most frequently linked with the job opening at Real Madrid, Tottenham’s Harry Kane (87% similarity). Why is this link so popular? For one, Kane does offer that blend of goal-scoring and playmaking. He suffered a down year in 2022/23, but, realistically, his skill set is closest to Benzema’s when strictly using the eye test.
That said, with the amount of money Real Madrid must spend to replace Benzema, they have to get this transfer right. The data profiles don’t align very well, which gives some reason for concern. Kane will also turn 30 on 28th July, which doesn’t fit with Real Madrid’s recruitment model. They do tend to prefer younger players.
Another player that has been linked is Kai Havertz (85% similarity) of Chelsea. We won’t spend too much time here knowing that the rumours have cooled down recently, but knowing the ebbs and flows of the recruitment season, we likely haven’t heard the end of these rumours.
Just to cover ourselves, let’s look at the similarities between the two players. There is a bit of a downgrade in Havertz’s creativity and playmaking, but the real downgrade is in the box. With Benzema out of the equation, they need someone to come in and provide a significant percentage of the goals lost through the striker’s departure to Saudi Arabia. Havertz doesn’t fit the bill.
The next player we’ll address who’s heavily linked to the club is Joselu (77% similarity). The Espanyol forward scored 16 goals for a side that was relegated. That’s an impeccable tally while playing in a much weaker team. Should the 33-year-old forward arrive in the Spanish capital, he’s likelier to replace Mariano Díaz on the squad than Benzema. For an out-and-out #9, he would make a good signing, but more so as someone coming off the bench than starting.
Now let’s move on to the creative solutions. Roberto Firmino (86% similarity) has struggled with injuries in recent seasons, but the 31-year-old is available on a free transfer and is about as good a fit as you’ll find to replace Benzema’s playmaking ability. That said, Real Madrid would have to accept a slight drop in Benzema’s box production. That would put a little more strain on Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo to garner some of the goals Benzema’s taking with him, but Firmino is a player Real Madrid should seriously consider signing.
Not only will Firmino come at a lesser cost to the club and can play in a similar way to Benzema, but he also doesn’t require the long-term investment of some of the other players on this list. If anything, his injury history will likely reduce the overall cost of the deal. If the rumours are true that Pérez wants to go back for Kylian Mbappé next summer, Firmino can hold the line until the PSG star is available on a free transfer.
The second creative move may be more difficult since it involves Real Madrid’s crosstown rivals, but Atlético Madrid can’t wait to get João Félix (83% similarity) off their books. Statistically, he’s not a perfect fit and certainly doesn’t offer the goal-scoring that Benzema does. However, an argument can be made that he really hasn’t played in a system that suits his unique skill set, at least not since his departure from Benfica.
Félix would offer the creative element while linking up well with Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo. In fact, he could be the player to unlock Rodrygo’s goal-scoring potential. The Brazilian can finish, but playing a more prominent role linking up with Félix could conceivably push him beyond the irregular starter role he’s played and into the category of top goal scorers.
Félix could come at a discounted rate just because of the poor fit and tension at Atlético Madrid. Now, will the two sit down and do business together? That’s an entirely different question.
Let’s finish the section with the two best fits as identified by xGold. The top player recommendations are Quincy Promes (facing a significant prison sentence), Lionel Messi (signed by Inter Miami and never a possibility), Serge Gnabry (unlikely to happen) and Christopher Nkunku (heading to Chelsea).
Next up is a short-term replacement, Mehdi Taremi (93% similarity) of Porto. Between club and international play, he’s accustomed to the spotlight and is a clinical goal-scorer. Again, he’s a short-term solution, but he’s someone who could come in at a reasonable price and fill a need. There are rumours of PSG interest and his departure seems imminent. Real Madrid will surely test a Kane transfer first, but Taremi is a nice fallback option.
Finally, the second best fit is a player, who would also come at a reasonable cost, Iago Aspas (93% similarity). At 35 years old, his fee would be marginal at best. He has all of Benzema’s playmaking ability and has proven himself to be a reliable goal scorer. Critics may point to his time at Liverpool and the potential for another flop in a return to a top club, but the more critical narrative to take from that experience is the importance of fit. Aspas was a perfect fit within the Celta de Vigo system. Given his time in La Liga and unique skill set, he is worth the short-term contract.
The biggest question mark is whether he would want to leave Celta de Vigo. The forward has spent much of his career with his hometown club. He grew up just across the Ria de Vigo from Celta and has spent all but two years outside of Galicia. Is he willing to leave now at the tail end of his career? Aspas turns 36 on 1st August, so a short-term contract would have to highly incentivise him to leave his boyhood club and fill the massive void left by Benzema.
There we have it. The list of players rumoured to take Benzema’s mantle, a couple of creative signings and the two best fits according to xGold.
But what if Real Madrid didn’t replace Benzema? What if there was another way around his departure? Buckle up. This Benzema replacement data analysis is heading towards a crazy turn in the road.
Can Rodrygo fill his shoes?
Don’t replace Benzema.
That’s the most creative alternative this data analysis can offer.
Let’s clarify. Don’t replace Benzema through the transfer market. Wait for Mbappé next summer and slot him into that #9 role.
In the meantime, slide Rodrygo (91% similarity) to the #9 position and find someone to take his spot in the right wing.
Hear us out.
Rodrygo has grown tremendously in the past couple of seasons. He has become more prolific in front of goal and his link-up play is spectacular. You could argue positionally that he has a preference for playing more centrally. Towards the latter end of the year, he was almost playing in a free role, moving centrally or even into the left wing if he felt he could positively impact play. Why not use that unique skill set centrally so he can link up with the left and right forwards more consistently or even drop into midfield?
Looking at the data comparison, Rodrygo does offer a stylistic fit for the role. Benzema is clear of him in most categories, but we do see the well-rounded profile Rodrygo offers. He thrives in a playmaking role and he is someone who can get into the box and finish. In fact, some of the club’s most clutch goals in the past two years have come at Rodrygo’s feet. His movement in the box is fantastic and he knows how to create spaces in the box and behind the backline to attack.
Returning to the point of his central positioning, this clip against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey is a really good example of his comfort in pushing into the central channel. At times, he was almost operating as a #10. In this instance, he played forward to Benzema, who kicked the ball out wide to Dani Carvajal. With Benzema checking into midfield, Rodrygo continued his run behind the backline. He managed to get clear of the defenders, but Carvajal’s early cross was too strong, sending it into the on-rushing arms of Marc-André ter Stegen.
Rodrygo also offers the willingness to run behind the backline to create pockets of space for his teammates. In this case, he drags Jules Koundé away from the central channel, creating space for Benzema to receive a pass from Modrić and get his shot off. The end result…a brilliant Benzema finish.
Whether centrally or moving into the half spaces, much like we saw with Benzema, Rodrygo offers the creativity both on and off the ball to operate as Real Madrid’s high central attacker.
So who replaces Rodrygo?
To find that winger, we targeted someone with Vinícius Júnior’s profile, someone who could offer that wide playmaking to limit the numbers needed out wide to assist with ball progression, giving the club a greater emphasis on getting numbers into the box. Stylistically, the closest fit as identified by xGold is Ousmane Dembélé (90% similarity). That’s simply not happening. Moussa Diaby (89% similarity) of Bayer Leverkusen was one of the recommended profiles, but he doesn’t offer enough threat on the dribble. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (88% similarity) was another recommendation, which would require him to move to the right, but he’ll cost an arm and a leg. An option, though an unlikely one.
Definitely some quality players, but not the answers. After Dembélé, xGold identified Jérémy Doku (85% similarity) as one of the best options in the right wing. He offers a similar dribbling capability to Vinícius Júnior and is a fantastic passer as well. There is a dip in goal-scoring production and a bit of a worry with his injury history, but the 21-year-old is an absolute live wire in the right wing.
Another option is Exequiel Zeballos (87% similarity) of Boca Juniors. Another livewire in the wings with a smaller stature, he would have to transition to the right side of the pitch to accommodate Vinícius Júnior. He is just 20 years old and has limited experience with the first team, which is cause for concern, but he does offer the qualities Real Madrid would need for that position. Still, there’s some concern about the spotlight at a club like Madrid. Opportunities to learn on the job are limited. Young players must be prepared to shine early.
If you watched Sporting CP at all in the Champions League and Europa League, you surely noticed the young Englishman, Marcus Edwards (87% similarity) carving up opponents in the wings. A right-sided player, the 24-year-old is almost a perfect fit for the right-sided Vinícius Júnior’s profile. Statistically, there would be a regression moving from Liga Portugal to La Liga, but the similarity between the two players is uncanny. You get the goal-scoring presence, the dynamic dribbling and even better passing for Edwards.
Edwards has a contract through 2026, so he would come with a considerable cost, but the Englishman certainly proved his worth during the Liga season and in continental play. He’s primed for a big move, be it this summer or next, so it really is a matter of which club will step up and sign him.
The final transfer recommendation is another short-term solution (and possibly a dream), but it’s a tough one to beat. Mohamed Salah (85% similarity) turns 31 this week. Liverpool has Luis Díaz, Diogo Jota and Cody Gakpo primed for larger rolls in the wings. To expedite their growth, Liverpool could be convinced to let Salah walk, though likely for a considerable fee.
Should he come to Madrid, he would offer the goal-scoring replacement for Benzema while freeing up Rodrygo to play centrally. In fact, their positional interchanges would be a nightmare for opponents. It would give Real Madrid a very fluid front three with goals coming from any of the three players. This transfer would take some coaxing, but it’s certainly one the club should look at.
The transfer failure of Eden Hazard’s move may cause Florentino Pérez to shy away from a significant transfer fee and salary for an older player, but the Egyptian has far better fitness and durability than Hazard. His off-season habits are also more conducive to playing at a high level and into his mid-30s as well. This is a dream transfer for Real Madrid, especially if they can follow it up with Mbappé next summer.
Should worse come to worse and the club not make a significant investment in that forward line, the results would be Valverde spending more time at right-forward and Sergio Arribas or Brahim Díaz getting time in the wings. One of those possibilities would still allow Rodrygo to play more centrally. This is far from the ideal and could limit the club’s trophy haul next season. It will still contend for trophies, but the likelihood of winning one will be greatly diminished without an addition to that forward line.
Whether the club brings in a #9 who can slide into Benzema’s slot or push Rodrygo centrally and bring in another out-and-out winger, a move must be made. And not just any move. In order for the club to genuinely contend for the Champions League and La Liga trophies, a player with starting XI quality is needed.
If they want to wait for Mbappé in 2024, fine, but that means the summer of ’23 requires a design with a short-term solution. There are a number of options available and they certainly don’t have to overpay for anyone to ensure they hit their high standard.
The only unacceptable option is no action at all. Revitalizing Real Madrid 2.0 is underway. It’s Florentino’s move.