Replacing Karim Benzema at Real Madrid
Recruitment in football is, even at the very top level, rarely truly straightforward. Nowhere has this been more evident in recent seasons than at Real Madrid. The Spanish giants have long coveted the PSG and France forward Kylian Mbappe and their interest in him has been played out very publicly with a lot of posturing from both sides amid a genuine belief that the deal would be done last summer.
In the end, however, PSG chose to remain firm in their refusal to allow Mbappe to leave the French capital at this point and they turned down any offers that were made from Madrid. This was despite the knowledge that Mbappe would be out of contract at the end of the 2023/24 season and that he would therefore be able to move for free.
Madrid could therefore afford to be patient, or could they? The emergence of the Saudi Pro League as a genuine threat to European clubs from a financial perspective effectively disrupted the summer transfer window. This disruption even reached the true super clubs of Europe and Madrid ended up losing their long-serving centre forward Karim Benzema as the French international moved to Al Ittihad. Now, it is fair to say that this is a move that has been coming as Benzema is already 35 years old. The issue is that the succession plan to replace Benzema has always been Mbappe and with PSG refusing to sell there was no clear plan in place when Benzema made the move to the Middle East.
This lack of an effective plan led to Madrid agreeing to a loan with an option to buy to bring in the 33-year-old Spanish international Joselu from Espanyol. Signing an older striker from a relegated domestic side is not the kind of deal that we would typically expect to see from one of the biggest sides in European football.
In this article, we will use Smarterscout tools to identify the strengths that Benzema brought to Real Madrid before using the Smarter search function to identify some players who could potentially be brought in to replicate some of what Benzema brought.
What did Benzema actually do?
For all that Karim Benzema is a fantastic forward player the main part of his game has never really been scoring goals. He was a 9 that acted more as a 10 with the ability to receive the ball and bring others into the game in the final third and around the opposition penalty area. When we think of the best versions of Benzema we think of the way that he combined with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and then Vinicius Jr as he brought out the best in both players.
Ironically, a player of the profile of Benzema would be hugely beneficial to Madrid today as Jude Bellingham firmly establishes himself as one of the top midfielders in the game. Bellingham would benefit greatly from a center forward with the profile of Benzema to play around when he moves into the final third.
When we look at Benzema’s Smarterscout profile from the 2023/24 season one aspect really stands out and that is his ability to link play and to bring others into play. We will also, however, put an emphasis on shooting and receiving in the area when we run our search.
In terms of the search filters we use when accessing the smarter search function, we will be highlighting players with good attacking output and we have set that slider to be very important. With the style rating options, we have set link-up play and shooting to be very important and receiving in the box as somewhat important.
All other sliders are set to not important at this point. Now, let’s move on to a shortlist of forwards who may fit Madrid as a bridge between Benzema and Mbappe.
Vangelis Pavlidis, 24-years-old, AZ Alkmaar and Greece
The first player on our shortlist is actually still playing in the Eredivisie and not one of the top 5 leagues. That player is the 24-year-old Greek forward Vangelis Pavlidis of AZ Alkmaar. While Pavlidis is a goalscorer, at the time of writing he has 13 goals in 9 games in the Dutch top flight, there is more to his game than just goals and his ability to link play is really interesting.
Pavlidis has had an interesting career to date having moved from his native Greece to join Bochum in Germany as a teenager. He spent time on loan at Borussia Dortmund’s second team and at Willem II before making the move to the Dutch side permanently for a fee of £250K in 2019. Willem II made a significant profit two years later when he moved to AZ Alkmaar for £2.5M but his next move will be for an even bigger fee.
While Pavlidis is a very capable goalscorer who is capable of a whole range of finishes from different positions and angles he is also a multi-functional 9. The Greek forward is comfortable when asked to drop into midfield to link play or when coming out to either half-space to receive the ball in pockets. He can also, however, make dangerous runs to attack and exploit space that is left behind the defensive line. You can see from his Smarterscout profile above that his ability to link the play is very impressive.
In short, Pavlidis is something of a complete attacking player. His range of movement and his clinical nature in front of goal means that he can be used in a variety of roles depending on the needs of his club. While his profile is not of the level that we are used to seeing from a Real Madrid signing, his skill set would work extremely well with the likes of Bellingham and Vinicius Jr in the Madrid attack.
Santiago Gimenez, 22-years-old, Feyenoord and Mexico
Our next player is also currently playing in the Eredivisie although he is also playing this season in the Champions League for his club side Feyenoord. Santiago Gimenez is a Mexican international forward who also has 13 goals in just 9 Eredivisie games at the time of writing this article.
Gimenez only moved to Europe in 2022 when he left his childhood club Cruz Azul to join Feyenoord in the Netherlands. At the time of writing, he has been capped 22 times by the senior Mexican national side and he looks sure to be the starting striker for Mexico for the next decade at least.
Gimenez is perhaps more of a traditional centre forward than Pavlidis is but he also has the skill set to create for teammates in the final third. His movement and positioning is extremely good and he plays on the shoulder of opposition defenders before dropping into space and receiving the ball or spinning to attack and run in behind the defence. As you can see from his profile above his rating for linking play is slightly lower than we might want although in this case we would argue that he is not expected to link the play for Feyenoord and the fact that he has a rating of 40 suggests that he could increase this notably in a system where he is expected to link and combine with teammates. His ratings for shooting and receiving in the area are also really strong.
It is no secret around football at the moment that Santiago Gimenez will be leaving the Netherlands at the end of this season and his profile and age suggest that he would make an extremely smart signing for a team like Real Madrid.
Serhou Guirassy, 27-years-old, Stuttgart and Guinea
Some players do not necessarily experience their breakout in football as teenagers. Jamie Vardy of Leicester City is perhaps the poster boy for the late-developing striker but the 27-year-old Guinean international Serhou Guirassy may challenge Vardy for that title. Guirassy is in the middle of an incredible season at Stuttgart and at the time of writing, he has 14 goals in 8 matches in the Bundesliga.
Guirassy has been highly rated for all of his career although he has never really put things together in terms of goalscoring and performances. Having first played in France for Laval he moved at a young age to Lille before being signed by Koln in the Bundesliga. He never really settled during his first spell in Germany and a loan spell at Amiens was quickly made permanent as he moved back to France. He impressed at Amiens and Rennes ended up signing the forward for a fee reported to be in the region of £15M. Once again, however, his form stuttered and he moved again to Germany to join Stuttgart initially on loan before the German side paid a £9M fee to make the move permanent.
Now, Guirassy is showing clear signs of finally putting everything together as a complete forward. He has size and presence with the ability to receive with his back to goal and to link the play and you can see that in the 22/23 season, he had a rating of 74 for his link-up play for Stuttgart. His positioning and movement is very good but this season he has shown a clear eye for goal with the ability to finish from a variety of positions and angles.
There is no doubt that Guirassy will leave Stuttgart this season and he could even move in January with reports of a release fee in his contract. He is a player that Real Madrid should be closely monitoring as a striker who could help to knit everything together in their attack.
Part of the issues surrounding Madrid’s recruitment over the last 12-18 months has been a suggestion that they were being handicapped financially by the need to ensure they could afford the eventual deal for Kylian Mbappe. All of the three players that we have highlighted here would be available for deals that would not break the bank.
We would not be surprised to see Madrid move to sign a striker to supplement their squad this coming January and a move for a player like Guirassy, if his release clause is live, would certainly strengthen them for the second half of the season.
This Smarter Thinking piece was created in partnership with Total Football Analysis