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Six hundred and forty-eight appearances, 354 goals, 25 major trophies and one Ballon d’Or. Not bad.

Karim Benzema is going to be a very tough man for Real Madrid to replace.

For almost 14 years, the French striker has quietly conducted football’s most exclusive front three. Galacticos have come and gone, but he has remained, moving from a supporting-cast role to centre-stage on an understated ascent up the Spanish giants’ scoring charts.

Below only Cristiano Ronaldo and ahead of Raul, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Hugo Sanchez, the company he’s in tells the story. Benzema is a club legend at one of the most legendary clubs of them all.

But now he is leaving that club, after receiving a huge offer to play in Saudi Arabia, as reported by The Athletic on Thursday. Madrid confirmed he was off before their final game of the season at home to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday. The Basques were fitting final opponents — he now has 20 goals in 29 appearances against them, after scoring a 72nd-minute penalty.

Planning for life after Benzema will have certainly been on the club’s agenda, as he turned 35 in December, but the speed at which this saga unfolded might well have caught a few within their recruitment team off-guard.

There are names – big ones – already in the frame to replace him up front in the Spanish capital. The Athletic takes a closer look at some of the choices…

The marquee signing: Harry Kane

There are plenty of parallels between Harry Kane’s career and Benzema’s, even with the five years difference in age. Both have evolved as long-term club servants: Benzema spent 14 seasons at Real Madrid, Kane made his Premier League debut for Tottenham Hotspur in 2012-13, over 10 years ago.

Kane is also one of few to match Benzema’s scoring consistency. The former France international has scored at least 25 times in all competitions in each of the past five seasons, hitting 30 or more in three of them. Comparatively, there have only been two seasons in the past 10 where Kane did not reach 25 goals in all club competitions: falling one short of that milestone in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The current England captain is often criticised for staying at Spurs so long, but this overlooks how his role has changed under different managers and their preferred playing styles — he was the club’s top scorer under each of their last four permanent managers: Antonio Conte (43 goals in 75 appearances); Nuno Espirito Santo (seven in 14); Jose Mourinho (45 in 62) and Mauricio Pochettino (169 in 242).

He has evolved from what Pochettino described as “an old-fashioned No 9, because of his physical characteristics and the way he moved”, who scored one-touch finishes from crosses as Tottenham moved from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3, where Kane played in advance of two No 10s.

Under Mourinho, Kane refined his creative side, evolving from a ‘Finisher’ to a ‘Roamer’. He won the Golden Boot in 2020-21 (23 goals) while also recording the most assists of any player (14) — the first Premier League player to achieve that double since 1994.

“The older you get, the more your game changes. It evolves. His (Kane’s) awareness becomes better and, for me, he’s the complete centre forward,” former Spurs and England striker Teddy Sheringham said in 2022.

Besides goals, Kane’s through balls have become a trademark. Since the start of 2020-21, his 48 through balls are the fourth-most by any Premier League player.

Those were often for Son Heung-min running in behind — they are the Premier League’s best-ever pairing in terms of setting up goals for one another.

Against Manchester City in February last year, Kane drops between the lines to receive a punched pass from Ben Davies…

…before playing a perfectly-weighted first-time ball to Son, illustrating his playmaking capabilities from deep.

It is not hard to picture Kane combining with Vinicius Junior in similar fashion for Madrid, with the Brazil winger either running in behind onto those through balls or providing the Englishman with crosses, especially considering how seamlessly Vinicius Jr and Benzema have dovetailed in recent seasons.

Kane has returned, full circle, to a pure goalscorer this season, as Spurs struggled to create in open play in Conte’s defensive 3-4-3. He became the first player to score 10 headed goals in a Premier League season, as Tottenham regularly faced deep defensive blocks while in losing positions.

His back-post movement at attacking corners has also become a trademark under set-piece coach Gianni Vio, as Spurs (16) topped the chart for set-piece goals.

It would certainly seem that Kane is the natural successor for Benzema, and the closest thing to a Galactico signing that Madrid could make this summer.

Get set for another summer saga.

Which strikers’ profiles are similar to Benzema’s?

Kane would be the obvious solution, but almost certainly the most expensive too, and relatively short-term, as he turns 30 next month.

For younger, cheaper alternatives, we can look to Smarterscout data to curate a list of stylistically similar strikers who could step into Benzema’s role. Filtering our options for players aged 28 and below, with over 900 minutes played as a striker this season, a whole host of options from around Europe emerge.

Smarterscout’s metrics help to quantify how often a player performs a given stylistic action (for example, volume of shots per touch), or how effective they are at it (for example, how well they progress the ball upfield) compared with others playing in their position. 

For this search, we are looking to emphasise skill sets such as link-up play volume, ball-retention ability and chance creation, to mirror Benzema’s skill set. The closer a player is to the Frenchman’s overall score, the higher they are on the list.

Of course, not all options are realistic – Kylian Mbappe is a long-term target for Madrid but looks set to stay at Paris Saint-Germain for now, while Christopher Nkunku is already on his way from RB Leipzig to Chelsea. Players such as Abel Ruiz at Portuguese side Braga and Everton’s Neal Maupay are stylistic matches, but are some way short of having the proven, goalscoring knack to step in and lead the front line for a club of Madrid’s stature.

Drilling down deeper into the underlying metrics, however, one candidate stands out above the rest…

The data signing: Jonathan David 

Few players can match Benzema’s ball-playing, goalscoring profile, but 23-year-old Jonathan David is showing extremely promising signs.

Madrid signed Benzema as a 20-year-old from Lyon of France’s Ligue 1 in 2009, after scoring 20 and 17 in his final two seasons. The Canada striker is in a comparable position in the same league right now.

David has scored 24 goals — including 10 out of 11 penalties — to finish as the third top-scorer in Ligue 1 this season, improving on his previous tallies of 15 and 13. He has played as a lone No 9 in Lille’s 4-2-3-1, drifting wide left at times in possession, having previously partnered Burak Yilmaz in a 4-4-2 when the club won the title two years ago.

David is incredibly neat technically, ranking in the best 10 per cent of top-five-leagues forwards for progressive passes received but also pass completion, linking well with No 10 Remy Cabella and left-winger Jonathan Bamba, who assisted him five and four times respectively in Ligue 1 this season.

His ability to combine with forwards and advanced midfielders, particularly in making attacking rotations, back-to-goal hold-up play and one-twos in wide areas would be particularly invaluable for Madrid duo Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo, who often play fluidly and end up in the same part of the pitch to break down defences.

Twelve years Benzema’s junior, David’s Smarterscout profile outlines a young striker who would be very capable of growing into his predecessor’s role if he went to the Bernabeu. 

As strikers come, David is incredibly two-footed — 16 of his 52 Ligue 1 goals have been with his non-dominant left — but only two have been with his head, and he is shorter (5ft 11in/180cm) than the 6ft 1in Benzema.

Plenty of these goals were rebounds and one-touch finishes off crosses and cutbacks, with David smart in terms of his movement, repositioning and reading of the game, but he finishes incredibly well on the angle too, with either foot.

Undoubtedly, a move to Madrid would represent a step up; David has only played one season (eight games, three goals) of Champions League football, when Lille were knocked out in the 2021-22 round of 16 by defending champions Chelsea.

However, he is a consistent finisher who moves well to keep the chances coming his way. He can drop deep, link with his team-mates, and is one of the best at receiving the ball under pressure.

If Madrid are to take a transfer risk on a Benzema replacement in this window, this feels like a decent punt.

Who else is out there?

Plenty of other options remain – Inter Milan’s 2022 World Cup winner Lautaro Martinez will undoubtedly attract interest, while the likes of Randal Kolo Muani at Eintracht Frankfurt and Patrik Schick of Bayer Leverkusen also pass the Smarterscout test.

Even so, should Madrid decide against breaking the bank for a striker in this window, there’s reason to believe that Carlo Ancelotti’s attack can still function using the options already at the club.

Vinicius Jr, 22, has gone up another gear in recent years, scoring 27 and assisting 19 across the last two La Liga seasons, while Rodrygo, also 22, can play through the middle, although he prefers a No 10 role. The latter will be expecting increased minutes off the left now Marco Asensio’s departure has also been confirmed.

It also looks as if Madrid have already picked up a capable, if somewhat surprising, back-up option in former Stoke City and Newcastle United striker Joselu. Believe it or not, Benzema is the only player to have scored more La Liga goals than the 33-year-old across the last two seasons, underlining Joselu’s growing reputation as one of the premier target men in Spanish football.

While being relegated with Alaves and now Espanyol in those two seasons, Joselu’s 14 goals a year ago represented 45.2 per cent of his team’s total, while his 16 in 2022-23 was the best return of his career. He has now reached double figures for goals in four straight seasons, the first three of them at Alaves — very respectable tallies for someone in perennially struggling sides.

A towering 6ft 4in, Joselu won an incredible 281 aerial duels last season – almost twice as many as anyone else in La Liga. He won’t be fighting for quite as many launched passes with Madrid, but his impressive goal catalogue reveals a powerful presence that could provide a valuable alternative for Ancelotti off the bench.

In a crucial relegation clash with Levante last season, for example, having already scored a 77th-minute equaliser, Joselu produces a big leap to win an aerial duel, flicking the ball perfectly into the path of team-mate John Guidetti…

…then immediately sets off into the penalty area, curving his run inside a disorientated Pepelu…

…before once again dominating in an aerial duel, powering a header into the top corner for a stoppage-time winner.

Shouldering the responsibility in the biggest moments won’t be an unwelcome trait at a club like Madrid. 

A player who scored four times in 27 appearances in his only season at Stoke (they then loaned him out for 2016-17) and then got seven in 52 during two years with Newcastle also scored twice off the bench on his Spain debut against Norway in March, with one of them seeing him again nod in a searching delivery.

Joselu can’t completely replace a mercurial talent such as Benzema, but he will certainly go a long way towards making sure that the goals don’t completely dry up for Madrid without him.

Real Madrid are accustomed to big players moving on, but the transition to the post-Benzema era feels like one of the more significant in the club’s history.

The Frenchman has been a reliable presence for them through great periods of change over more than a decade. Now, they must move on from the player who has always allowed them to move on.

Kane, David, Martinez. Maybe even Joselu. They have some big shoes to fill.

(Photos: Getty Images)



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