The case for a Gundogan Ballon d'Or and is Benzema the most underrated player ever?
Another chance for an earth-born perhaps?
If we lived in a reality where everybody was candid with each other, the annual Ballon d’Or award would always go to Lionel Messi. As if it was really an accolade given to the best player in the world, it would be absurd for him not to win.
But luckily, for the mere mortals, that’s not how it works. The increasingly decisive variable when determining who should win the award has become not just your own performances but that of your team too. In fact, we saw that variable at play when Luka Modric disrupted Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s decade long duopoly over the award.
Much like there was for Modric three years ago, another opportunity beckons for an outsider to upset the apple cart. With both extra-terrestrials out of Europe and lagging behind in their respective leagues, the stars have aligned for an earth-born to exploit the how-well-did-your-team-do-this-year variable to the fullest. Enter, Ilkay Gundogan.
This season, Gundogan has galvanised a Manchester City side that looked shot and on the wane. Languishing in 10th just several months ago, a flurry of goals and buccaneering box-to-box performances from the German injected life back into his side and kick-started the 23-match winning streak that took them right to the summit of the Premier League.
Most strikingly has been the way he’s done it. With Manchester City often playing with no recognised striker, Gundogan has quite literally started and ended the same attacking moves. He has delivered weekly clinics on the art of the late run into the box, scoring 15 non-penalty goals all while fulfilling all the duties of a central midfielder.
In the modern game where every role on the pitch is highly specialised, the German is a throwback to a completely different era of football.
Not only has Gundogan fulfilled the boundless potential that his early injuries threatened to curtail but he has taken it one further and surpassed even the wildest expectations of himself. With City still fighting on all fronts and EURO 2020 beckoning, Gundogan stands a real chance of becoming the first German since Matthias Sammer to win the Ballon d’Or.
Is Benzema the most underrated player in history?
Karim Benzema’s starboy beginnings awarded him the distinction of playing with both Sylvian Wiltord and Vinicius Junior. Omnipresent in several eras, the Frenchman is as relevant now as when the first football compilation makers started to upload clips of Ronaldinho.
When Benzema first broke through at Lyon and his initiation speech prompted laughter from his new team-mates, he declared: “Do not laugh, I am here to take your place”. Four consecutive Ligue 1 titles and several Zinedine Zidane comparisons later, Benzema moved to Real Madrid where - despite scoring 272 goals, winning three La Liga titles and four Champions League trophies - most impressively of all, he has lasted for 12 years at the Bernabéu.
Turning 34 this year, Big Benz’s reputation appears rosier than ever. Long forgotten are his legal troubles and national team absences and instead a new image has been carefully crafted through swanky Instagram videos. The kids online want you to know that he is ‘clear’ because he has ‘drip’ and the same streets that will never forget Adel Taraabt, are telling us they won’t forget him either.
Yet despite all the adulation, things weren’t always so rosy for Benzema. Hark back to just a few seasons ago and you’ll realise his legacy was in real danger of being sullied by a jejune punditocracy.
For nine years he was the perfect foil for Ronaldo, creating space, running channels and laying goals on a plate to ensure the finest years of Portuguese’s career. Like the French anarchist Louise Michel, Benzema sacrificed personal glory for the greater cause.
Benzema was football’s unsung hero for those that watched him but for those that didn’t, a strange stink followed him around. They saw a striker that was neither quick, strong nor a scorer of great goals. His critics pointed towards his good if not unspectacular goal-scoring record, particularly during that strange stretch between 2016-2018 where he scored just 16 league goals.
But these assumptions of Benzema are incredibly reductionist. As the graph above shows, he excels at all facets of the game whether it be passing, dropping deep to link up play or dribbling directly at opponents. The Frenchman’s game is not limited to putting the ball in the back of the net although, as if being four goals away from the third highest scorer in Champions League history and having a 1 in 2 record at Madrid is to be snuffed at.
Perhaps one day France will bemoan the fact that one of their most talented players ever never got going with them but until then, Vive la Benz.