After a series of mediocre performances, Karim Benzema, Madrid’s multi-million dollar, 2009 off-season signing, has begun to feel the pressure. While he’d rather not admit it—he’s come out and said that the negativity only affects “my family”—he’s feeling the burn. And this might be the main reason why he’s playing so badly.
Psychologically speaking, some players perform better than others under mental duress—just look at Derek Jeter's and Alex Rodriguez’s playoff resumes. These players use negativity and pressure as motivational tools, and feed off the malicious energy that’s being directed towards them.
It seems abundantly clear that young Karim doesn’t fit into this category: he shirks from the anger of the media and the fans. He actively avoids the spotlight after bad games, choosing instead to spout talking points and exit the pressroom as quickly as possible.
Though negativity affects him, the converse is also true: Benzema feeds off positivity—he looks to build on good games, not to prove the doubters wrong. He doesn’t use the criticism for motivation; he just accepts it with a bowed head and averted eyes. Karim falls into the category of players who need to be coddled by their coaches, sheltered from the media’s unforgiving eye, and showered in positive reinforcement.
That’s the beauty of his most recent game (Madrid’s 3-1 win over Hércules on Saturday): he has come to trust in Madrid’s brilliant coach José Mourinho, and to embrace Mou’s philosophy. He tracked back on defense, ran his tail off on offense, and ended up with two assists. He played a great game and was complimented heartily for it afterwards—even the other players came out to buttress the young Frenchman’s confidence. Iker Casillas, Carvalho, and Sergio Ramos all praised Karim’s play, and assured everyone that this was the norm, not the exception. All of the credit for Benzema’s intensity—and the way Karim’s teammates held him up—should go to Mourinho, the master calculator.
The Special One has always been a noteworthy psychiatrist-coach; after he leaves teams, players unabashedly weep, or profess their desire to follow him anywhere. His players love the way he interacts with the media, the fans, and even opposing teams; he’s their best friend and greatest advocate.
It has taken a little while for Mou to begin to figure Benzema out—at the beginning of the season Madrid appeared to be actively shopping the French striker. At the same time, Mourinho has said from the beginning of the year that one of his main goals this season is to turn Benzema into a world-class striker.
That process began in earnest on Saturday.