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AC Milan Player Profiles: Ismaël Bennacer

Have I mentioned that I absolutely love Ismaël Bennacer because if I have not, then I am here to profess/repeat/exclaim my admiration for him. Here’s why.

AC Milan v Torino - Coppa Italia: Quarter Final Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Ismaël Bennacer burst onto the Italian soccer scene during the 2018-19 season with a fantastic display for Empoli FC. He followed up in his sophomore season in Serie A by cementing his place in one of the historical top sides in Italy. Bennacer moved from Empoli to Milan for $17,600,000. It took seventy-six minutes for Milanistas to see their new midfield maestro play in Serie A. He would not disappoint. In the next match, Bennacer would play the whole game and help Milan earn their first win of the season. Bennacer showed his innate ability and his tendency to progress play from the start. His addition reinvented the Milan midfield. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, much like in Theo Hernández’s profile, let’s look at a template.

Understanding the Template:

Data from Wyscout

I have written about Bennacer before, but here we are again. Bennacer is a ball progressing central midfielder who duels, a lot. The progressive nature of Bennacer’s play helps Milan quickly transition from defense to offense and he can do that in two ways. Bennacer is one of the best dribbling midfielders on the planet. This does not mean that Bennacer has some magical feet (well he does, just not like Neymar). What Bennacer does have is the ability to beat players ahead of him with a move and he can break a press with his dribbling. This can be anything from Bennacer running into a fifteen-yard space in front of him (a progressive run), or making a turn with the ball that springs him free of two opposing midfielders (a dribble). Bennacer’s tendency is to do the latter more than the former. Both progress the ball forward, both help break the lines of opposing teams, both are good.

It is important not to overlook Bennacer’s ability to pass. Bennacer passes forward and progressively fantastically. To be floating around the ninetieth percentile for both statistics puts him in elite company (better than Sergej Milinković-Savić and Frenkie de Jong in both categories). While his xA per 90 and his long and deep completed passes are low, he makes up for this through his actions in the middle of the field. By being a progressive player in the center of the field, and ably connecting the Milan defense to the Milan attack, Bennacer has transformed the Milan midfield. This player had been lacking in the Milan midfield for most of the decade.

What Bennacer Has Been:

Really good.

Well, he plays two different roles in his game. When Milan is out of possession, Bennacer performs the duties of a central defensive midfielder. He duels a lot, intercepts passes, and provides cover to the right side, and sometimes all, of the Milan backline. When possession is reestablished, Bennacer will become the ball distributor in the center of the field or he will complete a dribble and then pass into or run into space (usually he dribbles). When Milan reach the opposition’s final third, Bennacer will float above the box and provide cover for Franck Kessié. Bennacer’s other common role is to help recycle possession in attack. If Milan loses the ball, Bennacer may press or drop further back and initiate a duel in midfield or deeper.

Bennacer does not shoot. He is not an offensively-minded midfielder like Paul Pogba. He is not a true dueling and defensive midfielder like Wilfried Ndidi or Marquinhos. Bennacer is a defensive, yet ball-progressing midfielder. Bennacer’s ability to progress the ball and tendency to help recycle possession, offensively, differetiateshim from more defensive midfielders. Bennacer does not attack the box like an offensive midfielder either. That is indicated in his low xA per 90 totals. It is simply just not part of his game. What that allows the Milan midfield to do is let Kessié become an attacking option who is allowed to enter the box. Bennacer provides cover for Kessié and even if Kessié is caught in the box, Bennacer’s ability to tackle can make up for Kessié being upfield. The two have a harmonious relationship.

How to Make Bennacer the best Bennacer:

In a two-man midfield, Bennacer will need a midfielder whose tendency is to pass. Milan could always double down on the defensive approach and sign a player like Tiemoué Bakayoko, however, this may stifle the Milan attack. I prefer putting Bennacer next to a player like Manuel Locatelli or even Dani Parejo. The benefit of putting Locatelli next to Bennacer is that both can play in a midfield two, both can progress the ball, and both can defend.

Data from Wyscout

These two players would complement each other perfectly. Bennacer would handle the more defensive responsibilities, with Locatelli being free to make incisive passes into the penalty area. Locatelli rates highly as a passing and progressive midfielder. Most of what Bennacer does to be progressive is in his dribbling, Locatelli focuses more on progression through passing. Both players would be matchup nightmares for opposing teams and wreak havoc on their midfields. Individual production from both players may drop, however together they could be one of the best midfield duos in Serie A. Letting Locatelli go was foolish, bringing him back to Milan would be intelligent (I’ll write a longer piece about him later).

In a midfield trio, the answer is more complex. Bennacer can play on the right side of a three-man midfield and Milan could bring in a midfielder like Ibrahim Sangaré to play as the true defensive midfielder. Following that, they could add a mezzala type or an offensive midfielder. Florian Neuhaus and László Bénes (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Dominik Szoboszlai (FC Red Bull Salzburg), Suat Serdar (FC Schalke 04), and Rodrigo de Paul (Udinese Calcio) are all players who would fit well as the offensive midfielder in this trio. None of these players are necessarily cheap (Transfermarkt has them all around twenty-two million, Bénes is only nine million) but would provide an offensive punch from the midfield. Bennacer could also play as the defensive midfielder in a trio and Milan could simply add an offensive midfielder. This would mean keeping Kessié in the squad, which I am fine with. However, I would stick with the option of bringing back Locatelli, he is simply the best player of these options.

I am not the sporting director or head of transfers for AC Milan, but I think any of these purchases or formation changes would be intelligent.

Some Forecasting for Bennacer:

I see Bennacer developing into a fantastic progressive and ball-winning defensive midfielder. Bennacer adding a more direct offensive style to his game would benefit himself and Milan, however, his ability in transition does help Milan’s offense. Bennacer is certainly a building block for the new Milan. He is twenty-two and will continue to develop into his peak (expect him to start his peak at twenty-four or twenty-five). Placing a passing, yet defensively sound midfielder next to Bennacer will help his development. If Milan plans to remain in a duo, adding Locatelli will take Milan’s midfield from simply good, to one of the better midfields in Italy.

The improvement that Bennacer needs to make to his game is the aggression of his passing. He does not spring players into the box often. His deep completed passes per 90 (passes deep into opposition territory) is floating around average. He recycles the ball when in possession, which is good, but players like Locatelli have learned how to make accurate passes to forwards in the box. Bennacer can take this next step, and if he does, then Milan has one of the most complete midfielders on the planet. I do not think he will turn into Marco Verratti, but I hope he gets close. Bennacer has the tools to be a great player, he is already very good, and hopefully, he refines his skill and becomes elite.

I hope you all watched Bayer Leverkusen this weekend. As I said in the last article, Kai Havertz rocks and you all would have fun watching more of him. He would have been perfect in the Milan midfield trio I created, but he is worth almost ninety-million dollars on Transfermarkt so I do not think that is feasible. Kerem Demirbay was another player I thought about as well in the Milan duo or trio. Both are good answers, but I think both are enjoying life in Germany right now. Anyway, watch them run-riot against teams for the rest of the Bundesliga season. Bayer Leverkusen may not remain intact for much longer so jump on board now.