After the Serie A resumed in mid-June, AC Milan were undeniably the best team in the league, earning an incredible 2.5 points per match. Several players made significant improvements to their form, including Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ante Rebić. However, two of the best players after the break were Milan’s midfield partnership of Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié. The midfield duo, who typically line up as the two defensive midfielders in Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1, contributed greatly to the Rossoneri’s late season revival and have become two of the Serie A’s best young talent. Their success was a welcome surprise for Milan, which had struggled over the past few seasons to properly utilize its players and the midfield in general. The club’s previous two managers, Gennaro Gattuso and Marco Giampaolo, used different tactics, meaning that Milan’s crop of midfielders changed substantially from year to year. However, Stefano Pioli’s sudden success with the 4-2-3-1 means that Milan’s midfield will likely stay together for the upcoming Serie A and Europa League campaigns.
Gennaro Gattuso’s Ineffective 4-3-3
From 2017 to 2019, former Milan star Gennaro Gattuso ran a 4-3-3 while in charge of his old club. The 4-3-3 revolves around a club’s offense, but it has potential to be vulnerable if its players neglect their defensive responsibilities. Despite these inclinations, Gattuso’s 4-3-3 worked to the opposite effect: The Rossoneri’s defense proved to be elite, allowing just 36 goals in 38 games, while their offense struggled mightily, ranking 8th in Serie A in goals scored.
These deficiencies were surprising, as the club had been playing in the formation since December of 2017, when Gattuso had taken over the club, and had had ample time to adjust to the system. Milan also had a bevy of offensive talent, including superstar loanee Gonzalo Higuaín, Suso, Krzysztof Piatek and Hakan Çalhanoğlu. Despite these high-profile names and a monumental wage bill, Milan was unable to reach the Champions League and Gattuso eventually departed to take the Napoli job.
Part of the problem with Gattuso’s offense was his misuse of Franck Kessié, which became a concerning trend that continued well into the 2019/2020 season. The 4-3-3, being the offensive formation that it is, requires its outside midfielders above the defense to be dynamic players who can sprint up and down the pitch, creating chances on one end and cover for defenders on the other. These midfielders should be technically sound as well, and are essentially wingers with defensive and midfield responsibilities. Clearly, this style does not suit Kessié well, despite his powerful shot and 13 goals scored in the system. This video by Tifo Football explains these shortcomings in more depth, as well as several other issues that arose with Gattuso’s system.
A Brief Period Playing the 4-3-2-1
When manager Marco Giampaolo took the helm of AC Milan to begin the 2019/2020 season, he brought with him the unique 4-3-1-2. This formation had brought the Italian success with Sampdoria, especially defensively, but was an unmitigated disaster at Milan. As with Gattuso, Kessié lined up on the right side of the three-man line of midfielders, but the Ivorian international had even more responsibility on the wing because of the formation’s narrow nature. This narrowness saw strikers Rafa Leão and Krzysztof Piatek stay central, leaving Kessié to work with Suso (who played as the central attacking midfielder) and whomever lined up as the left midfielder to create chances on the wings.
Above is a chart of all of Kessié’s touches against Torino early in the season, when he was playing as the right midfielder in the 4-3-1-2. He was clearly active on the wing, taking him out of his comfort zone for much of the match. Kessié is at his best when he can roam the centre of the pitch and facilitate chances as a deep-lying playmaker. His playing on the wing also takes a formidable defender away from Milan’s backline, and leaves the centre of the pitch somewhat exposed.
Giampaolo also misused Hakan Çalhanoğlu, who has recently shown how effective he can be when playing as an attacking midfielder. In the 4-3-1-2, the Turkish midfielder often slotted in opposite of Kessié as the left-most central midfielder. In this position, he was restricted on offense, as he had serious defensive responsibilities due to Théo Hernandez’s frequent excursions into the attacking third of the pitch. The French fullback would often find himself out of position, which meant that the Turkish midfielder would have to cover the defender.
Giampaolo’s starting eleven was a significantly unbalanced formation. Kessié and Andrea Conti are defensive-minded players and were asked to run the right wing, while the offensive-minded Hernandez and Çalhanoğlu failed to hold the defensive front on the left side. These problems were compounded by Giampaolo’s frequent use of Lucas Biglia as the central midfielder. The 34-year-old is well past his prime and was unable to connect the offense and the defense, resulting in disjointed stretches of play that left the club vulnerable. Milan’s former manager apparently could not decide between Bennacer and Biglia, and by the time he realized that the Algerian was the better player, he had been sacked after just 7 matches.
The Arrival of Stefano Pioli and Switching to the 4-2-3-1
Stefano Pioli’s hire in October saw the club briefly experiment with the archaic 3-2-2-3, officially labeled as a 4-3-3. The formation did not entail much success. The 3-2-2-3, often called the WM because of its physical appearance on the pitch, saw Çalhanoğlu move to an attacking midfield position, which immediately improved his form, though players like Lucas Paquetá and Rade Krunic saw their playing time increase as well, which decreased the overall effectiveness of the midfield due to a drop in talent. Pioli’s 3-2-2-3 was also his formation of choice for the infamous 5-0 defeat to Atalanta, which highlighted its defensive shortcomings when the offense is not performing to its potential.
The arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not only a huge boost to the struggling club, but it also presented an opportunity for a badly-needed change in tactics. Pioli initially switched to the classic 4-4-2, but after a month and a 2-4 loss to Inter, the Italian discarded the formation in favor of the 4-2-3-1, which has long been his preference.
The 4-2-3-1 became Milan’s saving grace and was used in 14 of the Rossoneri’s last 15 Serie A matches. It is a reliable formation that allows for both offensive and defensive success, and it was made more potent by Pioli’s strategic use of his players.
Above is AC Milan’s preferred lineup, though injuries made it near-impossible for Pioli to play all eleven for most matches. Hakan Çalhanoğlu has been best as the central attacking midfielder, where he can create offensive chances without having to worry about defensive responsibilities. To his left, the wing has proved to be the perfect spot for Ante Rebić. The Croatian is able to take advantage of his high work rate, being able and willing to drop back to help cover for Hernandez. He frequently roams the pitch and can play as another striker or attacking midfielder alongside Zlatan and Çalhanoğlu, depending on the situation. The right wing is patrolled by Samu Castillejo, who is also a creative player and often looks to play in crosses.
The one-striker system fits Ibrahimovic well (he averaged 0.99 goals/assists per 90 minutes), as it allows the Swede to play either as a target man or a hold-up striker. The striker’s elite heading abilities, along with his huge stature, allow him to be the ideal target man. As a hold-up player, Zlatan uses his refined technical ability to possess and keep the ball in the attacking third, allowing the likes of Çalhanoğlu, Rebić and Castillejo to play off of him and find open lanes and space.
The real genius of Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 is how he uses Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié. The pair have finally begun to fulfill their potential as the defensive midfielders in the system. Having two defensive midfielders behind a line of three midfielders gives the formation nearly unlimited flexibility. Have a defender who loves to get forward? A CDM can cover for him while he is up the pitch. Need to park the bus? Have the two hold deep and protect the backline. Need more offense? Allow one of the pair to venture further forward as a box-to-box midfielder.
The last point explains much of Kessié’s and Bennacer’s success in the position, though neither fit a prototypical box-to-box mold, nor are they true defensive midfielders, like a Javier Mascherano-type player. However, they are both very versatile, allowing them to play whatever the situation requires, from a mezzala to a deep-lying playmaker. Whenever Kessié or Bennacer create an attack for Milan, it allows the rest of the offense to find space and make runs, giving the Rossoneri an extra attacker while not sacrificing Milan’s defensive integrity because neither will venture too far out of position. Even if one of the pair does get caught upfield, the other is always in a position to break up counter attacks (something that Kessié in particular excels at doing).
Kessié’s goal against Juventus showcased several of his best attacking qualities. The Ivorian runs behind the attack as a support option, presenting an additional option to Rafa Leão. The Portuguese forward then cuts inside and finds Kessié, who immediately looks to redistribute the ball, passing the ball to Çalhanoğlu to his left. However, instead of staying back in support at the attack’s base, Kessié identifies a sliver of open space and exploits it, receiving the ball after a well-worked combination between Çalhanoğlu and Zlatan. He finishes the chance with a fantastic bit of skill, cutting by two Juventus defenders before firing the ball past Wojciech Szczęsny.
One last important feature of the midfield duo is their age: Kessié is 23-years-old and Bennacer is just 22. The pair have increased their value exponentially over the last half-season, with the Algerian in particular drawing interest from the Premier League. While it would behoove Milan to keep the pair at the San Siro for next season, especially if Pioli plans to keep running the 4-2-3-1, the Rossoneri could add a significant amount of money to their transfer budget if they were to sell one or both of the midfielders.
If Milan were to successfully win the bidding war for Sandro Tonali or another similar player, the club would face an intriguing conundrum. The club would almost have to sell either one of the pair, but keeping Kessié or Bennacer for the bench would also provide fantastic depth for the club. Tonali would be a comparable player to the two, as the Sampdoria man usually lines up as a deep-lying playmaker, though he is considered to have more potential than either of Milan’s defensive midfielders. Regardless of the outcome, the Rossoneri’s roster is likely to look much improved for next season, and the club should be able to make a legitimate push for the Scudetto and the Europa League.
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How much do you value Ismaël Bennacer?
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