On Sunday at Stadio Ciro Vigorito, AC Milan will face off with Benevento for just the third time ever. The Rossoneri are off to a fantastic start this season and currently sit atop the Serie A standings with 34 points through 14 matches, while their opponents are currently in tenth place and are 8 points above the relegation zone. Filippo Inzaghi’s squad runs a 4-3-2-1, similar to Marco Giampaolo’s 4-3-1-2, though with two mezzale instead of two forwards. Behind the front three is a line of three central midfielders who play much more disciplined roles in front of a traditional back four. Inzaghi’s preferred formation is a deviation of the 4-3-3, and, like most 4-3-3 lineups, is very flexible.
Despite having quality attacking players, Benevento’s offensive production has not been effective so far this season. The club has scored just 8 goals in open play and has relied on set pieces and penalties to score the other 9.
Gianluca Lapadula, who scored 8 goals for Milan in 2017/18, is Benevento’s number nine. He has good pace and can provide quality hold-up play, and can even drop inside as a false nine. Though he provides an athletic option at striker, Lapadula’s main weakness is his shooting: over the past four seasons, the Peruvian forward has a - 8.8 G-xG difference, meaning that he converts significantly fewer shots than expected.
The two forwards who play behind Lapadula are the most important pieces of Benevento’s squad. Gianluca Caprari and Roberto Insigne play as flexible mezzale and are allowed to venture wide, come inside as central-midfielders, or press high as second strikers. They are both technically skilled, and Benevento’s best attacking chances usually come when one or both are involved in the build-up play. Often Caprari and Insigne will either press high against the backline while Lapadula drops into the midfield, or they play between the lines and look for options to play into space.
Despite this quality attacking trio for a newly-promoted side, Benevento has struggled to consistently attack through open play, instead relying on counter attacks and set pieces to create chances. The club’s most obvious flaw is a fatal disconnect between the midfield and the forwards. The club’s three central midfielders, typically a combination of Përparim Hetemaj, Artur Ioniță, Pasquale Schiattarella and Riccardo Improta, either stay too far back or push too far forward. This tendency frequently results in a noticeable gap between the deep midfield and the offense.
Here, Benevento completely fails to build its attack from the back, as Improta and Letizia push too high, and Ioniță is completely stagnant, watching Hetemaj carry the ball with no passing options. Situations like this frequently occur in Benevento matches, forcing the Serie B champions to resort to Route One football, where they boot long-balls up the pitch and hope one of the forwards will find an opportunity to score.
Having allowed just seven goals this season during open play, Milan matches up well with Benevento’s attack. The presence of Franck Kessié in the defensive midfield should exacerbate the divide between the forwards and the midfield, meaning that Benevento should be forced to play even more long-balls than normal. Milan’s centre-back duo of Simon Kjær and Alessio Romagnoli are dominant aerially and should be well-equipped to deal with a vertical style of play.
Milan’s 4-2-3-1 formation also matches up well with Benevento’s attack, as the two defensive midfielders can easily drop into the backline as Benevento pushes its attacking five forward. The Rossoneri have more talent, better chemistry and a matchup advantage, so the visitors should be able to easily shut down the opposition’s attack on Sunday.
Benevento secured one of the most underrated signings of the offseason when it bought Poland international Kamil Glik from Monaco for a fee of just $3 million. The veteran is now 32, but he provides consistency and leadership on the backline, two key attributes for a club looking to avoid relegation. Glik is typically joined on the backline by longtime Napoli full-back Christian Maggio, Luca Caldirola, and Gaetano Letizia.
These four make up a quality defense, especially for a promoted side, but injuries have hampered the group so far this season. Caldirola, who plays mostly at centre-back, will miss the Milan match, while the captain Maggio, who has been out with a leg injury, could return against Milan but has missed Benevento’s last six matches.
Benevento’s defense, which has allowed 23 goals this season, stays compact and well-organized. Inzaghi’s side is content to stay back and concede possession while retaining a strict defensive shape, typically with the three central midfielders covering the backline as defensive midfielders. This shape makes it difficult to exploit the six-yard box for opposing teams, and Benevento has a low rate of shots-against on target, at just 30.9%.
Milan should be able to exploit Benevento’s defense with its athletic and technical ability. Ante Rebić, Rafael Leão and Hakan Calhanoglu all bring pace and skill, which will be critical when Benevento compresses its backline and reduces the space in its defensive third. Milan will have to create chances and find passes in tight areas, where Rebić and Çalhanoğlu in particular excel.
The other way to beat this defense will be via counter attacks. Because of the Campania side’s strict defensive shape, the best way to find an opening will be to break into space before Benevento’s relatively slow midfielders are able to drop back into position. Franck Kessié, Sandro Tonali or Ismaël Bennacer could all contribute to this by playing early through-balls in behind where Leão or Rebić can beat Glik and his partner with pace.
Benevento has had a wonderful start to its Serie A campaign, but the talent gap here is just too big. AC Milan matches up well with Benevento’s attack and midfield and should be able to dominate possession. Even if Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ismaël Bennacer do not return for this match, the Rossoneri will be well-prepared and on track to turn around their recent dip in form. Despite winning its last two matches 2-0, Benevento has not been in top form, so this should be an easy win for Milan.
Prediction: Benevento 0, AC Milan 3