Ismael Bennacer was one of six arrivals at the San Siro during the summer, as the new manager, Marco Giampaolo looked to stamp his style on AC Milan’s squad. Following two full seasons at Empoli, Bennacer will be hoping to successfully make the step up as he tries to cement a first-team spot. But just how will the Algerian international fit into Giampaolo’s tactics?
Bennacer played a part in 36 Serie A games for Empoli during the 2018/19 season – the majority as the holding defensive midfielder in a 4-1-3-2 formation. Our analysis reveals that as Empoli primarily looked to attack on the counter, this formation often reverted to a 4-3-1-2, with the two wide midfielders dropping narrower to cover the defence.
This decision played into two of Bennacer’s strengths – pace and positional awareness. Giampaolo seems to appreciate this strength – playing Bennacer at the base of midfield in a 4-3-3. Here, as the opposition look to play out from the back, Bennacer spots the pass forwards and covers the space in front of the backline.
Indeed, Bennacer is adept at carrying his team, providing an outlet for the defence when under pressure and recycling possession. During the 2018/19 season, he made 5.9 interceptions per game, providing a strong presence in the centre of the pitch. As we see here, following the interception, he drops deep to collect the ball, rather than progress up the field himself.
Comfortable on the ball, Bennacer is typically regarded as the safest set of feet when controlling possession in the defensive third, as he is difficult to dispossess. Here, we see Milan play out from the back collecting the ball facing his own goal, he demonstrates strength, positional awareness, and speed to twist away from the opposition player and pass the ball out from the press.
And Bennacer is likely to take confidence from his encouraging duel percentages – winning 66.7% of defensive duels and 47% of aerial duels. Knowing this, he is confident playing his way out of trouble. As we see here, he turns two opposition players and opens up the centre of the field.
One area that Bennacer does struggle with is the recovery should he lose out in a duel, having won only 33% of attempted sliding tackles during the 2018/19 campaign with Empoli. Playing in a more possession minded Milan side this term may mitigate this flaw somewhat, but he would be wise to brush up on this particular area of his game.
As the ‘water carrier’ in the team, Bennacer’s attacking contributions are, unsurprisingly, poor in terms of goals and assists. During the 2018/19 season, he registered only two assists and zero goals. However, Bennacer’s contribution does not come from providing the final ball – rather he has proven indispensable as an outlet to recycle possession and switch play.
Unfortunately, as we see here, Bennacer often overplays the ball, choosing the safe option rather than looking to instigate the attack. His midfield partner is forced to rotate possession back to the defence, removing any forward momentum.
Whether due to a lack of vision, or, because of an over-reliance towards a short, safe passing style, Bennacer often misses more “risky, attacking openings.” As we can see here, Bennacer plays the pass safely in front of him, rather than exploiting the large space on the right-hand side of the field.
Bennacer offers little in terms of dribbling threat, averaging 3.3 forward dribbles per game, with a success rate of 57%. Typically, his runs are short, recovery bursts of speed, employed to escape pressure from an opposition player, rather than providing any attacking impetus. This is notably (as seen here) because he is expected to provide the final screen in front of the defence, and so must restrict his offensive runs to avoid leaving significant space in front of his defence.
An important component of Bennacer’s game is his ability to recover the ball in offensive positions – averaging 7.8 offensive duels per 90 minutes. This affords his team the ability to transition from defence to attack higher up the field. Here, a lost ball in the final third is recovered by Bennacer, whose intelligence allows him to speed into the space available.
Ismaël Bennacer’s move from Empoli to AC Milan is sure to raise eyebrows – but, his promising statistics, revealed in part in our tactical analysis, suggest that with the continued application he should be able to make the step-up required.
If he can continue to register great recovery numbers and integrate successfully into Milan’s midfield, then he could provide a very good option for the Rossoneri under Giampaolo this term. At just 21 years of age, the former Arsenal midfielder could yet develop into a world-class holding midfielder, capable of anchoring his new side for years to come.
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