The lack of usage of summer signings was reportedly one of the main reasons why Marco Giampaolo was sacked by AC Milan. The club signed promising young players like Rafael Leao, Theo Hernandez and Ismael Bennacer but Giampaolo’s usage of them was highly flawed.
Bennacer’s case was probably the strangest. The pedigree and reputation with which the Algerian arrived suggested he was going to be Giampaolo’s first-choice defensive midfielder in a 4-3-2-1 shape.
After all, the midfielder had helped the Algerian national team win the African Cup of Nations earlier this year and he was also named the Player of the Tournament due to his impressive showings.
In Milan’s opening Serie A game against Udinese, Giampaolo played an advanced midfielder in Hakan Calhanoglu as the deepest midfielder and as a result, he had a poor game. But he can’t really be blamed for playing in that position since he is clearly primarily an offensive-minded player – in the games Transfermarkt have in their database, the 25-year-old spent most playing in advanced positions. But it was clear that Giampaolo was figuring out his system.
Udinese won the game 1-0 and Milan’s lack of balance in midfield was very evident.
The Rossoneri’s second game against Brescia, however, saw Bennacer start in defensive midfield. And the Algerian impressed. He won two tackles in the game, tallying just as many aerial duels too. He also played one key pass and had a passing percentage of 89.4% (via Whoscored).
Milan won the game 1-0, keeping an impressive clean sheet in the process. Bennacer constantly made driving runs forward and played to his strengths, as evident by his heatmap above.
In Milan’s next game at Hellas Verona, Bennacer was dropped to the bench. It came out of nowhere. Milan did struggle with keeping their midfield balance off the ball but managed to grind out a 1-0 win.
In the Derby della Madonnina that followed, Bennacer was on the bench once again as Lucas Biglia started ahead of him. The Rossoneri lost 2-0 as the Nerazzurri dominated them in midfield.
The next game against Fiorentina was a poor one for just about every player, Bennacer included. He conceded two penalties and was one of the worst players in a desolate 3-1 defeat to Vincenzo Montella’s Fiorentina. Since then, Bennacer has not started a single game.
It is a strange case of favouritism despite Biglia having played a rather average season. Bennacer has made only three starts, but only one poor showing saw Giampaolo drop him for Biglia. The Argentine hasn’t had a single special game but he continues to play regularly.
Bennacer is a more technically blessed player than Biglia. The 2017-18 campaign was probably Biglia’s most promising season at the Rossoneri and last season was Bennacer’s best season with Empoli. A comparison between their seasons should be fair.
Bennacer played as the defensive midfielder for Empoli last campaign and he won 2.6 tackles and made 1.5 interceptions per game, while on the other hand, Biglia won 2.1 tackles and made only one interception per game throughout the 2017/18 Serie A campaign (via Whoscored).
Both of them played a similar number of key passes per game – 0.9 vs 0.9. But Bennacer completed 1.8 dribbles per game while Biglia had only 0.5. That is a key pointer as to who is better on the ball and a better footballer with the ball at his feet.
A key aspect of Bennacer’s time at Empoli were his occasional dribbles forward. They caught defences off-guard and kept attacks moving.
Empoli director Pietro Accardi praised Bennacer at the end of last season, hailing him as a warrior. He told Gazzetta dello Sport (via Calciomercato):
“Ismael is a warrior, Milan fans will love him. We have good scouts around Europe and when we find the right profile, we try not to let them escape. Of course, for Bennacer we made several trips.”
A manager like Stefano Pioli likes to play a fluid brand of attacking football. That was evident in Milan’s recent 2-2 draw against Lecce. Even though they looked shaky at the back, there was immense promise in attack. Hakan Calhanoglu looked brilliant and Rafael Leao’s tendency to drop deeper and unleash dribbles caused Lecce many problems.
In a system like this, Bennacer would make things tick. His occasional dribbles upfront can cause so many problems for teams that can drop deeper when Milan play a fluid brand of football.
A player like Bennacer can remain on the bench for only a limited amount of time. Milan will realise that as the season wears on. The best player in AFCON deserves to play more – he has done enough to warrant that.