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Milan midfielder, Ismaël Bennacer, is one of the most promising talents of Serie A this year. During the first half of this season, he proved to be a fundamental player for the team. It is true that due to his actual position on the field, his efforts are often overlooked, however his defensive and possession skills are undeniable.
In fact, due to Milan’s underperformance in Serie A this year and last year, Bennacer’s talent went unnoticed for many football and tactics lovers.
Defensive prowess and physical strength
Despite his 175 cm height, Bennacer’s ability to win duels with taller and more physical players is quite impressive. Although he usually plays as a defensive midfielder he is often subject to a lot of pressure from opposing forwards and midfielders. Yet, he knows how to get out of these difficult situations: putting his body in front of the ball to cover it and then dribbling past the opposition or by passing the ball quickly and accurately to give no time for his markers to steal it.
His accurate passing rate in his team’s half was 91% during the 2019/2020 season, which confirms both the potential of this player and his importance in Milan’s build-up play and in the attacking transition.
In the following example, Bennacer’s smartness in dealing with these situations is shown. When he is surrounded by two players trying to get the ball from him, he chose the difficult and unexpected option of moving forward and leaving them behind, instead of passing backwards. Confident of his physical strength in one-on-one duels, he eliminated the threat of the two opposing players and started a new attack. As shown in the second image, Bennacer’s resistance to attempts of stealing the ball is clearly displayed here and his capacity of covering the ball is also obvious.
After eliminating the two players through a quick acceleration he successfully resisted the attempts of one of them who tried to push him and steal the ball. Therefore, this situation showcased some fundamental traits of Bennacer: physical prowess, strong decision-making when under pressure, his ability to handle pulling attempts, and most importantly his ball protection and quick acceleration when needed. If he continues to develop these characteristics then he could potentially become a world-class midfielder.
Bennacer is also able to exploit narrow spaces in a smart manner by running in empty spaces, allowing defenders of his team to escape imminent danger and creating numerical superiority by getting rid of two or more opposing players. This situation happens many times in each game and is very beneficial to the team’s build-up play since defenders usually find Bennacer in a well-placed position to receive the ball, especially when the full-backs are being pressed.
In addition, when he receives the ball from defence he always gets away from pressure and passes the ball to the more offensive lines. However, the inconsistency and the lack of experience of the team in the final third makes Bennacer’s efforts less credited and less impactful.
In terms of defensive skills, although Bennacer gets a lot of yellow cards for wrongly timed tackles or interceptions, he reads the attacking actions in an anticipatory way and usually makes decisive interceptions. To confirm this, it is worth mentioning that Bennacer has an average of 57% of ground duels won per game. This rate proves Milan’s reliance on Bennacer to win the midfield battles and also reduce the amount of attacking opportunities, and therefore, alleviate the pressure put on the defence.
This image below highlights Bennacer’s powerful tackling abilities in a defensive action carried out without committing a foul. In fact, during the 2019/20 season, he averages 2.4 successful tackles per game. His accuracy in duels is consolidated by his high rate of 66.7% of defensive duels won.
Attacking contribution and pass accuracy
Being selected the most valuable player of the tournament at the African Nations Cup was not just for the sake of his defensive skills.
Bennacer has also got some excellent attacking skills. He is the kind of players who has a clear vision of the field, accurate passing and team play. He often contributes to creating attacks from central midfield and creates spaces for his teammates usually by providing short and fast-paced passes.
However, he still lacks some consistency in launching accurate and attacking long balls. In this regard, this season’s statistics confirm what was mentioned above as Bennacer has a high percentage of 86% accurate passes per game and 65% long-ball accuracy. These stats are very promising for a 22-year-old midfielder playing in a very competitive and challenging league like the Italian Serie A, knowing that it is not the easiest of tasks to successfully reach a high rate of accurate passes when playing against very tactical teams and managers.
As you can see in this season’s heat map, the majority of Bennacer’s movement happens in the central and attacking midfield and a little less in defence. He played with Milan in 4-3-3, 4-3-1-2 formations with Marco Giampaolo and now in a 4-2-4 and 4-2-3-1 formations with Stefano Pioli.
Thus, as a box-to-box midfielder, Bennacer is always the one who initiates attacks at Milan this season by passing to offensive midfielders, forwards or wingers, as you can see in the following picture.
In this situation, Bennacer preferred to pass the ball with his first touch between two opposing midfielders, providing his teammate with a chance of running into space instead of trying a complicated long ball to Ibrahimović or a pass back to the full-back.
This pass created a dangerous opportunity for Milan as Rebić ran with the ball and kicked it towards the goal as soon as he received Bennacer’s pass. And this proves both the simplicity and efficiency of Bennacer’s short and well-placed passes.
In the example below, Bennacer passed the ball to Rebić but this time with a risky pass between two close opposing players. Pass accuracy is obvious here, and it is this accuracy that made the action beneficial for Rebić who took advantage in the one-on-one situation and created a goal opportunity with Ibrahimović.
Therefore, Bennacer’s accurate and well-chosen passes have often created real problems for opposition midfield and defence, and opting for the more difficult but promising choice, is one of Ismaël’s most significant traits.
When the team is defending, Bennacer always stands in midfield and presses high on the attacking team with the help of the other second midfielder in Pioli’s 4-4-2 and at times 4-2-3-1. With his fast-paced runs, he often makes decisive interceptions and pressures the opposition even at their own half at times, such as in this example.
In this 4-2-3-1 formation, Bennacer formed a line with Frank Kessié and both of them pressed high on Juventus’ midfield players with the help of Milan’s 3 attacking midfielders. Bennacer here puts extra-pressure on Juventus player and obliges him to pass the ball back to defence and limits his options.
Moreover, Bennacer always recovers second balls coming from opposing defenders. In most times he advances to the edge of the final third when the team is attacking, and when the ball is lost he anticipates coming balls and rapidly serves one of his teammates to create danger.
In this example, Bennacer waited for Bonucci’s clearance and anticipated it, before providing a direct header into space to Rebić by which he created numerical superiority and created a new chance from scratch.
Furthermore, Milan’s midfielder provides options to his teammates both in defence and in attack.
In the following picture, Bennacer places himself just between Juventus players to create an extra passing option for the defender, this movement always occurs as soon as defenders receive the ball to start building from the back.
Empoli, the Algerian national team, and lately Milan all relied on the 22-year old player heavily in the build-up play, space creation, winning balls and launching counterattacks. He is gaining experience and confidence game after game and he is expected to do even better in the coming matches. Our analysis showed that Ismaël Bennacer has got a big room for improvement, which can be done by avoiding getting a lot of yellow cards, exploiting and reinforcing his shooting skills, and developing more accurate and decisive long passes to become a world-class midfielder in the coming years.