Milan’s recent upsurge in form has succeeded in attracting the attention of many in Europe. The victory over Roberto De Zerbi’s men on Tuesday saw them stretch their unbeaten run to seven wins and two draws since the lockdown. So much has been said of the importance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the goal-scoring form of Ante Rebic and rediscovered Franck Kessie. Yet once again Ismael Bennacer shone, and in a game which could have gone either way, the Algerian provided a huge amount of control to a Milan midfield that really needed it.
One thing that has been common in just about every Milan game post-lockdown is the constant presence of Bennacer. While it is easy to point out his impressive performances in what has been an uplifting period for the Rossoneri, Bennacer is one player who stood out even when Milan weren’t winning games regularly. So much so that he’s now coming across as one of Mian’s best signings in years.
The midfielder was one of the four important players that Empoli sold upon their relegation to Serie B in the summer of 2019. The others happened to be Francesco Caputo, Giovanni Di Lorenzo and another Milan signing in Rade Krunic. While Caputo shines for the Neroverdi and even scored from the spot against Milan and Di Lorenzo has done well for Napoli, Bennacer is someone who has brought a much more prominent impact than the others.
The Algerian is capable of doing a lot of things on the pitch and that was clear at the Mapei Stadium on Tuesday. He won a total of two tackles and had a passing accuracy of 92 percent as well. It was an assured performance on and off the ball. He has the ability to sit deep and recycle possession to the forward players, but he can also carry the ball forward in a progressive manner and dribble it into advanced areas. This makes him the sort of complete midfielder that anyone would love to have in their team. Anyone including Paris Saint-Germain, who are reportedly desperate to get hold of Bennacer.
Very few midfielders in European football have the range of abilities that Bennacer has. In some of the early games for Milan, he didn’t start under Marco Giampaolo, but with time, he managed to become a regular feature of the side in deeper midfield. In Giampaolo’s possession-based system, he came across as the perfect single-pivot who could do everything that the 4-3-1-2 system demanded. On paper, he seemed like an upgrade on a player like Lucas Torreira, who had performed a similar role under Giampaolo at Sampdoria.
What Bennacer has over Torreira though is the excellent ability to carry the ball forward. That makes him a very versatile player who can even be used effectively in other parts of the pitch. Empoli even used him as an advanced midfielder in their promotion campaign to Serie A and when Stefano Pioli used the 4-4-2 around the turn of the year in 2020, Bennacer donned a more box to box role too. It tapped into his strengths perfectly and he could recover the ball and either pass it around or dribble it in the final third as well.
One drawback that he does have is his discipline. The AFCON 2019 Player of the Tournament has been booked 14 times already and he got another silly booking against Sassuolo as well. With the suspension hanging in the crucial game against Atalanta, it is perhaps a reflection of one weakness that he has and something that he can still improve. We might also see just how much he and Theo Hernandez will be missed in that match on Friday.
But overall, the €16m fee that Milan paid for him seemed a bargain even at the time, but is now made ludicrous by his excellent performances, his versatility and immense range of abilities. The former Arsenal man has arguably been Milan’s best player in the campaign largely because of his consistency and the fact that he’s been a regular in that midfield.
In many ways, his regular presence in the heart of the park has led to the re-emergence of Franck Kessie as well. The backline benefits from having a ball-winner like him in deeper midfield. He has provided a balance to the team which they might lack against Atalanta, but something that they’ve always had in the last few games post-lockdown.
With interest in him increasing, PSG now joined by Manchester City, it shows that clubs are now paying the 22-year-old the attention he deserves. And in many ways, he would suit many systems and styles of multiple clubs. As for Milan, they can’t afford to lose him at this point or next season. The man has been the bedrock for their performances and he could lead them towards the light soon.