Things have been improving for AC Milan in recent weeks. Stefano Pioli’s tenure did start with some struggles, but things are settling down. The team is findings its shape and there seems to be an identity about it. The continuous inclusion of Ismael Bennacer is a key reason for that.
Under Marco Giampaolo, the club was looking to create an identity in the manager’s philosophy. But there was never enough time for Giampaolo to do that. He was getting to know his players and the players were getting to grips with the system. There were problems, as the club was in the bottom half of the table.
Under Giampaolo, Bennacer made just three starts. One of them was a 1-0 win over Brescia. Otherwise, it was Lucas Biglia who got the nod in the 4-3-1-2 shape. The Argentine’s lack of pace didn’t help Milan, as Giampaolo departed. The midfield would get overrun due to a lack of balance.
Pioli came in and got a 4-3-3 formation in. Bennacer didn’t make an appearance in his first game against Lecce, but stepped in right after that. Milan had to face Lazio, Juventus and Roma in their next four games. Bennacer would feature in all four, as the Rossoneri fought hard in all of those games.
He didn’t start against Roma, but he did against Lazio. The Biancocelesti won 2-1 thanks to a late Joaquin Correa winner. But Bennacer was arguably the best player on the pitch. He completed four dribbles, winning as many tackles. The former Empoli star also made three interceptions, playing two key passes in the game.
He did against Juve too as he completed five dribbles, winning one tackle and interception each. There was one key pass in the game from him too. His dynamism helped Milan break forward with momentum- something Biglia struggles to do due to lack of pace.
Bennacer has started the club’s last two games against Parma and Bologna, helping them to good wins. He was arguably the best player against Parma, making five interceptions in the game. He won three tackles, completing four dribbles as well.
In the recent 3-2 win over Bologna, Bennacer was constantly starting attacks from deeper positions. The Algerian international came up with five interceptions and one tackle. While he didn’t complete a single dribble, he came up with one key pass.
In this revival of sorts, Bennacer has been Milan’s most important player. He has shown the ability to not just win the ball back, but to cycle it forward with intent. This provides the impetus to the front three to do better. And being 22, Bennacer has the legs and work rate to track back and win it back.
He has won 2 tackles per game this season, winning 1.6 interceptions per game too. It shows how complete a midfielder the AFCON Player of the Tournament is. His agility keeps Milan ticking.
Last season at Empoli was the same. He did play in defensive midfield, even though he sometimes played slightly further forward. He came up with 1.8 dribbles per game, winning 2.6 tackles per game and making 1.5 interceptions per game too.
After a game against Juve for Empoli, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who had heaped praise on Bennacer. He told reporters (via SempreMilan):
“I was really impressed by Empoli’s number 10 (Bennacer). He can become a champion in the near future.”
That is no small praise. In that game, Bennacer did play as the defensive midfielder. He came up with the highest number of passes for Empoli, one of them a key-pass. He completed five dribbles, winning one tackle.
The 22-year-old has just carried on from where he had left off last season. Even though Empoli got relegated after late drama on the last day of the campaign, Bennacer caught the attention.
Winning the Player of the Tournament in the AFCON shows that there is quality in there. Algeria won the tournament thanks to not just Riyadh Mahrez. But because of Bennacer himself too. And the world is seeing him at a global stage now.