In the summer of 2019, AC Milan with its ever-revolving project needed a defensive midfielder to anchor freshly-hired Marco Giampaolo’s well-known 4-3-1-2 formation. The Italian tactician had his eyes set on Lucas Torreira who had performed the same job for him at Sampdoria, gaining plaudits from different corners. 

Torreira had moved to English side Arsenal at the beginning of the 2018/2019 season but had failed to impose his minuscule self in a side that badly needed physicality in midfield. The stocky Uruguayan had started on a good note, adding grit and bite to the guile of Granit Xhaka. However, keeping up with the pace and physicality of the league became overwhelming and by mid-season he was regularly left out of the lineup, coming on if solidity was needed in the final minutes of the game. We can argue that Unai Emery might have misused him. Emery opted to pair him in a pivot which pushed him further forward than he was used to as Xhaka controlled from deep. Torreira had made his name sitting and orchestrating from the base of midfield but at Arsenal, they had other ideas for him. His season did not pan out as expected and Paolo Maldini and Zvonimir Boban saw this as an opportunity to snag the midfielder from the London side. 

The plan was that the coach who had brought out the best in the now 24-year-old’s two seasons at the Genoa-based club would help his development from where it had stalled. Arsenal would play hardball, refusing a loan and setting a price that was impossible for the Milan club to meet due to its well-documented stringencies. AC Milan had to move onto their second choice if they needed to get a deal done in time and attention was turned to another stocky, diminutive defensive midfielder, Ismaël Bennacer.

The France-born Algeria international was busy delivering a player of the tournament performance at the 2019 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. He ran the show in midfield, overshadowing more internationally acclaimed superstars like teammate Riyadh Mahrez, Senegalese duo of Kalidou Koulibaly and Sadio Mané, and top scorer Odion Ighalo. The rumours went on and on, and it was even pondered if Arsenal would exercise their right of first refusal over him. He had ironically been on the books of Arsenal between 2015 & 2017 before being traded to Empoli and Arsenal were to be given a heads-up to match any offer for Bennacer. 

Betway Nigeria

He would eventually sign for about 16 million Euros and Giampaolo had his new exciting anchorman. The football under Giampaolo was anything but exciting though. It was dour, slow, predictable and laboured. Giampaolo persisted with his ideologies and was fired after three listless wins and four defeats. In came the never inspiring Stefano Pioli and it was under him that Ismaël would take off, Pioli’s football is as rudimentary as it comes but at least it wasn’t the overly tactical model that Giampaolo preached. 

Bennacer has had a mixed first season at AC Milan. (Getty Images)

This return to basics with a grounded 4-4-2 and its variations allowed the Algerian to shine as he has shown why he is considered one of the most interesting young midfielders in Europe. His grit and tenacious style of play combined with a silky ability to burst past players has seen clubs like Manchester City and Real Madrid keep constant tabs on him. Unlike Torreira, the pivot seemed to bring out the best in him. 

Bennacer’s ability to set up attacks with long balls is mightily impressive and one of his best characteristics as he averages 3.3 long balls per game this season. For the sake of a better picture, we will compare him with one of the finest holding midfielders in the world, Inter’s Marcelo Brozović. There is the temptation to stack him up against Joshua Kimmich but the difference in leagues might skew things. Brozović absolutely dominates the midfield, sometimes almost single-handedly; he can set the tempo flawlessly, distribute and collect effortlessly. The game just naturally courses through him, even with Antonio Conte that focuses less on midfield control, he still dominates the centre of the park. 

Ball-playing ability

Brozović leads Bennacer in the aforementioned long balls category, averaging 5.9 per game. In fact, Brozović leads him in just about any passing stat of importance. While this is overwhelming, remember that Brozovic is an established and esteemed performer while Bennacer is just in his second season of top-flight football. While Brozović makes 1.1 key passes per game compared to the Algerian’s 0.8, note that Brozović has played about 300 more Serie A minutes than Bennacer this season.

Off-the-ball proficiency

Bennacer can shield the ball expertly and also put in excellent standing and ground tackles. In the tackle, both men are more evenly matched as they both attempt around 3.8 per game however Brozovic completes 2.7 tackles with Bennacer averaging 2.4 per game. Bennacer is more adept at making interceptions, racking 1.7 per game with Brozovic at 1.3 per game. Bennacer is still raw and fouls his opponents regularly with 1.8 per game while Brozovic averages 1.5 per game with both men being dribbled past 1.4 times per game. Bennacer needs to be more disciplined though as he ranks at the zenith with 12 yellow cards to his name this season with suspension following, the Croatian also makes far more clearances with 2 per game while Bennacer barely does this with about 0.4 per game. The more experienced Croatian can escape problems in deeper areas using his clean one-touch passing while Bennacer tends to overcomplicate things which is normal considering his experience. Brozovic has less unsuccessful touches (1.1 per game) compared to Bennacer (1.6 per game) and the Croatian is dispossessed 0.7 times per game with Bennacer at 1.1 per game. All the stats enumerated here are provided by Whoscored.


We can easily deduce an earlier statement that alludes to Brozovic being the better player in most relevant dimensions. The goal, however, is to denote that Bennacer is improving and can match up to the Croatian who is already one of the best in the business. Brozovic passes more into the final third and has more expected assists (xA) due to this. The directness of Conte’s football will require this especially as Stefano Sensi, who started out as the team’s main creative fulcrum, has been out. With Christian Eriksen coming in too, expect those numbers to drop for Brozovic. 

Bennacer only outdoes Brozovic in successful dribbles, the 22-year-old’s main ability trait is how nimble and elusive he can be when pressed. As a young lad, he is not yet aware of where and where not to attempt these moves as seen against Juventus in the Coppa Italia, he can put himself and his team into sloppy positions such that Franck Kessié had to bail him out on more than one occasion as he got ensnared into dangerous areas trying to dribble. This is why there has been a lot of advocating for his position to be moved further forward so he can perhaps use that ability in less complicated areas of the pitch. The number of time players get past him is also a worry and this is more or less down to his positioning, one of the things experience brings is an awareness for positions on the pitch (except you are David Luiz). Bennacer has that tendency to get lost in his own doings, neglecting to cover the right space. This makes it easier for opposition to get past him. His small frame doesn’t help either as players like Fabinho and Brozovic can recover using their longer limbs to make sliding challenges to prevent dangerous attacks. Bennacer’s height means he is easier to get around aerially and on the ground level due to positional issues. His progressive distance which measures how far along he carries the ball is impressive too despite Brozovic edging it. He tends to drive with the ball at opposition and carry his team forward across distance, which is helpful in initiating attacks.


Brozovic makes more key passes per 90 minutes which means that his xA and actual assists will be higher than Bennacer’s. Both men are actively involved in the buildup for their respective teams and Brozovic outdoes him in xG and Goals, do not forget that Brozovic was far more attack-minded in his earlier days only being converted to a holding midfielder a few seasons ago. It is no surprise that he is more competent even when play moves to advanced areas of the pitch. 0n the other hand, Bennacer has to learn this side of the game. Yes, he is helpful moving the ball out from the back and piercing through midfield but he has to learn to shoot better and pick more dangerous passes in attacking areas. The coaching around him has to be good too as this will help in improving his decisions and positioning.

Bennacer is by no means close to being the finished product but his showings have been noteworthy, so much so that he is fancied by Pep Guardiola & Florentino Pérez. He still tends to overcomplicate things for himself; dribbling into crowds, making rough challenges, over-hitting and under-hitting simple passes, and passing to teammates in uncomfortable positions. Speaking of positioning, he needs some improvement as his tendency to dribble and drive the ball forward especially on the left-hand side where Theo Hernández is also likely to be further forward needs to be curbed or tactically nurtured. In fact, rumours swirl that the management is considering moving him forward due to these tendencies and the fact that it allows him to display the best of his skillset. 

Given that Milan’s primary transfer target is Florentino Luís, it looks so. Florentino “The Octopus” has found game time very difficult under Bruno Lage despite showing towards the end of last season that he can be one of the best defensive-minded midfielders in the world. Lage’s Benfica have one win in twelve at the time of this writing and his job is at risk but his stubbornness persists; he is more comfortable using Adel Taarabt and Julian Weigl to shield the defence and the ultras have made their displeasure known. The 120 million release clause in his contract is the major factor keeping Florentino at the Portuguese side even with fans clamouring for him to play meanwhile Milan are finding the clause hard to negotiate around and they are not willing to let go of Lucas Paquetá whom Benfica want for an exchange. Bennacer moving further forward will allow him to showcase his best attributes; he has a good engine and Milan are looking to maximise it. He can harass the opponent for the ball (connoted by his admirable successful pressures) and drive it through the midfield, using his beefy frame to protect the ball and he can also set up attacks with short and long passes. He needs to refine his positioning and decision making especially in deeper areas and more advanced areas. If he can do this, he will definitely be one of the finest midfielders in the world for years to come.

BY: Daniel Ochei.


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