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FEATURE | Ismaël Bennacer’s rise to the top

In July 2015, Ismaël Bennacer made a dream career move by switching French side AC Arles-Avignon for English heavyweights Arsenal. At just 17 years old, he was living out the fantasy of many young children and would become a regular starter under masterful manager Arsène Wenger within a few years’ time. Or at least, so he might have thought.

As to be expected, Bennacer found it immensely difficult to get even within consideration of being included in the matchday squad. As a result, the majority of his minutes accrued at the club came in the under 23 league – 993 to be precise.

He did receive one opportunity though, replacing the injured Theo Walcott in a League Cup match against second tier side Sheffield Wednesday, but Arsenal limped to an embarrassing 3-0 loss and this all but spelled the beginning of the end for Bennacer’s time in North London.

A loan move to Ligue 2 team Tours would follow in July 2017, before eventually relocating to Tuscany to play for Serie B outfit Empoli. Here, having stared into the abyss of becoming yet another one of Europe’s “forgotten talents”, he was able to reignite his career.

Bennacer proved to be a crucial component in Empoli’s 2017-18 title-winning campaign and interest in his services only intensified when his form continued into the top division – despite Empoli’s painful relegation on the final matchday. Milan were the team to secure his signature through, and what a signing this has proved to be.

At just €16 million plus bonuses, Bennacer now epitomises Milan’s transition to a shrewder recruitment strategy. So, what skills does Ismaël Bennacer bring to the field?

Defensive Contribution

It is no secret that Bennacer is an elite defensive midfielder, but to what extent can often be underestimated. Last season, the Milan player recorded 4.96 tackles and interceptions in Serie A per 90 – only beaten by Lucas Leiva. For context, N’Golo Kanté, posted a lower total in both the 2018-19 and 2019-20 campaigns.

Additionally, the Algerian accrued 8.15 defensive duels and made 10.6 recoveries per 90. Bennacer also accumulated 587 pressures – 176 of these successful – in 2,485 minutes, adding to an already remarkable résumé. However, not only are his defensive numbers exceptional, but his presence on the pitch also allows others to be more successful.

Fellow signing from that summer Theo Hernandez also shone for a rejuvenated Milan side last season – recording 9 goal contributions in 32 Serie A starts. The freedom to advance further up the pitch was only made possible by Bennacer though, covering the left half space to enable attacking prosperity. He is a truly crucial component in maintaining the balance of Milan’s system.

Passing

Bennacer’ strengths are not purely limited to contributing defensively though, also being a very competent passer of the ball.

In the 2019/20 Serie A campaign, he completed the 19th most passes in the division at 1,584, covering a total distance of 29,365 yards – showing he is consistently at the forefront of Milan’s build-up play. In fact, 185 of these passes constituted as progressive and additionally he completed 168 passes into the final third – 11th in Serie A.

It is rare for a player to show up so well in both defensive and creative metrics, and it will be essential that he replicates this form going into the current campaign.

Milan’s 20/21 Season

Ahead of this Serie A season, many have been bold and outspoken in their prediction that AC Milan will experience a successful season. Only time will tell whether this manifests itself – although early signs have been positive – but the importance of Bennacer to this cannot be overlooked.

Zlatan Ibrahimović will undoubtedly be their star man – his inflated ego wouldn’t have it any other way – but just because Bennacer isn’t generally directly involved within goals, doesn’t mean he is any less vital a cog.

Without the Algerian’s immense output both defensively and creatively, neither the defence nor attack could function optimally. However, Bennacer will have surely built up the mental resilience to not be fazed by this given past experiences in his career. Who would’ve thought Arsenal would be the party wishing they could roll back the hands of time, to when Bennacer was sold?

Jacques Le-Bon

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