Player Analysis: Ismaël Bennacer – AC Milan’s Algerian powerhouse

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Ismaël Bennacer
- Yasmine El Tohamy - (Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images)

UEFA B and El Gouna FC youth coach Omar Lasheen provides a tactical analysis on another in-demand North African talent, Algeria and AC Milan central midfielder Ismaël Bennacer.

As football continues to resume across the globe, KingFut’s latest series features tactical breakdowns on upcoming talents and clubs from the Middle East and North Africa.

Following our analysis of two North African talents in the Bundesliga earlier this month, with Morocco and Borussia Dortmund’s Achraf Hakimi and Algeria and Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Ramy Bensebaini, Lasheen now shifts the spotlight on an Algerian gem in Serie A, Ismaël Bennacer.

Player Profile – Ismaël Bennacer

The 2019/20 season has confirmed Ismaël Bennacer’s position as one of the most promising talents in European football. The Algerian’s acquisition from Empoli has proved a masterstroke from AC Milan, reinforced by the central midfielder’s performances. 

The 22-year-old central midfielder’s name is one that has been echoed throughout Europe lately, with a lot of top clubs sniffing around Milan. This player analysis will highlight Ismaël Bennacer’s strengths and look at aspects of his game where improvement is needed to make the step into the higher echelons of the European game.

Ismaël Bennacer heat map

Strength: Breaking Opposition Lines

Ismaël Bennacer’s style of play heavily relies on his ability to spot half-spaces to perform his actions. These are the zones between the opposition full-backs and central defenders, which are difficult to defend because they are not assigned to one particular defensive player; which can create uncertainty. Bennacer is able to maximize these areas by utilizing his spatial awareness and the vision to quickly and aggressively play his way through the oppositions’ lines.

Bennacer’s understanding of his teammates’ positioning and movement on the pitch allows him to make quick decisions and execute his passes in a swift manner. This helps him play more easily through compact defences. 

Playing quickly through half-spaces, as opposed to playing down the sides of the opposition, makes it more difficult for the defending team. It forces individuals to leave the team’s defensive shape, making them disorganized and unbalanced. In doing that, the attacking team will find more time and space in attacking areas, which in turn gives them a higher chance of scoring.

Half spaces

One of the ways Ismaël Bennacer breaks opposition lines is by his quick and direct forward passing. He can quickly risk-assess his passes and interpret the area around him, which allows him to be efficient while being forward-thinking.

The quality of his pass execution technique helps him in finding his teammates in advanced areas, giving them time and space to turn and continue the offensive situation. His body positioning helps him with the speed of his execution. Receiving on the half-turn enables him to face opponents with one touch, with the next one being a pass into his teammates’ feet or in spaces higher up the pitch.

This is demonstrated in the image below. Bennacer receives the ball in a deep area where he is not marked, and therefore can execute a forward pass with little pressure. By interpreting the spaces around him and appreciating the positions picked up by his teammates, he plays into the half-space moved into by the forward. The execution of a quick pass allows the ball to travel through opposition pressing lines, giving time and space to the recipient of the ball.

Bennacer passing quickly through the lines to a forward player

Another way he breaks through opposition lines is by using his explosive dribbling to commit players and pull them out of their team’s defensive structure.

As AC Milan mostly play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, one of the midfield players can be more dynamic and vacate their position to join the attack, while the other is more positional and provides more balance to the team, depending on the game situation. This gives Ismaël Bennacer the license to occasionally go forward in offensive situations. His low center of gravity alongside his strength makes it difficult for opponents to dispossess him of the ball, giving him more chance to beat players, moving his opponents in different positions, dismarking his teammates and giving them more space to operate.

Locating and driving into the space

This is shown in the situation above, where Bennacer locates the space beyond two of the opposition’s midfielders. Understanding that he is in a position where he is anchored by his midfield partner he uses his license to go forward and chooses to drive into space by breaking the midfield pressing line. In committing the opposition and forcing them to vacate their positions, gaps arise, which creates a more dangerous attack for Ismaël Bennacer’s team.

Strength: Offensive Positioning – Numerical Superiority

One of the ways for an attacking team to progress up the pitch, is to achieve a numerical superiority in possession. To create a numerical superiority, players move vertically or horizontally across the pitch to position themselves in situations where they have more players than the opposition in a particular area; an overload. This gives more space to each player in the situation, which allows them to move comfortably into more attacking areas.

Due to Ismaël Bennacer’s position, central midfield, he occupies a space where he is close to the action areas. His ability to interpret the space when AC Milan have the ball allows him to adjust his position accordingly and move into areas where he can help his team progress more comfortably into advanced areas. His movements depend on where the opposition’s defensive block is; high up the pitch or deeper and closer to their own penalty area as well as in reference to the position of his teammates. 

In building up the attack against teams who press higher up the pitch, he provides his team with passing options and a numerical superiority behind the ball. This gives him a bigger view of the pitch, allowing him the time and space to assess his passing options and play the ball safely through the first line of opposition pressure.

Below is an example of the build-up against a high pressing team, where the opposition press with two attacking players against the two central defenders. Ismaël Bennacer, interpreting the situation, understands that by dropping deeper and making a movement between the two central defenders, he will have created a situation where his team will have an extra player in this area of the pitch. By creating a 3v2 in their first third of the pitch, AC Milan now have a higher chance of progressing the ball up the pitch with more comfort and safety.

Creating a 3v2 in build up

In the middle third of the pitch, Ismaël Bennacer looks to occupy more threatening spaces that help his team play through the opposition. Utilizing his ability to find space, he gives his support beyond the ball in a more advanced area of the pitch. He uses the opposition as a reference to position himself in areas where they are looking over their shoulder, wary of the support behind them and a chance for the team in possession to play through them.

This is shown in the image below, where there are three players in AC Milan’s back-line being pressed by three opposition players. Bennacer positions himself in the space behind them, and uses his movement to create a 4v3 situation; where he is unmarked, and provides a passing option for his team to play forward. 

Creating a 4v3 in the middle

In a situation where the team in possession is in the final attacking third against a low defensive block, a common way to create a goal-scoring opportunity is to play in wide areas. If the opposition react by maintaining their defensive shape centrally, then there will be possibilities for crosses and cut-backs.

However, if the opposition try to spread and cover the wide areas, then central gaps will arise for the forward players. Ismaël Bennacer uses his position as a central midfielder to move horizontally across the pitch and create a numerical superiority in wide areas by supporting the wingersfull-backs, and attacking midfielders.

Creating a 4v3 in advanced areas

This is exemplified in the situation above, where Bennacer’s team is in a wide space, progressing towards the penalty area. Understanding his role in reference to his teammates’, he moves into a position where he helps create a 4v3 numerical superiority on the side, giving space to the attacking midfielder and feeding him the ball to create a dangerous situation.

Room for Improvement: Defensive discipline

Defensively, Ismaël Bennacer’s discipline has left AC Milan vulnerable at many points during the season. His aggressive nature, especially in defensive transition means that he vacates his position as part of the defensive screen, to make unnecessary tackles, leaving spaces for opponents to exploit.

His commitment to win the ball back high up the pitch and leave his team’s defensive structure has forced AC Milan coach, Stefano Pioli to change formation from a 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1. This makes the team more stable defensively as Ismaël Bennacer is anchored by a central midfield partner to give protection when he vacates his position.

In situations where he is isolated in midfield, his eagerness to put his foot in gives chances to attackers with quick feet to go past him and run onto the back-line.

Committing too easily and exposing his defence

The situation above shows a relatively comfortable 4v3 situation in favor of AC Milan. If he was to run back and delay the attack, he would’ve maintained his team’s 4v3 defensive advantage.

Instead, Bennacer tries to commit and intercept the ball as high as possible. His failure to interpret the situation gives the opportunity for the player in possession to dribble past him with ease, which speeds up the attack and leaves his team in a more vulnerable position; a 3v3 situation.

Conclusion – Ismaël Bennacer

(Photo by Ahmed Awaad/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

After being named as the 2019 African Cup of Nations Player of the Tournament, Ismaël Bennacer is following in the past recipients’ footsteps to play and achieve greatness at the top level of the game. 

Given he continues his development by maintaining his direct style of play in combination with improving his defensive understanding of the game, Ismaël Bennacer will be competing for elite individual and team trophies as he approaches the peak years of his career.

Let us know your thoughts on this analysis in the comments section and which players you’d like featured in this series…

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