From the Handbook: Ismaël Bennacer
This profile was originally published in the Scouted Football Handbook: Volume III, released in August 2019. The print version has sold out, but you can find the digital edition here.
CAREER IN REVIEW
An ever-lasting reminder of its troubled colonial past, almost every French has embraced thriving communities of North African heritage. Such coteries are no more pertinent than in the Rhône valley cities, like Lyon, as well as the wider Côte d’Azur region, intertwined in the cultured fabric and diverse identity of Provençal cities, such as Marseille. Those regions alone have developed countless players that have forged storied careers. Zinedine Zidane, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri are iconic exmaples of the talents such communities produce for French football, yet some choose to represent the country of their ancestors.
Ismaël Bennacer – a son of North African parents, bred in the Proevençal city of Arles, a historic settlement situated on the banks of the river Rhône – is one of those players forging his own Algerian career. At just 21 years old, Bennacer has already experienced more than most. Seven months after making his professional debut as a 17-year-old for Arles-Avignon, he was head-hunted by Arsène Wenger. He was a regular in talented youth teams at Arsenal, featuring alongside the likes of Krystian Bielik, Donyell Malen and Jeff Reine-Adelaïde. He – like the rest – later secured a permanent move away from Arsenal, joining Tuscan Serie B club, Empoli, in summer 2017.
Ismaël Bennacer is the only Algerian player to be named AFCON Player of the Tournament in the 21st century
Across his two seasons at Empoli, Bennacer has stoodout, playing over 6,000 minutes and missing just four of 80 league games. A breakthrough domestic season was the launching pad for an outstanding international tournament. At the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, the Agerian was named Player of the Tournament has his nation clinched their second continental tile, and their first in 29 years. Bennacer caught the eye at Empoli, but he truly arrived in Egypt.
STYLE OF PLAY
In the current tactical landscape of European football, central midfielders that can retain possession under pressure and break opponents’ pressing schemes have become integral. Ismaël Bennacer does both. His outstanding attribute as a deep-lying midfielder is his high-level mobility under pressure and impressive dexterity in tight spaces.
At Empoli, Bennacer played as a single pivot at the base of a three-man midfield, and his principle responsibilities in build-up and transition phases maximised his ability to play under and through pressure. He consistently demonstarted that he is an accomplished receiver of possession in deep areas. Creating angles in build-up phases by sliding laterally and dropping deep, he provides a stable option for team-mates to pass to, and visibly wants to receive the ball regardless of the situation he is in, which is indicative of his significant self-belief. His adequate body positioning and good technical ability enables him to receive the ball on his front or back foot, then take positive first-touches to efficiently set-up his next action.
His steadfast disposition to receive possession regardless of situation or circumstance is a direct upshot of his excellent ability to operate under pressure. As opponents constrict his space when he receives the ball, Bennacer comes alive. He is exceptional at moving the ball to alleviate pressure: passing quickly to accessible team-mates, turning away from on-rushing opponents to burst upfield, dribbling out of tight spaces to extend build-up sequences – all of that creates significant time and space for team-mates to exploit. His athletic combination of agility and balance enables him to quickly shift his weight to escape pressure, and his acceleration and intelligent body positioning allows him to drive into space, create seperations from opponents, or win fouls if necessary.
Bennacer is a capable passer and is at his best when moving the ball with pace and purpose. His range of passing was restricted by Empoli’s approach to building attacks, but he displayed good awareness, operational speed and decent variety when recycling possession with lateral passes and sometimes squeezing the ball through lines. His passing is particularly effective in combination with his ability to break pressure, exploiting unbalanced defences. When Bennacer bursts through a challenge, he is quick to pick and play a progressive pass into an advanced team-mate occupying the space he helped create.
In defensive phases, Bennacer is good at defending compact spaces – he is dogged and tenacious ball-winner. His agility, quick feet and athletic burst are extremely useful at combating turnovers; he is great at pressuring opponents, shutting down angles and restricting their options. In bigger spaces, he can be overwhelmed by athleticism as he simply does not have the stride nor size to compete with bigger, faster opponents, but that can and should be mitigated by a competent collective system.
FORECAST FOR THE FUTURE
After a breakthrough year on domestic and international stages, Bennacer got a big move. AC Milan, with a new coach and refreshed leadership, picked him up for a cut-price fee of €16 million following Empoli’s relegation.
Marco Giampolo, stepping up from Sampdoria, is the new coach at the San Siro, and Bennacer’s skillset is practically perfectly-suited to fulfill a specific role in his possession-based approach. Giampaolo teams feature a three-man midfield which provides the platform for a trident of narrow attackers. The deepest midfielder is tasked with defending small spaces, creating passing angles for team-mates, recycling possession, probing opponents, encouraging pressure, and exploiting any defensive weakness with a quick carry or punchy pass into advanced positions – Bennacer, as showcased in an Empoli side not dissimilar in style to Giampaolo teams, is excellent at doing that.
What excites the most about Bennacer is that – at 21 years old, commencing only his second top-flight season – he still has room to improve. He needs to learn how to scan his surroundings before receiving possession, and it is fair to suggest that playing in a possession-oriented team provides him a platform to demonstrate, or develop, a more progressive passing ability. Bennacer and Milan are at similar stages of their development, now both have a tremendous opportunity to grow together over the coming years.