Milan were weakened as three key players missed out against Atalanta, but it was Ismael Bennacer’s absence which was arguably felt the most in a hard-fought draw.
Matteo Gabbia and Diego Laxalt filled in admirably for Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez who were absent due to injury and suspension respectively, although naturally they didn’t quite match the level of quality that our first-choice pair are capable of providing.
What was clear very early on though was that Bennacer has now cemented himself as a fundamental figure in our line-up due to the work that he does in midfield in both phases of the game.
Defensive bite, quick transition in midfield
Lucas Biglia was given the nod to start in place of the suspended Algerian international, and it’s fair to say that the 34-year-old didn’t come anywhere close to replicating the influence that his teammate has for us.
Bennacer has a great engine and plays with a tenacious and combativeness mindset, while he has the athleticism and stamina to cover ground quickly in order to provide the defence with protection, but also as we’ve seen since the restart, he is integral to our favoured approach of pressing high up the pitch to put pressure on the opposition.
The partnership he has built with Franck Kessie in the heart of the XI has been fundamental to our great run of form, while he plays with great efficiency and speed on the ball too which allows us to transition from defence to attack rapidly be it through his clever play in possession or vertical passes through the lines.
That needs an intelligent mind and a level of composure coupled with technical quality to carry out that role successfully, and he boasts all those attributes as we’ve seen this season as he has gradually become more and more important as the campaign has gone on.
Had he started against Atalanta, there is a level of confidence in suggesting that Alejandro Gomez and Ruslan Malinovskiy wouldn’t have had the time and space that they found in front of our backline and we would have posed more of a threat going forward as we’d have had more of a sense of control over the encounter.
That’s not to suggest that it all comes down to Bennacer and we’re over-reliant on him, but his presence and influence has a knock-on effect on others and Kessie would undoubtedly have had more freedom and more in the tank to express himself further too rather than having to pick up the slack with Biglia failing to do enough.
Bennacer will likely walk back into the line-up for the remaining two games against Sampdoria and Cagliari, and while we clearly missed him in his absence, it’s almost certain we’ll see the difference in our performance as a collective when he’s the heartbeat of the side and helping to dictate the way in which those games develop.
While Biglia is coming towards the end of the road with Milan as his contract is set to expire, Bennacer is just getting started and he’ll undoubtedly be pivotal to our hopes of making further progress next season and beyond.