When Ismaël Bennacer went to ground in quite some discomfort against Inter during the first leg of the Champions League semi-final eight months ago, not many expected it to result in a lengthy layoff on the sidelines.
The diagnosis proved to be a serious knee injury that required surgery which has kept him out of action for eight months.
As Milan trotted about on their spending spree in an attempt to fix the midfield depth, the likes of Tiijani Reijnders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have impressed a great deal; helped by their versatility, stamina, and physicality.
Such a strong start to the new season had some buoyant enough to forget about Bennacer for a moment as weird as that sounds given that he is arguably the Rossoneri’s most important midfielder.
A pile of injuries and underwhelming performances on the pitch as of late have quickly made people realise just how much Stefano Pioli is missing the Algerian’s presence.
Although the qualities recently mentioned about Reijnders and Loftus-Cheek remain true, the one noticeable trait that has been lacking in the middle of the park is creativity. Without Bennacer and Sandro Tonali, the vision and ability to control the tempo of the game have been striking.
The positive news? That’s where Bennacer’s qualities come into the equation and shine brightest to lift Milan and offer a newfound spark that hasn’t existed since his absence. Add that in with his engine and capability to play in a multitude of positions, to say the 26-year-old is an important piece to Pioli’s structure is an understatement.
After over 200 gruelling days without tasting competitive football, Bennacer was introduced in the 79th minute to a roaring reception from the San Siro crowd against Frosinone to slowly ease his way into action.
Edging ever closer to gaining a starting berth, where exactly does Bennacer best fit into Milan’s system whilst taking into consideration the players around him?
When the 4-2-3-1 formation was utilised during most of last season, the former African Nations player of the tournament was deployed as a number 10 in the attacking three behind Olivier Giroud to great effect.
Fascinatingly, the two standout examples came in two Napoli matches including the 4-0 win away at the Maradona and the victory in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.
In Naples, Bennacer was drifting in and out of pockets of spaces and almost acting as a deep-lying creative midfielder despite being designated as an attacking midfielder. Countless times he would drop deep to receive the ball and look to connect with the final third in somewhat of a box-to-box role.
Playing in the same position when Milan conquered the Partenopei 1-0 in the Champions League first leg, Bennacer made more of a conscious decision to make linking up with the forward line a priority which paid dividends with his run into the box for the sole goal of the encounter.
No doubt that he has the tools to succeed in this position with flying colours, but having seen Loftus-Cheek thrive in a more advanced position, perhaps Bennacer is surplus to requirements as a number 10?
If you haven’t discovered by now that Bennacer’s stamina and energy are second to none playing in the classic number 8 box-to-box position, you’ve been living under a rock.
The way that he can cover so much ground and make it seem so effortless is a testament not only to his endurance, but also his work rate and desire to be involved in every possible piece of play.
Both defensively and offensively, Bennacer is a complete all-round midfielder who can put his hand up to do the dirty work that goes unnoticed as well as offering a real threat in terms of the combination play up forward with an array of passing ability.
With Reijnders having settled into this role since his arrival, Pioli finally has a healthy headache for team selection.
As touched on earlier, Milan is in desperate need of some inspired creativity deeper in midfield to construct consistent passages of play with possession (the way Pioli wants his team to play).
It isn’t rocket science to figure out that Rade Krunić is not the answer to solving the club’s issues in the number six role, purely because the Bosnian lacks the talent and vision to marshal proceedings in front of the back four and dictate the flow with quality passing range.
Yacine Adli has been experimented with multiple times as a defensive midfielder and is showing positive signs that he can make the position his own. However, he is not being gifted consistent minutes to make a judgement call whereas Bennacer is proven. A partnership between Adli and the former Empoli man would be very intriguing to watch unfold given their respective characteristics.
Upon return, Bennacer fits this bill to a tee, and Pioli should heavily consider him to plug the hole in this area of the pitch.