A dominant left side, the exit of Piątek and the importance of Bennacer: a few thoughts from the last two weeks

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Theo Hernández celebrating during Milan-Udinese at Stadio San Siro on January 19, 2020. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

By Daud Khan.

The last few weeks for Milan have been a turnaround in form, after previously scoring scored 16 times in 18 rounds of Serie A and even ending the decade with a 5-0 battering by Atalanta. The Rossoneri, after some nifty January market work and tactical pragmatism, have five consecutive victories in the span of about two weeks, but more notably scoring 13 goals in 5 games.

After a gloomy first half of the season for Milanisti, we have reason to be optimistic. In this article, I’ll highlight just few noteworthy things that have contributed in the recent turnaround.

Left Side. Strong Side.

Milan’s strength when in possession are the attacks they can generate on the left side. The reason for this is not surprisingly because of the summer addition Theo Hernández. The French left-back is a bonafide star in Serie A and can make a strong case for being the best player in that position in the league. Hernández, physically, is reminiscent of a young 09/10 era Gareth Bale with his combination of height and blistering speed. He gives opposing outside backs nightmares by bombing forward and making runs behind them with pace that normally is possessed by diminutive 5’5-5’7 players. The Frenchman has ostensibly given Milan a presence on the left side that we haven’t seen in ages.

Positions on the pitch.

In the Cagliari game, Milan’s only goal from open play was from Theo’s cross on the ground to Ibrahimović. This was followed up with a Theo interception that led to a thunderous hammer strike from outside the box in the next game. The subsequent games saw a world class volley from 20+ yards from the Frenchman and a 40-yard carry which ended in a shot off the crossbar. The amount of pressure the 22-year-old can apply to opposing back lines is remarkable, yet at times the left side of our attack is not at its peak capacity. The Udinese game illustrated this perfectly when Çalhanoğlu was not providing any sort of dangerous element for the Udinese defense; Pioli replaced him with Rebić whose presence entirely changed the game. Rebić not only scored two goals for the win, but he also added a completely different dynamic to the attack. He was a player who could go inside or outside and also provided a link up presence down the left side with Leão and Theo. A similar occurrence happened when Leão was brought on for Bonaventura in the Torino game where the game started to totally open up and goals started to simply pour in for a 4-2 extra time win.

Theo Hernández ideally needs a winger (identified by “7”) who is able to take up an inside position in between the center back (5) and the outside back (3), allowing for the Frenchman to give width and burst down the line. A right-footed version of Suso would have had a complimentary play style to Theo’s with that inside/outside threat they could pose. Rebić so far has done an excellent job in recent weeks in opening up the left flank and has acted as essentially a new signing. He brings pace, 1v1 ability, and creativity that has been desperately needed.

Zlatan Ibrahimović and Krzysztof Piątek during Milan-Torino at Stadio San Siro on January 28, 2020. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

The Piątek Dilemma

The striker department for Milan over the last couple of seasons has had impressive names, not limited to former Capocannoniere winners. However, for Milan, it has also lacked in the production department. However, last season Piątek’s arrival was welcomed as Milan rode the coattails of his meteoric rise and the precious goals he supplied were enough to inch Gattuso’s side just over many battles in their hunt for the champions league spots.

This season has been a different story for the Pole, only netting 5 times so far the whole season. Now with his recent move to Hertha Berlin, Milan fans can say goodbye but need not be sad about it. One thing to keep in mind about Piątek, aside from his goal scoring record last season and lack thereof this season, is what type of striker he is. Piątek is the quintessential poacher in which his goals are going to come from scrap battles like headers, tap-ins, mistakes, and half chances in the box. Within that spectrum, he is a top striker but ask him to do something outside of that and his deficiencies as a player come to light. Ask him to hold up the ball, turn with the ball, take a player on, etc and he suddenly becomes a lot less effective if at all. The issue for Milan manifests itself in that our lack of dynamism in the middle and final thirds leaves Piątek isolated. The downside of playing a lone striker up top is that if the service is not adequate, then the target man becomes isolated and a non-factor. Therefore, if our winger play is not in top form, Piątek won’t have much to work with. If the service isn’t enough pressure out wide, backlines are afforded the luxury of pinching in and giving Piątek less to work with.

Zlatan Ibrahimović celebratig during Milan-Torino at Stadio San Siro on January 28, 2020. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)

With the recent acquisition of the talismanic Zlatan Ibrahimović, Piątek’s role in the squad was up in the air, however as recent as the Cagliari game; some of the concerns have been put to rest. As far as Milan’s roster is configured at the moment, Ibrahimović is simply the better option for the team and can give more. This is because even though Ibrahimović’s best years are well behind him, he can still do certain things at a high level that Piątek can’t, which elevate the players around him. For example, in possession, Milan is not the most dangerous or most sophisticated team in the middle and final thirds simply due to lack of personnel. Therefore, Ibrahimović’s eagerness to drop and receive the ball adds another playmaking element to our attack and will open things up for other players to capitalize on. Another noteworthy element Ibrahimović brings to the table is his superior play as a target. This may be due to his superior height to Piątek’s (6’5 vs 6’0) or maybe due to him being a generational talent, regardless of age; a testament to the fact that class is permanent. But Ibrahimović is much more dangerous when balls are played up to him, not looking to run onto them but instead able to head them down to nearby teammates and cause very quick transitions into attack.

Ismaël Bennacer celebrating at the end of Milan-Torino at Stadio San Siro on January 28, 2020. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

Bennacer: Diamond in the Rough

Algerian midfielder Bennacer arrived from the relegation-stricken Empoli in the summer for a bargain at €16 million. From the first match I watched him play in, Milan-Brescia, I knew the kid had something our poor midfield had lacked for years. Bennacer is still very young at only 22 years of age but you don’t lead your country to win the African Cup of Nations, winning the ‘Best Player’ award in the process, without being able to play some ball.

Bennacer may be our most important midfielder already and I say this knowing he has some deficiencies. He tends to be erratic and irresponsible with the ball at times. A misplaced touch or even misplaced balls up to the final third are ways in which the Algerian will allow the opposition to recover the ball without much difficulty. Defensively an astute and hard tackler yet can be caught out of position whether it is when he is screening his center backs as a regista or even losing track of attackers behind him when playing as a mezz’ala. With all that in mind, what makes Bennacer special is the dynamism he brings to the midfield. A proficient and agile dribbler who can carry the ball and break through lines of the opposing team makes it difficult for opposing team to sit back and watch us pass the ball from sideline to sideline. Probably my favorite attribute from the midfield ace is his tendency to push the ball up the field with purpose, regardless of his giveaways. Bennacer’s forward passing, while being more likely to be incomplete, when completed put players in stronger positions up the field and the opposing defenses on their heels. If Bennacer continues his upward trajectory, Milan fans will one day be able to rejoice in having one of the best midfielders in all of Serie A playing for them.

Stefano Pioli and Hakan Çalhanoğlu celebrating during Milan-Torino at Stadio San Siro on January 28, 2020. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)

Closing Thoughts

The current state of Milan is somewhere between a rock and a hard place because of the poor start to the season. Some of the moves management made this summer took us two steps backward instead of one step closer to our historic pedigree. However, the recent improvement in play by the Rossoneri has given fans a glimmer of hope at possibly reaching one of the tantalizing top 4 spots. I’ll be interested to see how Technical Directors Paolo Maldini and Zvonimir Boban steer the ship moving forward.

I would also like to disclaim that this is simply just my opinion on Milan’s current situation and if anyone disagrees, reach out to me on twitter or Instagram (_Daudinho).

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Deku
Deku
7 months ago

I think we should just have used Bona and Conti for Fiorentina’s Milinkovic. Bona won’t stay and will just lose his worth just as we did with Suso, could have gotten 35-40M in the summer, but we are only getting a barely 25M. We should incorporate Paqueta somehow, he needs his confidence, use him as LM or in Bennacer’s position against Verona. Musacchio should have also been sold. We will extra 46M, to already 30M from Gomez and Piatek, from sales of Suso, Rodriguez, and Caldara. 76M (+10-12M from Mussachio sale) extra to be spent on players in the summer.… Read more »

OmarLittle
OmarLittle
7 months ago
Reply to  Deku

I would have agreed with you if there was no hope for EL or CL next season for Milan but they have a small chance right now with 8 points behind Roma with much football left to be played this season and Bonaventura is too important of a player to let go now even if he doesnt plan on signing a contract extension the squad is very thin right now and Bonaventura’s versatility is crucial he can play anywhere in midfield incase there is a injury or as a rotational option the reality is we need him

Agustinar
7 months ago

I want to see Paqueta play with Kessie in the center on next match either from first minute or from the bench

Nasatik
Nasatik
7 months ago
Reply to  Agustinar

I am also keen to see that partnership, but Kessie would have to be disciplined defensively. Paqueta would have to put in a shift on both ends. This is why I believe Mr X should have been a DM, so that players like Paqueta or Bennacer could be free to roam around. I hope he (Pioli) doesnt go conservative and plays Kessie and krunic together.

Deku
Deku
7 months ago
Reply to  Nasatik

We tried Florentino Luis, but Benfica wanted 60M. Would have been a fine addition.

Rossi
Rossi
7 months ago
Reply to  Deku

Sander Berge went to Shefild Unatied for only 26mil, which is preatty cheap on todays market. We could have invested 26mil in him for sure. Well same as with Tonali will be interested in him when we cant afford him smh.
I said last year we should get Tonali before his price goes up. But people were saying he should prove him self in Seria A…well good luck getting him now, same with Berge.

Lando
Lando
7 months ago

2019 is not the end of the decade
2020 is

Anyway, nice insight

Deku
Deku
7 months ago
Reply to  Lando

2020 is the start of a new decade. With same logic 2000 has to be 20th century not 21st.

Milanellofm
Milanellofm
7 months ago

This was a nice article. I agree on piatek that he isn’t a bad player, probably can be world class one day, but he just wasn’t what milan needed at the moment. Milan has been mediocre for years but if I take anything from this year, it’s that milan have a top 5 goalkeeper in the world at the moment and easily the best left back in serie a. Donnarumma sure does make his mistakes, but the saves he makes especially this season is incredible. Dare I say he’s probably the best in the world for 1 on 1 situations?… Read more »

Rosoleo
Rosoleo
7 months ago
Reply to  Milanellofm

Yes they are selling the club again which is a good thing. So tired of this medicore non-sport management . Need a world class coach like Guardiolla. With a management that will spend hundreds of millions to bring in 5-6 world class players. Until then we are all going to suffer every day…