When Arsenal signed Granit Xhaka in the summer of 2016, he was seen as the player who could finally add more bite in the centre of the park. While the Swiss midfielder did impress many at the Emirates quite a few times during the first two seasons, it has gone downhill since.
Since the previous season, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the former Foals star. His name has almost become synonymous with Arsenal’s defensive frailties. His lack of defensive positioning and the occasional lapses in concentration have drawn considerable abuse from many of the club’s fans.
For a club that has been suffering from a soft underbelly no matter how many goals they score by playing an attractive brand of football, it is the same story all over again. While Lucas Torreira is an ideal man to play in place of Xhaka, Unai Emery has used the Uruguayan elsewhere instead of the position in which he made a name for himself at Sampdoria under Marco Giampaolo.
It is clear that he sees Torreira in another role (which is wrong in its own right). But with Xhaka failing and not getting any better, signing a defensive midfielder could well be a priority for the Gunners in the next transfer window.
But that priority could well have been served this past summer, but Arsenal rejected the chance to resign Ismael Bennacer from Empoli. It would have been a very impressive piece of business for a side that could well have sorted many issues out with the Algerian star.
Since having joined Milan from the now Serie B side, Bennacer has played just a single game. But the game he played against Brescia was the best that they’ve played so far this season. The balance, composure and the uncluttered approach that he brought to the plate was so very much like him.
A product of the Arsenal youth academy, Bennacer joined Empoli in the summer of 2017 for a fee of just €1 million when the club had endured relegation into Serie B after an 18th placed finish. He played the role of a deep-lying playmaker in the 3-5-2 shape during the 2017-18 season, helping Empoli gain promotion back into Serie A.
He was already an Algerian international by this time and in the 2018/19 season, the Serie A saw the man’s ability in open daylight. He played as a defensive midfielder last season and despite arguably being the club’s best player alongside Bartłomiej Drągowski, witnessed the club go down. As Giovanni di Lorenzo and Rade Krunic left the club to join prominent Serie A sides, Bennacer soon followed.
Milan wanted him to be that anchor in the heart of the park. Marco Giampaolo saw the Algerian as that man who could sit in front of the back four, do the simple things right and set the tone for the attack in a possession-based and narrow 4-3-1-2 shape. At a time when Giampaolo is struggling to fit the players into his complex methods, Bennacer has become a man the Rossoneri fans really want to see regularly despite having played just one game.
The best thing about Bennacer is his intelligence. Capable of playing further forward as well, Bennacer knows when to venture forward and when to stay back and sit deeper. Having said that, he’s technically blessed enough to make runs into the final third and supply the forward players with service from slightly advanced areas.
He made 1.2 dribbles per game at Empoli last season and played as many as 3.5 long balls per game – a definition of where his strengths might lie when playing slightly further forward.
But Bennacer’s reading of the game is impressive too, making him the perfect man to hold the midfield together under Giampaolo’s system. He made 2.6 tackles per game last season, making 1.5 interceptions. He also played in a slightly advanced position for Algeria in this summer’s African Cup of Nations.
The 21-year-old was named Player of the Tournament for his performances in the AFCON, helping Algeria win the title by beating Senegal in the final. This helped Bennacer gain global spotlight for probably the first time in his career, as he played as the right central-midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation.
He can play as a central midfielder in Giampaolo’s 4-3-1-2 but playing that role requires a very high work rate considering a lack of wingers warrants the midfielders to cover up spaces out wide and also offer creative output. Because of that, his best position in the current Rossoneri setup lies playing deeper.
That is where Arsenal need someone like him to shore things up. In probably about every aspect of the game, Bennacer is a better player than Xhaka. Despite being 21, he already looks like a more mature and uncomplicated player than the Swiss. It is unfair to compare two players, but it is sensible to compare a player to what a club needs.
Unai Emery is clearly looking at a system that would rely on playing counter-attacking football by relying on a problematic defence. It is fair to say that Xhaka is only a part of the problem and not the only problem, David Luiz and Sokratis Papastothopoulos are players who have already cost Arsenal points this season. They aren’t a reliable trio by any means, no matter who the Gunners are playing. It is not the best defence to rely on when a side is looking to play on the break.
They need someone who can recover balls in deeper midfield – something Bennacer likes to do. They need someone who can keep things simple and spark attacks after winning the ball back. Being the deep-lying playmaker that he is, Bennacer can help dictate play from deep using his technical ability and intelligence.
Or if Emery decides to use Torreira as the defensive midfielder in front of the back four, that too will not be a problem for Bennacer. He can slot into the central midfield role alongside Matteo Guendozi and the two young midfielders can rotate among themselves for that position. This would form the base of a midfield that can be relied upon and offer better protection to the Arsenal backline.
It would have taken Arsenal less than £20 million to prise Bennacer back to the Emirates. For a fee that low, there would have been a high chance that Bennacer gave the Gunners a lot of assurance on and off the pitch. It would have been a low-risk deal with massive room for potential for a side that lacks everything Bennacer has.