After beating Juventus, can Bennacer & Kessie take Milan to Europe?

Two recent colossal victories over Serie A’s top two has earned Stefano Pioli even more goodwill for his work in a turbulent campaign at San Siro

In normal circumstances, every manager will be delighted with seven goals in two games, with two conceded and maximum points on board. When those results come against Lazio and Juventus, the division’s leading sides, there’s bound to be unbridled joy and optimism.

That’s the story for AC Milan boss, Stefano Pioli, whose team has picked up hugely impressive 3-0 and 4-2 victories over Simeone Inzaghi’s troops and the Old Lady respectively in their last two Serie A matches.

What was particularly pleasing about the performances against the title-chasing sides was the nature of both victories: they weren’t the typical smash-and-grab wins usually associated with unexpected triumphs, neither were they backs-to-the-wall successes. The Rossoneri absolutely deserved both wins on the balance of play.

According to Understat, Milan edged the Expected Goals in both matches: 2.33-0.29 against the side from Rome, while it was 2.22-1.41 in Tuesday night’s incredible turnaround vs the Bianconeri.

Both results came on the backdrop of a disappointing 2-2 draw with SPAL, a game Pioli’s troops fought back from two down to play out a stalemate. In fairness, while they weren’t meant to be chasing a result against the basement side in the championship there’s a feeling all is forgiven after their latest wins.

The upshot of both wins means the ex-Juventus player has masterminded four wins and a draw in five games since the Italian top flight’s return. They’re now in seventh on 49 points, two points behind Roma and Napoli.

Admittedly, there was still a considerable time left in the season, yet, the strife in the boardroom was already threatening to boil over when Pioli took over in October.

While performances and results have improved as the season’s progressed, the discord among the club’s directors peaked in early March when Chief Football Officer Zvonimir Boban was sacked following a falling-out between the Croatian and CEO Ivan Gazidis.

At the time, Paolo Maldini’s future was up in the air as well, and a 2-1 defeat by Genoa before the lockdown, threatened to undo the progress made months after an underwhelming start to life at San Siro for the new coach (Pioli won just one in five after replacing Marco Giampaolo).

Indeed, their improvement has been a collective effort but the influence of Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie, who made it 2-2 on Tuesday, in how they play has been marked.

Neither may score or assist bucket-loads of goals – the Algerian has neither this term, while the West African has scored twice and set up one – but they have an impact on the team’s play in and out of possession.

Per FBref, Bennacer and Kessie rank top and third respectively for highest passes into the final third, while the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations winner is second behind Theo Hernandez for progressive passes in the side. The Ghanaian plays the eighth-highest volume of forward passes in the side.

The pair rank fourth and sixth respectively for passes into the penalty area, which corroborate their forward-thinking nature in possession.

Given the Rossoneri are fourth in the division for progressive passes, behind Napoli, Atalanta and Inter Milan, the impact of their African midfield pivot in getting the ball into the opposition half is commendable. The fact they’re outperforming Juventus, Lazio and Roma is a compliment to Pioli’s approach.

Interestingly, Bennacer’s influence is not limited to the fancy stuff in possession alone but he thrives without the ball as well. He leads the way for ball recoveries in the side, ahead of Alessio Romagnoli and the pair of Kessie and Hernandez are joint-fourth.

The Algerian has also made the most tackles in the side and is second to Romagnoli for interceptions made this season. In both metrics, Kessie ranks fifth and fourth respectively, showing that while he may not be as influential as the North African, he is no bystander in Milan’s midfield.

With the Champions League spots certainly out of reach, the Rossoneri are in a battle with Napoli and Roma to end in the two Europa League positions. The former, like Milan, are bang in form and seem to be rising in the table while the Giallorossi have lost three games on the trot.

Pioli’s troops don’t have an easy run-in, though, with games against Gennaro Gattuso’s side, ninth-placed Bologna, mid-table Sassuolo and the unrelenting, effervescent Atalanta. However, the side from Naples don’t have an easy last few weeks either: they end the campaign with games vs Sassuolo, Inter and Lazio, while there’s an encounter with Bologna, who recently stunned Antonio Conte’s men 2-1 and won the reverse fixture at Estadio San Paolo in December.

Paulo Fonseca’s out-of-form troops have the easiest run of fixtures in the closing weeks, with games against Inter and Juventus, on the final day, the toughest matches on paper.

Indeed, while the title race in Italy is nearly done and top four positions are all but decided, the joust for the Europa League spots offers some interest in the final weeks of the campaign.

With the influence of Bennacer and Kessie with and without the ball, Pioli’s Milan have the required mixture of brute and panache in midfield to take on the rest of their challenges this term.