Barcelona have lost another player to injury after announcing midfielder Frank Kessie pulled up in training on Wednesday.

The Ivory Coast international, who was a late substitute in Tuesday's 1-0 Champions League loss at Inter, strained an adductor muscle in his right thigh.

Barca said in a statement that the 25-year-old's injury will be monitored, but no timeframe has been put on his return to action.

He has played eight times for the Catalan giants since joining as a free agent from Milan in the close season, six of those coming as a substitute.

Kessie's injury came on the same day Barca confirmed Andreas Christensen suffered a ligament sprain during the highly contentious defeat to Inter.

They join Ronald Araujo, Jules Kounde, Hector Bellerin, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay on the sidelines during a gruelling run of fixtures for Barca.

Xavi's side host Celta Vigo and Inter in LaLiga and the Champions League respectively over the next week, before taking on Real Madrid in a top-of-the-table Clasico on October 16.

Robert Lewandowski scored his first Barcelona hat-trick as the Blaugrana met expectations with a dominant 5-1 win over Viktoria Plzen to open their Champions League campaign.

Barca's three first-half goals were more than they managed over the whole group stage last season (two) when they were dumped into the Europa League, though sterner challenges await.

Plzen had moments against an unconvincing Barca defence, with Jan Sykora netting just before the break, but the hosts were already ahead thanks to Franck Kessie and Lewandowski, who made it 3-1 on the stroke of half-time.

Although the tempo slowed slightly, Barca remained dominant after the break and Lewandowski ensured he became the first player to net a Champions League hat-trick with three different teams before Ferran Torres got in on the act.

Barca deservedly went in front early when Jules Kounde's header from a corner set up Kessie to nod in on his first start for the club.

Plzen looked set to level when Andreas Christensen clumsily tripped Jhon Mosquera in the box, but a foul on the Dane was spotted following a VAR review.

That reprieve was added to soon after as Lewandowski ruthlessly found the bottom-right corner from 20 yards.

Plzen at least appeared to be going into the break within touching distance thanks to Sykora converting from close range, but the excellent Ousmane Dembele teed up a stooping Lewandowski header to swiftly restore the two-goal lead.

Ansu Fati surprisingly sliced well wide in the first minute of a second half that was significantly less intense, but his wastefulness mattered little.

Lewandowski increased the deficit and cap his hat-trick with another sumptuous 20-yard finish after a neat interchange with Torres.

The Spain winger then rounded things off with a thumping strike from Dembele's cross.

What does it mean? Barca starting to right wrongs

Barcelona's Champions League campaign last season was dreadful – while they were paired with Bayern Munich in the group, they also finished below Benfica. Dynamo Kiev were the only team they beat.

Granted, their group this season is even tougher given Bayern and Inter are the other two teams Barca will face, but this was clearly a much greater showing than they produced against anyone in 2021-22. This was not a season-defining showing by any stretch, but the fact Barca made it look so straightforward at least shows progress.

Dembele ouses class

Lewandowski will obviously hog most headlines with his exceptional treble, but Dembele was still the best player on the pitch.

His five key passes – and two assists – were match highs, but he was just an absolute terror in general. A tremendous display.

Fati finding his feet

Xavi has been patient with Fati this season following his injury woes. This was his first start of the campaign and there was certainly some rustiness on show, as one might expect.

None of his four shots were on target, though Barca will be happy to see him come through the game unscathed, and he was lively in the first half.

What's next?

Barca go to Bayern next Tuesday as Lewandowski returns to the Allianz Arena, while Plzen will host Inter the same day.

Barcelona have activated a fourth economic lever in a bid to ensure their new signings can be registered for LaLiga, announcing the sale of a further 24.5 per cent of their production company for €100million.

The Catalan giants, who have signed the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie despite ongoing financial troubles, have reportedly failed to register their new acquisitions for the upcoming league campaign.

President Joan Laporta has been working to raise funds to allow Barca to meet LaLiga's salary limits ahead of the season, and said last week the club had made a "great effort" to do so. 

Last month, 24.5 per cent of Barca Studios was sold to the company Socios.com for €100million, while the Blaugrana have also sold 10 per cent of their LaLiga broadcasting rights to American investment firm Sixth Street, among other measures.

But with reports suggesting the club were still struggling to meet LaLiga's rules, they have announced a second deal for an equivalent stake in Barca Studios.

"FC Barcelona announces the sale of 24.5 per cent of Barca Studios to the company Orpheus Media, managed by Mr Jaume Roures, an audiovisual production company with a long history of producing content, for 100 million euros," read a club statement.

"The agreement complements the one signed on 29 July with Socios.com and will help to accelerate the growth of the club's digital, NFT and Web.3 strategy.

"With this investment the strategic partners in Barca Studios show confidence in the value of the project and the future of digital content in the world of sport."

Reports suggest that while Barca are prioritising the registration of their new signings, they are still eyeing a move for Chelsea's Marcos Alonso, while Manchester City's Bernardo Silva has been touted as another target.

Barca begin their LaLiga campaign when they host Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, though it remains to be seen how many of their new stars can feature.

Barcelona have activated a fourth economic lever in a bid to ensure their new signings can be registered for LaLiga, announcing the sale of a further 24.5 per cent of their production company for €100million.

The Catalan giants, who have signed the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie despite ongoing financial troubles, have reportedly failed to register their new acquisitions for the upcoming league campaign.

President Joan Laporta has been working to raise funds to allow Barca to meet LaLiga's salary limits ahead of the season, and said last week the club had made a "great effort" to do so. 

Last month, 24.5 per cent of Barca Studios was sold to the company Socios.com for €100million, while the Blaugrana have also sold 10 per cent of their LaLiga broadcasting rights to American investment firm Sixth Street, among other measures.

But with reports suggesting the club were still struggling to meet LaLiga's rules, they have announced a second deal for an equivalent stake in Barca Studios.

"FC Barcelona announces the sale of 24.5 per cent of Barca Studios to the company Orpheus Media, managed by Mr Jaume Roures, an audiovisual production company with a long history of producing content, for 100 million euros," read a club statement.

"The agreement complements the one signed on 29 July with Socios.com and will help to accelerate the growth of the club's digital, NFT and Web.3 strategy.

"With this investment the strategic partners in Barca Studios show confidence in the value of the project and the future of digital content in the world of sport."

Reports suggest that while Barca are prioritising the registration of their new signings, they are still eyeing a move for Chelsea's Marcos Alonso, while Manchester City's Bernardo Silva has been touted as another target.

Barca begin their LaLiga campaign when they host Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, though it remains to be seen how many of their new stars can feature.

Chelsea are ready to make a splash in the transfer market with a series of signings on the cards.

The Blues have been heavily linked with Leicester City's Wesley Fofana as they seek replacements for the departed Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen in defence.

Chelsea are understood to be keen to bolster their forward options too, with Romelu Lukaku exiting for Inter.

TOP STORY – BLUES TO SWOOP FOR DE JONG AND AUBA

Chelsea are all set to sign Barcelona pair Frenkie de Jong and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should the Catalans permit the duo to exit the club, reports Sky Sports.

Manchester United have been involved in a drawn-out saga for De Jong this off-season, with the Dutchman reluctant to leave but the Blues are ready to match their £72million (€85m) bid, plus offer Champions League football.

Aubameyang only joined Barcelona in January but has previously worked with Thomas Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund.

ROUND-UP

– ESPN claims that Barcelona's off-season signings Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie could leave the Blaugrana for free if the club cannot register them due to LaLiga financial fair play rules in time for Saturday's league opener. Barca defender Gerard Pique has offered to play for free to help register the new players, according to AS.

– The Mail reports that Manchester City are set to finalise an £11m deal for 21-year-old Spanish left-back Sergio Gomez from Anderlecht on Thursday. Fabrizio Romano claims he may be loaned out to Girona.

– Rennes forward Arnaud Kalimuendo is on the cusp of joining Paris Saint-Germain for €25m, claims L'Equipe. Leeds United have shown an interest in the 20-year-old striker.

– Atalanta and Nottingham Forest have agreed terms for the transfer of Switzerland international midfielder Remo Freuler, reports Sky Sport Italia.

Barcelona have no intention of selling Frenkie de Jong to Manchester United, according to club president Joan Laporta, although he admitted the club's perilous financial situation could create the "need" for a sale.

Meanwhile, Laporta labelled Cristiano Ronaldo's apparent desire to leave United "interesting" but would not be drawn on whether the Blaugrana would target the Portuguese legend.

De Jong, who starred in Erik ten Hag's Ajax side before moving to Barcelona in 2019, has been touted as United's top transfer target since the Dutchman was announced as the club's new boss in April.

While the midfielder expressed his desire to stay at Barcelona in May, the club's need to reduce their wage bill has led to suggestions a sale could still be possible.

Laporta said last week he would do "what is in my power" to keep De Jong but acknowledged the Netherlands international would need to agree to a salary adjustment to remain at Camp Nou.

The Blaugrana president repeated that stance at Wednesday's unveiling of new signing Franck Kessie, saying of De Jong: "He's a Barca player and if we don't have the need, we won't sell him. We don't want to sell him. 

"We know he has offers, but right now we're not selling this player."

 

While Ten Hag appears to see De Jong as the ideal candidate to be the fulcrum of his new United side, it remains to be seen whether Ronaldo will remain at Old Trafford after widespread reports of his desire to leave for a Champions League club emerged last week. 

Ronaldo scored 24 goals in all competitions for United last season, but the club ended the season in sixth place with their lowest-ever Premier League points tally (58).

But Laporta refused to be drawn on whether Barcelona could make a remarkable move for the 37-year-old, who starred in four Champions League triumphs with their historic rivals Real Madrid.

"I had dinner on Monday with [Ronaldo's agent] Jorge Mendes and we talked about the market in general," he added.

"Cristiano? I'm not going to talk about the players who came out of the meeting, but it's always interesting to know how some names are on the market.

"I'm not going to talk about players in one way or another, it could be misunderstood. It doesn't contribute anything to the interests of Barca. We have to respect the players who have contracts with other teams."

 

Meanwhile, Barcelona's need to adjust their finances in order to strengthen Xavi's squad has led to uncertainty over the future of winger Ousmane Dembele, whose contract with the club expired last month.

Dembele made more assists (13) in all competitions than any other Barca player last season, and while Laporta is keen to keep the 2018 World Cup winner, says the 25-year-old is yet to respond to the club's offer.

"We are in a situation of uncertainty. Right now, we still can't sign [him]," he said.

"We are talking to players we are interested in so they can wait for us. Ousmane is not a Barca player, but we have made him an offer.

"He has not accepted our proposal, but he wants to continue talking. We will continue talking, at least for now. 

"Salary balance is necessary for the team to be competitive. All discussions are framed in this context. We're not in a hurry, although we're aware that we can't delay. Let no one expect us not to act with the utmost prudence".

Franck Kessie sought the advice of Zlatan Ibrahimovic ahead of completing his move to Barcelona.

The Ivory Coast international has joined the LaLiga giants on a free transfer from Milan, having helped the Serie A side to the Scudetto last season.

Legendary Rossoneri striker Ibrahimovic has previously represented Barca among his plethora of clubs, helping the Blaugrana win the title in the 2009-10 season.

Kessie sought out the thoughts of the veteran Sweden striker when contemplating his own switch.

"He told me it was a good place," Kessi said. "He recommended that I work hard."

There will be a wait for both Kessie and fellow new arrival Andreas Christensen to feature, however, with Barca president Joan Laporta once again confirming the club are unable to register either player.

The Catalan club's financial struggles have been well-documented, and there will need to be a reduction in the wage bill within their squad to accommodate their new players.

Laporta is confident they will be able to do so without suffering serious losses to the makeup of their team, adding: "We have absolute respect for our players.

"With whom the coach does not have, we are working on a consensual agreement. The sports management is working very well.

"It is not easy, because the footballers we want have contracts similar to their current ones. Most have the hope and illusion of convincing the coach. Logic will prevail."

Franck Kessie revealed he is excited to get to work at Barcelona, after the Spanish club confirmed his signing earlier this week.

On Monday, the Blaugrana announced the signings of both Kessie and Andreas Christensen, with their contracts expiring at Milan and Chelsea respectively this off-season.

It has nevertheless been a busy period for Barcelona as they look to balance their books, with reports linking Frenkie de Jong and Ousmane Dembele to moves away in the event they do not lower their wages.

After helping the Rossoneri secure the Serie A title last season, Kessie insists he is looking forward to working under Xavi, despite uncertainty over where he will actually play in midfield.

"When Xavi calls you, you see that all your efforts have been worth it," he said upon arriving in Barcelona. "I can't wait to start working with him and my colleagues.

"It is a great opportunity. Barca is a great team, and I am very happy. I really want to start and give my best. I am a player who works hard on a day-to-day basis to end up winning things.

"Where I play, the coach will decide. He will know where I can best help the team."

The 25-year-old played in a variety of positions under Stefano Pioli in Milan, even spending parts of last season as an attacking midfielder.

He was a dependable figure last season as well, only missing three league games, with the exception of international duty during January's African Cup of Nations.

The Ivorian also revealed he hopes to emulate the feats of his compatriot and "idol" Yaya Toure, who won his lone Champions League with Barcelona in 2009.

"My idol is Yaya Toure," Kessie said. "He is a great player and an Ivorian, like me. I have been lucky enough to play with him and I want to have a career as good as his."

Barcelona have confirmed the signing of Franck Kessie on a free transfer following the end of his spell with Milan.

The midfielder has agreed a four-year deal with the Blaugrana, which was made official on Monday following months of speculation.

Kessie spent five seasons at San Siro, the first two of those on loan, and helped Milan to their first Scudetto triumph in 11 years in his final campaign with the club.

He played in 31 of Milan's 38 Serie A matches and scored six goals from midfield, a tally only bettered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic (eight), Rafael Leao and Olivier Giroud (both 11).

However, fresh terms could not be agreed between the Rossoneri and Kessie, meaning the Ivory Coast international became a free agent on July 1.

Barca were always considered the strong favourites to land the 25-year-old, whose Camp Nou contract contains a €500million release clause.

 

Kessie will compete with the likes of Sergio Busquets, Pedri, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong for a midfield spot, though the latter is expected to join Manchester United.

In all, Kessie played 174 Serie A games for Milan since initially joining from Atalanta in June 2017, with Napoli's Piotr Zielinski (179) the only midfielder to feature more times.

Barcelona have confirmed the signing of Franck Kessie on a free transfer following the end of his spell with Milan.

The midfielder has agreed a four-year deal with the Blaugrana, which was made official on Monday following months of speculation.

Kessie spent five seasons at San Siro, the first two of those on loan, and helped Milan to their first Scudetto triumph in 11 years in his final campaign with the club.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta has confirmed the club have been in talks with Leeds United regarding Raphinha, who "wants to come" to Camp Nou.

The 25-year-old looks poised to leave Leeds amid a fierce battle for his services, with Chelsea widely reported to have had a bid accepted, while Arsenal have also been attributed with an interest.

Barcelona have long been seen as the favourites, however, though there have been questions as to whether the club could afford the winger due their financial problems – though they were boosted by a TV agreement this week.

Laporta has now confirmed that Raphinha does indeed want to move to Barcelona.

"We've spoken to Leeds, I don't think they will be offended. We have communication and we have spoken personally," he told reporters on Saturday.

"What happens is that there are other clubs that want Raphinha and are making their proposals. He wants to come."

Laporta also confirmed that two deals are set to be made official this week, with Barcelona landing Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen on free transfers following the expiration of their deals with Milan and Chelsea respectively.

He added: "We will present Kessie on Wednesday and Christensen on Thursday."

The club are also expected to announce a new contract for Ousmane Dembele, who is reportedly ready to accept a wage reduction in order to remain with Xavi's side.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

Barcelona have already secured the signings of two free agents, Joan Laporta says, and Leeds United winger Raphinha could be their next recruit.

Rejuvenated under Xavi, Barca are now setting in motion their plans for the transfer window at the end of the season.

In an interview with RAC1, president Laporta suggested the Blaugrana would struggle to afford Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe and ruled out a return for Lionel Messi.

But he did have positive news for Barca fans, too, revealing: "We have closed two players who end their contracts this season."

It is widely thought Laporta's comments relate to Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen – unable to renew terms at Stamford Bridge due to government sanctions – and Milan midfielder Franck Kessie.

Meanwhile, Brazil international Raphinha would demand a fee, but Laporta confirmed his interest in a player who is represented by ex-Barca man Deco.

"We have had good reports," Laporta said.

"Deco has his work and informs us of details so that we do not commit errors. In some cases, he has helped us a lot."

Page 1 of 5
© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.