Lazio 0-2 Inter: both sets of supporters happy with the result
A game almost identical in context to the Liverpool v Chelsea game: the away side going for the title, the home supporters half-heartedly supporting their own team, knowing that a win would play into the hands of their biggest rivals. Lo and behold, the same scoreline.
Lazio continued with their interesting 3-5-2 shape, with Roberto Baronio coming into the centre of midfield, and Mauro Zarate replacing Tomasso Rocchi upfront.
Inter’s team sheet was a surprise, with Diego Milito rested and Dejan Stankovic replacing him. It turned out that Maicon would be playing as a right-winger, with Stankovic in the centre of midfield, and Wesley Sneijder pushed out to the left. Samuel Eto’o was upfront alone.
As detailed on ZM before, the inherent problem with the 3-5-2 system is that it only works against sides playing two orthodox strikers - against one-man or wide three-man attacks, either the defence gets pulled around, and/or the wing-backs end up playing too deep, conceding the midfield to the opposition.
Today, it was the second problem. Lazio’s wing-backs are instructed to get level with the central defenders when not in possession (more on that later), and therefore Lazio had five defenders up against one or two Inter players, leaving the defence relatively secure but leaving a severe shortfall on the rest of the pitch, resulting in Inter dominating possession and easily being able to retain the ball both in midfield and in full-back areas.
That said, Inter struggled to find the opening goal. Their wide players, Sneijder and Maicon, were both in unfamiliar roles and created relatively little, and Inter’s main threat came from balls over the top to Eto’o, in the right-hand channel. It was surprising how many times Lazio’s defence was caught out by a simple lofted pass for Eto’o to chase, and they played a relatively high line considering that Eto’o was clearly going to beat them for pace.
Lazio showed little attacking intent throughout. Their main source of attack was, as ever, the energetic running of their wing-backs who got forward throughout, but created little. Zarate looked lively but seemed to want to take the entire Inter backline on by himself, selfishly refusing to pass to better-placed teammates twice in quick succession.
Inter ended up taking the lead through an unlikely source on 45 minutes. Walter Samuel came high up the pitch to win a tackle, and as the ball fell to Sneijder, Samuel ambled forward to join Eto’o in the area. The Lazio defence were surprised by the sudden extra threat and failed to pick Samuel up, and he rose to nod home Sneijder’s lofted, inswinging cross from deep.
The fans didn’t care, the players didn’t seem to care, and manager Eddy Reja was serving a touchline ban, and so there was no change of plan from Lazio. Thiago Motta headed in a second from a corner midway through the second have, the banner came out again, and the result was settled. More on the nature of Lazio’s performance here and here.
Inter didn’t win the game because they were better tactically, they won it because they were the only side that actually tried to win. Even when Lazio won a corner, they only sent four players up into the area to try and score, and overall it would flatter the game to describe it as a contest.
Instead, let’s look at Lazio’s three-man defence. It’s rare to see one in operation in Europe these days, but Lazio have often defended well this season – despite not yet being safe from relegation, they have the sixth-best defence in the division, and 41 goals conceded is only one goal worse than 2nd-placed Roma and 4th-placed Sampdoria.
First, the wing-backs drop level with the centre-backs when not in possession, effectively creating a five-man defence:
The problem with this, however, is that the defence can become very narrow if there is no wide threat, making it hard to counter-attack. Here, seven Lazio players are dealing with one Inter player:
If the ball is in a wide position, however, the wing-back on that side comes a long way up the pitch to meet him, the wing-back on the opposite side drops in, and the defence shuffles over to create something more resembling a four-man defence: