Inter 2-0 Bayern: Milito the master of Madrid

May 23, 2010

Inter have deservedly won the Champions League – beating this season’s champions of England, Spain and then Germany on the way to collecting the trophy. Jose Mourinho has conquered Europe again, Inter have won the treble for the first time in the history of Italian football, and Italy retains its four Champions League places ahead of Germany.

There were no surprises in the starting XIs – they were as predicted by ZM in the preview. Inter went with their 4-2-3-1, with Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto’o on the flanks very deep and Wesley Sneijder in the hole. Javier Zanetti was deployed in midfield, Christian Chivu at left-back, despite suggestions they could be the other way around.

Bayern also played their standard shape, a 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1, with Arjen Robben hugging the touchline looking to come inside, and Hamit Altintop playing a slightly more central position on the opposite flank. Thomas Muller played behind Ivica Olic.

Sneijder key in the first half

The most notable feature of the game was how close Wesley Sneijder played to Diego Milito. Some have occasionally questioned why Inter’s shape is termed as a 4-2-3-1 rather than a 4-3-3 (the difference can often be subtle) but tonight showed why, because Sneijder spent the night ahead of the two wide players. Indeed, the shape often looked more like a 4-4-1-1, because whilst Pandev and Eto’o had strict defensive jobs, Sneijder had something approaching a free role.

His role is something sides have become slightly unaccustomed to facing; as outlined here before, there is a distinct lack of ‘classic’ No 10s in European football at the moment. Sneijder’s movement in behind the main striker caused Bayern no end of problems, which started because Bayern had a numerical disadvantage in midfield, 3 v 2. If Mark van Bommel got goalside of Sneijder, it would mean that Bastian Schweinsteiger would be forced to compete with Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, conceding the midfield to Inter. Therefore, van Bommel was forced to step up ahead of Sneijder, meaning he and Schweinsteiger cancelled out Zanetti and Cambiasso, who (whilst not particularly creative players anyway) didn’t influence the game much in an offensive sense.

Sneijder, therefore, was left to be picked up by Martin Demichelis and Daniel van Buyten – who were preoccupied with stopping Diego Milito, one of those forwards with a tremendous ability to occupy two centre-halves at once. For the first goal, van Buyten got himself far too deep behind Demichelis. His positioning was actually OK if Bayern were simply dealing with Milito as the only threat, but Sneijder’s position so high up the pitch meant that van Buyten’s ‘covering’ position left Sneijder with space, and he passed the ball easily for Milito to finish brilliantly. A not dissimilar situation occurred just before half-time when the Dutchman shot straight at Butt in one-on-one situation – Bayern simply couldn’t cope with Sneijder.

Bayern struggle in the final third

Bayern dominated possession – Inter were fairly happy to let them have the ball in deep positions, and had a system of ‘casual’ pressing rather than the intense style used by Barcelona at points in this Champions League run. Bayern worked the ball well in wide areas, and whilst Eto’o and Pandev were doing good defensive jobs, Bayern’s wingers were dropping deep and their full-backs were pushing on, meaning Inter’s full-backs and wingers were sometimes forced to swap around. Not an ideal scenario for Inter, and Bayern had plenty of crossing opportunities.

Bayern were unable to take advantage of this, though. With neither Olic nor Muller great aerial targets at the best of times, let alone against Lucio and Walter Samuel, Bayern were slightly too keen to come inside and try and play through the congested centre of the pitch. When the wingers and full-backs did get down the line they often found themselves in great positions, but Arjen Robben, Philip Lahm and Hamit Altintop all wasted chances to put a killer ball in. In the case of Robben and Altintop, this is perhaps the price you pay for fielding inverted wingers – they can shoot, but they often find it difficult to cross.

Javier Zanetti lifted the trophy after his 700th appearance for Inter

Interestingly, the one time a Bayern player found himself free in a dangerous position was Mark van Bommel’s dragged shot wide in stoppage time at the end of the first half – not the player you’d expect to be causing an immediate goal threat. There is a sense that a ’surprise’ player in an attacking position is the best way to open up Inter when they’re defending solidly within their own area – against Barcelona, for example, they coped with everything Barca could throw at them, until Gerard Pique came up from the back and there appeared to be confusion about how to deal with him.

Muller wastes chances

That said, Bayern did create. Three decent chances fell to Thomas Muller, but the young forward was unable to convert them. Firstly a half-chance at the near post in the first ten minutes, secondly a clear one-on-one that he played straight at Julio Cesar, thirdly a volley he hit into the ground when in space on the penalty spot.

In terms of positioning, movement and work rate, Muller is excellent and is widely recognized as being a tremendous talent, but tonight showed that in front of goal, he’s not yet up to scratch. He has scored in just one game in this Champions League run – against Maccabi Haifa on the opening day – and has often failed to make things happen for Bayern in the penalty box, particularly against Fiorentina and against Manchester United when Bayern were slightly fortunate to progress.

His opportunities were no more presentable than Milito’s, both of which were dispatched excellently. The man signed from Genoa last summer wrapped the game up with his 70th minute strike, as Inter got the ball to him in space, allowing him to run at the hapless van Buyten. Samuel Eto’o will be praised for his defensive role, but he was a key part in the second goal. First he held off Badstuber, luring him into a crazy challenge he was never going to win. Then, he despatched the pass into feet for Milito. Finally, he got himself level with Milito and into the box, forcing Martin Demichelis to track him, rather than ’sweeping’ behind van Buyten. All this may sound fairly basic, but it is partly the fact that Eto’o is a forward playing out wide that helped him hold off the challenge, and then have the determination to get himself into the box. A winger may not have done the same.

Inter see the game out

As we have come to expect, Inter defended solidly and brilliantly within their own area. The two defensive midfielders sat extremely deep and never looked to get remotely forward in the second half, even when the more attack-minded Dejan Stankovic was brought on. Muller (dropping deep) and Schweinsteiger (moving forward) struggled to find space in that zone, and so the ball was generally held in wide areas. Bayern still struggled to test Inter too much considering the amount of possession they had, despite the arrival of Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose, two players who like crosses. It was surprising that van Gaal did not opt to use Danijel Pranjic, a good crosser of the ball, who could have replaced Badstuber, a full-back reluctant to attack.

There was a feeling that if Inter scored the first goal, they would win the game. And so it proved – Lucio, Samuel and Cambiasso were absolutely superb, and whilst Mourinho should be rightly praised for organising his defence so well, we should not forget that Inter’s defenders are naturally superb players. Defensive organisation is vital in winning trophies but individual performances have shone through against Barcelona and Bayern – further emphasized by van Buyten’s nightmare at the other end.

Inter deserved European champions

The tie against Barcelona was ridiculously tight and could have gone either way, but it’s hard to fault Inter. Despatching the best teams from the three other major European leagues along the way, whilst wining their own domestic league, would suggest that this is a fitting triumph.

What is different from last year, where Mourinho’s Inter crumbled against Manchester United? Half the team. Of Mourinho’s favoured XI in the second half of the season, the five furthest forward players – Thiago Motta, Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o, Goran Pandev and Diego Milito, as well as Lucio, the centre-back, are all in their first season at the club. That’s 6 out of 11 players – last year’s side was not “Mourinho’s”, it was the players he had inherited. Creating such a successful side with so many new recruits is a remarkable achievement, as is managing to transform goal-hungry forwards like Eto’o and Pandev into hard-workers defensively, even if some will complain that this is robbing the world of some exciting attacking play. But Mourinho’s brief was to win the Champions League, and he has done that.

The final question about Inter: are they a defensive side? It’s easy to say that they are, especially considering the reputation of both Mourinho and Italian football in general. This has slightly clouded the judgement of many who haven’t watched them on a regular basis – they have played some excellent football, and characterizing a side as ‘defensive’ when they regularly play a Sneijder-Pandev-Eto’o-Milito quartet is rather harsh. Yet in the final three matches of this Champions League run they have had less than 35% of possession in each; Jonathan Wilson has discussed whether this (successful) approach will be a turning point in football.

The answer to that might have to wait for a few years, but the acclaim for Inter can begin immediately. Defensively brilliant, ruthless in the penalty area, and possessing some of the best players in the world, this is a superb Inter side that have equalled the achievements of the much-praised Barcelona side of last season.

Check out the passing statistics from the game here

Inter 2-0 Bayern: Milito the master of Madrid

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