Inter 0-1 Milan: Early Ibrahimovic penalty followed by poor response from Inter
Milan were fairly comfortable despite playing with ten men for the final half hour.
Rafael Benitez chose a 4-3-1-2 formation to accommodate both Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito upfront. Maicon was out, so Ivan Cordoba played at right-back, with Marco Materazzi in the centre. Joel Obi started on the left side of the midfield three, with Esteban Cambiasso only fit enough for the bench.
Max Allegri left out Andrea Pirlo to go with a functional, disciplined midfield three, with Clarence Seedorf ahead. Ignazio Abate started at right-back so Gianluca Zambrotta played on the left. Robinho was just off Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The match started with Milan well on top, taking the game to Inter and having numerous goalscoring chances in the first fifteen minutes. Their tempo was better, they got the ball forward much quicker and they brought their forwards into play much more easily, and the only disappointment from Allegri’s point of view was that Milan were only one goal up early on, when their dominance perhaps merited a more comfortable lead.
The main man in the first half was Ibrahimovic, as Inter utterly failed to cope with the Swede’s all-round game. Not only was he winning the ball in the air ahead of Materazzi, his sheer speed was constantly sending him clear of the defence. The penalty came from this situation – Ibrahimovic outpaced Materazzi before being hacked down by him, and Ibrahimovic converted the spot kick himself.
It’s strange that Inter were so vulnerable to Ibrahimovic’s pace in behind – it’s been a very common tactic for Milan to simply knock the ball over the top of the defence and use his pace – his goal against Ajax, for example, was scored in this exact fashion. It’s also a remarkable contrast from last season’s Champions League semi-final legs, when Ibrahimovic was kept very quiet by the Inter backline. The main difference, of course, was the positioning of the defence – playing a ludicrously high line, but Inter are not particularly good at pressing in midfield either (under Jose Mourinho and now Benitez they generally sit deep) and even in the absence of Pirlo, Milan enjoyed having time on the ball in midfield to hit balls over the top.
As with all 4-3-1-2 v 4-3-1-2 battles, the key to the game were the full-backs – without a direct opponent, and with a responsibility to provide width high up the pitch. There was a clear difference in the type of player the two sides played here – Milan with two players who are ‘wingers-turned-full-backs’, Inter with two players who are ‘centre-backs-turned-full-backs’.
Naturally, Milan’s were much better at getting forward. Abate had produced the first chance of the game when his cross was headed over by Seedorf, but later was pegged back by Eto’o (and Wesley Sneijer’s) drifts to that flank. Zambrotta still got forward to good effect, however, creating an extra midfield and a passing option on the flank.
There was little or no attacking presence from Inter’s full-backs, however, with Cristian Chivu’s delivery typically disappointing, and (aside from one sudden 60-yard dash down the flank) nothing from Cordoba. Hardly surprising, Cordoba is a 34-year-old centre-back. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Italian international full-back Davide Santon, renowned for his energetic runs, spent the game on the bench.
In a sense, the injury to Obi towards the end of the first half was the best thing that could have happened to Inter. Obi in particular was not having a bad game, but Inter desperately needed a change of shape. After seeming ready to put on Cambiasso, Benitez instead went for Phillipe Countinho, moving to 4-2-3-1. And, whilst Inter didn’t display much more creativity, they were playing higher up the pitch and pinning the Milan full-backs back.
A further change came at half-time when Milito was removed, Goran Pandev came on, and Eto’o went back upfront. He actually looked less threatening here – he’d caused problems for Abate (on a yellow card) on the left in the first half, but spent his time here upfront waiting for service.
Milan down to ten
Inter’s lifeline came when Abate did receive another booking after a shoving match with Pandev. Now, Milan were down to ten and were content to defend. They went to 4-4-1, taking off Robinho and bringing on Kevin-Prince Boateng. The addition of Andrea Pirlo (for the cautioned Gattuso at half-time) also worked well here – he played slightly ahead of the rest of the Milan midfield and casually pressed Inter’s deeper midfielders, denying them time on the ball.
An injury to Materazzi again saw Benitez confusion – this time he was ready to bring on Santon, but instead opted for Jonathan Biabiany, moving Zanetti to right-back and Sneijder back into a deeper role.
Despite (or maybe because of) all the reshuffling, there was no creativity from Inter. Coutinho and Biabiany are young and found it difficult to adjust to the pace of the derby after coming on, but Eto’o’s movement was poor, Pandev looks very off-form and Sneijder produced little. Pandev and Sneijder should be goal threats but their recent records in Serie A are unbelievably poor – Sneijder has scored one goal in open play in the league since joining Inter, whilst Pandev hasn’t found the net since February 7th.
Inter’s performance was best summed up by President Massimo Moratti – “It doesn’t seem to me like we suffered against Milan’s play. The problem is that we actually didn’t play. It’s a different thing entirely and much more grave.”
Milan played well for only 20 minutes, but this was enough to get them the win. A combination of excellent defending in numbers and a lack of imagination from Inter’s attacking players meant Milan were comfortable, even with one fewer player.
Inter looked lack any kind of cohesion in their shape, the first time Benitez has used a 4-3-1-2. It was a system used a lot by Mourinho last season, but the right players were not used here – the weakness at full-back was particularly evident. A high defensive line kept catching them out early on, whilst in possession they didn’t get the ball forward quickly enough. With just five goals scored in the last eight games, there is now serious pressure on Benitez.