Milan 3-0 Inter: Pato goals put Milan in charge
Two goals from Alexandre Pato and another from Antonio Cassano sent Milan five points clear of Inter.
Max Allegri started Pato and Robinho upfront in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s absence. Clarence Seedorf played on the left of midfield, and Gianluca Zambrotta got a surprise start at left-back.
Leonardo chose to play 4-2-1-3 rather than 4-3-1-2. Javier Zanetti played at left-back, and both Cristian Chivu and Andrea Ranocchia were fit to start – Lucio was suspended.
The game got off to a sensational start – Pato scored the opener after just 44 seconds, and Milan were immediately in charge.
The key to the game was the midfield battle, where Milan had a 4 v 3 advantage. As a result, they dominated possession and all four players played their roles well – Mark van Bommel sat, Rino Gattuso shuttled and doubled up against Samuel Eto’o, Clarence Seedorf was the most ‘free’ player and carried the ball well, whilst Kevin-Prince Boateng drove forward and connected the midfield and attack. Boateng also provided an aerial presence for long goal-kicks forward, which was quite useful – as Inter’s forwards occupied Milan’s defenders, Christian Abbiati couldn’t play out from the back, and neither could he play long to Robinho or Pato, who lack height and aerial prowess.
There were some interesting duels in the midfield. Gattuso started playing high up, putting pressure on Thiago Motta when he moved forward with the ball, but Gattuso soon dropped deeper and spent more time moving out towards Eto’o, who wasn’t very effective in wide positions as a result. Mark van Bommel tracked Wesley Sneijder well, though was happy to let him drift into deeper positions unoccupied. On the other hand, when Milan had possession in the early stages, Sneidjer dropped deep and let van Bommel have time on the ball – but later on moved forward to mark him, and Milan weren’t able to use van Bommel as a pivot.
With both defences defending relatively deep (Milan more so than Inter, who moved higher up the pitch as the game went on), the midfield zone was stretched and very open. Inter were essentially overpowered in this zone, and Leonardo really needed an extra body in midfield to help Inter compete. He decided to start with Goran Pandev on the right – he may have regretted not using Dejan Stankovic, because that would have given him more flexibility to move between systems. The use of Sneijder and three forwards meant he was tied to 4-2-1-3.
Despite Milan’s obvious midfield advantage, they were at their most threatening when they played quick, direct football, rather than working the ball gradually forward. With Inter behind from the first minute and therefore pushing both Maicon and Javier Zanetti up the pitch straight away, they often had 2 v 2 at the back.
Ranocchia and Chivu simply couldn’t deal with the pace of Pato and Robinho, who started from the channels and made diagonal runs into the centre of the pitch, in behind the defence. Really, Inter needed an extra man at the back, or at least a full-back playing a more conservative role, and in a position to cover when Milan broke quickly.
It was the first time Ranocchia and Chivu had started together at the back, and there was clearly no understanding between the two. Chivu was the most vulnerable. He became drawn up the pitch too easily, and then didn’t have the pace to turn and recover his position. Ranocchia and Zanetti had to cover on separate occasions when Pato went through in the first half.
It should also be noted that Milan’s midfield advantage meant there was often no Inter pressure on the ball for passes over the top. Pato was also guilty of not using his pace enough – turning back into play rather than motoring towards goal.
Inter had their chances, though. Both came from wide areas (where they naturally were more of a threat than Milan). Motta’s header from a corner was brilliantly saved by Christian Abbiati, whilst Eto’o somehow shot wide at the far post after a Pandev cross.
The game was decided soon after half time. Inevitably, the key moment involved Chivu being caught out for pace in behind – Pato got the ball in Milan’s centre-left channel, was through on goal, but cut across the pitch and was tripped by Chivu. The Romanian was sent off, and Ivan Cordoba replaced Pandev as Inter went 4-2-1-2ish.
Milan made very good use of their extra man (in stark contrast to how they failed to adapt (under Leonardo) when Jose Mourinho’s Inter went down to ten men in this fixture last year). They suddenly had their full-backs completely free, and spread the ball from flank to flank, stretching the play and making Inter’s ten men work harder. The goal came when Ignazio Abate (the poorest player in the first Milan derby of the season, but very good here) motored forward and crossed for Pato’s second.
That was essentially game over. Milan continued to be a threat with balls over the top, and Robinho should have taken advantage of these situations. His replacement, Antonio Cassano, won and scored a penalty in stoppage time, before being sent off.
A clear tactical victory for Allegri – or perhaps, more of a defeat for Leonardo. Inter were exposed in two different ways – they were outnumbered and outbattled in midfield, whilst also amazingly vulnerable at the back to balls over the top. Inter didn’t do well enough without the ball – the wide forwards, in particular, didn’t help out enough – which has echoes of Milan under Leonardo last year, particularly away at Manchester United.
Milan may have been helped by Ibrahimovic’s absence. Though he was the key man in the fixture earlier in the season (and his pace was a threat, winning the penalty in that game), Milan enjoyed having too very mobile players who played in the channels, rather with a more static focal point for the attack. Their two experienced Dutchman also had great games in the centre – van Bommel broke things up and distributed the ball wide, whilst Seedorf played intelligent balls higher up.