Milan 2-1 Inter: Gasperini’s 3-5-1-1 dominates first half, but needless switches see him beaten

August 10, 2011

Inter's 3-5-1-1 worked well...

Inter were 1-0 up at half time but managed to lose 2-1, after a strange tactical change from their new boss Gian Piero Gasperini.

Gasperini was widely expected to bring his favoured 3-4-3 to Inter, but for this match he started with a 3-5-1-1, with new signing Ricardo Alvarez breaking forward from the left of midfield to form a lopsided front three.

Max Allegri played the same 4-3-1-2 he favoured last season. In fact, with the exception of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in place of Pato, it was the same XI that started the previous derby.

This was, of course, a game of two halves – the only question was why Inter relinquished their dominance from the opening period.

Inter dominate

In a pleasingly competitive game, it took a while to ascertain precisely what system Inter were using. Gasperini spent much of the opening twenty minutes carefully repositioning his players into a specific system, and it’s likely that he used this modified shape to try and compete in the midfield zone – his usual 3-4-3 would have been outnumbered 2 v 4 in the centre of midfield.

As a result, he possibly overcompensated by moving Alvarez deeper, because Inter often had a surplus of players in the midfield zone, and retained possession without having too many obvious out-balls. Wesley Sneijder had to come deep to pick up possession and Samuel Eto’o had little support upfront. Milan’s full-backs stayed surprisingly conservative, which meant Eto’o couldn’t find space out on the flanks and was barely involved.

Inter on top

The plethora of central midfielders meant that Inter unquestionably dominated the ball in the first half, enjoying 58% of possession. The key man was Alvarez – when he broke from deep positions down the left, Inter were able to spread the play and Milan were having problems with the interplay between he and Sneijder. Joel Obi was also very dynamic down the left – more so than Javier Zanetti on the other side, who was a little concerned with Robinho’s movement – and Inter’s best moves came down their left.

Rino Gattuso had too much to deal with, and was fortunate not to be red carded. His side were punished for his recklessness, however, as Sneijder curled a free-kick (conceded by Gatusso) into the top corner to give Inter a deserved lead. The problems, again, were caused by Alvarez’s forward movement.

Milan offered very little in the first half – they couldn’t keep hold of the ball, partly because they were too narrow, and their main strategy early on was physicality – they constantly fouled Thiago Motta, possibly to try and break up Inter’s moves from deep. They appeared slow in the centre of the pitch, with the only energy coming from Kevin-Prince Boateng.

Second half

...but the switch to 4-4-1-1 was a poor decision

No changes at half time seemed to signal more of the same, but it quickly became apparent that Inter had moved to a 4-4-1-1 system. Alvarez was moved to the right (a move difficult to understand considering his impact in the first half), with Zanetti deeper, Cristian Chivu across to left-back, and Obi slightly higher up.

The logic of the move was, presumably, that Gasperini wanted a more defensively-solid shape. His 3-4-3 at Genoa was frequently criticized for its lack of defensive assurance, and if the simple need for more of a presence at the back was the main reason for his switch, it indicates a recognition that the 3-4-3 might be easy to expose.

Milan take charge

It had the opposite effect, however, in two separate ways. First, the defence simply seemed uncomfortable with the change – Chivu had been very good in the opening period, but then resorted to diving into tackles unnecessarily and made Inter nervous at the back. Second, Gasperini actually managed to divert his players away from the zone they needed to defend. They’d been comfortable in the first half with 3 v 2 at the back – Milan played very narrow, and there was little threat down the flanks. It didn’t make sense, therefore, to use two orthodox full-backs, nor to protect them both with a wide midfielder. Milan’s threat was through the middle, not down the wings, and Inter had lost their spare man in defence.

Another problem was, of course, that they became overrun in the centre of the midfield with one fewer player in that zone. Gattuso had move time on the ball, and Clarence Seedorf also became more of a presence. Having enjoyed 58% of possession before half time, Inter now found themselves being dominated.

Milan’s goals, naturally, came through the middle. Some great combination play between Robinho, Seedorf and Ibrahimovic got the first, and then Robinho’s replacement Pato helped create the second, after his shot rebounded to Boateng. It may well have not occurred if Inter still had their spare man at the back.

Gasperini’s system had changed yet again with young right-back Marco Faraoni on for Alvarez down the right, and after Milan went behind, Giampaolo Pazzini replaced Dejan Stankovic in a move to something like a 3-4-1-2. It was all too confused, and a serious fightback was unlikely.


Inter’s players were well aware of the difference in performance between halves. “I feel very angry at losing this match after what we did in the first half,” Stankovic said. “We hardly allowed Milan anything except when they hit the post, while in the second half we fell away and were pegged back.”

Gasperini admitted that Inter were poor after the break. “We played less well after the break in defence, especially compared to what we had done in the first half,” he agreed. “It’s a real shame, as we had the game in hand and deserved to be in that position. If only we had known how to control the tempo better at the start of the second half.”

He must take the blame for the performance. He mentions both the defensive problems and the inability to get the ball and control the tempo, both of which might not have been such a problem had he kept his first half shape, which offered more protection at the back and an extra man in the centre of midfield.

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