Palermo 4-3 Inter: Gasperini’s 3-4-3 exposed
Palermo produced a great second half display to edge a thriller.
Devis Mangia, Palermo’s new(est) coach, used a standard 4-4-2 system, a world away from the 4-3-2-1 that the club used last season. Josep Ilicic started out on the left, and Giulio Migliaccio played at centre-back.
Gian Piero Gasperini used his favoured 3-4-3 system, which meant Javier Zanetti in an unusual centre-back role, Jonathan making his debut on the right, plus newcomers Mauro Zarate and Diego Forlan in the wide forward positions. Wesley Sneijder started on the bench.
The scoreline makes the game look close – and indeed it was – but Palermo were dominant in this match, and on the balance of play should have sealed the game long before the final stages. The key thing to look at, then, is why Inter were exposed so easily throughout.
Even before a ball was kicked, Gasperini’s favoured back three had been criticised. Even Inter President Massimo Moratti had indicated that he was looking forward to an eventual switch to a back four, which makes you wonder why he appointed such a staunch advocate of a back three in the first place (or, for that matter, why he talked to Marcelo Bielsa in the summer).
That political point aside, this really wasn’t a promising debut for the 3-4-3, and looking across the side, it’s difficult to find anything that went right. The back three found themselves too high up the pitch, and with three rather elderly defenders, there wasn’t any pace to chase any balls over the top. In addition, Walter Samuel kept getting dragged forward from the central position, leaving too much space between Lucio and Zanetti.
Further forward, the two-man central midfield of Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic lacked mobility, with neither defending well nor attacking with any creativity. The wing-backs motored up and down well but the crossing was extremely poor, whilst the two wide forwards barely got into the game. Gasperini changed his system – slightly – after just 30 minutes, taking off Zarate and bringing on Sneijder, with Forlan going to the right and Sneijder playing a narrow left-sided forward role.
That helped Inter, because Sneijder’s natural game was to come deeper, pick up possession and thread balls through to the forwards. Until then, they’d lacked any kind of link whatsoever between the seven defensive-minded players and the three attackers. The Dutchman played some brilliant incisive passes – most notably to Forlan, first for a chance that (eventually, after a handball shout and a corner) resulted in Samuel winning a penalty, and then to the same player in the final minute, for a consolation goal. Even at this early stage, Gasperini finds himself in something of a difficult situation – Inter have depended for so long upon Sneijder as a central creator and really do need his invention, yet Sneijder’s natural home is not in a 3-4-3.
Palermo took advantage of how tentative Inter were, and a key part of their dominance was bravery in positioning. The battles down the flank in the early stages were won by the home side – Federico Balzaretti pushed Zarate back, Eros Pisano did the same to Forlan, and with Ilicic and Alvarez both very aggressive and keen to dribble with the ball, the two wing-backs also retreated. From a 3-4-3, Inter were forced to a 5-4-1, and they lacked thrust or invention to break forward out of that shape.
Perversely, you can make a case that Palermo were actually too good at doing this, too effective at pressing Inter into their own half and keeping possession of the ball, despite their early dominance. They didn’t produce any goals in the first half, and were much better in the second when the game was more evenly-balanced, largely thanks to Sneijder. The reason was summed up best with Palermo’s second goal, scored by Abel Hernandez after a brilliant direct attack involving Miccoli and Ilicic – they are still used to playing as a counter-attacking side.
That triangle formed almost sporadically, rather than as part of a 4-4-2 – and it was a goal that brought back memories of Pastore and the 4-3-2-1, breaking through the middle quickly at speed. But to counter-attack, they had to let Inter come into them, which indicates that a pressing game (whilst probably part of a completely different approach under Mangia) probably wasn’t the right approach.
More opportunities for Palermo
Palermo could have attacked through the middle more – Migliaccio, a central midfielder at centre-back, had time on the ball but was nervous coming out from the back and should have been more positive, whilst the goal that finally put them ahead, a Miccoli free-kick, was won after Matias Silvestre had taken advantage of his space to move forward. The energy of Afriyie Acquah after half time was more of a fit than Francesco Della Rocca’s sideways passing, and Palermo basically prospered by exposing Stankovic and Cambiasso in the middle – in particular, the gap they left between themselves and the back three.
The most worrying thing for Gasperini, though, is that if you were to choose a formation for your 3-4-3 to face, you’d probably go for a 4-4-2 to prevent being overrun. You’d have a spare man at the back, you’d match the opposition in midfield and you’d be pinning back the opposition full-backs. The problem was that Inter were positionally poor and probably had the wrong mentality for the system – they needed to impose themselves but instead got pushed back deeper and deeper.
Formations are neutral, but instinctively 3-4-3 seems to be about energy, width and pace. With an average age of 30.5 last night, the shape doesn’t appear to lend itself to Inter. Every area of the side had problems in some way, and it was the man left out from the start, Sneijder, who gave Inter hope – another sub, Ricardo Alvarez, also had an impact. On the evidence of this, Gasperini will need to start at least one ‘withdrawn’ player in the wide roles to prevent Inter being a broken team.
Palermo were admirable in the way they pressed, and their goals were superb. For now, however, their system and strategy seems a little confused – and they were much better off after the break when (a) they could counter more, and (b) when they could form triangles in the centre of the pitch, which a 4-4-2 doesn’t lend itself to easily. Still, these issues are natural after one game, and Mangia certainly won the battle here.