Milan 0-1 Inter: Inter sit deep and counter
Diego Milito scored the only goal of the game, and Inter are back in the title race.
Max Allegri named Pato upfront rather than Robinho, and chose both Urby Emanuelson and Antonio Nocerino in the midfield diamond.
Claudio Ranieri’s line-up was as expected, with Wesley Sneijder on the bench, and Ricky Alvarez in the side.
Inter were submissive but disciplined, and were far more tactically astute.
The first question concerned Inter’s formation. Having played both 4-3-1-2 and 4-4-2 in recent weeks with the same midfield quartet selected here, they could have been using either system.
In truth, it was something of a hybrid. In the opening minutes it seemed a straight 4-4-2, albeit with Javier Zanetti much deeper on the right than Alvarez on the left, but the more the game went on, the more it became apparent that Alvarez was allowed to drift into his preferred central playmaking position – the formation was essentially dependent upon whether Inter had possession or not.
The paradox of the system, though, was that Alvarez could only come into the middle to give Inter creativity when they had a decent amount of possession. But they were unlikely to enjoy much possession with the 4-4-2 in the defensive phase – it meant Mark van Bommel saw plenty of the ball with no Inter player in a good position to close him down.
With Milan dominating possession and Inter’s lopsided shape, the three deeper Inter midfielders broadly picked up Milan’s more attacking midfielders. That meant Zanetti on Nocerino, Thiago Motta on Emanuelson and Esteban Cambiasso on Kevin-Prince Boateng. Those three struggled for space, particularly Emanuelson who was the highest up but had to keep coming deep to get the ball.
Alvarez, high up, kept an eye on Ignazio Abate who wasn’t involved much – which meant that Gianluca Zambotta on the other flank enjoyed the most amount of space without any Inter player pressing him. He moved forward and got plenty of touches, though the knock-on effect was that Inter’s strikers took it in turns to move out to the right in behind Zambrotta to attempt to exploit that space.
There were only two serious goalscoring opportunities from open play in the first half, and both made sense considering the formation match-up – they fell two of the freer players just before half time.
First, Alvarez moved central, neither Abate nor van Bommel were permanently picking him up, and he took too long to convert a decent chance.
Second, van Bommel, who was always free, moved forward unattended to thump a pull-back against the crossbar from the edge of the box. It remained 0-0 at half-time.
There were no changes for the start of the second half – none were expected for Inter, who had frustrated Milan, but Allegri could have made a pre-emptive change to force the issue when Milan had the ball.
There weren’t many opportunities at the start of the second half. Milan continued to hit long balls towards the front two, which suited Lucio and Walter Samuel perfectly. Inter sat back and played on the break, and one of those breaks provided the only goal. Zanetti motored forward and beat van Bommel, Abate failed to cut out a pass, and Milito was free to finish.
That was the shot in the arm the tactical battle needed, with both managers suddenly scrambling to react to the situation. Allegri went for Robinho, who replaced Zambrotta with Emanuelson going to left-back. That made sense – the Milan left-back had little defensive responsibility so Allegri could afford an attacking player there, and besides, Emanuelson was doing little as a trequartista. Robinho went behind the front two, and Milan’s shape remained the same.
Alvarez began to tire in his hybrid role, and stopped tracking back against Abate, who was keen to compensate for his error. Therefore, Ranieri replaced Alvarez with Cristian Chivu, with Nagatomo going to the left of midfield and Inter moving to a standard 4-4-2 system, with two holders and two runners on the flanks. They sat even deeper and were happy to soak up pressure.
Milan were at their functional worst, lacking imagination with the ball and offering no penetration. Ibrahimovic drifted to wider zones throughout the game and attempted a few shots from the corners of the box. Behind him, Pato wasn’t involved much and Robinho struggled to find space. It was difficult to see how Milan were trying to break Inter down, and only the very late introduction of Stephan El Shaarawy provided some kind of pace and excitement.
Ranieri brought on Sneijder with 15 minutes remaining and told him to sit on international teammate Mark van Bommel, meaning it was Alessandro Nesta who moved forward with the ball to try and prompt late attacks, but Inter held on.
A very interesting tactical battle – which Ranieri got right. Alvarez wasn’t hugely influential on the left, but Ranieri correctly decided he could play with three deeper midfielders picking up Milan’s three attacking midfielders, have one player breaking forward from midfield, and play on the break. The risks were leaving Zambrotta and van Bommel free – and the latter was the width of a crossbar away from giving Milan the lead – but that, a 25-yard effort, was the only time Milan seriously threatened Julio Cesar. Ranieri can consider his strategy a success.
Milan, on the other hand, played extremely poorly. The line-up looked highly functional on paper – a strike partnership which has never quite clicked, with a fairly average trequartista and two runners either side of the diamond. They lack guile, and they depend too much on power in midfield, plus individual brilliance upfront.
The strange thing about Milan is that they are the complete opposite of the side they were in the mid 2000s, which contained a midfield full of playmakers, and was more successful against Europe’s elite (three European Cup finals) than against Serie A as a whole (one league title).
Now, they have a midfield that is highly powerful and functional rather than intelligent. Demolishing bottom half clubs shouldn’t be a problem, but against top quality opponents, they need something a little cleverer. It’s summed up by their record in Serie A so far – against the top six they’re P5 W0 D2 L3, against everyone else they’re P13 W11 D2 L0. They are currently the best example imaginable of flat-track bullies.