Fiorentina 1-2 Inter: Palacio’s positional variation crucial in Inter victory

February 17, 2014

The starting line-ups

Fifth-placed Inter won at fourth-placed Fiorentina, cutting the game between them to five points.

Vincenzo Montella was still without Giuseppe Rossi and a host of defenders, with star midfielder Borja Valero suspended. Mario Gomez was fit enough to be on the bench, however, after a few months out – Joaquin and Josip Ilicic were upfront form the start.

Walter Mazzarri named an unchanged side from last weekend’s 1-0 win over Sassuolo.

Inter were the better side here – more organised without the ball and more purposeful with possession.

Overall pattern

This was a clash between two 3-5-2 / 3-5-1-1 systems, a type of match we’ve become accustomed to in Serie A over the past couple of seasons. In general, it doesn’t produce particularly interesting tactical contests, because the battles across the pitch are obvious. Both have 3 v 2 at the back, the wing-backs run up and down the line with each other, the two ‘outside’ midfielders battle, and the freest players are the deep-lying midfielders on either side. This pattern became clear from an early stage.

Fiorentina unsurprisingly dominated possession. Montella urges his side to play short passing football, and also had two forwards dropping deep to collect the ball away from the Inter centre-backs. Inter sat in deeper positions and prepared to counter-attack quickly, and the contrast in approaches meant Fiorentina’s wing-backs pinned back their opposite numbers.

Pizarro v Kuzmanovic

The key battle in the opening stages was David Pizarro against Zdravko┬áKuzmanovic, a former Fiorentina player. They were playing the same role on opposing sides, and as we’ve seen so often in recent seasons – particularly in matches involving Fiorentina, actually, see Pizarro v Montolivo, for example – the two holding midfielders often moved forward to meet each other, which often had problematic consequences.

This seems particularly popular in Serie A despite the obvious risks associated with the holding midfielder moving in advance of his two midfield colleagues. It caused Fiorentina problems, in particular – for example, on one occasion Pizarro moved forward to close down Kuzmanovic, the ball was played past him, and Hernanes found space between the lines to create a fine chance for Diego Milito. It still seems more logical, in this situation, for Mati Fernandez to move forward to shut down Kuzmanovic, with Aquilani dropping deeper and helping Pizarro against the other two in midfield.

Presumably, managers feel they can afford to leave 3 v 2 at the back, which is understandable, but it leaves such a gaping hole between the lines.

It also means that when the holding midfielder who is out of possession drops back to get in position, his opponent is left unmarked and is free to participate in the rest of the build-up play. Pizarro enjoyed freedom in this respect and was the game’s most prolific passer (79 – no other player more than 46), but in the early stages Rodrigo Palacio did a decent job of denying him space.

Palacio influence

Palacio was the game’s key player. His energy was obvious from the outset, when he pressed Neto as the goalkeeper was dealing with a Pizarro backpass, and almost tackled the ball into the goal. He used his stamina to essentially play two roles – doing a good defensive job back in midfield, but then sprinting forward to make runs in behind the defence. It was something similar to the role Diego Costa plays for Atletico Madrid, for example, although his strike partner Diego Milito remained upfront as a classic number nine.

His runs were generally in the inside-right channel, against Marvin Compper, and he hit hit the post after 13 minutes with a tremendous run to meet a simple Guarin through ball. He opened the scoring from a move that was less typical of the approach, but the crucial pass again was played by Guarin, finding space between the lines.

Guarin

Guarin was Inter’s other key player, bursting forward into space and providing the passes for the front two. He created four chances here, as many as his teammates put together.

Although the arrival of Hernanes has changed the shape of the Inter midfield (and despite the fact Inter were happy to sell him in January) Guarin was Inter’s key midfielder in a game like this, when Inter playing direct football. That’s Guarin’s game: he got the better of his battle with Mati Fernandez, and was generally the one to exploit the space between the lines when Pizarro went wandering. His passing was often wayward, but only because he was trying to force the killer pass.

Fiorentina struggle in the final third

Fiorentina kept possession well but struggled upfront, which was no surprise considering they were playing a winger and a number ten upfront. Ilicic and Joaquin both dropped deep and continually varied their positioning, and a key feature of the game was the aggression of Inter’s back three – although they took it in turns to track Fiorentina’s two forwards as they moved through the zones, they charged out of defence powerfully and often made strong tackles, preventing Ilicic and Joaquin from turning.

With 3 v 2, Inter always had cover, and it proved an effective way of stopping Fiorentina between the lines when Kuzmanovic had moved forward to shut down Pizarro.

Changes

Not only did Mazzarri win the battle from the start, he also used his bench more effectively. His key change came on 55 minutes, when Mauro Icardo replaced Milito – he did little other than score the winner, a fine first-time finish from a Yuto Nagatomo cross.

Montella’s obvious solution at 2-1 down was to throw on his two strikers – first Gomez replaced Joaquin, and later Alessandro Matri replaced the injured Cuadrado. Fiorentina were still 3-5-2, but now with two number nines, rather than two players drifting into much deeper positions.

Inevitably they played more directly, crossing the ball more frequently – and in stoppage time the two strikers very nearly combined for an equaliser. But you couldn’t help feeling that Inter’s rather old-fashioned back three were happier battling in the air and in the penalty box, rather than having to read the game and make well-timed interceptions and tackles to stop two mobile runners.

Fiorentina were in a peculiar situation – their starting forwards were stylistically more likely to cause problems, but not actual strikers and therefore not a direct goal threat. Gomez and Matri played into the hands of Walter Samuel, as Inter’s defence sat much deeper in the second half.

Conclusion

Palacio was the star man here. His energy allowed him to play a defensive role yet become Inter’s main goal threat, and he was the major reason Inter were more organised defensively, and more direct going forward. There was a stark contrast between his natural confidence in front of goal, and the uncertainty of Fiorentina’s makeshift strikers.

Guarin was also important because of his through-balls, while Inter’s aggressive defending meant they coped better when their holding midfielder left them unprotected.


Fiorentina 1-2 Inter: Palacio’s positional variation crucial in Inter victory

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