After a sticky start to 2021, Inter delivered their best domestic performance of the season – and possibly in Conte’s entire 18 month tenure – in a fascinating 2-0 victory over Juventus at the Guiseppe Meazza. Juventus came into the game with a 100% record so far this calendar year, including that Federico Chiesa inspired 3-1 win against league leaders AC Milan.
Inter made one change from their 2-2 draw with Roma in Round 17, Ashley Young coming back into the team in place of Matteo Darmian with the task of keeping in-form Chiesa quiet down the Juventus right hand side. On the back of their 3-1 victory against Sassuolo, Juventus made four changes with Demiral, Arthur, McKennie and Paulo Dybala all dropping out for Chiellini, Rabiot, Bentancur and Morata respectively. McKennie was an injury doubt pre-game and the Bianconeri definitely missed his presence, as the midfield two of Rabiot & Bentancur looked lost in a sea of black & blue shirts for most of the game.
Inter dominate the wide areas
In his fledgling managerial career, Andrea Pirlo has proven himself to be a tactically flexible coach and it was evident once again in this match as Juventus regularly switched between a 4-4-2 and a 3-5-2 depending on the phase of play. Chiesa was the typification of this, chopping and changing between winger and wing back in the first half before a stint as a left winger in the second. Danilo was the other player tasked with a hybrid role, filling in as right back in possession and asked to drop into a back three as and when required.
Inter Milan’s tactical set up is significantly more structured with Conte favouring his now classic set up utilising three ‘proper’ centre backs, inverted wing backs and a front two of Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku supported by a dynamic and well balanced midfield.
In these type of stylistic match ups, the assumption is always that a 3-5-2 will struggle to control the wings due to their numerical disadvantage. Most teams tend to either suffocate the middle of the pitch and block passing lanes to force players wide. This is on the basis that generally accepted logic dictates the less possession teams have in advanced central areas, the less damage they can do.
The key battles in this game did indeed take place down the flanks, but it was Inter who showed the tactical flexibility to dominate. Inter recognised the danger of Chiesa and the potential to face overloads and responded by asking their wider central midfielders (Barella and Vidal) to provide support laterally for their wingbacks as and when required. Juventus’ midfield is not as strong as it was once was and with centre backs such as Bastoni able to step out and snuff out danger if required this ensured Inter appropriate cover in both key areas of the pitch.
Ashley Young dealt well with that Chiesa threat on the Inter left hand side , ably assisted by both Bastoni and Vidal who took it in turns to provide cover and snuff out any danger. This combination limited Chiesa to just one shot on target, one successful dribble and one successful cross all game which is far removed from his last appearance at the same stadium two weeks previous in which he bagged two goals and largely dominated Milan’s left back, Theo Hernandez.
On the right hand side, Nicolo Barella and Achraf Hakimi were the key partnership in this game, both working perfectly in tandem to provide the majority of Inter’s attacking threat. They were able to isolate Frabotta in particular – deputising for the injured Alex Sandro – with their rotational movement to cause damage at will. 22 year old, Hakimi has arguably been Inter’s best performer so far this season and – whilst not at his scintillating best in this game – he did amass the most touches in the opposition box (8) of any player in the game which is impressive for a right wing back. Barella managed seven giving them a total of 15 combined, so their threat was clearly evident.
On the left, the average positions map shows that both Hakimi (2) and Barella (23) played in roughly the same area of the pitch which would indicate plenty of rotational movement designed to cause danger wherever they can. On the right image, you can see that 40% of Inter’s attacks came down the right flank and it was this combination that would prove vital in the build up to the opening goal.
Hakimi drives into space on the right hand side of Juventus box (image one) as Barella drifts wide – dragging Aaron Ramsey with him in the process – forcing Juventus to break their defensive structure to close down the ball (image two). Vidal gains possession and slips a pass wide to Barella (image three)who had carried on his run and found himself in acres of space to stand up a cross into the box (image four) for the onrushing Vidal to head Inter into the lead.
Simple as you like, but the key was that relationship between Hakimi & Barella with the underlapping run of the full back dovetailing percfecly with Barella moving from inside to out thus manipulating Ramsey and Frabotta to create the space.
With that early goal, Inter were then able to sit slightly deeper and pick Juventus off on the break, seemingly at will. This was aided by Juventus’ decision to play 33 year old Leo Bonucci and 36 year old Giorgio Chiellini in an inexplicably high defensive line when faced with Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku.
Both Inter strikers will be disappointed they didn’t score in this game, but Martinez in particular missed the games biggest chance in 23 minutes after some wonderful defensive play by Barella to win the ball back and feed him during one such breakaway. Barella wins the ball deep in his own half, but there are seven Juventus players caught ahead of the ball, leaving Inter three on three from inside their own half.
Juve’s narrow shape causes issues
In the first half in particular, Ramsey and Chiesa sat very narrow, in almost a diamond formation at times which looked to be designed to cut off passes through the midfield to Martinez & Lukaku. This proved troublesome as both Juventus players ended up caught in no mans land on several occasions when trying to apply pressure to Inter’s build up play. Playing so narrow in a 4-4-2 with Danilo and Frabotta – not exactly rampaging full backs – in the team, meant that there was a lot of onus on Ramsey & Chiesa to get out and press the Inter centre backs when they were in possession. Due to their deeper and narrow starting positions, the distance both players had to run in order to press was too vast at times, with Alessandro Bastoni in particular having all the time in the world to break the line of pressure with quick vertical passes up to Inter’s forward line.
On this occasion, Bastoni drives forward and plays a simple ball through to Lukaku which takes four Juventus players out of the game inside his own half. This left Lukaku one on one with Chiellini who recovered well to snuff out the danger.
On more than one occasion, Alvaro Morata was visibly frustrated at the lack of support he was receiving and this would prove key for Inter’s second and decisive goal. A simple short goal kick finds its way to Bastoni deep in his own half, with only Morata providing any sort of pressure on the ball. Martinez drops deep to almost the halfway line with the intent of receiving the ball into feet. Bonucci inexplicably follows him the whole way, leaving a gaping hole in defence which man of the match Nicolò Barella was only too happy to fill with an untracked run from midfield. Bastoni finds him with one of those long passes mentioned earlier (61 metre long to be exact) which leaves Barella one on one with Wojciech Szczęsny, whom he beats with a classy top corner finish. Post match, Bastoni mentioned this long pass as a weapon Inter have specifically been working on, so it will be pleasing to see this come to fruition in such an important game.
A very simple goal, but an incredibly poor one for Juventus to lose. When you analyse Juventus’ lack of defensive structure for this goal as per above you would mistakenly think that this was as a result of another frenetic Inter attack. However, it’s important to note that this goal occurs from a short Inter goal kick!
Conte deserves a huge amount of credit for this victory as the last few weeks have shown possible signs that the Inter yearly collapse could have been on it’s way. He can sometimes come in for criticism for his favouring of older players to the detriment of the team, so he should take some satisfaction that Barella (23), Hakimi (22) and Bastoni (21) played major roles in this win.
For Juventus and Pirlo, this is another set back in their quest for their tenth title in a row. This season feels very transitional on all sides – coach, players and tactical philosophy – and bears more than a passing resemblance to Pep Guardiola’s first season at Manchester City. De Ligt and Alex Sandro were big misses in this game with their replacements caught out for both goals in particular.
It seems that Pirlo is attempting to have his team play in a very flexible and specific manner in this hybrid formation, however as with Guardiola, I don’t believe he has the necessary players to achieve that at this stage, particularly in central midfield.