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Derby Tactics

Claudio Villa

Part 2

The Derby della Madonnina is a special game and there’s nothing really like it in the sport. Some fans claim that their particular derby is more intense for this reason or that, but frankly all derbies are intense. Personally, I really don’t favor watching them – other than this one, obviously – because the emotion is often so raw that the game becomes secondary to the expression of hatred and after a while that starts to grate on my nerves.

But this derby always has more at stake.I cannot think of two other teams that inhabit the same city that have the history of meaningful games with table or cup implications that these two teams have. Five years ago, it would have been easier to write about the tactics of this game. The teams were both so good and the managers so accomplished that the game was really a waiting period until a mistake by one team was capitalized upon by the other.

That’s all changed now. Both teams are retooling for the new financial realities imposed by UEFA and the Italian economy. Both teams also have managers whose best accomplishments are probably still ahead of them. And both teams are not nearly as star-studded as they once were.

So all this is a wordy and round about way of saying that the talent level of Inter and Milan are at a point where the coach’s decisions make a much more equal contribution to the result than may have been true in the past. And in a game like this, with the president looking on very carefully, it’s my belief that a coach like Strama is much more likely to cling to his basic ideals than to venture out and use a more pragmatic but foreign approach.

Every coach decides how he is going to deal with the 3 parts of the game, and these tactics are the things that lesser beings such as myself like to endlessly study to see if we can glom insight into the mind of the important people on the field. If you feel bored already, then my apologies; but right now I have the time to write this puppy and I love getting into the nuts and the bolts of this game as though I have the right to even try. The Devil, played by Al Pacino, claimed that vanity is his favorite sin, and I believe it insomuch as here I am trying to breakdown the mind of a guy I never met, who is much better at his job than I am.

Coaching Philosophy of Stramaccioni

Okay so let’s get into this. Strama, like every other coach is going to have his ideals of how football should be played. But he’s going to have to marry those ideals to his current, less ideal roster to make a strategy that will in all likelihood, to paraphrase Helmuth von Moltke, not survive first contact with the enemy.

So, what is Stama’s philosophy? And I know that his critics out there will ironically complain that he doesn’t have one. I understand what they are saying and I also feel the impatience. But every coach has a philosophy. Sometimes it’s incompatible with the talent available, sometimes it takes more time adapting it to make it work than the coach has available to him from the front office, sometimes the coach is inept in convincing his players that his idea has merit, but it’s there for every coach like a fingerprint.

The Recovery

Starting with the recovery phase of the game, I think that Strama wants to clog the middle of the field as much and as high as possible rather than win it. It’s taken me a long time to figure this out, and maybe this was fueling my own frustration a little bit – because I didn’t understand what he was trying to do enough – but I think one of the major misconceptions that I have with Strama’s plans is that he has no desire to use the center midfield spot as the beginning of the teams advance up the field. That is to say, I have been lamenting the regista as the missing piece of the team’s construction, but I think I now believe that he doesn’t want a regista at all. By the way this will change if he starts using Kuz as a regista on a weekly basis… But I will gloat like a goat if he starts using him to one side or the other… In Andrea’s vision of a 433 I see him using the other two midfielders on the side as the runners and passers with the guy in the middle the defensive cover.

I have only anecdotal evidence to support my theory. I see again and again the very center of the keeper area not covered and I keep wondering what is going on there. If the middle of the field is where the regista sits, then that hole in the zone is puzzling because it points to a dubious systemic problem – that is, the coach is purposefully leaving the most dangerous place on the defensive third open on purpose... which is crazy. But, if there is supposed to be a midfielder who is supposed to drop into that zone to cover as the 2 central defenders are left free to intercept more dangerous incoming runners or head away all incoming threats to that area than this becomes more a procedural situation – there’s someone not making the drop fast enough.

So when we look at the derby we see that the middle of the midfield has Cambiasso and Gargano. Two players whose purpose is more to destroy than to create, in different ways perhaps, but certainly in keeping with our original thesis that Strama wants to destroy in the center of the midfield. Also, considering Cambisso is very much a tactical player for whom position is a key weapon, and that Cambiasso can at times be used as a pure defender it also very much jibes with my new thesis that the CM is a keystone to the defense.

This is beside the point, but I read an extremely short and what seemed very inconsequential interview with Mudingayi that said that the team will probably extend him past this season for one more year… more evidence that a DM is the new CM?

The Advance

All parts of a football team is interconnected and if indeed Strama prefers to use the center midfield as the defensive cover than his preference to advance the ball from the outside to the inside certainly reinforces that theory. Depending on formation, assuming 433 (maybe more of a 4123?) if the DM is in place, the more outside and perhaps advanced midfielder then plays a passing game with the fullback and the winger to move the ball up the field. Or, as we also saw in this game, there could be a huge change of field from one wide player to the other, such as the one that resulted in the goal. In football as in life, there are no absolutes. This isn’t to say that Strama only wishes to work the sidelines, but I do think he prefers it. Turning the ball over while moving the all up the sidelines is annoying but it’s vastly preferable to turning the blasted thing over smack dab in the middle of the field, for example. And as we see in the next section, using the width of the field usually opens up the middle at some point. Teams in Italy for whatever reason are famously narrow and it’s to his advantage to make most of the teams in the league play a way they aren’t comfortable playing.

The Attack

How the team attacks the goal is the last part of Strama’s philosophy that I want to look at and then I want to try and put this together with how the events of the game on Sunday bears these thoughts out.

As one might think, this is the easiest one to describe because I think we are all aware of how Cassano or Guarin are always perched at the corners of the penalty area either they are looking to pass to the fullback overlapping them to the byline, they pass to the middle which is now wide open because the defense is stretched and cheating to one side or the other, or they dribble in. Consider Palacio when he attacks the penalty area and Montolivo has to foul him to stop him. Or when Cassano lets Naga overlap him, gives him a running head start and feeds him a ball to cross. The idea is to stretch the center defenders to cover the flanks of the goal that Cassano and Palacio are attacking. At that point, the midfielders drop and it’s a cross for a midfielder at the half circle or the midfield doesn’t drop and it’s a pass to Milito or the striker. This is more problematic with no striker, but the theory is the same. Btw, Cassano or Palacio or Guarin aren’t actually watching midfielders dropping into the area, but you can make a determination just by looking at shirts. If you can see yours at a glance by the penalty spot, then it’s to Milito. If all you see are opposition shirts, then it’s back to the top of the area. Notice on the goal how Palacio’s guy is out wide with him, leaving a nice little pocket right in front of the goal at the penalty line for Schelotto to run into.

Philosophy Reflected in the Game

In practical terms, I feel as though I understand more of Strama’s mind from the delta of the first and second half rather than what happen in the whole game.

In the first half I didn’t see any high defending and on the right hand side, I saw no defending. This is a clear violation of Strama’s ideals so it’s worth examining. Obviously the subs that came on made a difference to the game, but the first sub came on at 23 minutes into the 2nd half, and the change from the 1st to the 2nd half was startling right from the whistle.

Milan, in the first half, was crippling this team with a gambit on the right that was paralyzing Guarin and Nagatomo. Guarin started the game as the wide right hand side of a 4231 with Cambiasso inside way him and Nagatomo immediately behind. SES and Balotelli, through plan or habit, were both dropping deep to receive the ball. SES was starting his runs wider to the right and then coming shallow inside. When Balotelli received an early or long range pass from his teammates, he was always contesting the ball with Ranocchia. But, when Balotelli was attacking goal, or in his attacking third, he was contesting with JJ. So we can say with confidence that both SES and Balotelli were moving left to right with SES coming from the sideline to the top of the penalty area and Balotelli into the keeper area. To complicate matters, Muntari would cover the Milan fullback who would overlap him to attack the space that both Balotelli and SES were vacating.

So Balotelli coming into the area was being passed (kinda) from Ranocchia to JJ. Nagatomo, after SES scored by attacking the area between Rano and Naga, took responsibility for following SES. Guarin, for some reason – maybe because he’s more CM than winger – was pinching in on Muntari. If this were chess, it would be a discovered check: Rano take Balotelli, Naga take SES, Guarin takes Muntari – leaving the very fortuitous Bishop free on the diagonal to threaten the goal. Milan just overloaded the right and then cleared out all the big guns so that someone else could make a pass back to their big guns again. When Inter tried to slide to the right to compensate Milan smartly worked the left side. But really, it started with a gamble that when faced with two men, one outside and one inside, Guarin would make the more conventional guess and cover inside.

So what was the magic formula to stopping it? All it took was Strama to put Zanetti on the right. With no personnel change, and maybe some harsh words, the plan must have been good, right?

Now, Zanetti isn’t any more gifted an athlete than Nagatomo, especially at 39. But in this game you are a god (little g) or you are a soldier. Zanetti is a god, and when he tells Guarin to drop his ass out wide to clog up SES at the halfway line, Guarin drops his ass out wide. That sorted, Zanetti waited for the fullback to come up. The once fortunate fullback was no match for Zanetti. Guarin become SES’s second skin and then just challenged him for the inside.

Muntari’s job was to cover when the fullback went forward, but when SES and the fullback started getting marked he was left freer. However, at that point, his freedom was moot. There was no possession for him to take advantage of and he now also had to play defense and run the floor. He had a shot or two but from way out, but I can live with that.

I used the term “training ground” to describe this, but I wasn’t using it as a pejorative. It shows a great deal of organization from the coach and discipline from the players and I applaud both aspects. I give Milan a lot of credit for turning their season around and that Mario probably puts them in 3rd place just on his game changing ability. So I obviously have some regard for their attack, if nothing else. But it is also honest. Milan, for all the perceived strength that they had in this game, all the perceived strength that the media is heaping on them right now, couldn’t maintain superiority of this game without the advantage of something their coach drew up on a tablet. And whatever else that says about them, I think that’s telling about what Inter can hopefully do.

Looking at the post game interviews afterwards, Strama understood that what followed in the 2nd half after breaking that right-sided play validated his ideas. Plus it gave him a lot of confidence - the game started badly but he was able to think his way through it and turn the tables. Inter were very competitive with a Milan without that crutch – and missing a Diego Milito. He was energized and bright eyed at that interview. Remember, he and Inter had no business coming close in the media lead up to this game. He knew exactly what he had done.

I want to wrap this up for the day, as this kind of grew into a much larger project than I intended and it looks like I’ll have to do one more part here, if no one objects, to talk personnel and formation. I promise it won’t be this long. Meanwhile, feel free to comment on this at your pleasure – whether you hate it or like it, I would appreciate the feedback.

But to bring Strama’s ideas full circle here, I think that the things that didn’t go well for this team in the first half could be used to good measure. I mean, as opposed to the Fiorentina game in which no one, coach included, did anything positive and there is nothing to take from that mess. In this game, if he has the presence of mind or the soul of a teacher, Andrea can run the first half and show the issues. Then he can run the second half and show the positives – as though to say, “See! There it is! This is what it should look like!”