Barcelona rematch: 5 changes for a balanced counterattacking setup

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The following enumerated paragraphs propose five changes to Internazionale's starting lineup from the 2-0 Champions League defeat to Barcelona at Camp Nou on Oct. 26, 2018 for our home rematch at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on November 6th.

My fundamental premise is that our best chance of winning (whether or not Lionel Messi returns after his broken arm recovered much faster than expected) requires acceptance that Barcelona will dominate the possession battle, so we should mitigate their central superiority against our depleted midfield with a counterattacking setup that is rock solid in our defensive third as a Back Six, but also capable of quick vertical transitions down either wing to create chances in the box for our Four Forwards: Mauro Icardi, Ivan Perisic, and Matteo Politano, plus Keita Balde (or Lautaro Martinez).

A recent example of this approach working against Barcelona is the 1-1 draw on Oct. 7 at Valencia, which featured Geoffrey Kondogbia in the double pivot of their Flat 4-2-4. Undefeated in the Champions League and Copa del Rey so far, Barcelona's only loss of the season happened 2-1 at Leganes, who began the game in last place of La Liga but successfully counterattacked using a 5-2-3 formation.

When Julen Lopetegui attempted to play a possession style with three midfielders plus Isco in El Classico, Barcelona embarrassed their arch rivals 5-1 and Real Madrid fired Lopetegui after less than half a season as their manager. Without further ado, here are my five suggestions for a balanced counterattacking setup in our Barcelona rematch on Nov. 6.

1.) Having seen Borja Valero's inability to keep up with Barcelona's rapid passing and pressing, while also considering Matias Vecino's limitations relative to Barcelona's world-class midfield, I strongly believe that the time has come for Luciano Spalletti to experiment with starting Milan Skriniar alongside Marcelo Brozovic in the double pivot. As we all know, Financial Fair Play restrictions resulted in Roberto Gagliardini and Joao Mario's exclusion from our Champions League squad, so Internazionale's Center Back depth is better than our Midfield depth this European campaign. Even if Radja Nainggolan were not injured, Spalletti would probably deploy him as usual at trequartista, especially since Borja was not effective there at Camp Nou.

Kwadwo Asamoah's quality in midfield is undeniable, but that valuable versatility is outweighed by his importance as our obvious number one Left Back. That leaves Vecino and Valero as the only natural options to partner Brozovic in the double pivot, but for tactical reasons I will elaborate on soon, Skriniar strikes me as a stronger choice than either of the former Fiorentina midfielders to shield our Back Four alongside/slightly behind "Epic Brozo" against Barcelona's possession death machine. For now, suffice it to say that the Slovakian Center Back has impressed in the defensive midfield role for his national team on several occasions, including against England's then-future World Cup semifinalist team at Wembley in 2017. The upcoming match in Genoa, coincidentally against his former city rivals from Skriniar's first Serie A seasons at Sampdoria, sounds like the perfect challenge in a familiar-but-intense setting to ease Skriniar into the double pivot role at a high club level (probably alongside Gagliardini though, since Brozovic should rest on the bench this weekend unless needed).

2.) On Nov. 3, the Serie A start at RW against Genoa should be given to Antonio Candreva so that three days later a well-rested Matteo Politano is ready to be our starting Right Winger against Barcelona at the San Siro. It is worth noting that recently, Jordi Alba has been spectacular after his former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique excluded the Left Back from Spain's squad for the international break.

He scored the second goal to clinch their win against us in the Champions League before assisting Phillippe Coutinho's goal to open the scoring of their 5-1 El Classico win on Sunday, Oct. 28, in which Alba's defensive contributions forced Welsh superstar Gareth Bale into a disappointingly quiet performance and a 77th minute substitution for Marco Asensio (who also proved futile as Barcelona scored twice to close out the game without conceding another goal).

Any Right Winger in the world faces a challenge going against Jordi Alba on current form, but Politano has earned the opportunity to be starting RW in our biggest home game of the season so far. A win can virtually guarantee Internazionale's advancement to the Champions League knockout rounds, and our best chance of beating Barcelona likely requires Politano's creativity to help score on counterattacks (not to mention his set piece ability with both feet).

3.) To secure our right flank while providing enough offensive threat to pin back Jordi Alba as much as possible, Sime Vrsaljko is the best choice to start at RB instead of Danilo D'Ambrosio. I could type out a lengthy paragraph defending this point, but I think it goes without saying by now that Vrsaljko is the better attacking fullback who can also play wingback, while D'Ambrosio is the more defensive fullback who can also be trusted to play CB in a back three. Danilo has scored the occasional goal for us over the years, and he absolutely might be useful as a substitute to defend a possible lead, but starting against Barcelona's left flank of Coutinho and Alba requires Vrsaljko's build-up play contributions to help launch our rapid vertical transitions for counterattacks down the right wing.

The World Cup Finalist could be equally useful at containing Jordi Alba's overlapping runs whenever Barcelona has the ball, but the primary reason to choose our Croatian RB instead of D'Ambrosio is to pin back Barcelona's LB and hopefully force Alba to spend as much time and energy as possible actually defending, so that he ultimately spends less time in our attacking third.

4.) With the injured Radja Nainggolan still unavailable, Keita Balde should play as the free-floating second striker/trequartista instead of Lautaro Martinez. I have as much faith in our young Argentine LM10's superstar potential as any other Internazionale supporter, but at his current experience level, I trust Lautaro to outplay Sergio freakin' Busquets less than I trust Keita Balde to simply outrun and out-hustle the Spanish CDM maestro. At the very least I feel confident that Keita's pace could cause problems running into the space that Barcelona always leaves at the back in possession, especially after a turnover if Jordi Alba (or Sergi Roberto, or Semedo) gets caught out in the attacking third.

Starting from more of a Central Attacking Midfield position behind Icardi rather than a supporting striker role alongside him would accomplish two main purposes: when Barcelona have possession, Keita's pace alone when pressing would allow him to harass Busquets (to quote Park Ji-Sung on his successful man-marking of Pirlo at AC Milan in 2010 for Sir Alex Ferguson's Man. Utd.: "I tried to block him so that he cannot be in possession of the ball. When he had the ball, I tried to prevent him passing the ball in front of him."

It really is that straightforward, but nonetheless requires a ton of running) much more effectively than what Borja is capable of at his current age; whenever Internazionale win back possession, Keita's pace (again) and two-footed dribbling skills would allow him to chase down long passes behind attacking fullbacks, and his goal pedigree plus height make the Senegalese winger enough of a threat in the box to open up space for Icardi, Perisic, and Politano during sustained attacking spells. This is the point I feel least strongly about of the five, and I would really love to see Lautaro score as a supersub, but I think it simply makes more sense for our desired counterattacking setup to give Keita Balde at least 60 minutes (unless he has a terrible first half performance of course, although neutralizing Busquets' massive influence would be a crucially significant enough off-ball contribution to satisfy me for this match).

5.) Not to state the obvious, but Skriniar is the Right Defensive Midfielder in my hypothetical Best XI for this Barcelona rematch... and I'm NOT advocating for Ranocchia to start against Barcelona in the Champions League by any means. Therefore, the starting CB to the right side of Miranda should be Stefan De Vrij. The 26-year-old Dutch defender has proven reliable alongside both Skriniar and Miranda in some of this season's biggest wins so far, including the 2-1 Champions League opener at home against Tottenham Hotspur to take an early advantage in Group B competition.


IF each of my suggested "Five Changes for a Balanced Counterattacking Setup" were applied to Spalletti's starting XI from the previous Barcelona game at Camp Nou, the result would be the following fluid formation. Although the same lineup could interchange between hybrids of Flat 4-2-4, 5-1-3-1, or even 3-3-4 situational formations due to several players' versatility, it makes sense to list here as a 4-2-3-1 with each suggested change highlighted in bold:


Vrsaljko - De Vrij - Miranda - Asamoah,

*SKRINIAR* - Brozovic,

Politano - Keita Balde - Perisic,


For context, here is a visualized reminder of the actual 4-2-3-1 that Spalletti used in that game:


D'Ambrosio - *Skriniar* - Miranda - Asamoah,

Vecino - Brozovic,

Candreva - Borja Valero - Perisic,


In that game, Spalletti made the following three attacking midfield substitutions: Politano for Candreva when down a goal at halftime (45'), Lautaro for Borja (63') to increase attacking impetus, and Keita Balde for a tired Perisic (77') before Jordi Alba clinched Barcelona's 2-0 victory in the 83rd minute. Here is the lineup at that point through the end of the game visualized again as a 4-2-3-1:


D'Ambrosio - Skriniar - Miranda - Asamoah,

Vecino - Brozovic,

Politano - Lautaro - Keita Balde,


Keep in mind that Coutinho loves to occupy that Left Wing/Attacking Midfield half-space between D'Ambrosio and Vecino (supported by Skriniar behind), or between Vrsaljko and Skriniar (supported by De Vrij) in my suggested lineup. For your convenience, here is a visualized reminder of the 4-3-3 lineup that Barcelona used in that game against us in addition to El Classico as well, with the goalscoring starters (Vidal scored Barca's fifth against Real Madrid as a late substitute) from both games in bold:

Coutinho - Suarez - Rafinha,

Arthur - Busquets - Rakitic,

Alba - Lenglet - Pique - Roberto,

ter Stegen.

If I have time in the next few days before November 6th, I plan to write a more detailed follow-up FanPost to explain the reasoning behind my tactical suggestions for this upcoming game specifically as they pertain to Barcelona's current lineup. Obviously, I'm just an armchair manager, while Spalletti is the true professional who sees these players every day in practice, and has far greater insight than any of us into behind-the-scenes knowledge. That being said, tactics are a big part of the reason why I fell in love with calcio/soccer/futbol, so I find it fun to write down my ramblings on the topic for anybody who shares the passion. As always, feel free to debate openly or add your own tactical musings in the comment section! Forza Nerazzurri