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Inter Milan’s success goes through the middle

A look at the midfield’s performance so far

FC Internazionale v Torino FC - Serie A
Matteo Politano of FC Internazionale in action during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale and Torino FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on August 26, 2018 in Milan, Italy.
Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

I can't see the future. I'm not a witch, I don't read tea leaves, I suck at cards, and I don't own a DeLorean. Chances are, if you're neither of these things, you can't see the future too. So there's actually no possible way that you could predict Inter Milan’s season outcome accurately.

So far, only two games have been played, with a loss and a draw as results. While only two losses would've been worse (and flat out awful), It's still too early for negative thoughts and pessimism. So, uh, brighten up.

With that being said, let's admit something: The results have been bad.

One point in two games is far from what we were expecting two weeks ago, and the football displayed at times by the squad is...modest. The first game against Sassuolo revealed a lot of weaknesses, cracks in the perfect glass we were looking at the squad through. Sunday’s game against Torino, while allowing us to see a much better display from the Nerazzurri, was also a case of disappointment, with Inter blowing a 2-0 lead in a game they had no business messing with. Serious improvement is expected in several areas of the squad, but one I’m particularly interested in, is the midfield.

Against Sassuolo, Luciano Spalletti opted for a midfield of five, starting with Kwadwo Asamoah, Lautaro Martinez, Matteo Politano, playing ahead of a double pivot of Mattia Vecino and Marcelo Brozovic in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Based, on the actual positions on the field, Vecino was playing a slightly more advanced role on the pitch, while Brozovic stood a little closer to the back four, helping the build up from the defense and responsible for the organization of the offense with the absence of a true #10 in the starting XI, with Martinez sticking close to Mauro Icardi, playing more as a second striker. Boy, did it go wrong.

Average squad positions vs Sassuolo
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In that game, Martinez had 37 touches, all-game; Of all the players who started, only Kevin-Prince Boateng (28) and Icardi (17 (!) ) had a lower number. While the Nerazzurro captain’s lack of interest for multiple touches and buildup play is well-documented, 17 touches is really concerning. I made a point recently that Icardi should be more involved in the offense, but the way the midfield performed, it was a miracle that he even managed to crack the double digit mark. Inter failed to create quality chances all game, facing a tough Neroverdi defense.

But let's be real, here: Sassuolo is not Chelsea, nor Atletico Madrid. Last year, Domenico Berardi’s teammates conceded 59 goals, and it was especially concerning to see Inter struggling so mightily to score against such a squad. The Nerazzurri resorted to the same old bad habits: plenty of crossing (32), despite the absence of our specialist in that matter, Antonio Candreva. Only Matteo Politano seemed to have a real impact on that end, always looking like a threat on Sassuolo’s left side.

But perhaps where Inter truly was awful (especially in the first half), was on defense. To put that thought in perspective, Inter had 62.1 percent possession, 70 percent in the second half, and still managed to concede 12 shots. The double pivot of Brozovic and Vecino never provided cover for the defense who got exposed to dangerous counter-attacks. Miles and miles of space were available to any Sassuolo player willing to make a run. Scenes like this were common enough throughout the entire game:

Notice the number of white shirts in the frame?

Paul Lirola, Berardi, and Alfred Duncan had a field day. Granted, there's talent in that Sassuolo side, but man.... An highly irregular press from Inter’s middle third meant that Sassuolo could build up, however they wanted, without fearing any resistance. Do you realize how at ease Duncan looks on this picture while everyone is moving away from him or backing down?

Everytime Sassuolo went hunting, they emphasized their right side, which has their strongest player, Berardi. The problem is, most of the time, only Brozovic and Asamoah were defending accurately on that part of the pitch. I don't know if it was due to Vecino’s scary looking appearance which meant that every Sassuolo player was afraid to take him on, but he was largely transparent in the press, allowing the Neroverdi to overcrowd Inter’s left hand side.

Anytime the Nerazzurri got overzealous, they would just play the ball inside (with Vecino not challenging), then outside (forcing Asamoah up the field while Ivan Perisic stands around looking), then inside again (Brozovic goes to defend and Vecino is still not there), then outside (Lirola/Berardi having made his run behind Asamoah’s back with an avenue ahead of him) in very simple (but effective) triangle shape passing, over and over.

And Sassuolo had a very aggressive press, relentlessly hounding whoever had the ball for Inter. Granted the ref was clement with the Sassuolo players, allowing some crude fouls to get by without bookings or not calling them at all, and with Duncan (who picked a yellow card very early) but Inter failed to react and keep a cool head under enemy pressure. The main victim of this was Brozovic who struggled mightily in the first half. Unsuccessful passes, ill-conceived slips on the field, poor touches, you name it. His final numbers look good (9 tackles, 88 percent passing accuracy, 11.4 percent of Inter’s total possessions) but that is a result of Sassuolo backing down in the second half to preserve the score, and a less arduous press. He played much better then, but left the game with no real impact.

Some of these mistakes were corrected in the last game. Inter aligned in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with the introduction of Sime Vrsaljko, Milan Skriniar in the starting XI, Dalbert, Martinez, and Joao Miranda being left out. The same double pivot of Vecino and Brozovic started, but with more confidence, and having had the previous week to improve, at some degree. And for a while, it worked.

in the first half, Inter looked unstoppable. The side was organized in a highly coordinated press, never leaving less than three Inter players to defend the Torino player that carried the ball. See for yourself:

And here:

This meant that wherever the ball carrier went, there was always a Nerazzurro behind him, in front, and on one side. If he turned, the press would shift too, if he passed, the same triangle would take shape elsewhere. The midfield was highly coordinated, with Brozovic easily gaining back possession whenever some lone Torino player got through the first lines, and Vecino was able to move up, linking up with the attack and taking shots of his own.

Offensively, the 3-4-2-1 allowed the squad to confuse the opponent: Whenever the attention of the defense focused too much on the inside, Perisic and Politano or someone else would exploit the flanks (like that delicious chance originated from that backheel from Politano to Vrsaljko) and if the defense left the interior unattended to, the wingers would move inside, wreaking havoc (like the Perisic goal). Inter were so good, that whenever they attacked, Torino looked in great danger of conceding. Soualiho Meïté never had the kind of impact he would've in the second half, and Inter looked en route to a quiet, dominating victory. The Inter players got so confident in the press that they moved it even higher up:

Yes, that's Politano pressing Salvatore Sirigu.

With such great football, it was a miracle that Torino conceded only two goals, and Inter looked the part.

Until the second half, that is.

A number of factors can explain why Inter allowed Torino to come back in the game, conceding two goals, and making Meïté look like Xavi Hernandez. For some reason, Spalletti decided to leave the initiative to Torino, relying on counter attacks to make a third goal. While the idea isn't bad in itself, it was unnecessary, given that the game was very much in control, at this point. Torino got comfortable creating, and resorted to the same aggressive pressing tactics that Sassuolo employed in the previous match. Brozovic slowly faded away, as did Vecino.

More and more Torino Players started flooding Inter’s own third, which remained mostly untouched in the first half. The defensive coverage by the midfield ceased to exist, and that dreadful long ball on Andrea Belotti’s goal happened. It was an awful read by Samir Handanovic, but it should never have happened in the first place. Chaos on the second goal (and another less-than-convincing Handanovic feat) meant that suddenly, Inter was fighting for a goal against a recoiled side, just like the previous time. Fatigue due to the energetic, arduous defending by the midfield must've also been a crucial factor. Nevertheless, it was another bland result after such a promising start of the game.

And now, after two games, Inter only has two goals, has already conceded three, and counts only one point. The midfield’s bad performance has coincided with the team’s modest results, and crucial improvements are badly needed. Before even starting, the team already has a Radja Nainggolan-shaped hole in the starting XI, which is totally unfair to a player thst is coming off an injury and wasn't there last year. There are positives, like we've seen in the second half vs Sassuolo and the first half vs Torino. But 45 minutes of good football is not enough, not if we actually want to win games, and challenge for a spot in the top 4. The midfield must get real good, real fast, otherwise the upcoming games might give way to more stuff like the previous games.


What do you think? Post your comments below!