Earlier this season, Michael Cox of nerdy football writing fame, watched 160 halves of Premier League action to see what strategy each team implemented at kickoff.
His theory: the new tactical sophistication of the game, coupled with freer kickoff rules would bring about more distinct styles. A couple of years ago, the IFAB (the International Football Association Board) decided that, for the first time, kick-offs could be taken backwards. Previously, kick-offs effectively required two players to stand over the ball: one to kick-off forwards, one to (generally) play the ball backwards to a team-mate. Now, a single player can stand inside the opposition half and pass backwards.
Cox’s research was interesting — you can read it here with a subscription to The Athletic. He found that “the majority of teams are content to create a 50-50 aerial ball in the opposition half”.
In that spirit, I re-watched all 16 of Inter’s kickoffs this season to see if they had a set pattern (as is want in Conte’s system) and whether or not Conte looked to implement certain tactics against certain opponents.
In short, Inter do the same thing every single damn time. First half, second half, it hasn’t mattered. With just one exception — one! — Inter have rolled the ball back, in as straight a line as possible, from the centre circle, with one striker (Lukaku if he’s playing) to a central midfielder who’s stood on the edge of a “D”. It looks just like this:
Things get a little frisky after that. That central midfielder will typically roll the ball to the centre halves, the wingbacks spread the field as much as possible, and Inter’s typical patterns of play begin. But sometimes, just to inject some disorder into this carefully choreographed symphony, that central midfielder will slide the ball to his right, like above. If that central midfielder is feeling downright crazy, he may roll it a nudge to his left. But very rarely.
Once. One time, away at the Nou Camp, the ball was rolled alllllll the way back to the centre backs all on his own, no middle man necessary. It is the only time Conte’s team has switched up its usual tactics.
Interestingly, Inter’s opponents have shown much more variance — a similar 50-50 split to what we’ve seen in the Premier League. The majority knock the ball back similar to Inter. But when opponents do switch it up, there’s been a common pattern: A long ball punted to the attacking sides left — isolating Inter’s right back spot.
Is any of this interesting? Probably not. But it’s something I’ll continue to monitor.