Inter have a Vecino problem. It’s not the up-and-down performances or the wayward passes or the sloppy defensive play. It’s his positional awareness, and how that works in conflict with Romelu Lukaku, the fulcrum of everything the team does going forward.
The problem has never been so acute as it was against Verona. In possession, Vecino typically likes to shift to the right-side half-space, nudging ever so slightly towards the outer most part of the flank. That has caused congestion issues: eating into the space of Candreva or Lazaro who wants to get on the move and create. And it’s had knock-effects defensively: isolating Brozovic in the middle and voiding a channel against any kind of quick through ball.
Bigger issues arise out of possession, though. Without the ball, Vecino likes to occupy the same space but further up the pitch. Against Verona, it led to Inter operating with what looked like a front-three. Vecino, Latauro and Lukaku all crammed into a space as wide as the “D”:
This is not unusual for a Conte side. When flowing forward, the two central midfielders either side of the pivote are expected to form a front-four in the box, typically either side of the central striking pair. What’s frustrating about Vecino, however, is how he clogs Lukaku’s natural habitat, penning the striker into smaller, more confined spaces.
Lukaku likes to drift wide to the right-side channel and sometimes further towards the wing. Part of Lukaku’s issue in his final year at United was that he wasn’t able to drift out to the right and jag towards the middle. He was often isolated and alone, particularly against the big sides. When he finally found himself in wide positions, there was always someone clogging his space. When he can drift wide, gather the ball at speed, and cut onto his right foot, he’s deadly. This is how he wants to operate — though how slow the play was to develop threw things off a little.
Having a wide-man outlet is helpful with that style. They can distort the levels of the defence and provide over and underlaps. But Vecino occupying them same ares makes everything fudgy. Just look at this quick counter:
Verona sat in deep against Inter. Opportunities for quick-strikes on the break were few and far between. Things got tougher when the away side went one-nil up. But even when there were chances for Lukaku to burst in-behind and take-up his preferred spot, Vecino was consistently in the way stood a metre or two from Inter’s fulcrum:
Heat and touch maps from the game help tell the story, but what they don’t quite illustrate are the non-touches: where neither received the ball because they were practically stood on one another and no one wanted to give them the ball.
Football at its heart is not a tricky game. Teams like to expand the field in attack and shrink it in defense (though Conte would argue the second half of that point). Vecino and Lukaku together make that tough. They both want to occupy the same space. That’s fine individually but does not work together. It makes Inter look stilted and slow.
Vecino getting forward is important, as it is for either of those wider central guys. He scored the equaliser against Verona by charging into the box along that right-hand channel, before repositioning for a second ball. But he and Lukaku have to develop more chemistry in order for both to be effective throughout the game.
Sensi’s return to the lineup will help solve this naturally. He is just a smart, more positionally sound player. He hunts space and exploits it. But when Sensi is out or needs to be rotated, Inter has to come up with a better plan that allows Vecino to be effective while not obstructing Lukaku.