Following six seasons out of the Champions League, Internazionale's return to club calcio's most prestigious competition resulted in the underwhelming record of 2-2-2 and an early exit into the Europa League. Although finishing third place in our "Group of Death" with Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur, and PSV Eindhoven is nothing to be ashamed of, many Inter Milan supporters justifiably feel a sense of underachievement ... especially given the significant summer investment by Suning to acquire seven new players in our squad's positions of greatest need.
In Part 1, I argued that our record in all competitions at the end of December felt like 14 wins plus 11 failures to take care of business (56% winning record), primarily because Spalletti has been far too willing to settle for the slimmest margin of victory (or even worse, just a draw, like against PSV... and in retrospect, also against Tottenham at Wembley) in situations where another goal could have comfortably secured all three points. In Part 2, I will now focus specifically on Inter's underachievement in the Champions League. WARNING: this post will necessarily be long enough that I can describe the starting lineups as well as the substitutions and context of the game in each draw and loss.
Part 2a: Back-to-Back Wins to Start the Group Stage
Before getting into the criticism of our manager, credit must be given where it is due: Spalletti's team won both of the first two Champions League games. On September 18th, 2018, Internazionale beat a very talented and well-coached Tottenham Hotspur squad 2-1 at San Siro.
Although Christian Eriksen opened the scoring with a deflected goal off a rebound in the 53rd minute, Inter showed great resolve to score twice in the final 10 minutes. Mauro Icardi, in his very first Champions League game, equalized in the 85th minute before Matías Vecino summoned more of his inexplicably clutch magic with the game-winner two minutes into stoppage time. Although Spurs had more possession, 54% to 46%, and more attempts on target, 6 to 4, Inter out-shot them 15 to 11 overall and ultimately earned the hard-fought victory in Milan.
On October 3rd, Internazionale traveled to Eindhoven for our first Champions League road game in six years. PSV, who had just won the Dutch Eredivisie title in 2017-2018, lived up to their reputation as formidable opponents at home by scoring first in the 27th minute with a Pablo Rosario blast to the top corner from 30 yards out.
Once again though, Inter demonstrated significantly improved mental strength from previous seasons to achieve another comeback victory! Five minutes after Samir Handanovic was lucky to earn only a yellow card despite handling the ball outside the box to prevent an arguably clear scoring chance, Radja Nainggolan (finally healthy at that point) smashed a volley into the net from a rebound to equalize just before halftime. In Icardi's second Champions League game ever, our talismanic (March 1st edit: hahaha) captain scored the eventual game-winner with a 60th minute empty net finish to take advantage of PSV's goalkeeper colliding with one of their defenders.
After these first two Champions League games, Nerazzurri fans around the world were understandably thrilled with the results. However, the victories overshadowed the fact that neither performance had been particularly convincing; in both cases, especially the road game at PSV, luck had played a significant factor to help us win each game by just a single late goal. Unfortunately, that come-from-behind approach turned out to be unsustainable, and it is possible that early success set the bar too high for Internazionale supporters' expectations.
Part 2b: The Ultimate Test Against Barcelona
However, Internazionale's surprisingly great luck at this point in the season continued when the most talented player in history was ruled out for both games against us after breaking his arm while playing Sevilla on October 20th. With the momentum of a seven game win streak, Nerazzurri supporters had plenty of reason for optimism entering Camp Nou on October 24th... as I explained in my second fan post ever.
However, there was also a serious reason for concern: Nainggolan, who is the cornerstone of Spalletti's tactical pressing, was ruled out of the game due to injury. Sime Vrsaljko was left on the bench too as he was just returning from injury, so Kwadwo Asamoah was needed at Left Back instead of midfield, with Danilo D'Ambrosio at Right Back. As a result, Spalletti chose Borja Valero to be starting trequartista in the following 4-2-3-1:
D'Ambrosio - Skriniar - Miranda - Asamoah,
Vecino - Brozovic,
Candreva - Borja Valero - Perisic,
In that game at Camp Nou, Spalletti made the following three substitutions: Politano for Candreva (45') when down a goal at halftime (which Rafinha had scored in the 32nd minute from a beautiful assist by Luis Suarez), 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 with a goal from our right flank (Politano and D'Ambrosio's side, NOT Keita and Asamoah's).
All three of Spalletti's substitutions in Barcelona were made to the attacking midfield line, so it is hard to fault our manager for tactical cowardice on that occasion.
However, his approach from the start of the game was questionable... against the possession death machine of a club that is synonymous with tiki-taka, Spalletti should have known that our depleted midfield would be outplayed by Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, and Arthur--the young Brazilian who is already considered "the next Xavi." As I argued in my third fan post ever, the logical response to this disadvantage would be adjusting to a more proactive counter-attacking strategy in the return leg to play over and around their midfield three with our most versatile lineup available.
Although Spalletti did not utilize my five suggestions (the most controversial of which was suggesting that Skriniar should play in our depleted midfield, which I still maintain was a good idea if you read the reasoning from that fan post), our beloved Nerazzurri earned a 1-1 draw in Milan against Barcelona's superior and more expensive talent.
Part 2c: When It All Fell Apart (and I go into more detail)
2c-i: Losing in London
The worst thing about this 1-0 defeat at Wembley is that a positive result against Spurs could have ensured our advancement to the knockout stage; this was essentially a one-game playoff, and all we needed to finish second in the group ahead of Spurs was a draw.
The day before, Spalletti was quoted as saying our Nerazzurri team "has found its true identity now" according to the commentators on B/R Live right before kickoff... unfortunately, that identity turned out to be cowardice as the team tried to do the bare minimum necessary to advance with a draw or one-goal win. As we all know, that overly-conservative approach backfired--our talented defense couldn't quite keep a clean sheet, as Eriksen came off the bench to beat Handanovic in the 80th minute, and our offense failed to score with only 2 shots on target out of 10 attempts overall. Spurs out-shot us with 14 attempts overall and 5 on target (fortunately for us, one of their nine off-target was when Harry Winks hit the crossbar in the 38th minute)... but their 1-0 win was ultimately a disappointing result not only for Inter fans, but also neutrals who tuned in to watch Harry Kane vs Mauro Icardi in a match-up of two of the world's most talented strikers.
With Vrsaljko injured yet again, Spalletti opted for a predictable starting lineup in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation:
D'Ambrosio - Skriniar - De Vrij - Asamoah,
Vecino - Brozovic,
Politano - Nainggolan - Perisic,
Internazionale were actually fortunate that Mauricio Pochettino matched our 4-2-3-1 formation with Lucas Moura (admittedly in great form at the time) and Erik Lamela instead of Son Heung-Min and Christian Eriksen respectively.
The Danish playmaker was just coming back from injury, but Lamela is still a laughable downgrade, as proven when he attempted a set piece routine at 20:15 (I'm rewatching that game as I write this) that sailed straight out of bounds... and the pesky Lamela unbelievably tried to blame Jan Vertonghen's run even though Eriksen would have created a legitimate scoring chance in that situation, let alone keeping the ball in bounds... anyway, I digress.
The point is that Spurs were there for the taking since Pochettino decided not to start with their best formation this season: the 4-3-1-2 diamond with D.E.S.K. (Dele Alli, Eriksen, Son, Kane) up front. Any arguments that Tottenham had the slightly more talented squad were IRRELEVANT up to this point. Despite being gifted that tactical advantage, however, Inter were simply outplayed in the first half.
Nainggolan, who clearly was still not match-fit, received a lot of criticism after this game for his virtually invisible performance (Vecino was just as useless though, at least when we had possession, in my opinion after watching the game twice), so it made sense to remove the Belgian CM just before halftime... but Spalletti arguably lost the game when he decided to put on Borja Valero in the 44th minute. The smarter, more ambitious move probably would have been to wait until halftime so Pochettino wouldn't have time to plan an adjustment, and then put either Keita Baldé or Lautaro Martinez into the game as the second striker for more of a counterattacking strategy.
During the halftime show, the B/R Live pundits pointed out how strong of a fight PSV were putting up against Barcelona in Eindhoven despite having nothing to play for... in retrospect, that clearly should have been noticed as a sign of the attitude they would bring into their final game at San Siro. As for our own game at Wembley, the halftime crew noted that Tottenham HAD to win whereas we obviously felt comfortable playing for a draw, perpetuating the stereotypical negative approach of Italian teams.
After the restart, Spurs immediately demonstrated a more aggressive approach, especially when their RB Serge Aurier had a subtly nasty challenge on Milan Skriniar in our own half. Several other questionable challenges occurred in the first 15 minutes of the second half, especially when Politano was fouled just outside Spurs' box but the referee incorrectly chose not to give us a free kick.
Valero actually played well in the second half, so within 15 minutes it became clear that Vecino was the one who needed to be replaced by either Keita or Lautaro for us to adopt more of a counterattacking strategy. In the 62nd minute, Pochettino made his first substitution by putting Son into the game for Lucas... and South Korea's most talented player immediately made a dangerous run followed by another chance when he brought the ball into their left side of our box that was ultimately well-defended by De Vrij.
In the 70th minute, Pochettino FINALLY took off Lamela to put Tottenham's most important player (even slightly ahead of Kane in my opinion, which is shared by many experts) into the game: Eriksen, who had scored Spurs' only goal against us in Milan.
As soon as he came into the game, the Dane's very first action was a set piece effort that put Lamela's first half attempt to shame by meeting Vertonghen's run at the back post with a pinpoint pass between a triple team of Asamoah, Skriniar, and Vecino. Although the Belgian CB's header went just wide of the post, the upgraded danger was immediately apparent; Handanovic was objectively too far away to make the save if Vertonghen had redirected the pass about a foot or less further to his left.
At this point, Spurs were outshooting us 14 (4 on target) to 5 (with ZERO on target for the Nerazzurri). Nonetheless, Spalletti waited until after Eriksen's 80th-minute goal to make our final two substitutions. Instead of being proactive with his starting lineup or changes earlier in the game, our manager wasted his chance to guarantee advancement to the knockout round with an overly-conservative attempt to play for a scoreless draw... followed by a "too little, too late" reactive approach once Spurs proved that they were too good for that strategy to work.
2c-ii: The Draw That Felt Like a Loss
PSV had nothing to play for in this match except pride as the defending Dutch champions came to San Siro, one of the world's most famous stadiums against one of Italy's biggest clubs. Although I had written over 2000 words by this point prior to my self-imposed deadline of January 19th, I got really busy with my last semester of college and couldn't bring myself to rewatch this game in my limited free time... after the 2-1 loss to Cagliari on March 1st, 2019, I'm mad enough at Spalletti that I'm willing to suffer through this embarrassing travesty versus PSV again.
Mauro Icardi appeared in his 200th start for Inter against the Dutch side coached by Mark Van Bommel, who won the 2011-12 Scudetto during his only half-season with rivals AC Milan, but is revered most by PSV supporters as a club icon. Spalletti selected a strange starting lineup that featured Candreva as well as Borja Valero in the midfield on either side of Brozovic:
D'Ambrosio - Skriniar - De Vrij - Asamoah,
Candreva - Brozovic - Valero,Politano - Icardi - Perisic,
The logic behind that starting lineup is almost commendable. Vecino was out with injury, while Nainggolan and Vrsaljko were just healthy enough to make the bench. Valero is useful for games in which Inter will clearly dominate possession, and Candreva offers width as a crossing threat in addition to his adequate ball control. However, that midfield three's creativity ultimately proved insufficient to overcome its defensive deficiencies, especially given our need to earn a better result than Spurs at Camp Nou.
The San Siro crowd roared loud enough to hear through the TV feed in the 8th minute when Barcelona took a 1-0 lead over Tottenham, two minutes after Perisic had hit the outside of PSV's near post with a header set up by Icardi. Even though our best chance in the first ten minutes came from a tight angle that was covered too well by PSV's goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet to realistically go in, Inter were still the better team by this point.
A minute later Spalletti appeared to signal a temporary switch to 4-2-3-1 with Candreva as trequartista, where he began by pressing well in the opposition's defensive third... but a minute after that, Asamoah had the ball stolen from him far too easily by Steven Bergwijn in our own defensive third, and the resulting cross from our left flank led to PSV's opening goal from an Hirving Lozano header at the back post that De Vrij left completely unmarked. As of this moment, Tottenham would advance because of their away goal advantage in the two head-to-head matches against us. We NEEDED at least a goal, and preferably two or more in order to advance.
A minute after THAT, while trying to help defend a PSV breakaway, Asamoah's slide tackle on Bergwijn accidentally redirected a ball straight to the in-form Luuk De Jong in our box... fortunately Handanovic made the save, but our beloved Nerazzurri were clearly unsettled, and nearly down 2-0 within the first 15 minutes. Our previous Champions League luck had obviously run out.
Politano created a decent headed chance for Icardi in the 21st minute, but like our other chances up to that point, none were significant threats to Zoet's net. Around the 27th minute, we had a sustained period of pressure, but each of Politano's three crosses into the box were cleared comfortably by PSV. Perisic almost got on the end of a halfway-decent scoring chance from a Candreva cross, but that was shortly followed by a Bergwijn blast at our own end in the 38th minute.
Neither team made any substitutions at halftime, even though Spalletti's side had just 45 minutes left to score at least one more goal at home than Spurs could at Camp Nou. It can't be stressed enough that Barcelona had nothing to play for, having already secured first place in the group, so Inter needed to be proactive in order to have any chance of advancing to the knockout rounds. Playing at home against the inferior opponent, there has never been a situation in Spalletti's time at Inter that was more demanding of attacking impetus. In fairness to our manager, his halftime speech must have motivated the players, because they came out of the break clearly fired up.
The first notable chance of the second half came as the game clock struck 48:00, with a clever through ball from Borja Valero setting up Icardi just outside the six yard box by the left post, but unfortunately Mauro's left-footed strike was close enough to Zoet that the PSV keeper comfortably deflected it out for a corner. The visitors responded with a chipped pass into our six-yard box that was just slightly too high for Luuk De Jong to head on target in the 50th minute.
In the 53rd minute, Politano curled a long shot on target from the top of the box, but again it was straight at Zoet unfortunately. From further outside the box after the ensuing corner, Asamoah attempted a low blast that was also on target, but once again it was an easy save for Zoet. Chances were traded back and forth, but for the most part, Inter were controlling the run of the play, spending most of the time in PSV's defensive half but unable to find a breakthrough.
In the 56th minute, Spalletti made one of the best possible substitutions available to him: removing Candreva to put on Keita Baldé. However, he was not put into an ideal role; although the formation was fluidly interchanging, it seemed as though Keita was slotted into Candreva's out-of-position spot at RCM, still in the 4-3-3. The Senegalese talent pressed energetically, but I don't think he touched the ball once until the 60th minute when he deflected a hard Perisic pass into the box off his knee.
One minute later, Politano put in a dangerous cross to Icardi to Valero and then to Perisic in the box, but none of the three could redirect it on target. Keita collected the ball at the left wing (his best natural position), and with his first three proper touches of the game fired in a dangerous left-footed cross to the back post, where Icardi's headed pass set up a bouncing volley off Borja's shin to the bottom left corner that forced a diving save from Zoet. Inter's defense remained solid against counterattacks, and our offense was clearly turning up the pressure on PSV.
In the 62nd minute, Keita at RCM received a Brozovic pass with a deft turn between two defenders before dribbling to the top of PSV's box, where he took a left-footed curling shot that Zoet saved easily enough while Keita's left knee took a knock from colliding with a PSV player on the follow through. Fortunately, treatment with a can of the magic spray got him back on his feet, and a minute later Keita tracked back to end a brief-but-dangerous attacking spell for PSV. Icardi laid off D'Ambrosio's subsequent cross for a long shot from Brozovic, whose bad connection, unfortunately, sent it into the stands from distance.
In the 66th minute, Icardi had a decent set-piece chance, but his volley was deflected out for a corner by PSV's substitute midfielder. De Vrij's header on the ensuing corner went straight at Zoet for another easy save. In the 69th minute, Denzel Dumfries went down clutching his lower back a minute after PSV's athletic RB had slowed down Keita's counterattack, which led to an attacking possession from which Inter failed to produce a decent chance. Spalletti used that stoppage to make his second commendable substitution, removing Asamoah for Lautaro Martinez to further increase our goalscoring threat.
Less than four minutes later, our beloved Nerazzurri finally scored!!! Inter appeared to use a 4-2-4 formation in the buildup, with Perisic dropping to pseudo-LB and Keita shifting to his best natural position at LW. D'Ambrosio's throw-in to De Vrij was passed to Valero. Then Borja passed it to the right side of the double pivot, where Brozovic pre-assisted the goal by meeting Politano's run out wide. The Italian curled a deep cross from RW to Icardi at the back post, and our (former) captain emphatically headed it past Zoet, for Mauro's 4th goal in his first 6 career Champions League matches!
Tottenham were still losing 1-0 at Camp Nou, so in the 73rd minute Inter were finally second place in the group... but the 1-1 draw would not be enough if Spurs scored even once. Regardless of how little time remained, we simply could not afford to place too much trust in Barcelona's unmotivated defense. Fortunately, the vibe inside San Siro switched from nervous tension to excitement, and the Inter players responded by aggressively pursuing a second goal. However, their efforts failed to produce a good enough scoring chance to take the lead.
In the 83rd minute, Spalletti made his most controversial substitution of the match: removing Politano for Vrsaljko, who was just returning from injury. In the interest of full disclosure, I expressed approval of that change in the match thread at the time... and honestly, I still maintain that position to an even greater extent now that I'm rewatching it. I pointed out the fact that Vrsaljko led our team in chances created per 90 back then... however, I thought that Politano was showing great endurance, and commented that Perisic should have been taken off instead. Now I realize that in the minute or two prior to this sub, Politano showed clear signs of exhaustion and then PSV had a seriously dangerous counterattack.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that Spalletti wanted to restore a proper back four to avoid conceding, while simultaneously introducing a creative attacking fullback threat. Unfortunately, the Vrsaljko change had no impact on the final score of our match... but then Spurs scored in the 85th minute of theirs and held on for a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou. With only 5 minutes plus 4 of stoppage time remaining to score a second goal, Inter failed to overcome PSV's time-wasting and resolute defense.
Just like that, we were demoted to the Europa League, and in this particular game Spalletti's substitutions could not be blamed. Instead, all criticism of Spalletti for this draw that felt like a loss should be directed at his starting lineup. First of all, the aging Borja Valero played ALL 90 MINUTES... Second, the starting formation was inexplicably imbalanced with Candreva at RCM followed by Keita... Third (perhaps worst of all), the clearly out-of-form Asamoah was yet again responsible for how we conceded that devastating 13th minute goal, and his defensive issues had already become an obvious recurring problem by that point. The only failure of Spalletti's three substitutions on this occasion was that he introduced those players far too late in the game to increase our goalscoring threat with enough time to capitalize.
Conclusions for Part 2
In retrospect, most objective observers would argue that Internazionale finished exactly where we should have expected to in this "Group of Death." Barcelona were clear favorites from the beginning and comfortably finished first with 14 out of 18 possible points as well as a +9 goal differential. A quality Tottenham Hotspur team that had years of experience playing together (with no new additions over the summer, compared to seven for us) just barely beat our newly-renovated squad to second place because of away goals, as both of us finished with 8 points and a -1 goal differential. Even PSV, who finished with only 2 points and a -7 goal differential, had won their domestic league the previous season ahead of a talented Ajax side.
Unfortunately, however, getting relegated to the Europa League still stings. Perhaps winning our first two games set the bar too high... and maybe supporters of Pazza Inter should have appreciated the role that luck played in those two early comeback victories. Nonetheless, the way that our manager handled the last two games against the same teams we had previously defeated made our sense of underachievement inevitable. In particular, Spalletti's overly-defensive approach backfired in the one-game playoff at Wembley. The failure to score an away goal against Tottenham was the single biggest reason why Spurs advanced to the knockout round, and thus Inter's return to the Champions League ended in disappointment.