There were plenty of strong performances last night, but how can this not go to Lukaku and Lautaro? The pairs link up play was simply stunning. In full flight, they were borderline unstoppable. The wink-wink chemistry between the two has been excellent all season, but last night it cranked up to a whole other gear. The sneaky runs, the little flicks, it was all there.
Lautaro and Lukaku fought and tussled and battled. They seemed to win every 50-50 ball, every nudge, every bounce. Napoli’s central pairing didn’t look as up for the fight. When your best two players, and the first to set the press, play with such verve it has a compounding effect on the rest of the team.
The first ten minutes were all Inter. They set the tempo, took the lead, and then settled in – a little complacently, it must be added.
(If you have time, go back and watch the first ten minutes again. Focus only on Brozovic. It is an absolute masterclass, a genius at the heigh of his powers. He controlled the entire first 10 minutes of the game, setting the tempo on the road and dictating play, not letting Napoli set into their own rhythm. Every single thing ran through him)
There were long passages of languid play. Inter sat deep, like really deep, hoping to contain the pace and movement of Inter’s front three. That’s best illustrated by the heat maps of the starting wingbacks, Candreva and Biraghi:
Napoli’s front three played more narrow than usual, looking to stretch Inter’s wider centre backs, rather than troubling themselves with the speedier wingbacks. It worked. They created a bunch of chances. If not for an incorrectly disallowed goal at one-nil, it could have been a different outcome.
Inter were consistently overrun in the middle of the park, with Brozovic often left to fend for himself. Gagliardini was pulled just short of an hour after he was consistently given the run around. Vecino’s inability to find and then track runners is a serious issue, particularly against opponents who decide to play two speedsters in the half-spaces:
What even is that? Vecino pushes towards Insigne, with Skriniar stepping out of the backline to apply pressure. Insigne nicked the ball inside, taking Skriniar out of the game, before driving into the box. Vecino just, I mean, he just hit the breaks. He just stopped and watched as Insigne played a one-two perfeclty into the path of his rifght foot, on the inside shoulder of Candreva. The move started in-line with the edge of the penalty box! with the forward driving onwards towards the box! This is not out on the wing, where Candreva should be in a better position. Vecino just gave up. He got lazy. He expected someone else to do the job. Ugh.
The Big Picture
The bad doesn’t really matter. It was a tricky away trip and Inter applied themselves brilliantly, led by two talismanic strikers. Conte’s tactics were good. He routinely pushed de Vrij forward to create a kind of 2-2 double pivot, in a low block, with Skriniar and Bastoni shielding behind Brozovic and de Vrij in build-up play. That offered a constant outlet against the press of Napli’s from three.
It’s fun watching a coach who has such a dramatic game-to-game impact on his team.
Samir Handanoic, 6 – Made a series of decent stops. Didn’t have a whole lot to do, but was well prepared when chances came his way. Once again, his distribution was up and down.
Milan Skriniar, 6 – Another reliable performance. A brilliant reader of the game who stuffs out counters before they’ve even began to unfold.
Stefan de Vrij, 8 – Remains Inter’s most reliable presence. Does an outstanding job of initiating attacks, funneling the ball to the wing backs, and orchestrating the defence. Few defenders do a better job of being in all the right places at all the right times like de Vrij. At times, it’s like operating with an extra defender on the pitch.
Alessandro Bastoni, 6 – Bastoni is special. His distribution out of the back and smoothness on the ball is beyond rare. This wasn’t his best night, though. He was at fault for a few of Napoli’s chances – pinching too far inside, misjudging the flight of the ball, and appealing for offside rather than dealing with, y’know, the actual danger.
Antonio Candreva, 5 – An up-and-down night. He was penned in his own half, which isn’t the best use of his gifts. Gave the ball away a few times in dangerous positions. Must be better.
Cristiano Biraghi, 6 – He was fine. It was a game that suited his style: playing more defensively than going forward. It was clear the Napoli game plan was targeting the inside right channel, the space between Biraghi and Bastoni. The pair struggled to figure out who should deal with danger, before Bastoni eventually took over.
Roberto Gagliardini, 4 – Not close to good enough. Was pulled off after 55-minutes to make way for Barella. Gagliardini is fine going forward. But all too often he drifts – forwards and sideways – leaving clear transition paths for the opposition and exposing Brozovic to overloads in the middle of the pitch. He offers energy and running, but that’s basically it. And even that he isn’t doing right.
Marcelo Brozovic, 8 – Inter’s best player, as usual, outside of the front two. He ran everything. He controlled the tempo of the game early on. He kept the side ticking along as they shrank deeper and into their own half, helping to spring Lukaku for his marvelous second goal.
Matias Vecino, 6 – As already covered, his defensive work remains unpredictable (and I’m being kind). He remains a threat going forward, almost scoring a delicious near post flick on. His movement off-the-ball has become much better as of late; he no longer spends the majority of the game clogging Lukaku’s space – Lukaku himself did most of his damage in the inside-left channel last night. His cross to set up Lautaro’s goal was outrageous.
Lautaro Martinez, 9 – There’s just something about this duo. Their defensive work was outstanding, pressing and harassing a nervy back-four. Lautaro’s movement and pace had Napoli’s makeshift central duo chasing ghosts.
Romelu Lukaku, 9 – Where to begin? His goals were magnificent. There was something encouraging about the fact that they didn’t come in a free-flowing team-oriented way. The second one kind of, sort of did. But it was choppy, and Lukaku still had a lot to do. Essentially, he put the team on his back, bagged two goals, then pressed from the front, leaving his teammates to sit in a low block to see out the win. The two-man game he has worked up with Lautaro is all kinds of destructive – pace, power, agility, movement, smarts, goals:
That’s brilliant strike partner play... and Lautaro never touches the ball. Instead, he makes a cross face run. He doesn’t drag the defender out of position, as intended. But he does enough to buy Lukaku and extra beat and an inch of room. His finish was devastating.
Lukaku has become a leader, as much through his actions as any words.