Coming into Monday night with all the pressure to keep pace ahead of the chasing pack of Milan and Juventus, Inter Milan were able to scape out a hard fought 1-0 victory over a high flying Atalanta side. A match against the two highest scoring teams in Serie A may not have seemed like a match to bet the under in, but Antonio Conte’s men put in a showing of catenaccio that would surely have put a smile on the face of the late great Helenio Herrera.
With a tactical chess match always guaranteed when facing Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta, Conte opted for two changes from the team that handled things away at Parma last Thursday. Arturo Vidal started in the place of Christian Eriksen in a move that presumably brought more midfield physicality and defensive cover while Lautaro Martinez made the logical start over Thursday’s goal scorer Alexis Sanchez. Elsewhere the rest of the team picked itself and bought interesting matchups all across the field. These included Achraf Hakimi’s battle against Robin Gosens, Romelu Lukaku against Atalanta’s fairly quick back three, and Duvan Zapata up against Stefan de Vrij and Milan Skriniar primarily as the Atalanta center forward tended to drift out to his left.
Like Conte, Gasperini made some tactical alterations in an attempt to best cope with an Inter defense that has been locked tight for weeks now. To do this, Gasperini opted for two attacking midfielders top play centrally behind Zapata in Matteo Pessina and Ruslan Malinovskyi. The objective for Gasperini with these two behind Zapata was that they could drop into the midfield and provide physicality while also creating a 3v3 with Inter’s back three in attack. Both team’s setups nearly mirrored each other and cancelled each other out. Inter’s 3-5-2 and Atalanta’s 3-4-2-1 that almost became a 3-6-1 in defense, meant that there was little space to be had for either team on the pitch and individual man on man battles would decide the match.
INTER (3-5-2):Handanovic; Skriniar, de Vrij, Bastoni; Hakimi, Barella, Brozovic, Vidal, Perisic; Lukaku, Lautaro.
ATALANTA (3-4-2-1): Sportiello; Toloi, Romero, Djimsiti; Maehle, Freuler, De Roon, Gosens; Pessina, Malinovskyi; Zapata.
Both teams started the match positively, trading corners in the opening minutes. However, it was clear from the opening whistle that neither team would be allowed much space to attack. Inter sat back, happy to push the Atalanta attackers and wingbacks wide while the visitors prodded the Inter backline and pressed aggressively when possession was lost.
After Conte’s early yellow card for complaining to the referee, the two teams traded a few chances. Zapata worked his way into the penalty area against Skriniar, but his centering ball found no one. Lukaku latched onto an Alessandro Bastoni ball over the top before some last gasp defending spared Marco Sportiello from having to make a save in the Atalanta goal. Towards the end of the half, Atalanta peppered Samir Handanovic ‘s goal with a couple of dangerous corners. The first of which required a quick reflex save from a Zapata header while the second was cleared off the goal line by Marcelo Brozovic at the near post after Berat Djimsiti headed a chance goalward. The two teams went into the dressing room at half time level on virtually all terms, tough Inter may have been fortunate to defend the corner chances the way they did.
The tactical chess match continued just as the players returned to the pitch for the second half. Gasperini was the first manager to blink, bringing on Josip Ilicic for Malinovskyi at the halftime interval. Conte followed suit shortly after play resumed, replacing a lackluster Vidal with the ever improving Eriksen. It would be the Inter boss’ move that would pay instant dividends, as he delivered the corner kick that ultimately led to the match’s lone goal just a minute after entering the pitch.
The corner, which was won by Ivan Perisic for a deflected shot, fell initially to the Croatian, who flicked it on to de Vrij with a header. His attempt at bringing the ball down was unsuccessful, but fell to Bastoni, who may have been fouled in a chaotic pinball situation that pushed the ball to the feet of Skriniar, who settled the ball cleanly and finished neatly to Sportiello’s bottom right. An effort that required close control and calm finishing put Inter up 1-0 and gave Skriniar his third league goal of the season.
Inter almost hit for a second goal quickly after the first, but again Atalanta’s defense was able to recover from letting Lukaku in behind. With a slim lead and an organized and confident defense, Inter began the process of battening down the hatches while Atalanta threw the attacking kitchen sink at them. The always dangerous Luis Muriel came on for Zapata and Aleksei Miranchuk replaced Pessina while Conte countered Gasperini by bringing on Alexis for Lautaro and Roberto Gagliardini in the place of Brozovic. Wingback changes also meant the inclusions of Matteo Darmian and Danilo D’Ambrosio for Hakimi and Perisic. Despite the shuffling of decks for both teams, Atalanta only offered a few half chances in the latter stages of the second half, ensuring Inter’s 1-0 victory by way of scoring on their only attempt on goal. A massive step closer to a first Scudetto in over a decade for the Nerazzurri.
Handanovic - 7.5: Inter’s captain has really rolled back the years in recent performances. His save on the close range Zapata header again showed us that the Handanovic of old is still in there. Just as important was his distribution in buildup play, which is crucial in matches against teams that press as high as Atalanta.
Skriniar - 8.5 (MOTM): An absolutely massive performance. Zapata picked Skriniar out as the center back that he wanted to take on the most and surely regretted it. He shut the Colombian down all match and scored an impressively technical goal. A true striker’s finish while denying such chances at the other end.
de Vrij - 7: When Skriniar wasn’t on Zapata duty, he was. Did his part to keep Atalanta’s dangermen quiet. Lost the header on Zapata’s chance, but Handanovic made the save. Not bad against a team that is rarely kept off the scoresheet in away matches.
Bastoni - 7.5: Very impressive against his former team. He was fored to deal with constant pressure from Atalanta’s wingback Joakim Maehle, but did not let it bother him. Did his defensive duties and could have had an assist on a long ball to Lukaku, but got one for fighting to win the ball for Skriniar on his goal. One of his most complete performances.
Hakimi - 6: Very much preoccupied by his matchup against Gosens, but did not let the German get the best of him defensively. However, this meant he contributed very little going forward. Definitely needed more from him as one of Inter’s main attacking threats, but he’s surely due a massive performance sometime soon.
Barella - 6.5: While his usual attacking and linkup were affected by the logjam in midfield, he did all of the dirty work and then some. Fought for every ball but could probably use a rest in one of the coming matches.
Brozovic - 7: The standout among the midfield three that started the match. Kept Inter’s passing moves ticking despite the Atalanta pressure and provided physicality when needed.
Vidal - 5: Much was made of Conte going back to the Chilean, but his performance did not necessarily justify the tactical change of dropping Eriksen. Consistently looked lost in buildup and took three to four touches to make decisions that should have needed only one or two. Very rusty.
Perisic - 7: Finally putting some work and confidence into Perisic has paid off for Conte. He is putting in work on both sides of the ball and improving defensively with every performance. Won the corner for the Skriniar goal and got involved in the scrum that eventually got the ball to the defender.
Lukaku - 6: Fed off scraps in attack. Got in behind the Atalanta defense a couple of times, but they were quick to recover. However, his work in holding up the ball and winning fouls to relieve pressure was very important to the team as a whole.
Lautaro - 6.5: The tight spaces allowed him to work with his flicks and tricks in transition, but his passing after spinning free was often not there. His press and dropping deep into the midfield to cope with Atalanta’s six players across the midfield was very important. Like Lukaku, his non-goalscoring contributions did prove to be important elsewhere.
Eriksen - 7.5: Instantly proved all the speculation that went into Vidal’s inclusion from the start wrong. Provided the service that led to Skriniar’s goal but then pressed and defended very well. Growing a sense of confidence in this side of his game could go a long way for him and the team.
Alexis/Gagliardini/Darmian/D’Ambrosio - N/A
Conte - 7: While Vidal looked slow, that was the only possible folly in Conte’s approach to the match. The concern for physicality was warranted, but when the initial solution did not pan out, he was quick to include Eriksen. The organization of the team right now is immaculate, and that’s credit to Conte.
After passing such a big test, Inter have a trip to face a struggling Torino next up on Sunday. A match that will surely look a bit different to this one.