This is part one of two in a month-by-month look in the rearview mirror at Inter’s 2020/21 season
Inter’s 2019/20 season was full of “nearly” moments. From finishing one point behind Juventus in a title race decided by mere inches (Gagliardini’s miss against Sassuolo remains one of the mysteries of the century), to a Coppa Italia semi-final exit by only one goal, and most painfully of all, the excruciating 3-2 Europa League final loss against Sevilla, what could have been was a common thought in the wake of last season. And that meant the pressure on the Nerazzurri to bring home silverware the following campaign was magnified to the extreme. Add to that Antonio Conte coming close to resigning and calling out the club in the media, the build-up to the 2020/21 season was a combustion of storylines. And safe to say, it did not disappoint.
Inter’s offseason barely lasted a month before it was hurled back into action thanks to the compressed COVID-19 schedule. Signs of a team still finding its feet abounded in the first pair of games. Inter pulled off a dramatic comeback against Fiorentina in the opener, winning 4-3 despite trailing as late as the 86th minute. The Nerazzurri had fewer troubles with Benevento, beating the newly-promoted side 5-2. But whereas Inter’s attack was in tip-top condition, the defense was far from full strength. Conceding five to the likes of Fiorentina and Benevento surely gave Conte sleepless nights ahead of fixtures with Milan and Lazio on the horizon.
The cracks that a red-hot attack was able to paper over in September only reappeared in greater force the following month. Inter opened the month with a 1-1 draw at Lazio, and though the visitors had their chances to take all three points, they couldn’t finish the job. Things took a marked turn for the worse soon after, however. The subsequent international break led to a coronavirus outbreak among several Inter players, including Milan Skriniar who was positive for over 20 days. The packed schedule amplified Inter’s lengthy absentee list. Milan was able to overpower a makeshift defense in the first derby of the season, winning 2-1. Most concerningly, however, Inter dropped points against weaker opponents like Parma and failed to win either of its first two Champions League games.
A common theme dominated the Nerazzurri’s poor run of form; Inter could create chances but lacked a finishing touch while the opposition needed only one attack to find the net. Samir Handanovic saved only half of the shots he faced, proving both the ease which Inter gifted quality chances away and the decline of the veteran keeper. With only one win in six games, October was a rough start to Conte’s second season in charge and Inter fell behind Milan in the table. By the time Haloween rolled around, few would have expected Inter to become champions to season’s end.
November began with a continuation of October’s struggles. Inter’s chances of advancing from the UCL group stage took a drastic hit with two losses to Real Madrid. The Nerazzurri were unlucky to not pick up a result in the away leg but came out second-best everywhere the following week on the San Siro pitch. Inter was firmly rooted to the floor of Group B after four matchdays and the Conte project looked to be sliding downhill at a rapid rate. Inter’s Serie A fortunes, however, slowly started to awaken.
The Nerazzurri found itself down 2-0 at the hour-mark to Torino in the first match since the international break. By the final whistle, Inter were 4-2 victors. The comeback gave Inter a massive confidence boost and Conte’s side marched on to a 3-0 thrashing of previously unbeaten Sassuolo the following weekend. Contrary to its style in the previous two months, Inter allowed the Neroverdi possession but was clinical in attack, whereas Sassuolo rarely tested Samir Handanovic. That would become Conte’s go-to tactic in the Spring months. With that win, Inter jumped to second and five points short of Milan. The title race was on!
- 3-2 @Monchengladbach (UCL)
- 3-1 vs Bologna
- 0-0 vs Shakhtar (UCL)
- 3-1 @Cagliari
- 1-0 vs Napoli
- 2-1 vs Spezia
- 2-1 @Verona
Inter continued its excellent league form with five straight wins in the final month of 2020. The Champions League, on the other hand, suffered a different fate. An away win to Monchengladbach kept Inter’s hopes alive into the final matchday and the good guys needed only to beat Shakhtar at home to finish second. But disaster struck. Inter stumbled to another 0-0 draw against the Ukrainian side with a much too passive approach to break Shakhtar’s bunker. The Nerazzurri finished an embarrassing fourth, not even enough for the Europa League.
Luckily, Inter’s perfect month in Serie A eased the pain of another European failure. It was still second but closed the gap on Milan to only one point while moving six clear and third and nine ahead of Juventus to end a remarkable 2020.
Inter was barely recognizable from its first seven Serie A games to the next septet. It went 3W-3T-1L (1.7 points per game) to 7W-0T-0L (3ppg) in domestic competition, seemingly flicking a switch at the end of the international break. But it was a bit more complex than that. In fact, there is one very conspicuous reason behind Inter’s troubles to start Serie A and in Europe. Antonio Conte made a slight alteration from last season’s 3-5-2 and shifted into a 3-4-1-2 to start the new season, but the formation change caused only chaos and disfunction.
Here are the average positions from Inter’s starting XI against Milan (1-2 loss), Borussia Monchengladbach (2-2), and Parma (2-2). In all three you can see one midfielder higher than his partners and a gap between the centerbacks and midfield.
The result was Inter found itself spread out and feeble in the center of the pitch. A simple pass could bypass the Nerazzurri’s midfield entirely and left the backline (which was far from full strength at the time) isolated. The following images all precede Inter conceding a goal against Milan and Monchengladbach.
Calhanoglu (on the ball currently) plays in Zlatan who dribbles all the way inside the box. Inter’s midfield isn’t able to put pressure on Calhanoglu so the centerbacks are the last line of defense. That gives Zlatan more space in behind and Kolarov eventually commits a silly penalty foul.
Milan switches play to the left flank with all of Inter’s midfield behind the play. Leao (number 17) beats D’Ambrosio one-v-one and Zlatan scores off the cross.
One through-ball from within Monchengladbach’s half bypasses Inter’s midfield entirely. All of the Nerazzurri’s midfielders are too high to cover any of the defenders once one of Monchengladbach’s attackers gets in behind and he easily converts a one-v-one with Handanovic.
While Conte saw the vulnerability caused by the 3-4-1-2 too late to save Inter’s Champions League chances, the return to a 3-5-2 was vital in the Nerazzurri’s lengthy Serie A winning run. Inter went from averaging 61% possession per game in the first seven games to only 45% a game throughout the winning run, shifting back to a pragmatic strategy. Once again the average player positions (via Whoscored) demonstrate the formation swap excellently.
The following four are from wins over Sassuolo, Bologna, Napoli, and Cagliari. Rather than having a pair of midfielders as the deepest point of the midfield, one player (usually Brozovic) operates between the backline and the rest of the midfield.
Not only would the 3-5-2 give Inter stability and structure in the early months of the season, but the Nerazzurri would rely on the shape as it ground out narrow victories week-in, week-out in the Spring.
While the first four months of the 2020/21 season were far from a success, they did lay the building blocks to the eventual title success. Inter turned around its slow league start to end the year neck-and-neck with Milan, though Juventus wasn’t far behind. The Nerazzurri’s UCL exit stung and increased the pressure on winning the Scudetto. Second place and ‘almost moments’ wouldn’t suffice come May.
And as we discovered, Inter made sure any talk of excuses or second-place finishes were completely erased from the conversation come Matchday 38.