The first Derby della Madonnina of the 2015/16 Serie A season offered up a riveting, close contest that was only decided in Inter’s favour by a Fredy Guarin strike in the 58th minute. Both teams decided to line up in a variation of the 4-3-1-2 system with diamond midfields. Inter have been using this system since the end of last season, while Milan only began using it at the start of this campaign under the stewardship of new head coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic.
The most surprising selection decision made by Roberto Mancini was to field Gary Medel in central defence alongside Jeison Murillo. With Brazilian regular Miranda injured, Mancini opted for Medel instead of a more traditional centre-back choice in Andrea Ranocchia. The reasoning behind this was that Mancini wanted to play a high defensive line, perhaps with the intention of suffocating Milan. While extremely short for a centre-back at 5 foot 7 ½ inches tall, Medel is relatively fast, has excellent ball-recovery skills and man-to-man nous, traits suitable for playing in a high line.
With Medel alongside Murillo, Inter had a central defensive pairing comfortable and skilled in running back toward their own penalty area, something they would have to do regularly in this match, confronted as they were by a fast Milan forward line of Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano.
Milan also modified their starting line-up for this game, with the most prominent changes coming in midfield. Mihajlovic chose to field Riccardo Montolivo at the base of his diamond instead of Nigel de Jong, who started each of Milan’s opening two league games. On the right of the diamond, the injured Andrea Bertolacci was replaced by Juraj Kucka.
These decisions were made to try and gain greater control of the midfield, something Milan had previously been lacking. Their usual central midfield pairing of Bertolacci and Giacomo Bonaventura is creative but lacks the energy and defensive solidity to provide the requisite balance within a diamond, while de Jong is an ample enforcer but simply unable to spray passes around the pitch from the base of midfield. Kucka’s durability and Montolivo’s passing range ensured Milan’s midfield was at least more balanced, even if they were unable to compete with Inter in this area, but more on that later.
Milan look to exploit space behind Inter’s high line
Inter’s defence came under intense scrutiny in the opening stages of the first half. This was due not only to Milan’s pace in attack, but also to the way the Rossoneri played collectively with and without the ball.
When Inter had possession at the back, Milan’s front three pressed intelligently, with Bacca and Adriano shifting slightly wider to cut off Murillo and Medel’s passing lanes out to the full-backs. Keisuke Honda, Milan’s trequartista, would then push up through the middle to pressurise Inter centrally. This fairly comprehensive coverage would lead to Murillo panicking as early as the second minute.
This is depicted below where, with limited options available, the Colombian centre-back would attempt to play the ball beyond Bacca to find left-back Juan Jesus. Bacca would cut out the pass before feeding a through-ball for Adriano to run onto. Fortunately for Murillo and Inter, the Brazilian’s shot was saved by Samir Handanovic.
When in possession Milan played a more direct brand of football as they looked to exploit the space in behind Inter’s high defensive line and utilise the speed of their strikers as quickly and as often as possible. As a result, Inter’s central defenders were often forced into one-on-one running contests, such as in the seventh minute, when Adriano was again played in (see below image). Murillo just managed to get back to put off his opposite man with a lunging tackle but, under 10 minutes later, Adriano was again played into space as Milan counter-attacked.
The nature of this confrontation between Milan’s more direct style and Inter’s high defensive line was exemplified by Medel and Murillo’s tackling statistics. Throughout the match, they made 10 tackles, a significantly higher amount than the two made by Milan’s central defensive duet of Alessio Romagnoli and Cristian Zapata.
Inter suffer from congestion in attacking areas
Milan’s defence held a slightly deeper line and their back four was also horizontally compact, offering few clear routes through the middle for Inter’s attack. This, along with the narrow layout of Inter’s attacking trident, led to congestion in the final third for Mancini’s men.
Inter’s attack was slightly more fluid than Milan’s. While nominally Mauro Icardi and Stevan Jovetic were the two strikers supported by new signing Ivan Perisic at the tip of the midfield diamond, the tendencies of these three players and the creative license offered to them meant Inter’s attack developed in unorthodox ways throughout the game.
Jovetic and Perisic, who were relatively free to wander, both showed a natural inclination to drift left, from where they could both drive inside onto their favoured right foot, while Icardi naturally wanted to spearhead the attack and thus drifted into a more central position. This may well have been a deliberate ploy to overload the left-hand side, stretch Milan’s centre-backs and create extra space for Icardi to exploit with his predatory instincts, though if this was the case the ploy failed, mainly due to Jovetic and Perisic’s aforementioned urge to come inside.
Due to their resultant inevitable close proximity to one another, the trio tried to weave intricate passing moves in the final third, but the compactness and deeper line of Milan’s defence made such moves generally unworkable. As a result, many of Inter’s attacks slowed to a halt with a lack of width leading to central clutter and minimal space.
This congestion is shown in the below images. In the first image, Jovetic tries, and fails, to play a one-two with Icardi, who was expecting the ball to go in front of him. In the second image, Jovetic drives forward only to be confronted with little opportunity to find either Perisic or Icardi.
Inter midfield domination key to building attacks
Milan’s new-look midfield arrangement gave them greater stability, though they found life difficult up against an aggressive, physical and well-organised Inter midfield. One of the Nerazzurri’s most recent arrivals, Felipe Melo, played a major role in the team’s success in this area. The 32-year-old former Juventus player was signed from Galatasaray in the final days of the summer transfer window and his commanding presence, intelligent positioning and well-timed tackling – combined with an occasional dose of cynicism – enabled Inter to dominate in midfield.
Melo didn’t do it single-handedly; he had quality assistance in the form of Geoffrey Kondogbia, who solidified his status as one of the best up-and-coming ball-winning midfielders in Europe, and the match-winner, Guarin. Together, Melo, Kondogbia and Guarin made a total of nine tackles, five more than Milan’s midfield were able to complete.
The tireless and effective work of this trio made the game simpler for the rest of their team, shutting down Milan further up the pitch and building more structured attacks. This complemented both Inter’s high defensive line as well as the type of player they had in attacking areas who, while highly technical, are not particularly athletic or physical and feed better off of more considered, passing build-up play as opposed to a more direct approach.
Gaps in Milan’s pressing cause problems
With the scoreline at 0-0, Milan continued to hold a fairly deep defensive line geared towards a more back-to-front style of football, whereby the attackers would be released with speed upon a turnover of possession. Out of possession, Milan’s attackers also continued to harry Inter’s defence further up the pitch whenever the opportunity arose.
As the game wore on this strategy led to Bacca, Adriano and Honda frequently being separated from the rest of the team, offering space between the lines. This could be attributed to physical or mental tiredness or, worse still, poor positioning or organisation. Whatever the cause, this development played a large part in deciding a very tight game.
Just prior to the hour mark, Milan’s front three effectively closed down Inter’s central defenders, restricting their passing options and forcing them to cede ground. This led to the ball being given back to Handanovic before Kondogbia dropped deep to receive. However while this was happening Milan’s other midfielders and full-backs were slow to move up and support this pressing manoeuvre. Thus, not all passing lanes were cut off and Inter were able to maintain possession, successfully playing it out wide from the back having sucked Milan deep into their own territory. This sequence is illustrated below.
This passage of play finally created some space for Inter to drive into on the counter-attack. For once Milan were the team forced to transition into defence at high speed and, as illustrated in the above image, they did so in a six-on-six situation, a consequence of their fumbled high pressing ploy. From this point, Davide Santon released Guarin, who carried on before slotting into the bottom left corner to give Inter the decisive goal.
Balotelli introduced to break down reactive Inter
After taking the lead, Inter gradually accepted a more reactive stance. With something to hold on to, they sat further back as a unit in an attempt to stifle Milan’s attacks. This is shown below, where even Icardi – Inter’s most clinical finisher – is well within Inter’s half. Milan had to find a new way of opening Inter up; no longer was direct, vertical football going to work. To this end, their introduction of Mario Balotelli was an important substitution.
Balotelli made his return to San Siro turf by replacing Bacca a few minutes after Inter had gone in front and his desire to take the game by the scruff of the neck and influence it was immediately apparent. The first thing he did was step up to take a free-kick from the right, which he whipped into Inter’s penalty area to create an element of danger.
Balotelli’s ingenuity and willingness to take opponents on was a useful tool for Milan to use at a time when they had to figure out how to break down an Inter team that was dropping deeper and deeper. He carved out a number of chances, hitting the post with one and bringing a brilliant diving save from Handanovic with another, but ultimately he was unable to alter the score as Inter held on to their 1-0 lead to claim victory.