Last Sunday’s Serie A top-of-the-table clash between Inter Milan and Fiorentina was billed as ‘beauty and the beast’. Inter represented the beast with Roberto Mancini’s predilection for midfield bulwarks, physical strength and tight one-goal victories, while Paulo Sousa’s Fiorentina brought beauty in the form of high-tempo, fluid passing football.
Prior to kick-off Inter were hit by an injury to their second striker Stevan Jovetic, a player who had been expected to continue his key role playing behind Mauro Icardi up front. While a blow, their surprising formation change had little to do with the Montenegrin’s absence. Mancini opted for a 3-5-2 formation with Ivan Perisic and Alex Telles as wing-backs, while Davide Santon started on the left side of a back three alongside Miranda and Gary Medel.
Fiorentina used a system more familiar to them, lining up in a 3-4-2-1 formation. Borja Valero and Josip Ilicic schemed behind lone striker Nikola Kalinic, with Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski and Marcos Alonso performing the wing-back roles on the right and left, respectively.
Fiorentina’s pressing scheme
Inter’s build-up play was disjointed by Fiorentina’s defensive shape and pressing scheme. When transitioning into the defensive phase the Viola’s inside forwards would move deeper diagonally, fanning out to cover the half-spaces. For instance, Ilicic would appear in the space horizontally between Milan Badelj, Fiorentina’s right-sided central midfielder, and Kuba, their right wing-back, but vertically slightly further up the field than those two. With Kalinic dropping slightly deeper to help pressurise Felipe Melo, this essentially created a two-layered, six-man midfield overload whereby at least two Fiorentina players had access to the ball at any one time, regardless of which Inter midfielder had possession.
Fiorentina coupled these defensive movements with a pressing game built upon atomising and isolating Inter in their own half. Whenever the ball was played into either of Inter’s two outside central midfielders, Fredy Guarin or Geoffrey Kondogbia, they were instantly pressed by their respective opposite men, Matias Vecino and Badelj. The unwieldy Melo, who was sat in his customary deep-lying enforcer role, also often found himself under immediate pressure from Fiorentina’s attacking triumvirate of Valero, Ilicic and Kalinic. Fiorentina were able to press so comprehensively thanks to their aforementioned shape, with two players often having good access to whichever Inter player had possession. Without clear passing lanes available to maintain steady possession, Inter’s midfielders were then often forced to go backwards.
Once Fiorentina’s movement and initial press had made Inter’s midfielders pass back, the attention of the front three shifted to the ball. An example of this is provided in the image below, where instead of retaining his original position in the left half-space, Valero can be seen chasing down the ball-player – in this case Miranda – whilst being supported by Kalinic and Ilicic. Again, this gave Inter little time on the ball and forced them to go long into the wide channels in the attacking third to try and relieve the pressure.
This pressing scheme paid dividends as early as the second minute (see below), when Medel was pressured into passing back to his goalkeeper, Samir Handanovic. Instead of holding his position or dropping back, Kalinic followed the ball and pressed the Slovenian, who responded by dallying before tripping Kalinic to give Fiorentina a penalty which Ilicic converted.
Fiorentina’s interconnectivity through diamonds and triangles
As well as aiding their pressing scheme, Fiorentina’s numerical superiority in midfield also supplemented their passing game, though it was more the structure of their 3-4-2-1 system that was chiefly responsible for this.
Their system is very similar, in fact almost identical, to that deployed by Gian Piero Gasperini’s Genoa, a team who also generally utilise a high collective pressing scheme and a fluid passing style. The systemic resemblance and their consequent stylistic similarities are no coincidence. One of the major benefits of the 3-4-2-1 undertaken by both Fiorentina and Genoa is the possibilities it can offer for interconnectivity between players. As portrayed in the below image of how Fiorentina lined up against Inter, the system allows for three diamonds; one each on the left and right, and one through the centre of the team. It also allows for 10 different triangles; five between the defenders, central midfielders and wing-backs, and five between the wing-backs, central midfielders, inside forwards and lone striker.
The quantity of possible connections not only enables more comprehensive collective pressing, but also offers a greater likelihood for creating good possession as each player should have a minimum of two viable passing options available to them when on the ball. For example, when Facundo Roncaglia has the ball on the right side of Fiorentina’s defence, he could theoretically find right wing-back Kuba or central midfielder Badelj directly as part of a triangle. He also retains the more conservative option of passing inside to the centre-back Rodriguez. Extending this hypothetical situation further, should Roncaglia opt for the harder, riskier and further away option within the right-sided diamond in inside forward Ilicic, the receiver – even if under extreme scrutiny from his opponent – would still have the option of relaying the ball back to Badelj or wide to Kuba within a triangle. These shapes are effective for constructing useful possession as they offer lots of diagonal angles that can be used to bypass the opposition’s press, create space and set up attacking moves.
The theory of interconnectivity is absolutely dependent on the clear situational and zonal awareness of each player, both on an individual and collective level. If one player is unsure of where they should be, or unwilling to occupy that space, connections can fall apart and the team’s structure and possession game goes with it. In his book, “Italian Serie ‘A’ Academy Training”, Dave Brown interviews Genoa coach Bruno Caneo on this subject. Caneo expresses the importance of this zonal approach as a means to achieving interconnectivity, saying:
“The role and the positions of the players in the formation are not as important as what part of the field they find themselves (in) at key moments in the game. They have to be capable and willing to fill whatever role is required depending on the situation and the zone they occupy.”
Under previous coach Vincenzo Montella, Fiorentina had extremely competent technical players. However, it’s one thing to have technically apt individuals and another to have them line up and move in a way that allows them to utilise their talents on a collective level. All of Fiorentina’s players have a solid degree of competence on the ball but Sousa’s structuring of the 3-4-2-1 system has, along with players such as Valero’s spatial intelligence, allowed them to work as a unit, linking with one another constantly through triangle and diamond-shaped combinations in every area of the team. This was something Inter were unable to get to grips with throughout the match.
The crucial positioning and movement of Fiorentina’s inside forwards
Within the opening minute of the match, Fiorentina’s left-sided defender Davide Astori received the ball from his goalkeeper, Ciprian Tatarusanu. Astori looked up and slotted a pass down the inside left channel to Valero, who had dropped back into his own half. This shift of the ball from defender to inside forward was illustrative of one of the great benefits of Fiorentina’s system, more specifically the positioning and movement of the inside forwards, Valero and Ilicic.
As aforementioned, the pair tended to take up positions in the right and left half-spaces or, in layman’s terms, the two spaces between each wing and the centre of the field. This offered each of Fiorentina’s outside defenders – Astori and Roncaglia – a direct, vertical option that could bypass Inter’s midfield and make them turn. While Fiorentina’s wing-backs and central midfielders could be cancelled out by their opposite men pushing up behind them and potentially pressing them back into dangerous territory around their own penalty box, Valero and Ilicic were able to find space between the man-to-man battles in the centre and on the wing. As well as offering Fiorentina’s defenders a valuable passing outlet, this movement gave Inter’s defence a dilemma.
While Fiorentina striker Kalinic led the line as a fairly central reference point and was thus easier for Inter’s defence to keep track of, Valero and Ilicic were often closer to Inter’s midfield than their defensive line. The Nerazzurri’s outer defenders, Santon and Medel, thus had to decide whether to track Valero and Ilicic or to back off and retain a more stable defensive line. Neither option was ideal.
If Medel and Santon adopted a man-oriented marking approach, there was the threat of being drawn out of position and leaving space in behind for Fiorentina to exploit. On the other hand, if they backed off, they gave space for Valero and Ilicic to drive into. The problems associated with choosing the former option were clearly visible for Fiorentina’s third goal. Medel rushed out, abandoning Inter’s defensive shape, to meet Valero. When Valero then passed diagonally outside to Alonso, the Spanish left wing-back had plenty of space behind his opposite man, Perisic, to run into. Alonso knocked the ball beyond his marker into the space vacated by Medel before crossing for Kalinic to tap home.
Inter utilised this man-oriented approach more often than not because the alternative offered danger of another sort. If Medel and Santon backed off, Valero and Ilicic had around 10 yards of space to drive into, gain momentum and utilise multiple possible combinations, again making good use of Fiorentina’s aforementioned interconnectivity under Sousa. For example, if Valero were to receive the ball in the left-sided half-space, he had the possibility of combining with Alonso on the overlap or with Kalinic infield.
Operating in the half-spaces can afford several diagonal opportunities, something that both Tom Payne and Rene Maric have extolled the benefits of for Spielverlagerung. Payne discussed the theoretical possibilities of diagonal dribbling, referencing the master of this particular movement, Lionel Messi, saying:
“(With diagonal dribbling) he actually bypasses more defenders than he beats through dribbling around the main group of players. Once he is at the worse-covered side of the defensive block, it is (easier) for him to isolate individual defenders”.
In his own analysis, Maric discusses the theoretical benefits of ‘diagonality’ from the half-spaces in the form of passing as opposed to dribbling, saying:
“Diagonal passes go from the half-space either into the strategically important centre or to the wing but with the ball aligned with the view of the field and directed towards goal.”
Essentially, if Valero or Ilicic were given space by Inter’s outer defenders, they could then drive diagonally inward from the half-space towards the goal while bypassing their opposite men, as well as Inter’s central defensive midfielder Melo, and beginning to commit Inter defenders in a dangerous central area. Alternately, they could target Kalinic for a potential passing combination with the aim of dragging Inter’s defenders apart and creating space to exploit behind or between them.
Mancini’s multiple reactions in the face of defeat
After going 3-0 down, Mancini overhauled the way Inter were set up. Having started with a relatively flat 3-5-2 formation made up of three basic layers, he switched to the 4-3-1-2 system that his side are more familiar with. Perisic moved from an uncomfortable right wing-back spot to attacking midfield to give Inter a linkage between midfield and attack, something they had been lacking beforehand and that had reduced the effectiveness of their possession game in the final third.
Along with the formation change, Inter began to defend more proactively and higher up the pitch. They held a higher defensive line and were able to press Fiorentina in their own half with greater efficacy. They did, however, leave space behind their defence for their visitors to attack.
Now playing similarly to the way their city rivals Milan did when visiting Florence on the opening day of the season, Inter were undone in eerily similar fashion to the Rossoneri on the half-hour mark. Just as they had done against Milan, Fiorentina used the increased space available to play a vertical ball through the gaps in Inter’s back four for Kalinic to run onto, supported by Valero and Ilicic. This led to Miranda being sent off for tugging the Croat to the floor when through on goal. Inter had been reduced to 10 men by the exact same move that had provoked Milan into the same fate weeks before.
Mancini reacted to the sending off by pulling Melo back into central defence and Palacio and Perisic into wide midfield roles, essentially meaning Inter were lined up in a 4-4-1 shape. Without the ball every Inter player fell into their own half as they sought to congest space between the lines and reduce Fiorentina’s attacking threat. For the start of the second half, Inter were more compact vertically in defence and gradually tried to pressure Fiorentina back into their own half. Andrea Ranocchia was brought on for Kondogbia, allowing Melo to return to central midfield.
Fiorentina, with three-goal and one-man advantages, were happy to play a fairly non-penetrative possession game in the hope of tiring out Inter’s midfield, which by now had to cover a lot of ground to compensate for their numerical deficiency. Paulo Sousa had reacted to Miranda’s dismissal by moving his wing-backs further up the field so as to undertake a 3-2-4-1 shape as they sought to try and pin Inter deep in their own half. The changes in both teams’ shapes can be seen below.
Inter continued to hold firm with a tighter structure and more organised collective pressing until they scored from a set piece around the hour mark. With renewed hope, Mancini brought on Jonathan Biabiany and again shuffled his pack, changing to a 3-4-2 system with Biabiany and Telles as wing-backs. Santon moved back into the three-man backline alongside Ranocchia and Medel. The changes correlated with a more expansive structure which again offered space for Valero and Ilicic between the lines.
Mancini made one final alteration by modifying Inter’s formation again in search of a second goal. This time he introduced Medel into midfield in order to try and press Fiorentina further up the field, but this only increased the space available for Valero and Ilicic to enjoy. Now, they often found themselves joining Kalinic to overload a two-man Inter defence in transitions to attack, which led to Fiorentina scoring a fourth, match-sealing goal.
For Mancini, this game was largely an exercise in futility. His Inter were not set up to cope with Fiorentina’s pressing game and struggled to close down the Viola with any real cohesion. Their defensive line also had constant difficulty dealing with the movements of Valero and Ilicic. The damage was done in the first half-hour, after which Mancini tried to respond with a variety of different shapes. This, along with Fiorentina’s evident easing off with a three-goal lead, ensured the scoreline didn’t become any more one-sided.