Tactics: Inter’s deep defending and unbalanced attack

Date:1st October 2012 at 8:19pm
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Inter hosted Fiorentina on Sunday and managed to take all three points int a 2-1 win. The two teams that are in the early stages of rebuilding produced an entertaining game at the San Siro. It’s clear that neither side is close yet to the finished article as they struggle to confirm their identity.

Although the final outcome may be harsh on Fiorentina, who have now failed to win any of their last 12 away games against Inter, given the balance of play, they ultimately paid the penalty for failing to convert their possession into clear cut chances.

Line Ups

Inter made three changes to the side which defeated Chievo away in midweek. Coutinho made his first league start of the season replacing Sneijder. Cassano and Gargano were recalled in place of Pereira and Guarin.

Stramaccioni deployed his team in a 3-4-1-2 formation with Coutinho tasked with providing the link between midfield and attack.

Unsurprisingly, given their performance against Juventus, Montella retained faith in the same starting eleven that had drawn at home against the reigning Scudetto holders.

La Viola lined up in a 3-5-2 formation.

Inter Starting Line Up

Fiorentina Starting Line Up

Clash of Styles

Despite lining up with broadly similar formations, both teams adopt very different philosophies on the pitch.

Montella seeks to install a patient short passing game in which Fiorentina dominate possession and dictate the tempo of the game.

This is aided by the technical skills of Pizarro and Valero in central midfield and furthered by the tendency of both Ljalic and Jovetic to drop deep rather than remain stationary within the penalty area.

Thus, there are always passing angles open and available to the man in possession. It does leave them rather short within the opposition penalty area however.

This clashes with the approach of Inter which is still very much geared to counter attacking. In their current guise Inter are unable to take the game to their opponents. The team is not ready to set the agenda in games, preferring to adopt a reactionary outlook.

The statistics clearly show the difference in philosophy. Inter were successful with 283 from 358 attempted passes giving a pass success rate of 79%. By contrast, Fiorentina made 395 successful passes from 470 attempted with 84% pass completion rate. Worth remembering at this point that Fiorentina also played the final 30 minutes with just 10 men.

First Half

The opening period was fairly low key with neither side really pressing their opponent or setting a high tempo. One issue which was apparent was the ability of players from either side to run from deep under relatively little pressure.  Neither midfield was tracking well. Cuadrado made such a run in the 11th minute cutting infield from wide right but was unable to link with Jovetic.

Coutinho made another such run in the 15th minute, driving forward in the left hand channel. Fiorentina were dropping back into a defensive five but the midfield was failing  to provide any pressure on the ball. This allowed Coutinho to run unchallenged and deliver the cross from which Inter won a penalty. Milito duly converted.

A few minutes later, Milito struck the crossbar following a lovely move. Nagatomo switched play from the right to Cassano on the left who was unmarked. His deft chip found Milito in the box. The space that Cassano found should have served as a warning to la Viola but they failed to take it.

Fiorentina gained the upper hand in possession but failed to test Handanovic in the Inter goal. They appeared most threatening from set pieces. Too often they enjoyed territorial dominance but lacked a presence within the penalty area with Ljalic and Jovetic combining outside of the area.

Inter doubled their lead in the 33rd minute against the run of play. On a rare occasion, Cambiasso broke forward from a deep position. As he appeared ready to receive a pass just outside the penalty area, he allowed the pass to run straight through him. Roncaglia, who had been upfield was caught out of position and attracted to Cambiasso, missing the ball completely. The ball rolled through to Cassano unmarked on the left of the area to score Inter’s second goal.

Cuadrado was also caught behind play in this movement highlighting a problem for Fiorentina which is explored later.

Romulo pulled a goal back for the visitors when he was left unmarked in the penalty area and headed home a cross from the left. He was the most advanced Viola player at the time and demonstrates the need for midfielders to break forward when Jovetic and Ljajic drop deeper.

As mentioned earlier, no Inter midfielder matched the run of Romulo from deep nor did they pass him on to a defender either.

Second Half

Fiorentina continued to control proceedings in the second half without ever really appearing likely to score.

With Fernandez replacing Ljajic at half time, too much of their play occurred outside of the penalty area with the team operating a 3-5-1-1 system and Inter were comfortable with seven players operating defensively to occupy the space and restrict Fiorentina.

The Nerazzurri were content to let their opponents have the ball and bring it out of defence, retreating into their shape inside their own half. The team dropped into a defensive five with Cambiasso and Gargano patrolling the area directly in front of the centre backs. Once more, Nagatomo was left to link the two separate units.

Just how deep Inter are prepared to defend is shown by the graphic below which highlights tackles made. Inter only made one tackle in their opponents half of the pitch throughout the game and even that was unsuccessful.

Inter Tackles vs Fiorentina

The key moment in the second half was the dismissal of Gonzalo for a foolish second yellow card.

Montella moved to a 4-3-2 and Fiorentina still looked comfortable in possession but the team unit was now stretched somewhat. They created few scoring chances after this and Inter comfortably held on for the win.

Fiorentina Right and Inter Left

Watch any Inter game and the imbalance within the side in terms of attacking is evident for all to see. Inter are very strong on the left when attacking whilst comparatively weak on the right. This season, 42% of all Inter attacks originate down the left whilst only 26% start on the right of the team.

The heat map below shows Inter’s positions against Fiorentina:

Inter Heat Map vs Fiorentina

This in itself is not a problem. There is no prescribed correct method of attacking balance. It will, however, be an issue against opponents who can take advantage of this reliance upon the left wing and exploit it.

Fiorentina, by contrast, have been very balanced in their attacking play thus far with 34% of attacks starting down both the left and right wings respectively. Look behind this statistic though and you can see a potential problem.

Both Pasqual on the left and Cuadrado on the right adopted very high starting positions. Cuadrado is the more adventurous player despite having less involvement in this game making just 28 successful passes from 33 attempted. Pasqual was afforded space on the left and completed 50 passes from 57 attempted as the weakness of the Inter right is identified but Fiorentina could not take advantage of this.

The concern for Montella will be that he allows his right sided central defender, Roncaglia, to step out from the backline into midfield. This means that the side is exposed to quick transitions on that side of the pitch. Neither Valero or Pizarro are particularly athletic midfielders and both struggle to move vertically.

To compensate for this issue, Fiorentina need to push higher upfield and squeeze the play with a high offside line. The problem of course is that the midfield is not very mobile and will struggle to press opponents effectively for an entire game. Without midfield pressing, a high defensive line is a recipe for disaster. It’s a key issue for Montella to work on the team develops.


In the same week, Fiorentina become the first team to take points from Juventus in the league whilst also becoming the first team to lose to Inter at the San Siro. In both games, they demonstrated their commitment to a short passing game.

For Montella, despite the defeat, the Viola have a clear sense of identity and the football they are seeking to achieve. There are still issues to address which is inevitable given the turnover in the squad during the close season.

Inter secure their first home win of the season but there are still issues for Staramccioni to mull over. Inter still give the appearance of a broken team comprising two separate units. The defensive 7 and the attacking 3. The only player who appears to straddle the divide is Nagatomo in the left wing back role who provides width to the attack in addition to his defensive duties. Yet this exacerbates the reliance upon the left within the team. This issue needs addressing if Inter are to develop and become stronger as the season progresses.

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