The Lessons and Failures of the Derby della Madonnina
It’s tempting to look at the two teams fielded by Inter and AC Milan in Sunday’s Milan Derby and note all the hallmarks of the Juventus side that has dominated Serie A for the last four years.
There are the more obvious analogues: Geoffrey Kondogbia is Roberto Mancini’s answer to Paul Pogba, a robust, multi-faceted presence in the centre of the pitch who can at his best do the work of two players. Riccardo Montolivo play-acted the role of Andrea Pirlo for Sinisa Mihajlovic’s AC Milan Sunday, calmly patrolling the area just ahead of the defence and distributing simple balls forward.
Indeed, both sides broadly played the same tactical formation, a 4-3-1-2 that owes a lot to Juventus’ in-progress legacy. It’s a layout that is meant to hand the proverbial keys over to a talented, dense, omni-directional midfield quartet who, in theory, are meant to unlock oppositions quickly and efficiently on both sides of the ball. If that result fails to bear itself out as often as one thinks it should, it could in part be linked to the formation’s sudden overwhelming – and ironically counter-productive – popularity in Italy.
That relatively shallow analysis isn’t condescension; far from it. Antonio Conte – and to a lesser extent current coach Massimiliano Allegri – polished down the best parts of Italian football and managed to win trophy after trophy as they did so.
Every other team in Serie A is right to want to emulate their style, and that is especially true of the two Milanese sides. Each has refitted extensively over the summer in hopes of reclaiming their spots atop the league, spots that have in no small part been lost thanks to Juventus’ rise since the beginning of the decade.
The problem, of course, is that no team is ever going to succeed in recreating Juventus. In many ways that team was a singular event, a crossing of stars that happens at best once in a generation. Through gaming the transfer market, through retention of key players and through some genuinely inspired tactical nous, Juventus has rightfully become a symbol of a resurgent Serie A.
That success is the result of a confluence of forces that likely cannot be replicated no matter how much money is spent, how many times the deck is reshuffled or how much versatility you pack onto the roster.
Attempting to do so can actually be regressive, as Sunday’s game often demonstrated. The middle of the pitch was so congested with talent that it’s little wonder that no one in that narrow corridor really shined. There was hardly room to play any sort of football, much less each side’s best version of it.
Naturally, such imbalance leaves opportunities open elsewhere. No where was that better seen on Sunday than on the flanks. Both sets of full backs had good games, surging forward into the ample space afforded to them and generally serving as outlets of a jam-packed midfield.
It is by no means surprising that the top twelve pass combinations in the game per FourFourTwo’s Statzone each featured at least one of the four full-backs on the field. Nor it is a shock that the game’s sole goal came not only from an assist provided by Inter right-back Davide Santon but also from one of Fredy Guarin’s many forays wide from his nominal central midfield role.
Both teams largely squandered a chance to capitalize on this gaping opportunity out wide. It wasn’t necessarily for lack of trying: in all a mere three crosses succeeded in reaching their intended target in 51 attempts by both teams. The art of crossing is only recently making a comeback in Serie A, but those are still woeful numbers.
There were other options, however, all of which were largely squandered. Inter brought in Ivan Perisic and Adem Ljajic in the dying days of the transfer window and it was thought prior to the derby that one or both would be fielded to try to work in those areas so many Italian sides leave largely unmanned.
Instead, Mancini featured Perisic in a more central role Sunday, only adding his number to an already crowded area, and Ljajic watched from the bench.
AC Milan’s best wide option, Alessio Cerci, was only introduced in the 80th minute, too late for him to have much influence.
What made Juventus a great team wasn’t just good fortune. It was that when Conte saw opportunities, he took them.
He saw a lack of strength in Serie A midfields and packed his team with the likes of Arturo Vidal and Pogba. He saw how much space was often left open in the area just ahead of the defence and filled it Andrea Pirlo.
In their failure to properly exploit a clear area of weakness out wide, both Mancini and Mihajlovic prove how far they still are from Conte’s level.