Classic Conte: The tactical masterclass that saw Inter past Pirlo – tactical analysis
The highly anticipated Derby d’Italia between Inter and Juventus turned into a masterclass of speed, counter-attacking football and defensive organisation by Antonio Conte’s side. The Italian stayed away from overcomplicating Inter’s tactics and outwitted Pirlo by letting them do what they do best.
While, for the most part, they stuck to their usual playing style, the Nerazzurri did enhance their approach by using the opposition’s mistakes very smartly and letting go of the control occasionally.
Their well-balanced performance led to the 2-0 win, while Juventus’ creative struggles deepened. The Bianconeri were overcommitted to their attacking actions which resulted in neglecting their defensive responsibilities on a few occasions. Enough for Arturo Vidal and Nicolò Barella to take advantage of it.
This game showed how having experience and playing well together as a team could be the winning strategy against teams with strong individualities. The connection that Inter’s players have built with each other was the key component in their victory.
That outcome made the Serie A title challenge even more interesting with Inter keeping their close distance to the city-rivals Milan while increasing Juventus’ gap with the leaders to 10 points.
Line-ups and formations
Conte relied on his usual 3-5-2 set-up with Samir Handanović on the goal, supported by an experienced three-man defensive line of Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan de Vrij and Milan Škriniar who were all outstanding that night. Although Škriniar had some difficulties in blocking Juve’s actions on the left due to their switch of play efforts, he contributed well to the team’s efforts to keep a clean sheet.
In midfield, Arturo Vidal and Marcelo Brozović were responsible for covering the central areas, while Nicolò Barella would often joint the right wing-back Achraf Hakimi on the right, where they found a weak spot in Juventus’ defence. Ashley Young played on the left wing-back position.
Barella didn’t only help out with ball progression on the right, but also would move out to the half-spaces and provide a threat in the advanced areas.
In attack, Conte relied on his experienced duo Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez, who despite it not being the most successful evening in terms of chances created, they often threatened the goal with their well-thought pass combinations.
On the other side, Pirlo opted for a 4-4-2 formation on paper with Wojciech Szczęsny on the goal and a backline of Gianluca Frabotta, the experienced pair Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in the centre and Danilo on the right.
What made the difference in their approach is Frabotta’s role of moving higher up the pitch, leaving Juve with a three-man backline during the build-up, where Danilo had to stay deeper next to Bonucci and Chiellini.
In midfield, Rodrigo Bentancur had the responsibility to provide defensive support, while Adrien Rabiot would join the wide player Federico Chiesa on the right. Aaron Ramsey was assigned to cover the left flank and provide options in the half-spaces.
In attack, Pirlo chose Cristiano Ronaldo and Álvaro Morata who failed to provide the needed threat in front of the goal due to Inter’s strict defensive organisation. Despite Ronaldo’s movement from left to right, trying to provide a passing option, the Bianconeri couldn’t find a way to break through Inter’s two lines of defence.
The team were often found higher up the pitch, overcommitting to attacking actions which was smartly used by their opponents in different ways. They narrow positioning allowed Inter to exploit the right areas too frequently. Pirlo would try to increase their attacking efficiency by introducing Dejan Kulusevski, Weston McKennie and Federico Bernardeschi for Ramsey, Rabiot and Frabotta respectively, but this didn’t change much in their approach.
The Nerazzurri’s continuous counter-attacking efforts
Inter were offered quite a few chances to use their outstanding counter-attacking abilities. With Juventus’ lack of creativity and explosiveness in build-up and attack, it wasn’t a surprise that Inter managed to create six counter-attacks in the game. Usually, Inter would earn those opportunities through their intense pressing efforts and ball recovery, while against Juventus they relied better on their ball interception, seeing the struggles they had in ball progression. They would use the Bianconeri’s high positioning and focus on the attacking actions and the lack of an adequate counter-pressing to intercept and immediately counter-attack using their pace and smart movement.
As per usual Martínez was positioned deeper than his fellow striker so they can perform one-two pass combinations and use Lukaku’s hold up play in the more advanced areas. Although they were the main responsible for threatening the goal, their counter-attacking efforts wouldn’t be possible without Barella’s and Brozović’s awareness and strong decision-making to find spaces and start those attacks.
Inter’s raids were successful as a result of Juventus’ late defensive reactions. The Old Lady neglected their defensive responsibilities, which was the worst-case scenario, having in mind they played with a highly positioned three-man backline in possession. This allowed Inter to quickly expose them on speed, create a numerical advantage in the advanced areas and easily exploit Juve’s narrow defence. Another reason for Inter’s success was the huge spaces that Juventus would leave between the lines. That made it impossible for the midfielders to provide defensive support.
Frabotta’s inability to split responsibility
Pirlo’s decision to use Frabotta up the pitch usually causes the team more harm in the wide areas than benefits. While this way the coach tries to increase their attacking versatility and provide more options upfront, it comes that the cost of risky defensive actions and constant threat from their opponents.
The game against Inter wasn’t any different. While he tried to provide width in the advanced areas, his defensive performance was very poor. And the Nerrazzuri are the worst team to make that kind of mistake against. They quickly noticed Frabotta’s inability to split between attack and defence and immediately started pushing through the weak link. They used Hakimi’s exceptional abilities to progress the ball and expose the opposition which combined with pace and positional awareness turned into a successful approach for creating chances.
Barella’s contribution to the wide actions made it even easier for the team to break through Juve’s defence, since even if there was a player to cover depth, Inter still had the numerical advantage. It is safe to say that they often didn’t need it since there was no one to really cover Frabotta whenever he is out of position. Neither Ramsey performed well defensively nor Chiellini. Even if Chiellini tried to cover the wide areas in Frabotta’s absence, this would open gaps centrally and allow Inter’s attackers more space in and around the box.
The positional changes between Barella and Hakimi helped the team even when Frabotta had dropped down in a timely manner. Inter’s players successfully made interchanges in efforts to drag defenders out of position and be able to progress the ball. With Hakimi’s high positioning and Barella’s half-space occupation, they were able to perform link-up-play and advance the ball, while the two strikers would keep the centre-backs busy. Barella would often drag the left-back out wide and allow the Morrocan a space to cut inside and provide an additional threat.
Inter’s defensive block vs. Juventus’ ineffective attacking movement
Juventus usually rely on creating a high number of chances and on focusing on their attacking movement. This wasn’t the case against Inter, though. Despite their efforts to overload certain areas and break through the opposition’s block, they were unable to position between the lines and open the passing lanes in the advanced areas.
Interestingly enough, the reason for that wasn’t Inter’s usual high press. Instead of troubling Juventus’ build-up from the back, the Nerazzurri would drop deeper and allow the opposition more freedom and give them a feeling that they control the game. They wouldn’t be aggressive in their pressing approach and wouldn’t put too much pressure on the ball carrier. Instead, they relied on well-structured defence with decreased spaces between the lines.
As we have previously seen, Inter rely on a lot of midfield support in their defensive actions. The second line of defence would always step up and close out spaces, blocking the oppositions’ efforts. This helped them against Juventus, whose plan was to overload the right flank and use a lot of movement and crossing to expose them. This didn’t work out, though. Most of the times Juve would try to build-up through Danilo and Rabiot, who would progress the ball for Chiesa and Ronaldo (who would occupy the wide areas and the half-spaces). They would often find themselves tightly covered and unable to break through Inter’s lines.
That’s when they would look for another way to penetrate, which most frequently turned out to be the switch of play. Pirlo’s side would rely on retaining possession and sending the ball back to the centre-backs who could switch play to the other side using Frabotta’s and Ramsey’s advanced positioning.
Although, this was Inter’s only defensive vulnerability, due to them being unable to cover the width while Juve overload the right flank, the Bianconeri still couldn’t create chances. That’s because they fell victim of their own strategy. While dragging Inter’s defensive block to the one side might have been a good idea, it left them without any attacking option in and around the box, where Frabotta and Ramsey could pass to.
Their overcommitment to the right made it impossible for them to threaten the goal successfully due to the lack of vertical passing options and movement inside the penalty area.
Inter’s strategy to have one player of each line to step out in the wide areas and block the opposition’s efforts helped them in keeping their defensive structure and preventing interchanges between Juve’s players.
Juventus’ lack of plan B and Inter’s experienced squad led to Pirlo’s side 0-2 defeat in Derby d’Italia. Conte’s players stuck to their strengths and outwitted the opposition with simplicity and by taking advantage of their own mistakes, instead of forcing them into ones. While Inter were extremely focused and determined to expose the opposition, Juventus did help them to achieve that with their lack of defensive awareness and lack of attacking versatility.
As our analysis suggests, the ex-Juventus coach showed his young successor Pirlo that you don’t always need to overcomplicate tactics to get what you want out of the game.