In the first fixture of the Coppa Italia semi-finals, Inter welcomed Napoli in a tough physical game after the huge win in the Derby della Madonnina against Milan three days before this match. The home team were set as the favourites, but have struggled to perform in big games this seasons, and thus the visitors came out with a one-goal advantage for the rematch.
Gennaro Gattuso’s men did a great job in getting away as winners with their responsible out-of-possession tactics and with courage on the ball to neutralize the Nerazzurri’s high pressing. This tactical analysis will show you how the away team succeeded in closing down their opponent’s midfield while thriving under pressure and taking a huge win back to Naples.
Antonio Conte set his side in their usual 3-5-2 formation with the back three made by Stefan de Vrij, Milan Škriniar and Alessandro Bastoni. Once again, Christian Eriksen needed to wait for his chance from the bench so this season’s most-used midfield trio of Nicolò Barella, Marcelo Brozović and Stefano Sensi held the centre of the camp. Up top, as expected, was the duo of Lautaro Martínez and Romelu Lukaku. Inter changed their formation to 4-3-3 after Alexis Sanchez came on as a substitute, but with no greater influence on the situation on the pitch.
The away team’s coach went into the game with the 4-1-4-1 tactics relying on Diego Demme, Fabián Ruiz and Piotr Zieliński as the main two-way catalyst for the side through the middle. Dries Mertens was the lone striker, while Elif Elmas and José Callejón played down the flanks and provided him with transformational support.
Inter’s attacking ideas
This duel went through a lot of phases and initiative switches throughout the 90 minutes, starting with Inter’s good opening in the first 15. They tried to control the match, mixing possession-based football with high pressure and they succeeded in that idea, but only in that period of the game.
The keys to initial success were in the good movement of their midfielders along with Napoli’s difficulties in defending gaps between the lines in the opening phase of the match. Barella and Sensi played a huge role in enabling progress for their side in those minutes and brought Inter closer to the goal, but without creating bigger goal-scoring opportunities.
These midfielders’ motions tormented the visitors from the start but Conte’s team were not concrete enough in the final third even though they had some openings due to good ball flow. After the initial shock, Napoli came to sense and managed to tighten the lines disabling their opponent’s progress and expelling their key creators out of the game, as it will be shown later in the analysis.
When Gattuso’s players set their block better, Inter mostly tried to get forward through long balls and play-switches from side to side. The first of these two ideas went through Lukaku, who was the target for those give-and-goes as his main task was to play a return pass back to the midfielders after receiving a long one.
Although they commonly tried to skip the action, they didn’t have many benefits out of it, as their opponents were moving well without the ball and were closing the forward lanes. On the other hand, the midfielders weren’t as good in supportive runs in the later phases of the game as they were in the first 15 minutes, so they had fewer options to endanger the goal.
The second idea of switching the play and isolating the opposite wing-back was a bigger – but not much bigger – success, as it lacked the finishing contribution from the attackers after the crosses. These actions also had their flaws as the diagonal passes weren’t fast and precise enough and also due to the good positioning of Napoli’s wingers.
Those balls were mostly attempted by the centre-backs but often intercepted by Callejón and Elmas who did a great job in closing diagonal lanes towards Cristiano Biraghi and Victor Moses by dropping deeper and tracking them down the flanks.
Napoli’s play under pressure
As Inter tried to press the opposition high right from the start, it was important for Gattuso’s men to find the way to break through the lines courageously – being secure on the ball and trying to not panic when outnumbered. The first 15 minutes, as mentioned earlier in the analysis, were painted in the home side’s control of the duel and then they managed to co-opt their lines correctly and pressurize the creative players of Napoli.
Good defensive movements of Inter resulted with “caging” of the opponent’s midfielders so the visitors needed to skip the play, which they did mostly through the flanks. The attacking part of Conte’s team opened the match by doing a great pressure job, disabling the idea of their rivals playing through the middle.
As we can see, Inter closed down Zieliński and Demme perfectly leaving the wide players with no options to play through the ground or through the centre of the pitch. In spite of this good opening that the hosts had, it didn’t last long and Napoli’s midfield found a way to thrive under pressure, relying mostly on the Demme’s security on the ball after the first pass from the centre-backs.
He was left with more space for himself after the initial minutes, but also did a brilliant job when the room was restricted and when he was more pressurized. His turns were quite fast and he made it possible for his team to move forward, deciding mostly to address his next pass to the flanks or towards the higher midfielders.
The full-backs played a huge role in attacking progress as they were providing width and tracking the actions really well; not panicking when they were pressured and supplying midfielders with balls. Demme also had a lot of options due to the good communication he had with his teammates and he didn’t hurry to move forward if that wasn’t possible.
In the deficit situations, the defensive midfielder of Napoli kept his cool and thrived mostly because of the good movements of Zieliński and Ruiz which were repeated in order to break the press. Inter’s lines weren’t that compact so that made the work for them easier as they had plenty of room to receive the ball and face the goal.
Above, we see how those scenarios mostly went through with Demme breaking the opponent’s structure with just one pass after which the transition was triggered for his team. Those passes were usually well-timed and Napoli went into fast transitions, out of which they scored.
Closing down Inter’s midfield options
The biggest issue in Inter’s game was the poor movement of their midfielders and, when the movement was not that bad, the good off-the-ball play of their opponents. Napoli kept their lines tight after the incomprehension at first so they properly closed down the forward-moving lanes for the opposition.
Due to good communication afterwards, the visitors managed to man-mark the creative players of Conte’s team as soon as they passed the half-way line, so the half-space/gap was out of the picture for them.
In the picture, Inter’s midfielders are easily guarded and that happened throughout the whole match as they weren’t fluid enough and were forced to ask for the ball in the positions from which they can’t be of great danger – in the low zones of the pitch, mostly next to the sidelines.
The other problem for Inter’s play was the very high setting of all the possible creative players. Two strikers were providing their team with depth, but they often got “help” from the two midfielders – Sensi and Barella – who tended to move higher and place themselves in the four-man line along with Lukaku and Martinez, which made them easy to guard.
Napoli disabled them to get the ball by playing very close marking on them, but not spending many resources on it as they use “1v1” defensive situations due to poor positioning of Inter’s men. At the same time, Brozović was outnumbered by the opponent’s midfielders, who kept him in “cage”, so the only way for Inter to move the ball was circling the block with no ideas, and no options, to break it.
That type of positioning opened up the transition space for Napoli and made the hosts vulnerable as the four players would stay too high when the attack broke. The visitors transitioned magnificently, with midfielders playing the key role in ball movement, and Mertens being the link-up player that was providing them with the sufficient deep option.
As we can notice, Napoli’s striker dropped lower to create a transitive triangle over the outnumbered defender which gave them an extra option to move fast forward. Zieliński and Ruiz repeated transformative runs ending up in the open positions at the centre of the pitch from where they could endanger the goal in multiple ways, and so they did at the end.
This analysis has clearly shown that Genaro Gattuso’s men won the game fully deservedly and they will have the advantage in the upcoming rematch. Inter didn’t fulfil their gameplan and struggled to get the better of their rivals mostly due to bad midfield movement and lack of options to progress through the tight Napoli lines.
They will need to adjust their tactics for the next duel if they want to get to the final, but they will have a difficult job as it seems that the visitors in this match are getting better and better every week on, with the midfielders thriving as the season goes by. The keys for the aggregate score will lay in the hands of players operating in the centre of the pitch, and Antonio Conte needs to redefine that part of his squad if he wants to pass into the last phase of the Coppa Italia.