Group F is arguably the toughest group in this year’s UEFA Champions League competition. With Barcelona starting strongly, the chance of qualification has effectively been reduced to one spot which is being fought over by two European heavyweights. Matchday three took us to the San Siro where a rejuvenated Inter Milan played host to an ever-energetic Dortmund side.
Inter, who have seen their fortunes change since the enigmatic Antonio Conte put his name on the office door, put on a tactical masterclass on the night and cruised to a deserved 2-0 victory. This vital win over their German opponents puts Inter right back in the hunt for the hotly contested qualifying spots.
In this tactical analysis, we review Inter’s tactics, showing how Conte’s men restricted their usually free-flowing opponents. We also provide an analysis of where Dortmund made tactical errors leading to mismatches in key areas of the field.
The hosts started the match in their usual 3-5-2/5-3-2 system, a tactic Conte has become renowned for using because of the numerical superiority it provides in the defensive third. Diego Godín, Stefan de Vrij and Milan Škriniar started as the centre-backs. Godín and Škriniar supported their respective full-back by providing cover in the half-spaces. This restricted the opposition from penetrating their robust defensive unit. Kwadwo Asamoah and Antonio Candreva provided the width as wing-backs. They pushed high and wide when Inter had possession in order to stretch the opposition horizontally.
Roberto Gagliardini, Marcelo Brozović and Nicolò Barella made up the midfield three. They were deployed as a defensive wall to protect the centre-backs, staying narrow and moving laterally as a unit in opposition ball rotations. This helped create defensive overloads as we analyse later. Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez partnered up front. They too stayed narrow and looked to make penetrative runs in behind as Inter favoured a more direct approach.
Inter favoured defensive stability over fluid creative play. In possession they slowly built their attacks from the back, methodically playing the ball forward using short passing. The home side, however, didn’t look to establish long phases of attacks in the opposition third, instead, when the timing was right, they looked to play longer, more direct passes in behind the opposition defensive line.
In doing so they were able to create chances by exploiting Dortmunds higher line without committing too many players forward in attack. This effectively reduced their defensive transition time to nil. A well thought out tactic considering it is in this window where Dortmund are most dangerous. You can see from the pass map that there is little connection between the midfield and the attackers. Neither Lukaku or Martínez showed any interest in linking the play as a ‘false 9’. Instead, they both played on the last man and looked to run in behind where Dortmund had conceded space. The tactic worked to perfection as the home side scored both goals and won a penalty from this direct approach.
Dortmund’s soft press
The biggest tactical mismatch came from Dortmund’s failed press. Early in the game, the visitors attempted to be aggressive in winning back the ball higher up the field. They used their front three in conjunction with the double pivot behind them to move up in a systematic five-man press. The trigger was when the ball was played square by de Vrij into either of his wider centre-backs.
Another tactic deployed by the Italian side that was pertinent to the outcome of this game was their ability to overload the lateral spaces when defending. This tactic heavily reduced the impact of starlet Sancho who finished the game with just one shot on target and an xA of zero.
As mentioned, Inter’s midfield three remained narrow which opened up the passing lanes into Dortmund’s advancing full-backs. As the ball spread wide, Inter’s shape moved cohesively as a unit into the lateral spaces. As you can see, this created a defensive overload which prevented Dortmund’s attacks from advancing further down the pitch.
Inter implemented this tactic on both sides of the pitch in their defensive structure. The success of it relied heavily on the work rate and positional awareness of Brozović and his respective partner (depending on the side), as they moved across in conjunction with the wing-back moving out to press the ball. This immediate suffocation of space by creating either a 4v3 or 4v2 overload in specific areas of the pitch forced Dortmund either backwards or into making a risky pass that was usually intercepted.
Despite its success and Inter making 68% of their recoveries in the wide areas, as a result, there was a missed opportunity for Dortmund to exploit this tactic.
Having a high concentration of players in one specific area of the field meant that, logically, other areas were less congested and therefore more exploitable. What Dortmund failed to do often enough was switch the play early. In an instance where they did (above), they exploited the side of the pitch where space had been vacated in order to create an overload on the opposite side.
This led to 2v2 situations, which were much more in favour of the attacking team. The quick switch of play meant the Inter midfielders, despite their high work rate, could not get across quickly enough to close down space. This allowed Dortmund to construct 2v2’s on the wing where players like Hazard and Sancho excel. Unfortunately for the away side, however, they didn’t utilise this option often enough and were left trying to build attacks in stagnated overcrowded areas of the pitch. As a result, the German side finished the match with an xG of just 0.73 compared to an average of 1.99 this season.
Dortmund can forgive themselves for losing to Inter away from home. What will disappoint the fans the most is the lack of ingenuity displayed when they were clearly tactical inferior. Lucien Favre was out-thought in every area of Wednesday’s match and showed no intention to adjust. If Dortmund are looking to go far in the competition they will need to show more dynamism and the ability to find an alternative if ‘Plan A’ is not working.
This is a huge win for Conte and his men, who after a disappointing draw earlier in the group are now right back in contention to qualify. Tactically they were superb and limited one of the most prolific attacking sides in Europe to very few chances in the game. With the reverse of this fixture still to come and Barcelona left to play, Inter will know there’s still a lot of work left to do in the group and it is by no means over.
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