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.

Line-ups

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tacticsThe 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.

The visitors came with a tactical gameplan of their own, starting in an unfamiliar 3-4-3 system. Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney started as the midfield pivot. They looked to build attacks by collecting the ball from their centre backs and finding passes into the attacking triumvirate of Thorgan Hazard, Jadon Sancho and Julien Brandt. As we will see later, however, this approach caused a tactical mismatch which allowed the home side to control the game and never looked flustered against the 2013 finalists.
UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics
Škriniar (37), Godín (2) and de Vrij (6) combined 110 times during the match.

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.

Off the ball, Inter quickly installed themselves in a rigid 5-3-2 shape. They showed little pressing aggression and opted to contain the space instead. The full-backs dropped deeper to restrict any space in the wide areas. The midfield three stayed narrow to block passing lanes and heavily congest the central zones. This reduced operating space in between the lines, nullifying Sancho and Hazard who struggled to make an impact on proceedings. When defending, the two strikers stayed forward and looked to punish Dortmund in offensive transition. Lukaku and Martínez stayed narrow to play off each other as Inter attempted to counter.
UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics
Dortmund attempted 614 passes in the match and completed 90.39% of them.
The visitors had a different approach when constructing their attacks. They too built from the back, but they pushed their centre-backs wide and their full-backs forward. This meant in the early stages of developing attacks there was always a man available to receive the pass as nobody occupied the same passing lane.
The two wingers moved inside to reduce the distances between themselves and Brandt. Once play advanced into the final third, this narrow positioning was used to attempt quick passing combinations to try and break down the wall in front of them. Often though, Dortmund’s attacks became stifled as players occupied the same spaces making it easy for Inter to overload the confined areas and win back possession. We can see above how closely Dortmund’s attackers positioned themselves. This made it easy to defend by merely suffocating the space.
Off the ball, Dortmund struggled, which ultimately led to their demise. They often attempted an aggressive press higher up the field, as they have become known for doing. This failed, however, as Inter possessed an extra man in defence, which allowed them to play through the press by using the spare man. As a result, the Germans resorted to a passive approach, sitting back and dropping into a 5-4-1 when Inter established possession in the middle third. Despite dropping their pressing aggression the visitors maintained a high line, which played into Inter’s tactical approach as they not only were allowed time and space in possession but also afforded space to penetrate in behind.

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.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics
Defender de Vrij finished the game with a 95% pass completion rate.
Once this pass was played the five of Dortmund players applied their man-to-man press. Where this would be successful against a team playing with four at the back, it was easily picked apart by Inter’s tactics. The key to bypassing a man-to-man press is either playing vertical direct passes or working the ball to a spare man – Inter did this consistently because of their tactical advantage.
UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics
Only 32% of Dortmund’s recoveries occurred in the final third.
Above you can see Dortmund attempt to press the home side in possession. However, due to the numerical advantage, Inter held in their defensive third they were able to create a 6v5 situation which they used to play through the first wave of Dortmund players.
Delaney (6 – red) is unable to break from his contained positioning as he is currently blocking the passing lane into Lukaku who is off-screen. If he were to move forward aggressively it would leave an easy pass for Škriniar into one of his attackers. Brandt (19 – red) is also stuck with a decision to make. He could follow the spare man into the middle of the field. However, by doing so he leaves the entire right-wing vacated, leaving a simple switch to Candreava (5) open as an easy option.
UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics
Brozović completed 86% of his passes into the final third.
This situation happened constantly throughout the match with visible signs of disdain coming from the visitors as they were effortlessly picked off by the spare man. Dortmund were stuck in between a high press and a passive tactic that left them spread openly across the pitch.
The problems didn’t stop there however for Dortmund, who in a bid to reduce the large vertical spaces between the lines shifted into a 5-4-1 shape, as seen below. Despite choosing not to press, Dortmund still held an aggressive line which became exposed in the 5-4-1 system. The visitors ended the game with a PPDA of 17 compared to their average of just 13.07.
UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics
Because of his movement in behind, Martínez finished the game with an xG of 0.98.
As we can see, the 5-4-1 shape gave the impression of better defensive stability, however, it led to further problems for the German side. They gifted the Inter midfielders too much time and space on the ball, allowing to lift their heads up and play deft passes into the spaces in behind. Inter attempted 35 long passes in the match, knowing that just one was needed to create a one on one with the goalkeeper. In the end, the quality of the pass matched the timing of the run on several occasions and the Italians finished with an xG of 1.35 as a result.

Italian Overload

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.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics
Sancho was restricted to just five touches in the box. He had 70 in total.

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.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics
Inter’s deeper line meant 50% of their recoveries took place in their defensive third

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.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics

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.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Inter Milan vs Dortmund - tactical analysis tactics
Just 8.7% of Dortmund’s positional attacks ended with a shot.

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.

Conclusion

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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