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An unexpected and disappointing exit from the UEFA Champions League in midweek after failure to beat PSV Eindhoven at home left Inter fans pointing fingers at manager Luciano Spalletti and his players. A drop to 14 points off Serie A table-toppers Juventus in recent weeks has also rendered any hopes of a Scudetto challenge from Spalletti’s side this season as fanciful. Having begun with such promise, the Nerazzurri’s recent results have left their season in limbo, neither successful nor completely disastrous, yet.
No better way then, to respond to recent criticisms and get their season back on track than at home game against relegation-threatened Udinese. The Bianconeri Friuliani from the northeast province of Udine have had a fairly tumultuous 2018, currently on their fourth manager this calendar year.
The man in the hot seat since mid-November is Davide Nicola, whose last managerial post saw him keep newly promoted Crotone from relegation in the 2016/17 Serie A season. Udinese finished 14th in Italy’s top flight last season and survival in Serie A is the remit for Nicola, whose side currently sit 17th in the table.
The home side typically favours a 4-2-3-1 but have made the 4-3-3 a regular setup in recent games and so it was for this match. Mauro Icardi would take up his usual position as the #9, flanked by Keita Balde left and Matteo Politano right. Brozovic would stabilise the midfield in the #6 pivot role while João Mário and Borja Valero would do the legwork in midfield. Centre-backs Stefan De Vrij and Milan Škriniar are very comfortable in possession and were flanked by left-back Kwadwo Asamoah and right-back Šime Vrsaljko, #1 goalkeeper Samir Handanović would play between the sticks.
Defence first was the idea for Udinese, their 5-3-2 setup is built to frustrate and perhaps look to nick a chance or two through their forward duo, Rodrigo De Paul and Ignacio Pussetto. The experienced Valon Behrami would play in a holding midfield role, flanked by the athletic Rolando Mandragora and Seko Fofana. The back five was comprised of three centre-backs and a right-back, completed by a winger, Marco D’Alessandro, at left-wing-back.
Good shapes, bad moves
Inter’s spacing during their patient build-up was well executed. Spalletti’s side moved the ball around the Udinese block and into the final third with precision and tempo but often looked hesitant in the final third. The patient build-up looked designed to dominate the ball, push Udinese back into their own half and look to create chances against the deep block.
Midfielders Mário and Valero pushed forward to support Inter’s attacking trio which at times created a 5v5 situation with Udinese’s backline. The full-backs, Asamoah and Vrsaljko only really pushing forward when the ball was in the final third, perhaps wary of the threat of the two Udinese strikers. But frustratingly for Inter fans, there was space in wide areas to be taken, their team looked cautious with a bit of a minimal risk approach.
The full-backs did get forward to provide width in the final third, Brozovic was very active as the pivot and Borja Valero and João Mário looked to receive in the half-spaces beyond the Udinese midfield. Keita Baldé and Matteo Politano tucked inwardly when the ball was moved high enough, to support Mauro Icardi, leaving the three centre-backs of Udinese to deal with three Inter forwards.
The Nerazzurri, perhaps showing their caution again, also lacked in penetrating passes to trouble the Udinese defence. Mauro Icardi dropped quite deep in search of a pass to feet and nobody made consistent moves to get beyond the Bianconeri backline. Udinese were happy to keep the ball in front of them and watch as Inter’s full-backs attempted cross after cross, Inter did not have a significant presence to compete aerially.
As the half wore on, Inter’s quality improved and they began to create a few decent opportunities. It felt as though the win would come, if Inter could be patient and relentless, much like rivals Juventus do consistently in Serie A games, they could come away with a tight but well-earned win. It was 0-0 at the break but patience seemed warranted, Inter were dominating and the chances were beginning to come.
Change of approach
What wasn’t warranted was a drop in intensity, a goal seemed certain to come if Inter continued their first-half level of control. But at the start of the second half, Udinese confirmed any fears that Spalletti may have had about his team’s confidence. The bianconeri midfield pushed forward in transition and took advantage of the spaces left by Inter’s positional play build up, creating one glorious chance in the 51st minute when Seko Fofana squared a pass to Rolando Mandragora on the other side of the box who skied the ball way over Handanović’s goal.
Having seen enough, Spalletti made a change. In the 55th minute, Lautaro Martínez came on to replace Borja Valero, a striker on for a midfielder. Martínez, as his squad number would allude to, played in the #10 role, dropping deeper than Icardi who could now focus on playing between and beyond the centre-backs. Inter now had more of a 4-2-3-1 shape and opened up the game a little more for both sides.
No longer so patient, with quicker moves forward and Brozovic controlling the game’s tempo, Inter began to look a bit like themselves again. Their crosses were a little more threatening and no more so than when Mauro Icardi, of all people, missed a header from point-blank range in the 65th minute, after great work and delivery on the left wing from Keita Baldé Diao.
The Senegalese winger was substituted just after for Ivan Perišić and the Inter onslaught continued, Udinese’s defence looking a bit weary. A corner kick in the 73rd minute was cut out at the near post and after much protest from a few Inter players, VAR intervened and awarded a penalty to the home side, Seko Fofana deemed to have handled the cross away.
Up stepped Nerazzurri Captain, Mauro Icardi. The Argentine is a lethal finisher and a cool-headed thinker, showing his nerves of steel as he stroked the ball home with a Panenka penalty attempt, nonchalantly chipping the ball into the middle of the net having sent the goalkeeper to the ground.
Udinese felt a bit aggrieved and their aggression was focused. They pressed and harried Inter higher up the pitch, stretching the game in the search for an equaliser. Chances came at both ends in the final 10 minutes of play. Pussetto had a decent attempt on the turn from the edge of the box which flashed just wide but not before Icardi had the ball in the net again in stoppage time, although this one was correctly ruled offside and 1-0 it would finish.
In the end, Inter’s blushes were saved by their captain, Mauro Icardi showed the calmness and confidence that makes him a leader of this Nerazzurri side. Fresh from embarrassment in midweek and keen to make amends, Inter looked cautious in the first half and although they made chances, felt very frustrated in their efforts.
The introduction of Martínez changed the flow of the game and perhaps showed a bit of bravery from Spalletti, willing to gamble with an attacking substitute with half an hour left on the clock. But a dogged and resolute display from the visitors made life hard for the Nerazzurri, even if the game always looked winnable throughout. Davide Nicola can be proud of his side’s performance from a defensive standpoint, they frustrated their hosts and restricted them to hopeful crossing opportunities and long-range efforts.
Who knows what may have transpired in the latter stages of the game had a penalty not been awarded for one of the deadliest strikers in Europe to take. For Udinese, an expected loss but a spiriting performance from which Nicola can take a lot of positives. For Inter, a win was all that mattered as they look to shake their European disappointments off and get their season back on track.
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