Heading into the final round of games in Italy’s top-flight, Inter occupied the last Champions League qualifying spot and needed a win to guarantee their place ahead of fierce rivals AC Milan. Inter won the match and Luciano Spaletti had delivered Champions League football at the San Siro for another season so would this game perhaps shed any light as to why he is due to be replaced by Antonio Conte?
Whilst the graphic above suggests Inter started in a 4-2-3-1 formation, their system functioned in a manner more befitting of a 4-3-3 formation. Matias Vecino and Radja Nainggolan often operated on the same lines, leaving Marcelo Brozovic as the sole holding midfielder.
Overloads in wide areas
Empoli’s narrow formation left them short of defensive numbers down the flanks thus granting Inter consistent access into the final third. As a result of Empoli leaving two central strikers up front, Kwadwo Asamoah was frequently allowed to surge down the left flank to combine with Ivan Perisić. This created frequent 1v1 opportunities for Perisić and overlapping opportunities for Asamoah.
Empoli’s midfield three thus became stretched and this drew them deeper which allowed for Inter to easily circulate the ball across the width of the pitch. This meant a lot of time on the ball for Inter’s wingers, Perisić and Politano.
Inter attack the box with numbers
With Inter creating a number of chances and crossing opportunities down the flanks, it was imperative that their midfielders offered late runs into the box in order to compete for any balls played into the area. It is for this reason that Inter’s 4-2-3-1 played out more like a 4-3-3, with Vecino making frequent under-lapping runs for Politano. Vecino was able to carve out a number of shooting opportunities for himself in this fashion by getting into the box and being on the end of crosses.
Nainggolan was also a frequent invader and a common structure to Inter’s attacking shape placed the Belgian, Perisić, Icardi and Vecino all in the box at the same time. As Empoli were sitting deep in their five-at-the-back shape, this was Inter’s only chance of ensuring they had a chance of scoring from these crosses.
First-half frustration for Inter
Even though Inter created numerous final third entries for themselves, they struggled to create quality chances on goal, especially for Mauro Icardi. The majority of Inter’s chances came the way of poor connections on the end of crosses or from long shots from outside of the box. A large reason for this was because of Inter’s inability to disrupt Empoli’s shape through the middle, allowing Empoli to maintain their lines of defence directly in front of goal.
The primary reason for this was Inter’s lack of dynamism on the wings. Rarely did either Politano or Perisić threaten the Empoli back-line with runs in behind. Instead, they preferred to receive the ball to feet and take on their full-back in a 1v1 situation, making their way to the by-line the hard way.
Danilo D’Ambrosio’s role at right-back chained him to the Inter centre-backs in order to create a back three, thus allowing for Asamoah to take up a more advanced position in the attack. This left Politano largely alone on the right flank with only Vecino to combine with in forward areas and with no overlapping full-back on the right side Inter became somewhat blunt in attack.
Inter’s pressure finally pays off
Despite their lack of cutting edge, Inter certainly didn’t fail to maintain constant pressure on the Empoli goal, peppering Bartłomiej Drągowski’s goal throughout. In a bid to address their uninspired wing play, Spaletti opted for the bold move of substituting on Keita Baldé for Asamoah and thus dropping Perisić into a left-back position.
Whilst this move didn’t directly inspire Inter’s opener in the game, it was Baldé’s quality technique that propelled his shot from range into the bottom corner of the Empoli net to give Inter the lead.
Empoli’s passive defensive shape did little to prevent Inter’s near continuous pressure. The two strikers for Empoli applied very little pressure to Stefan de Vrij or Milan Škriniar and so Inter’s build-up possession was often clean and progressive, rarely forcing Inter into making a mistake within their own half. This meant Inter’s tempo was rarely disrupted and allowed them to maintain this heavy pressure in the build-up to the first goal.
Empoli’s counter-attack threatens the upset
The combination play of Empoli’s strike-force, Diego Farias and Francesco Caputo, proved to be enough for the visitors to pose a threat to Inter’s goal and a number of Empoli’s quick counter-attacks threatened to punish Inter’s sloppy defending. It was these counter-attacks that gave Empoli any chance of getting a result from the game.
With Asamoah having been subbed out and Perisić later forced off through injury, Inter brought on Dalbert in the left-back position. Not a regular in the side and it showed after his introduction as Dalbert was caught up the field upon another Empoli counter-attack leaving Inter’s backline stretched and creating a 3v1 opportunity for Empoli at the far post, from which they levelled the game.
I would argue that Inter were fortunate upon conceding the goal as Empoli appeared to relax after this point and simply couldn’t match Inter’s newfound urgency. As it turned out, it was a counter of Inter’s own that forced the fortunate rebound for Nainggolan to bury for the winner of the game and to secure Inter’s place in next seasons Champions League.
Inter’s less than convincing performance threatened to concede their Champions League place to their biggest rivals on the final day of the season. However, they emerged victorious. Not through any inspired tactical performance but through the quality of their players did Spaletti’s side stumble across the finish line and this perhaps offers just one explanation for Antonio Conte’s impending appointment.