After a stint away from the top of Italian football which included two finishes outside of the top four in the last five seasons, Antonio Conte has revived Inter. The Italian giants currently sit second in Serie A, but there were lessons to be learned from the 2-1 victory over SPAL, who find themselves in the relegation zone. This tactical analysis will discuss the tactics used by both sides, with a look at how SPAL’s change of shape and approach gave them a fighting chance against a deadly side. In this analysis, there will be a focus on three key elements of the game – Inter’s use of a high block, Inter’s dominance on the ball and finally the fightback from SPAL in the second half.
Conte lined his side up in a 3-5-2 formation, giving them an advantage in terms of numbers in midfield, with Marcelo Brozovic protecting the back three of Milan Škriniar, Stefan de Vrij, and Danilo D’ambrosio. Brozovic’s presence also gave his midfield partners, Matías Vecino and Roberto Gagliardini, a license to have a more attacking presence. Support in the wide areas was provided by Valentino Lazaro and Antonio Candreva, who would stay high and wide when Inter had possession. Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez lead the line, both implementing a high work rate to suit the team’s style of play.
Perhaps acknowledging both the ability of Inter and his side’s tough start to the season so far, Leonardo Semplici sent his team out in a 5-3-2 formation, clearly with defensive intent. The midfield trio of Alessandro Murgia, Jasmin Kurtiç, and Mirko Valdifiori was mainly defensive support for the three central defenders, while also offering themselves as an outlet in the event of a SPAL counter-attack. The wing-backs offered very little in the way of attacking support to the two forwards, Mattia Valoti and Andrea Petagna, both of which causing issues for the Inter backline at various points in the game.
Inter’s high block in the first half
Nerazzurri’s successful first half was partly thanks to their ability to apply pressure to SPAL when the visitors had possession. Not only did they hold a high line with their three center halves, but the attacking and midfield units applied instant pressure on the opposition, forcing either a mistake or a hopeless long ball from SPAL. Such work off the ball resulted in a number of quick transitions, which lead to SPAL keeping players in their own half behind the ball, with no desire to surge forward.
As seen in the image above, Inter have seven players located in SPAL’s half even when they don’t have possession. This method outlines their intentions; win the ball back as quickly as possible and as high as possible, to then punish SPAL with a fast, attacking transition. Such an approach from the home team also forces SPAL to keep a high number of players back, leaving their attacking unit incredibly isolated and lacking any creative solution.
Seen in the image above, SPAL’s midfielder receives a pass from the deepest center half, with the midfielder facing his own goal; a key trigger in Inter’s decision to press at that time. Another trigger to the press would’ve been the poor touch taken by the SPAL midfielder upon receiving the pass. Lukaku and Martinez are positioned to cut off a number of passes. Subsequently, Inter score via this turnover.
Such pressing was a common theme in the first half for Inter, limiting the number of chances SPAL created. However, Inter did not apply the same method in the second half, which SPAL took as an invitation, abandoning their defensive approach and instead of matching Inter’s tempo.
Inter’s dominance on the ball
One side of Inter’s plan has already been identified in their work off the ball, but they aim to match that quality in possession too. Although they controlled the tempo and the flow of the game for the majority of the first half and parts of the second, they showed very little desire to keep the ball in safe possession with the back three at the half-way line. Instead, they used the defensive unit as an early building block for an attack. Having highlighted some of SPAL’s defensive weaknesses from the offset, the Italian giants were often keen on exploiting them and attacking rather than wracking up the possession stats.
One of SPAL’s weaknesses when defending was keeping Inter’s wingers out of the game. The two wide men, especially Antonio Candreva who operated on the right-hand side, hugged the touchline to stretch SPAL. Whether they received the ball from a switch pass from the opposite flank or received it through a short pass, Inter’s wide midfielders found success on numerous occasions against SPAL’s wing-backs.
The set-up shown in the image above was a common occurrence on both flanks for Inter. Creating overloads allowed them to produce passing combinations to get past SPAL; their midfield unit especially. Ragliardini, highlighted in red, drifts away from his marker and shifts closer to the player in possession, making himself available for a pass. Vecino joins Lukaku and Martinez in the attacking unit to create an overload. The three remain compact as the attack starts, opening up space early on for the wide players.
This same set-up also highlights their previously mentioned attacking intent. Wanting to send a message to title rivals Juventus, Inter piled on the pressure: 79% of their possession occurred in SPAL’s half, with 16% reaching the penalty area. With 81% of their passes heading forwards towards the SPAL goal and a total of 18 shots, it is surprising that they only scored twice in the game. While this will concern Conte, he will take great comfort in his team carrying out his attacking instructions.
Another strong factor in Inter’s attacking threat is their use of crosses. A far cry from the classic long ball and crosses attacking approach adopted by many teams in recent years, Inter implement intricate passing patterns and combinations to create the ideal situation for a cross. This method utilizes some key attributes of their feared strike partners; Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez. Lukaku often uses his power in crossing situations, making him hard to overpower and beat in the air. Martinez is just as effective from such scenarios, using his athleticism and agility to lose his marker and produce an impressive leap off the floor. The understanding of elements like the timing of runs, movement and the type of cross are all crucial to Inter’s offensive success.
The fighting spirit of SPAL
A lot of the focus so far in this report has been on the first half, which tells a story of a dominant Inter looking to kill the game off, with SPAL simply looking to limit the damage afflicted. While a response of some kind was to be expected at some stage in the second half from SPAL, the nature of their approach shocked and impressed many.
Center half Vicari embodies his team’s willingness to create a goalscoring chance by executing a direct and fast pass into Murgia, who often joined the SPAL attack from midfield in the second half. Murgia then has two passing options – on either side of him with Tomovic, another defender in a high position, making a run into space down the right-hand side. The second option sees Petagna pull off from his marker and dropping deeper to assist his teammate.
In moments such as the one above, SPAL would have nine players in the opposition half. Though this signaled their desire to get back into the game, Inter quickly identified the opportunity to counter-attack, causing SPAL to adopt an approach which hed a little more caution than simply sending everybody upfield. The surprising attacking approach clearly caught Inter off guard, as the scenario in the above image lead to a goal, and wasn’t the only instance where Inter had most of their team back behind the ball.
With both teams applying similar attacking approaches, the game opened up and it became one with end-to-end action. Because of the risks behind losing possession in a game with such a high tempo to it, Inter ditched their high pressing approach, instead of allowing SPAL to have a little time on the ball on some occasions. However, throughout the second half, there was always a feeling that Inter would overpower SPAL on the counterattack. That being said, it became apparent that SPAL had a plan to deal with these counter-attacks.
Despite such a brave and surprising attacking effort in the second half, SPAL couldn’t create enough solid chances to find the equalizer, but the way they executed the plan may be something they look to in future fixtures, as the players in the team suit the direct attacking approach. However, despite his efforts and obvious potential, they failed to really get Petanga involved in the game. A striker who is tough, strong and clinical in the box is exactly what SPAL needed to get something from this match, they just couldn’t find a solution involving the big striker.
You would be forgiven for predicting an easy win for Inter in this match, and perhaps if they found just an extra bit of quality in the finishing department, they would’ve put this game out of sight. As expected, SPAL played very deep in the first half and looked extremely uncomfortable on the ball, with Inter looking like they could create a chance every time they picked up the ball. It was almost like it was an entirely different match in the second half with both teams ultimately adopting the opposite strategy to their first-half approach. Despite the efforts of SPAL, the quality and experience of that Inter side prevailed, and deservedly so in the end.
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