The second leg of the Europa League Last 16 stage featured an interesting game between Inter Milan and Eintracht Frankfurt. As the first leg back in Germany ended in a 0-0 draw, the Nerazzurri were optimistic to reach the quarterfinals with a victory at their home stadium, the San Siro.
Surprisingly, the German side scored an early goal in the fifth minute. In the end, it turned out to be the only goal scored in this game. Frankfurt managed to kick Inter out of the competition and will now face Benfica in the quarterfinals. This tactical analysis will explain the reasons for this great victory and also ask the question of whether Luciano Spalletti took the right approach.
In this game, Inter played with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Inter Coach Spalletti had to face some issues, as several players weren’t available for the game. While Kwadwo Asamoah and Lautaro Martinez were suspended due to an accumulation of bookings in the competition, Vrsaljko, Nainggolan, Brozovic and Miranda were injured. Apart from that, left-back Dalbert wasn’t selected in Inter’s Europa League squad. On top of that, the Icardi saga still continues.
Frankfurt, on the other hand, played in a 3-5-2 formation. Coach Adi Hütter also uses a 3-4-3 system quite often, but as Ante Rebic was missing due to an injury, the Austrian decided to adjust the system a little. However, there were only marginal differences. Other than that, Gelson Fernandes was suspended and Torro, Chandler and Abraham were missing due to an injury.
Now, as we know, a 3-5-2 formation turns into a 5-3-2 defensive shape most of the time. Often enough in such games, the full-backs play an important role as they get a lot of open space against teams playing with a back-five. In theory, when right-back D’Ambrosio receives the ball, he will have plenty of time and space, until either Kostic or Willems move out to attack him. Similarly, the same applies on the left-hand side when Soares receives the ball and either Da Costa or Gacinovic move out.
The centre, on the other hand, should be closed, as strikers Jovic and Haller stay central and support the midfield three against Inter’s central midfielders.
Offensively, Frankfurt are a team that use their wingbacks enormously high up the pitch. Especially Kostic on the left wing, who is an offensive player by nature, is often enough positioned on the same line as Jovic and Haller. Also, we know that the strikers tend to fall back, opening spaces for players coming from behind. Bearing these points in mind, we now have a look at how the coaches approached this challenge.
Frankfurt in a 3-3-4 like shape offensively
As the wingbacks positioned enormously high, Frankfurt had a 3-3-4 like offensive shape. Throughout the season, we observe that Coach Adi Hütter relies on overloading the final third. Since Haller and Jovic (or Rebic if available) have huge qualities of controlling long balls, it also makes sense to play these instead of building up slowly. Thanks to the overload, Frankfurt may also immediately attack the second ball if the strikers weren’t successful in controlling the ball.
This image provides a good example of the 3-3-4 shape. Also, Gacinovic is more offensive than Willems, so he can join the attack as well and make a run from behind. Kostic and Da Costa stay wide. D’Ambrosio thus leaves a rather big gap to De Vrij.
This flexible offensive approach was particularly difficult to defend for Inter. Here, Willems decides to move the ball to the other wing. Rode provides a good connection point, while Gacinovic moves into the box. Kostic once again stretches the back line.
Da Costa then receives the ball on the right wing. Inter are able to come back in time and provide numerical superiority near the ball. But now the three players inside the box complicate things for Inter, as they make contrasting movements. As you never know who moves where it’s quite difficult to defend.
Inter try to defend tight
Inter tried to simplify defending these positions. On the one hand, they tried to stay compact, regardless of the threat on the wings. On the other hand, their midfielders supported the back line defending runs behind. One such example provides the following image.
Here, central midfielder Vecino follows Frankfurt striker Haller tightly. Haller previously fell back into the midfield and now wants to use his speed to make a run behind the back line. As Vecino follows him, the backline can concentrate on defending the box. Left-back Soares moves out to oppose Da Costa on the wing.
With two tight blocks, Inter were eager to stay compact. We see that Kostic and Da Costa are open on the wings. Inter didn’t try to prevent this, but when they received the ball they were opposed rather quickly. As the two blocks are only a few meters apart, it was difficult for Frankfurt to get between the lines.
Frankfurt pushed Inter to the wings
Defensively, Frankfurt concentrated on closing the centre and pushing Inter to the wings. As predicted, the full-backs had a lot of space.
Here, we see that Inter have no central passing option. Right back D’Ambrosio is open, so he receives the pass.
As soon as D’Ambrosio has the ball, Frankfurt are extremely aggressive and use a tight man-marking approach. Thus, Inter have no passing option and decide to play it long.
On other occasions, when Frankfurt weren’t that aggressive, Inter could use the space on the wings. The centre was almost always closed, but there were attacking chances on the wings. However, Inter didn’t use this approach aggressively enough. Soares could dribble aggressively and try to get Perisic into the game, but mostly the open space wasn’t exploited.
In fact, there were many occasions where Inter decided to play a long ball from the back instead of going to the wings. As they were pressed aggressively there in the beginning of the game, it might be that they wanted to be cautious. However, without Icardi, it was difficult to control these long balls.
Frankfurt closed the centre perfectly
As mentioned, Frankfurt manage the stay compact in the centre and prevent central attacks. It was extremely difficult for Inter when they decided to play through the centre. A dangerous loss of possession almost even led to another goal for Frankfurt.
Here, Inter try to play the ball to Valero. Playing the ball out to the wing would have been less dangerous, as there is once again a lot of open space. Gacinovic tightly marks Valero and intercepts the pass.
Another angle of this situation demonstrates this even better.
Gacinovic then has a great chance to score a goal but fails to convert.
Inter weren’t positioned optimally
Also, Inter weren’t able to have good positioning over the course of the game. Often enough, they didn’t provide enough passing options.
Borja Valero would sometimes fall back to pick up the ball early in the build-up. In doing so, he takes De Vrij or Skriniar out of the game. He himself is then missing in the midfield position. Vecino is the only player in the central midfield position, which makes it difficult to defend, as Willems can man-mark him. Overall, Frankfurt can easily defend.
In the second half, there were slight improvements, as Inter decided to switch to a back three. Centre-back Skriniar moved into the open space on the left wing, so that the initial left-back could push higher. Also, this opened space for Valero in the centre.
Inter should have been more patient
However, Inter rushed things. Instead of moving the ball a lot and creating gaps, they chose to play long balls too often.
Here, Inter are once again pushed to the wings. There is no passing option for D’Ambrosio. A good solution would be too turn back and move the ball to the blind side where there is a lot of space. Jovic presses from behind though in this situation, which increases the risk of turning back. It seems that Inter were too cautious and thus decided to play the long ball. These balls were almost always lost though.
In this image, we have a good example of what the game looked like for Inter from a tactical standpoint. Keita Balde was isolated in the last line, so it’s no surprise that he wasn’t able to win long balls, as this doesn’t suit his game anyway. Frankfurt were always eager to have a lot of players near the ball and shift aggressively to the wings, so there was a lot of space on the blind side. A more patient approach with a lot of wing changes would have been a good approach for Inter.
Crosses weren’t effective for Inter
Another aspect of Inter rushing things were early crosses into the box.
Here, D’Ambrosio is in the half space. Inter don’t even occupy the wing. Numerically, Inter managed to have a lot of players in the box when crossing. They lack the heading qualities of players like Ronaldo or Mandzukic though, so Frankfurt were able to defend these crosses rather easily.
This image shows a situation where Frankfurt isn’t even positioned well. Three defenders are in no-mans land, while in the dangerous are near the penalty spot, there occurs a five vs three superiority for Inter. Nonetheless, this situation doesn’t lead to a dangerous chance for Inter either. They weren’t able to win aerial duels, so Frankfurt could defend even being in such a bad position.
The only goal of the game due to an individual error
After a long ball by the Frankfurt defence, Inter defender De Vrij wasn’t able to control the ball. He tried to make a heading pass back to Keeper Handanovic. Unfortunately for Inter, the header was too short, so Luka Jovic could intercept the ball and score the goal. Here is an image of that situation.
Frankfurt played a great game and were able to win at San Siro. They managed to defend well and create a lot of problems for Inter. Spalletti’s approach was also criticized by the media. From a tactical standpoint, Inter should have used the wings more aggressively and exploit the open spaces occurring there.
Furthermore, Inter’s possession game should have been more patient in order to move Frankfurt and create gaps. Throughout the 90 minutes, Inter failed to force Frankfurt into making mistakes. All in all, the German side deserved the victory. Frankfurt now continue their international road against Benfica. In this form, they should be a dangerous opponent.