This post was guest-blogged by Matt Statto. Follow him on Twitter (@ilStatto)
This weekend’s fixture against Inter offers an interesting test. Whilst the derby d’Italia has always been a true test of one’s mental strength and spirit, it represents the chance to get one over on the most fierce of rivals and with that, comes a stern test of tactical nous and prowess for the bianconeri. The opposition haven’t been in great form recently, however Inter come into this game on the back of their 4-1 victory – the unlucky 4-4 defeat on away goals – against Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Europa League after their game against Sampdoria was postponed due to adverse weather conditions. Juventus, on the other hand, have played back into good form, bouncing back from the 1-0 defeat to Roma with a 5 match unbeaten run, albeit without too many challenges during this streak.
Inter represent a difficult team to predict in terms of their tactical strategy. They’ve fluttered between a number of formations this season including a 4-3-1-2, a 3-4-3 and a 4-2-3-1, having struggled to settle and find the right balance over the course of the season thus far. Initially hopping between a back 3 and 4, in recent months they’ve settled on a back 4 and this at least has given them some consistency, particularly in their backline, which hasn’t been as water tight as Inter defences during their successful seasons under Mourinho a few years back.
In order to assess Inter for the weekend’s fixture, I felt it was necessary to watch and report on my findings from two games, both very different in terms of result and performance. Initially I sat down to analyse Inter’s away game at the Artemio Franchi against Vincenzo Montella’s inform Fiorentina, followed by the aforementioned victory against Tottenham in the Europa League. It’s important to note that in both fixtures Inter went with the 4-3-1-2 but the structure and end result was not remotely similar.
February 17 2013: Fiorentina 4-1 Inter
Fiorentina have varied their formation between a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3 formation this season, both have brought them excellent success, with a high tempo and ball retention style not too dissimilar from our own – particularly the Juventus of 11/12. They push their wing backs/full backs high up the pitch and look to control the rhythm of the game, not giving the opponent a moment to settle and in doing so, force the opposition back. For the game against Inter, they fielded a 4-3-3 as opposed to the 3-5-2, however they retained elements of a 3-5-2 at times, which is interesting in terms of analysing Inter’s performance against this shape.
From the very outset it was clear that Fiorentina were very comfortably in control of the game. With Pasqual pushing high up on the left side and Tomovic the RB tucking in to help combat Cassano’s threat, it was obvious to me that Montella did his homework to try and neutralise Inter’s most potent threat. Inter on the other hand were very poor in terms of their positioning on the pitch from an attacking and countering stance. Their defence was compact as expected, however their midfield also dropped so deep they weren’t too far ahead of the back four. Whilst you can understand Stramacioni’s logic here in terms of condensing the space in which Ljajic and Jovetic could drop into, it left them with no option to break forward to support Palacio and Cassano up front. No ability to counter – arguably their strongest strength.
The main culprit here was Fredy Guarin. The Inter midfielder was supposed to be playing in the trequartista role behind the two strikers, however he was positioned so deep, he was much closer to the Inter defence than he was to being able to support the forwards. Whether or not he was instructed to do this, I’m not too sure, but it was clear this was a grave error on Inter’s part, as this deep positioning allowed the excellent David Pizarro to have free reign to dictate the game in the space unoccupied between Guarin and Cassano/Palacio. Guarin did not look natural in this role and you could tell he’s spent the majority of his career being deployed in a deeper role, rather than supporting a front pairing. You can imagine this would play out very similar if Guarin was deployed in such a deep position against a player like Pirlo, who’s of higher calibre and a greater match winner than the Chilean regista.
Given how deep Inter’s midfield were positioned, you’d think it’d be imperative that at least one of the two up top would be adept at holding the ball up in order to allow the transition forward of the midfielders in order to contribute to some form of attack. However neither of Cassano or Palacio are natural strikers and both are constantly looking to work their respective channel – Cassano via dropping off towards the left flank, whilst Palacio likes to run deep behind the defenders into the right channel. This creates a wide gap between the two of them and with midfield support being so far behind as it was in this game, they struggled to make any inroads together.
The narrow nature of Inter’s formation meant they were exposed down the flanks. Fiorentina’s full backs didn’t have any direct opponent to track their runs and this was crucial, particularly down the left, as Pasqual linked excellently with Ljajic, moving into the space which the Serbian left when moving inside to support Jovetic. Cuardrado played an intelligent role on the right hand side, dropping deeper and staying wider than Ljajic on the other side of the field in order to pull away from the defensively strong Cambiasso and onto the enthusiastic, but defensively weaker Nagatomo, who received little support throughout. Cambiasso plays an important role on the left of the midfield 3 for Inter as he provides some defensive strength which is lacking, especially given the tendency of Cassano to stand and watch when the team doesn’t have the ball.
March 14 2013: Inter 4-1 Tottenham Hotspur
Inter’s performance vs Tottenham was completely unrecognisable to the performance against Fiorentina. The formation remained the same, however Stramacioni’s approach to this game was entirely different and this produced a substantially better performance and one which may have possibly saved his job, at least in the eyes of some in the media.
Tottenham under Andre Villas-Boas have regularly used a 4-4-1-1 system, however for the 2nd leg against Inter – due to the suspension of the talismanic Gareth Bale – they had to field two out and out strikers in Adebayor and Defoe, lining up in a fairly traditional 4-4-2. Their lack of traditional wingers in this system meant that they struggled to maintain the penetrative effect they’ve utilised on the break so often this season, as both Dembele and Sigurdsson both like to play centrally, meaning they naturally came looking for the ball rather than offering an out ball down the wings. This was important as it meant that both of Inter’s full backs didn’t have to worry too much about pace running at them and Jonathan especially felt very confident in venturing forward, knowing he was able to get back into position without too much trouble. Sigurdsson never had the pace to make best use of the space the Brazilian RB left behind him.
The role of Cambiasso in this game was interesting. When Inter didn’t have the ball, he tucked inside to make sure Inter were more compact in order to press and get the ball back, but when in possession, he often made lateral runs into the left channel, almost hugging the left wing at times. This worked very well as it often dragged Dembele back out of the middle and into the wide areas. Dembele has been one of Tottenham’s most influential players this season so by making sure he was constantly having to worry about tracking his runs meant that he neutralised some of his threat, but also created space in the centre of the pitch for Kovacevic and Gargano to create plays on the ball.
Another key difference in this match was that both of Adebayor and Defoe aren’t known for their defensive work rate and this was on evidence in this game, whereby they allowed much more time on the ball for Inter’s defenders to distribute and contribute to the forward transition of the ball. Inter’s approach was the same as always in that they wanted a very fast transition from front to back, however because there wasn’t much pressure on the defenders from Spurs’ forwards, the passes forward were much more incisive and accurate, with Inter proving very effective at this – something to be wary of.
What didn’t surprise me was Guarin’s deployment was the key factor again. Except this time it was for good, rather than bad. Unlike against Fiorentina where his positioning was too deep he couldn’t make a positive impact, against Tottenham his positioning was very, very high. In fact his positioning was so high up that it often was the case that when Inter were on the break, Guarin was level and sometimes even beyond the positioning of Cassano, who did his traditional movement deep and left. Guarin was much better in this role, as he was able to break past Spurs’ midfield and run at their defence, causing panic and proving a decoy for the more creative Cassano and Palacio, who weren’t as easily manageable with a player making rampaging vertical runs beyond them. Guarin lacks the sort of guile and intricacy of a traditional number 10, but given these instructions, he was very effective. In general, Inter’s positioning in this match was much more pro-active and positive, with more midfield runners and just a better all-round gameplan.
Keys to A Juventus Victory
Obviously it’s important that Juventus focus on this game and put all thoughts of Bayern aside. It’s easy to get carried away with being at the top of Serie A, but Juventus must not get complacent and assume to coast to the title. This would be absolutely wrong and I expect Conte to be fully aware and have the players fully focused on the task at hand.
On the pitch a lot of importance lies with Stramacioni and the deployment of his players. If Gazzetta’s lineup is correct, Inter will indeed be fielding the 4-3-1-2 with Guarin at trequartista (subject to him getting back to Milan in time after missing his flight home from international duty – if he does lose his place in the team this role will fall to someone else and they will have to do the same) and this part of the pitch could prove crucial as if Guarin is positioned or is sucked in too deep, he will allow Pirlo all the time in the world to dictate play and with Inter’s formation being very narrow, Pirlo would be able to look for his favoured pass over the top to Lichtsteiner time, after time, after time.
It’s also a key factor because if Guarin is too deep to press high on transitions from the back, Marrone (again, Gazzetta lineups permitted) will be able to step into the midfield with the ball from the back, something he is capable of doing, with Bonucci and Barzagli looking after Palacio and Cassano. Inter having Guarin so deep allows for the 3 v 2 situation at the back in Juve’s favour and allows Lichtsteiner and Asamoah freedom to push up high into advanced areas.
The scope of the game would change if Guarin is positioned more similarly to how he played against Tottenham. With him in a further more advanced positioning, he would be placed in the area in and around Pirlo using strength and tenacity to disrupt Pirlo’s game, whilst he would also be in a position to break past the regista on the break and run at the inexperienced Marrone, who would then be in for a much tougher test of his capabilities in that position. This sort of dynamic, powerful number 10 has caused Juventus a few problems since Conte took over, with Boateng for Milan in particular playing this role to good effect in a handful of games and it’s definitely something to be wary of should Stramacioni decide this is the role he wishes Guarin to fulfill.
Naturally, when Guarin pushes forward to almost make a front three on the break, it means we’re left with a 3 v 3 situation in defence and this in turn would mean that Asamoah and Lichtsteiner would unlikely to be as adventurous in getting forward – keeping a close eye on the lateral movements of Palacio and Cassano into their respective channels. This would then free up Inter’s full backs to become more adventurous and cause Juventus a few problems if they saw fit to push on and take advantage of the newly created space. It’s up to Juventus to guard against this and be tactically aware in the situation this occurs and make the appropriate tactical changes in order to change the game – if indeed it does actually threaten our position. In this situation, a change to 4 at the back and a 4-3-3, like Fiorentina would make a lot of sense. Juventus could once again out number them at the back, whilst matching them in midfield, it would see Juve maintain an element of control once more, especially given the squad’s ball retention skills and ability to press the ball.
Looking forward and it’s important Juve make good use of the space on the flanks when opportunities occur. Inter’s formation is narrow and does allow space, so the out of form Asamoah does have an important role to play. Against Zanetti this will not be easy, given Zanetti is an excellent defender in the 1 v 1 and is unlikely to be too overly aggressive in his positioning up the pitch. For this reason it’s probably best to target the left flank as Alvaro Pereira isn’t as strong a defender and is the more forward thinking, meaning he’s going to leave space behind him for forwards to run the channels behind him and drag Chivu out of position. Inter are susceptible to this and it’s important the off-the-ball movement is alert and on point, to confuse their backline and make the most of the spaces worked for. If Juventus do this well, then I see no reason to why they won’t come away with the three points.