It’s hard not to wonder how many supporters looked at Inter’s team sheet on Saturday evening and thought, “Hmm, five defenders, but only one natural centre-back on the pitch. That is a solid plan.”
The truth is, very few would have been inspired by Antonio Conte’s insistence on maintaining his beloved, tried and tested 3-5-2 formation, no matter how many of the necessary personnel were unavailable for the big Derby Della Madonnina.
Milan rolled into town (well, it’s their town too, so…strolled across the lawn?), as very much the underdogs in this tie. Despite their struggles in recent years however, Stefano Pioli’s men are without doubt Italy’s form team since the start of 2020, with the imperious Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading them to three straight wins in the new season.
Those three became four on Saturday, as to the surprise of most viewers, Inter slipped to a shock 2-1 defeat to their bitter rivals. I Rossoneri put in a great display, hitting their hosts twice early on, and then soaking up the pressure and riding their luck to claim all three points.
Inter had their chances to not only tie the game, but to snatch a win. Ultimately, it wasn’t to be. Yet it all feels so obviously avoidable.
Conte set his side up with three central defenders, but his selections were limited due to injury and positive coronavirus tests. Usual suspects Alessandro Bastoni and Milan Skriniar were sidelined, meaning the Nerazzurri boss had to formulate a Plan B.
Only, his Plan B was awfully similar to his Plan A – and worse. Rather than altering the dynamics of the team to address the imbalance at centre-half, he instead opted to plough on with his classic system, and squidged wing-backs Aleksandar Kolarov and Danilo D’Ambrosio into their discomfort zone.
That left Stefan de Vrij as the only natural centre-back in the side, and boy did that become painfully apparent inside the first 20 minutes. The ageing and overly-experienced (old) Kolarov was the first to feel each and every of his 34 years, getting on the wrong side of Ibrahimovic, and putting in a shocking tackle to concede a spot-kick.
That was duly punished – at the second attempt – and Inter found themselves with it all to do. It didn’t stop there, though. Conte was offered a twofer on his shoddy lineup only three minutes later, when Rafael Leao sized up and chopped down D’Ambrosio, leaving him for dead on the byline, before crossing to an unmarked Ibrahimovic, who did the rest.
Unmarked, by the way, because Kolarov was still somewhere in Rome (mentally and possibly physically), rather than sticking to one of the deadliest strikers on the planet.
Credit to Inter though, they didn’t fold.
Spurred on by the feeling there was little left to lose, they threw everything at Milan in a pulsating 70 minutes of football. Romelu Lukaku pulled one back, and he, Lautaro Martinez, Achraf Hakimi and several others had the chance to spare the backline’s blushes.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. I Nerazzurri couldn’t blow down the red and black door, and their huffing and puffing was for nought.
Maybe it is for the best. Perhaps, on this one occasion, Conte may finally have learnt that selecting a system to suit his available players is a better alternative to selecting the best players for his preferred system. After all, a certain Christian Eriksen may actually be worth the hefty fee paid in January, if he’s played in his best position – a role that doesn’t exist in the usual setup.
And the same could be said for Alexis Sanchez and Ivan Perisic, both of whom are tasked with adapting to a brand new position so late in their careers – two players who can still offer so much when utilised correctly.
Why did they sell Diego Godin, by the way? A decision that appears stranger with each passing week. Maybe he’s not of starting XI quality now, but he could do no worse than the chuckle brothers who took to the field today.
These questions must be asked. A last-minute equaliser might have glossed over the obvious cracks in this display on Saturday evening, and the narrative may have revolved around a spirited comeback.
Indeed, the Inter boss may still point to a possible penalty that was waved away late in the second half, or the series of opportunities that were woefully squandered. Anything to deflect criticism from his precious, precious system.