In this tactical analysis we will cover how Inter beat AC Milan so convincingly, and how they have shown us why they will be deserved Serie A champions. In a top of the table clash that saw first versus second, Inter came out as winners. The tactics put on display by Antonio Conte versus Stefano Pioli show a clear difference between a world-class coach and one whose luck is close to running out.
The match finished AC Milan 0-3 Inter, with two goals from Lautaro Martinez and one from Romelu Lukaku. The xG of this match was 0.80-2.51, showing us that AC Milan struggled to create high quality chances. Other than the first five minutes or so of the second half, in which captain and goalkeeper Samir Handanovic produced a number of world-class saves, Milan did not put Inter under any pressure at all.
Inter came into this match having won four of their previous five matches in the Serie A, with the most notable victories coming against Juventus (placed 6th) and Lazio (placed 5th). We have covered in previous analyses how the Inter players are fluid in possession, often moving from their starting positions to create overloads in many areas of the pitch at once. This match was no different..
AC Milan came into this match having won three of their previous five matches, with two losses coming from Spezia (placed 17th) and Atalanta (placed 4th). Milan’s inability to adjust their style and system when it has been exploited will ultimately cost them the Serie A title. They have quality players in this squad, there is no doubt about that. However, the way in which these players are used is not yet optimal.
AC Milan deployed a 4-2-3-1. In attack, it would shift to a 3-2-4-1, with left full-back Theo Hernández encouraged to join the attack, right full-back Davide Calabria moving more centrally, while the central defenders Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjaer shifted to cover the space left behind Hernández.
From the beginning, Inter would target this left flank because Hernández often shirks his defensive responsibilities to his teammates. The double pivot rarely joined the attack, while the front four often switched places, tucking inside or staying out on the wing in an attempt to cause havoc for the Inter defenders.AC Milan pressed aggressively, with all but the central defenders and right full-back joining in the press.
Inter deployed a very rigid 5-3-2. This was the only shape Inter used in defense in this game, as they have for most of the season. It has proven to be effective as it stops service into the midfield. It then forces the opposition to move the ball forward through the wide areas, which then triggers the Inter press to use the touchline as a sort of “twelfth man” to win possession. In attack,
it often resembled 3-3-4, with Alessandro Bastoni operating as both a left center-back and a left full-back if Inter wanted to overload the left side of the pitch. Achraf Hakimi and Ivan Perisic acted as wingers adding width to the Inter attack and forming a front four, while Nicolo Barella was given the freedom to roam anywhere he saw that he could best use his creativity. Christian Eriksen and Marcelo Brozovic were crucial in moving possession from the defenders to the forward players.
Inter’s 5-3-2 structure did not budge. This shape was a constant in the match and effectively stopped any service into any AC Milan midfielder. When we say “attack” we mean that Inter would only press as a team when the ball went to the wide areas. When this worked, Inter would then counter-attack by exploiting the space left behind the pressing AC Milan players.
More often than not, it was Hernández who was caught out of position. Hernández’s position left AC Milan vulnerable, and was the reason for all three goals. Each attack came from Inter attacking the space behind Hernández. This is not to say Hernández is a bad player, rather, he is not suited for the role he is being asked to play.
Below see AC Milan forced to use possession out wide. The Inter back five shifted to a back four as Hakimi pressed Hernández exclusively. Hakimi’s role in this match was to press Hernández in an effort to either force AC Milan to go backwards, or create a turnover in possession that allowed Inter to counter. Lukaku shields Kessié while Barella man-marked Saelemaekers. Hernández must go back.
AC Milan would use the right flank, more so after they conceded their first goal. On the below is Kjaer passing the ball out wide. Lautaro eyes Calabia, Eriksen eyes Çalhanoğlu while Perisic eyes Saelemaekers. The Inter players shift to the side of play Kjaer is passing to before beginning their press. By waiting until AC Milan go to wide areas before they press, Inter leave as little space possible in behind them when they do press.
It is not the high energy pressing we have come to see from Manchester City, Liverpool or Bayern Munich, for example, because it doesn’t need to be. Inter do not have the players to do that and Conte knows that. By stopping service into the middle, and cutting off Tonali and Kessié, Inter forced AC Milan wide. When any team is forced to go to the wide areas, the quality of chances created goes down. It isn’t pretty, but it works.
We mentioned earlier that Hernández’s positioning was suspect, so here will analyze that. When Inter build-up play from the defense, they welcome the AC Milan press in an attempt to exploit the space left behind the pressing players. On the ball below is Hakimi being pressed by Hernández. The problem here is that Hernández leaves space behind him vacant for an Inter forward to drop into. Barella and Kessié both notice this.
Now Kessié must defend the first space (labelled 1) which then leaves the second space (labelled 2) vulnerable. Brozovic is marked by Çalhanoğlu and Etiksen is marked by Tonali, which means that Kessié has to defend two spaces at once. No player can cover two spaces at once, so Hakimi was able to exploit this by combining with Barella and Lukaku as he dropped deep. Inter scored from this specific example, but they would also perform this movement several times in the match.
For most of this season, AC Milan have shown us that they like to press high and press aggressively. This is a fine tactic, however, AC Milan do not have the personnel to pull this off effectively against teams who use defenders that are comfortable on the ball. Inter can easily shift from a back five to a back four and draw an aggressive press.
Once they draw their opponents press, the defender who left the backline can drop back into their defensive third and help with the build-up play. Below we see just that. when Skriniar is in possession, being pressed by Hernández. Hakimi drops back into his defensive third, accompanied by Barella. Brozovic enters the space behind Hernández, ensuring safety in the build-up phase of play.
The xG of this match suggests that the chances AC Milan created were poor. That suggestion is accurate, and we’ll explain why. As mentioned above, Milan were forced to only use the wide areas, failing to make any breakthroughs centrally. If you cannot use the central spaces, you must create chances from the wide areas. These types of chances are less likely to lead to a goal scoring opportunity and are considered “low-quality”.
AC Milan’s attack was quickly snuffed by Inter’s aggressive pressing of the flanks. Conte instructed his players to use the touchline as a twelfth man. Below we see AC Milan attempting to overload Inter’s Hakimi with Çalhanoğlu and Hernández. Rebic joins the attack as an option because he drops off from the Inter defensive line. While AC Milan were able to create one or two high-quality chances from these areas, it never resulted in a goal. This attacking idea did not work for Milan because they never outnumbered Inter in any area of the pitch, often barely keeping numbers equal to Inter in attack.
At half-time, Stefano Pioli noticed that Eriksen often pressed Calabria too soon and too aggressively in the first half, leaving space behind him that his team could exploit. Below we can see just that. Eriksen presses Calabria, leaving space for Tonali to run into.
Bastoni sees this and looks to close that space before Tonali can take advantage of it. It may look like a small positional error, however, it was in the first five minutes of the second half where AC Milan had their best chances. Their sustained time in possession can be linked back to Tonali exploiting this space.
AC Milan did not play like champions. Stefano Pioli is not a bad manager, but his reluctance to change what is quite clearly a glaring weakness in Theo Hernández is questionable. The system in which this team plays does not showcase the talent that AC MIlan have. Despite being second to Inter by four points, AC Milan are not proving to anyone that they deserve to be in that position. They are very close to becoming a team that is just the “best of the rest” instead of an elite level team. AC Milan have their weaknesses; what will separate them from the rest is if they know how to fix them.
Inter deserve their first place spot. The players have shown a commitment to Antonio Conte and to the system. Each player has their role and executes it well. This team is disciplined, creative and tactically astute. A poor showing in the Champions League and dodgy start to the Serie A season is a distant memory in the heads of Inter fans. With just the league to focus on now, Inter will be Serie A champions.
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I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___