In Round 26 of Serie A, Inter were looking to extend their domestic winning run to seven matches as the league leaders took on Atalanta, who had won their last four encounters before the trip to Milan.
Following Milan’s 2-0 win over Hellas Verona on Sunday, Inter were on a mission to get their lead back to six points at the top of the Serie A table. On the other hand, Gian Piero Gasperini’s men came into this game sitting in fifth place, one point behind fourth-placed Roma.
Both teams had been scoring goals left and right before this fixture, but it turned out to be a rather cautious match from the attacking perspective, with both Inter and Atalanta cancelling each other out in many departments.
Milan Skriniar’s right-footed strike – following a corner-kick routine – proved to be Inter’s only shot on target and a match-winning goal against Atalanta, as the Nerazzurri were often well contained by the visitors’ tight man-to-man marking strategy.
The following tactical analysis will break down the key playing patterns of both teams, explaining the intricacies of their tactical approach to the game.
Starting Lineups and Formations
Both managers went for their tried and trusted tactical formations as outlined in the graphics above, though in possession, the teams altered their shape depending on the circumstances. In detail, Antonio Conte opted for a traditional 3-5-2 tactical shape, whereas Gasperini stuck with a very similar 3-4-2-1 set-up.
Starting with Inter, there were no changes in their defensive line, including the goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, with Milan Skriniar (right center-back), Stefan de Vrij (middle center-back) and Alessandro Bastoni (left center-back) forming a back three. Skriniar also often shifted wide to occupy the right-back spot when Inter intended to play out from the back, while both de Vrij and Bastoni split wide.
It meant Marcelo Brozovic was often the one who dropped in between the two center-backs to facilitate the build-up process, with Handanovic a viable option as well. Consequently, the right wing-back Achraf Hakimi was allowed to push up and combine with Nicolò Barella, who occupied the right half-space. Ivan Perisic was the other wing-back often left isolated on the left-flank.
In midfield, Brozovic was often the deepest of the three, with Nicolò Barella and Arturo Vidal operating on either side of the Croatian central midfielder. The Italian was mainly occupying the inside right channel, while the Chile international floated around a little more but was usually operating in the left half-space. As usual, Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku formed Inter’s striker partnership upfront.
On the other side, Atalanta also played with a back three system, including Rafael Toloi (right center-back), Cristian Romero (middle center-back) and Berat Djimsiti (left center-back). Joakim Maehle and Robin Gosens were the two wing-backs who occupied high and wide positions on either flank.
The two central midfielders in Remo Freuler and Marten de Roon were given similar instructions in comparison to Inter’s midfielders, as they predominantly occupied the right and the left inside channels. Consequently, they were able to form the passing connections with the wide center-back and the wing-back on either side. It means both central attacking midfielders in Matteo Pessina and Ruslan Malinovskyi occupied more central position in midfield, with Duvan Zapata leading the line for Atalanta.
Inter’s Offensive Strategy: Right-Sided Build-Up and Creating Passing Channels to Lukaku
This season, Inter are the perfect example that winning at the highest level is still possible despite placing less emphasis on the possession-based style of play. Under Conte, the Nerazzurri are renowned for their directness and attacking with pace, which combined with quality players upfront has made Inter an unstoppable machine.
The Nerazzurri are ranked first in the league for the most counter-attacks with 29, second for the most crosses per game (avg. 13.3), and second for the most crosses into the penalty area (avg. 2.92). Besides, Conte’s men complete the second-highest number of dead ball passes (set-pieces) that lead to a goal, averaging 0.26 per game, and have also scored the highest number of counter-attack goals (5) and the third-highest number of set-piece goals this season (10).
Conte’s famous 3-5-2 formation has been working almost flawlessly this Serie A season, with the most emphasis being placed on the wing-play and the swift counterattacks. It would be fair to say that without quality players, Inter’s rather pragmatic but incredibly effective style of play would not work anywhere near as well as it does now.
Against Atalanta, the Nerazzurri’s main tactic was to exploit the opponents’ man-to-man marking system by orienting their build-up play more towards the right side and sucking in Atalanta’s midfielders and wing-backs deeper into their half.
Additionally, Inter were looking to create vertical passing channels to Lukaku, as the Belgian striker was instructed to drop deep on most occasions, with Atalanta often pressing high up the pitch. Consequently, due to their high press and man-to-man marking, Lukaku was able to drag the opposing center-backs out of their positions and using his superb hold-up play to create space in behind for Barella, Hakimi and Martinez to exploit.
In the images below, we can see the fundamental principles of Inter’s game plan. In this instance, Skriniar, on the ball, Barella and Hakimi are all oriented towards the right side of the pitch, with the Italian midfielder occupying the position in the inside right channel. As a result, he drags away one of Atalanta’s midfielders as well, thus creating a vertical passing lane to Lukaku.
Due to Atalanta’s high press, Inter were able to suck in most of their players quite deep, and with the help of Lukaku’s hold up play, space was created behind the visitor’s midfield line.
In this instance, after securing the ball possession, Lukaku found himself on the right-wing, while Hakimi moved into midfield. Moreover, Martinez pulled one of their center-backs wide, thus creating space for Hakimi to run to, with the third Atalanta center-back left far behind after stepping out to man-mark Lukaku.
We can see a similar example illustrated in the series of images below. Inter are building their play down the right side with Hakimi on the ball, while Barella moves wide to free up the passing channel to Lukaku.
The Belgian striker holds the play up and drags the opposing center-back into Inter’s half. In this case, the Nerazzurri’s defensive and midfield lines stayed close to each other in the midfield zone inside their own half, thus pulling Atalanta’s midfielders out of their positions. Consequently, it created a massive gap between their defensive and midfield units, with Martinez waiting for the ball to reach him.
Another identical tendency can be spotted in the illustrations displayed below. In this situation, Inter’s back three and all three central midfielders are positioned inside their half, thus inviting Atalanta’s players to step out of their positions and press them man-to-man. The angles created by Inter’s players allowed Brozovic to play a vertical pass into the path of Lukaku, thus bypassing Atalanta’s midfield entirely.
Once again, a practically identical scenario is illustrated in the images below. All three Inter’s center-backs, including the right wing-back Hakimi, and all three central midfielders are positioned inside their own half, which forces Atalanta’s midfielders and wing-backs to step out. Consequently, the ball is played to Lukaku, with space vacated on the right-wing and in behind the Belgian striker.
Nonetheless, there were quite a few occasions when Inter found it hard to bypass Atalanta’s man-oriented high press despite the Nerazzurri’s attempts to suck in the opposition players deep into their half. In those instances, Inter opted to play long balls to Lukaku, who did a brilliant job in winning the first balls and holding the play up, which enabled the midfielders and wing-backs to join the attack.
Atalanta’s Attacking and Defensive Organization: Man-Oriented High Press and Focus on Wing-Play
Over the last couple of seasons, Atalanta have been renowned for their fluid and attacking style of play, which involve a great deal of movement and player rotations. One of the key facets of Atalanta’s possession-based football is their intention to always drive forward by creating overloads and passing triangles.
Nevertheless, none of that was noticeable in Atalanta’s repertoire against Inter. Gasperini’s men looked cautious on the ball and rarely tried to play more risky passes, as their overall attacking play severely lacked fluidity we have all been accustomed to over the recent years.
The two main statistical metrics of progressive passes and passes into the penalty area back up our above-outlined statements. Against Inter, Atalanta played 43 progressive passes, which was 8 fewer than their season average (avg. 50.8), and only 7 passes into the attacking penalty area that was way below their season average once again (13.4).
Atalanta’s tactical plan was to build their play down the flanks, predominantly the left one, with both central attacking midfielders occasionally making late runs into vacated space down the center. Such an example can be observed in the images below. As we can see, Atalanta have a number of players oriented towards the right side of the pitch, thus dragging Inter slightly over to that side, and with the Nerazzurri’s midfield line lacking width, Atalanta are able to progress the ball down the left inside channel.
However, after reaching the entrance of the final third area, Atalanta were often left with no answers to a question of how to unlock Inter’s low defensive block. Often their plan was to have three or four players on one side of the pitch and then switch the play to the underloaded areas in midfield. However, when the ball was delivered to the central zones, Atalanta were often lacking creativity and movement off the ball to create favorable passing angles.
It was particularly noticeable in the second half when Inter retrieved to a very low 5-4-1 defensive block, with little room to operate between the defensive and midfield lines. Atalanta’s positional structures were also questionable, with players taking up lateral positions on the pitch, making it hard to create progressive passing angles.
Atalanta’s inability to find ways how to reach Inter’s penalty area is perfectly illustrated in the touch map below. As we can see, Gasperini’s men had 251 touches in the final third areas around Inter’s penalty box. However, Atalanta managed to touch the ball only 30 times inside the Nerazzurri’s penalty area, which is a relatively low number compared to the touches outside the box.
In terms of Atalanta’s defensive set-up, Gasperini’s men were often instructed to press high up the pitch in a man-oriented manner. It worked well on quite a few occasions, as we can see in the illustrations presented below. When applied correctly and on time, Inter players were unable to play the ball out of Atalanta’s press and were forced to play it backwards.
Shot Map of Both Teams
xG (expected goals): Inter 0.30 – 0.77 Atalanta
Result: Inter 1-0 Atalanta
All in all, it was a game of very few chances from either side. Atalanta caused Inter problems with their man-oriented high press for good parts of the game, but the Nerazzurri were still able to find the way to manipulate Atalanta’s defensive tactics. Clever player positioning that allowed the ball to reach the feet of Lukaku and swift player transitioning from one phase to another were the highlights of this tactical battle.
In contrast, Atalanta did not find any solutions on how to unlock Inter’s incredibly well-drilled low 5-3-2 / 5-4-1 defensive block. Little movement without the ball and questionable positional structures prevented Atalanta from moving the ball in a progressive vertical manner. This game was another proof that most of the Serie A teams are toothless against Inter’s low defensive block.