Tactical Analysis: Deconstructing the Inter – Milan Derby

It appears that any effect coronavirus had on Zlatan Ibrahimovic was nothing but a mere pestilence as the legendary Swede’s quick-fire brace helped Milan register a 2-1 win over bitter rivals Inter in the first Derby della Madonnina of the season.

The veteran striker put Milan in front inside 13 minutes, tapping in from the rebound after Samir Handanovic had saved his penalty. Three minutes later, Ibra was at it again, scoring his second of the night which would prove to be the winning goal.

Keeping up with his recent form, Romelu Lukaku pulled one back for Antonio Conte’s side. This was the first goal Milan have conceded this season which tells you how far the Rossoneri have come under Stefano Pioli.

Following the win, Milan boast a 100% record in the Serie A with 12 points from 4 games. Meanwhile, Inter lost for the first time this season and have 7 points from 4 games.

The Inter and Milan Lineups

Antonio Conte went for his preferred 3-5-2 formation with Aleksandar Kolarov, Stefan de Vrij, and Danilo D’Ambrosio forming a three man defense. Achraf Hakimi and Ivan Perisic were deployed as wing-backs with the Croatian not really accustomed to playing in such a role.

Marcelo Brozovic was at the base of the midfield and had support from Nicolò Barella and Arturo Vidal. Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez meanwhile lead the attack like they usually do.

For Milan, Pioli went for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjaer forming a partnership at the heart of defense, supported by Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria on either side. Franck Kessié and Ismael Bennacer settled in a double pivot to shore up the defense further and also to neutralize the passing lanes.

Rafael Leao was given the nod and the Portuguese played down the left side of the flank while Alexis Saelemaekers was positioned on the right side of the flank.

Hakan Calhanoglu was positioned in his preferred attacking midfield role in order to give the Turkish international a better chance to create openings for Ibrahimovic.

Milan Passing

As you can see in the above passing map, both teams concentrated most of their passing in the midfield. Players from both sides tended to create openings centrally rather than relying on the flanks. This meant that the likes of Barella and Calhanoglu saw quite a lot of the ball in the opening stages of the game.

For instance, there were seven occasions during the match where Calabria opted to pass the ball infield towards Calhanoglu rather than pass it directly to Saelemaekers. But that doesn’t mean that Calabria did not link up with the Belgian. Milan’s passing was more reliant on using the creativity of the Turkish international who would then look for a diagonal pass or try put Ibrahimovic through on goal.

Here, Calabria receives the ball and has both Saelemaekers and Calhanoglu up front. However, the young full back decides to carry the ball for a few yards while cutting inside.

As you can see, the Italian is clearly looking to pass the ball to the Turk.

The former Bayer Leverkusen man receives the ball and quickly passes it towards Ibrahimovic who has already made a good run off the shoulder of the Inter defender. The resulting move leads to a penalty kick for the visitors. The Swede steps up to take it and misses it but then puts the ball past Handanovic at the second attempt.

Similarly, Hakimi and Lukaku linked seven times during the game with the Belgian international drifting from a central position to down the flanks where he got to see more of the ball. However, the Moroccan international wasn’t the only player looking to pass the ball over to the big Belgian.

Arturo Vidal was similarly in a position where Lukaku appeared to be the better option for a forward pass.

When Milan pressed, Samir Handanovic was forced into going long and naturally Lukaku was the target.

Nicolò Barella, on the other hand, tried linking up with Lautaro Martinez on a regular basis. Both men shared seven passes between one another but you can say that the young Argentine had a rather quiet night and was kept in check by the Milan defense and Franck Kessié in particular.

Barella was forced into coming deep to gather the ball from Stefan de Vrij but, once again, Inter’s passing put more focus on getting things done centrally and waiting for the wider players to occupy half spaces that were very well covered by the Milan full backs – who were tasked with cutting off passing lanes.

Attacking Zones

As you can see here, Milan’s preference throughout the game was to attack centrally in order to continue supplying Ibrahimovic with the right service. A major chunk of these passes came from Calhanoglu who linked up with the Swede on six occasions.

Milan’s attacking philosophy pretty much involved Calabria looking for the run of Calhanoglu who would then identify the next best option up front which was usually Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

On the other flank, Theo Hernandez also looked to involve Calhanoglu every time he got a chance. Alexis Salemaekers, on the other hand, was not used as much as he could have been since the Belgian’s pace and dribbling ability would have given both the Turk and the Swede a great option to catch the Inter defense by surprise.

As you can see from the positional attacks map, Inter adopted a more balanced approach, choosing to attack from both flanks. However, it is clear that Inter were more effective attacking from the right side where Lukaku and Hakimi formed a solid partnership due to the Belgian’s persistence on drifting in the wider areas where he found space every now and then.

As shown in the above map, Lukaku was far more comfortable playing down the right flank since that allowed him more time and space to cut inside and also because he wasn’t necessarily getting a lot of service as an inside forward.

Counter-Attacking and Deconstructing Milan’s Second Goal

Milan’s first goal came from a counter attacking move. The second one also sparked from a great counter attacking move which was probably the best of the bunch since it had everything you can expect from a perfect fast break.

First, Calabria dispossesses Perisic near the corner flag.

Then, the 23-year-old looks for the run of Saelemaekers:

The Belgian has a lot of space ahead of him to run into the channel but quickly looks over his shoulder and finds Calhanoglu making a central run. Rather than doing something the Inter defense would know he’d do, the winger passes the ball to the Turkish playmaker.

This image perfectly illustrates the Turk’s intelligence. Rather than taking an extra touch he passes the ball first time to Leao who is already in a great position to take on the Inter defender.

After embarrassing D’Ambrosio – who should have been more calmer in the situation – Leao moves further up the flank, watches the run of Ibrahimovic and whips in an inch-perfect cross towards the striker who was never going to miss from there.

While Inter did have more counter-attacking moves, Milan’s defense was much more active in quickly getting back in its shape. This was why they were able to close down passing lanes the moment they did not have the ball.

The Man of the Match: Davide Calabria

This is exactly where the game was won and lost. While Milan did appear to be more central on the offensive, Pioli’s men were equally great at making full use of half spaces. Davide Calabria, in particular, had a great night.

As you can see from his heat map, the young fullback was very active throughout the game and took full ownership of the flank. He even improvised by putting himself in the space between the right wing and central midfield.

This helped the Italian seeing more options up front while also ensuring that Calhanoglu received the service he needed.

As you can see from his passing map, Calabria was a really busy player throughout the 90 minutes. Moreover, most of his passes were progressive in nature and, keeping up with the theme of our match tactical analysis, the full-back was always looking to make a central pass towards Calhanoglu or anyone who was at the center of the pitch.

This forward pass accuracy map once again showcases the importance of Calabria in Milan’s buildup play. The 23-year-old only made six inaccurate forward passes and, once again, he thrived as an attacking full-back, always willing to make himself an option during counter-attacking moves while never shying away from his defensive responsibilities.


For Milan, it is clear how Stefano Pioli wants his team to play. The veteran tactician has great options down the flank and now has players whose intelligent movement allows the team to quickly transition from defense to attack.

While Calhanoglu has proven himself to be one of the in-form attacking midfielders in the league so far this season, the Turk’s versatility in moving to the left side of midfield (something that was on show in the later stages of the game), makes him a huge asset.

The Turk was very busy throughout the encounter and was heavily involved in everything in the final third.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic might be 39 but is still scoring goals and his movement is absolutely phenomenal. As you can see from the below shot map, Ibrahimovic did not get a lot of chances to test out Handanovic but he did make those few he got count.

Inter, on the other hand, might need to work on a different plan. While they did enjoy more dominance after conceding two quick goals, they did not have that creativity in the middle of the park that would complement with the attacking talents of Lukaku and Martinez.

Alexis Sanchez was introduced way too late in the game and it is really surprising to see why Conte does not trust Christian Eriksen. The Dane played only 29 minutes of the encounter and completed all 12 of his passes.

He struggled to be more involved in the game but that isn’t necessarily his fault given the fact that he hasn’t been given enough minutes to find his rhythm.

Antonio Conte has been using the double pivot far too often and this has not really helped the team transitioning from defense to attack. Arturo Vidal no longer has the legs to be the all-action midfielder he used to be a few years ago while Nicolò Barella’s performances would drastically improve if the youngster were to play alongside a creative player like Eriksen.

While Lukaku has continued to score goals, the Belgian alone is not going to guide Inter to the promised land where they would wrench the Scudetto off of Juventus.

As you can see, Conte only changed the team’s shape from 3-5-2 to 3-4-1-2 when it became clear that having Barella play at the base of the midfield was not adding to the team’s creative threat. Perhaps the team’s attacking prowess would have been more amplified had both Sanchez and Eriksen been paired up ahead of Barella in what would have been a really attack-minded formation that was needed to rescue a point.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Milan are one of the in-form teams of the Serie A this season. While they haven’t had it easy in the last few years, it is really great to see the Rossoneri quietly going about their business in a professional manner.

They now have decent depth in the squad as well and although Sandro Tonali did not get enough minutes to put his impression in his first Derby della Madonnina, the youngster will get enough chances to do so as he gets used to a more progressive style of playing football under Pioli.