Inter and AC Milan are squaring off in a huge clash this Sunday, with the Nerazzurri desperately trying to win the Scudetto for the first time since 2010. Conversely, Milan are just attempting to break out of the mid-table, but are unbeaten in their last five league matches. Legendary manager Antonio Conte brings several new players and his famous 3-5-2 to try and crack the Milanese defense, which ranks in the top five in Serie A.
When three-men defences involve wing backs (which they do 95% of the time; Marcelo Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 is the notable exception), the play of the wing backs determines their team’s tactics. They can sit back and hold conservatively, or offensively, they could push forward, leaving the three centre backs potentially vulnerable. A third option, which is typically what Antonio Conte prefers, is somewhere in the middle. His wing backs are usually quite fast, with the ability to quickly counterattack being another crucial aspect of the Italian’s system. They are also able to easily drop and help defend an already menacing backline. Here are the most important players on Inter’s defense.
Stefan de Vrij
In Inter’s three-man backline, by far the most important player is Stefan de Vrij. The Dutchman is both an elite defender and an attacking threat with a goal and four assists in all competitions this season. He has also shown the ability to step-up and deliver a lovely through-ball, all while being one of the top tacklers in Serie A. Attacking the centre through de Vrij often will not be successful.
The Atalanta youth product has all the makings of a future star. Firstly, he is quick, which is essential for the outside centre backs in most 3-5-2 formations. Secondly, the 20-year-old is not afraid to join the attack: he has the third-most attempted dribbles of center backs with at least 10 appearances in Serie A. Like de Vrij, he has an impressive tackling ability and has shown that he is not afraid to be physical.
Note: On 6 February, a report emerged that Argentina International Diego Godin will likely start in place of the suspended Bastoni.
Škriniar is Inter’s weak link on their backline. Despite being courted by Real Madrid this past November, the big Slovenian has not been in good form of late, especially in Inter’s recent match against Udinese. One important stat: Škriniar is very reckless, averaging 1.8 fouls per match, good for 5th amongst Serie A centre backs.
Ashley Young is the quintessential wing back for a three or five-man backline. He has significant experience playing fullback and winger, which is exactly what Antonio Conte looks for in his formation. The Italian coach had a very similar player, Alessandro Florenzi, play left wing back for him during the 2016 euros with decent success. This will be Young’s second start in the Serie A, and it will be interesting to see how he fares after his impressive debut last week.
How to Exploit the 3-5-2
In the sample formation above, there is one area of Inter’s half that has open space: the flanks, just behind the wing backs. This space highlights the main problem with Conte’s formation: if the wing backs get caught too high up, they leave a dangerous lane open where crosses can easily be played into the box. In fact, 78% (14) of Inter’s goals against have come during open play (as opposed to on the counter attack, penalty, set piece or own goal), according to whoscored.com. This figure is staggering when compared to Serie A sides of similar quality like Roma or AC Milan, who play a four-man defense. This pair allows 56% and 63% respectively. Additionally, Inter allows 19 crosses per game, compared to 15 and 17 per game from Roma and Milan. It may seem like a trivial difference, but that is at least two more chances in high-danger areas per game.
For AC Milan, Samu Castillejo is an essential cog for this match because of his creative abilities. He has not been in the best form the last few matches, but a strong match could help the Rossoneri to pull off the upset. If Škriniar and Victor Moses start on Inter’s right flank again, putting Castillejo on AC Milan’s left wing could expose them, as Ken Sema and Kevin Lasagna had their way with the pair last Sunday. A dynamic talent like Castillejo should find numerous opportunities to find space and cross the ball into the box.
And AC Milan is in luck, because guess who just signed for the Rossoneri? That’s right, a 6’5” striker known for heading the ball. Zlatan, even at the age of thirty-eight, is one of the best in the world at scoring headers and volleys. It is crucial for Milan to utilize his skillset this match and swing as many crosses into the big Swede as possible.
While Inter’s defense has been somewhat stagnant this season, their offense has not been. Aside from Romelu Lukaku, Belgium’s golden boy, the offensive starters have been marred by injuries and constant rotation. Former Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez is just now returning from a lengthy rehabilitation process, while Stefano Sensi has been tormented by injuries this season, and will likely miss this match.
Inter’s central midfielders are by far the most fluid group in the 3-5-2, with all three typically able to help out in any situation, a valuable skill, but one that requires constant communication. Usually, one or two will play just above the centre backs in CDM roles, though the specifics change throughout each match, depending on the circumstances. This adaptability is a huge factor in the success of Antonio Conte and his preferred formation.
Except for the aforementioned Lukaku, the starters on offense have rotated constantly this season. Matias Vecino, Stefano Sensi (likely out with a calf strain), Marcelo Brozovic, and Roberto Gagliardini have all seen significant time in the centre. Additionally, the Nerazzurri recently signed Danish phenom Christian Eriksen, who failed to impress in his debut last week. Inter’s critical offensive players are below.
The Belgian needs no introduction. One of the most talented strikers in the world, Lukaku has been Internazionale’s top scoring threat this season, sitting third in the golden boot race with 16 goals. Lukaku is a wildly physical player, though he also has an innate ability to take on defenders one-on-one. He can play as a hold-up striker, patiently controlling the ball, waiting for one of Inter’s many other talents to make a run behind the defense. Of course, his finishing ability is elite as well: the striker averages 0.47 goals per game.
The attacking midfielder is internationally-known for his time at Tottenham, where he registered 62 assists and 51 goals since the fall of 2013. He is an incredibly dynamic player with an elite passing ability, which perfectly compliments Internazionale’s high rate of through-balls. However, Antonio Conte recently criticized Eriksen’s fitness, and it remains unclear how much of an impact he will make for the AC Milan match.
Marcelo Brozovic has earned over 50 caps with Croatia for a reason. He is another elite tackler who can also intercept passes at an impressive rate: 1.4 per match. He has an affinity for offense and can help facilitate offensive chances as a prototypical box-to-box midfielder. The Croatian is not the most creative attacker like Eriksen, but he brings a reliable presence and strong work ethic to Inter’s already-talented midfield.
The Nigerian international and Chelsea loanee is one of Inter’s new players who joined during the January transfer window and looks to slot into a starting role on the right wing. Though he played wing back for Conte back in 2014/15, his form has dropped in the last year, and the loan to Internazionale under his old boss seems like a desperation move. Moses is also weak defensively, which was exposed in his debut match last week.
How can AC Milan halt Inter’s high power, star-studded attack? It begins by stopping Romelu Lukaku. At 6’3”, 205 pounds, the Belgian striker is a true force who is perhaps the most physical forward in the world. Simon Kjaer and Alessio Romagnoli must step up and be physical with the big man and not allow him to play as a hold-up striker in front of the Milan backline. Because Inter has so many new players coming in, several of whom had a poor showing against Udinese, their unfamiliarity could provide the Red and Blacks an opportunity that they would not have gotten in two or three weeks.
It is also important stop Inter to from striking quickly on the counter attack. Their pace and plethora of quality players should convince the Rossoneri to play conservatively so as to not be caught too far up. Staying in a moderate attacking formation and get the ball to Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Castillejo on the wings is a key to the match, which could very easily end in an upset of Milan’s second-place rivals.
Even with three starters returning, AC Milan is facing a daunting task against an Inter side that geared up for a title push over the January transfer window. Kjaer is doubtlessly an upgrade at centre back, but Inter’s attack may be too powerful for Milan’s defense to handle. Further, the current form of Samu Castillejo and Théo Hernandez is a cause for concern and could leave the wings vulnerable. Internazionale, with better players, will come out motivated and should get the double over the Rossoneri.
Final score: Inter 2, AC Milan 1
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