Although the only club left in Serie A with a 100% record, Internazionale went into the Derby della Madonnina on the back of a poor draw against Slavia Prague in mid-week. AC Milan had a full week’s rest due to their exclusion from European competition but have looked iffy so far this season, losing to Udinese and managing only narrow 1-0 wins over newly promoted Brescia and Verona.
Marco Giampaolo chose his preferred 4-3-1-2 formation, although Rafael Leao positioned himself more towards the left, going one-against-one with Diego Godin rather than partnering Krzysztof Piatek. Antonio Conte continued with Inter’s usual 3-5-2 set-up.
Both teams set up with similar gameplans to shepherd their opposition out wide. Milan took up a narrow 4-3-3 shape out of possession, the three forwards blocking the passes into midfield. Suso Fernandez would pay particular attention to Marcelo Brozovic but would move up to press Stefan de Vrij, ensuring he blocked the pass into the Croatian when he left him.
Suso would pressure De Vrij to force him into moving the ball on to one of his defensive partners on either side, where Milan would then try to trap Inter against the touchline. If Inter passed out to one of the outside centre-backs without Suso having to move up and press De Vrij, all the better: the Spaniard could keep close to Brozovic.
Once the ball headed out to Godin or Milan Skriniar, Leao or Piatek respectively would close them down, however the attackers would angle their runs to block the horizontal pass back across to De Vrij. With the pass back across the defence cut off, Godin and Skriniar would be forced to send the ball forward. If they passed it to the wing-backs on the touchline, Hakan Calhanoglu or Franck Kessie would rush out to the touchline to close them down, while the back four would shift across in whichever direction the ball went to protect behind them.
Inter’s defensive set-up also involved blocking the centre, with the forwards picking up the Milan centre-backs and the midfielders going man-to-man, with the back five staying back to protect against long balls. This would leave the Milan full-backs free and when Gianluigi Donnarumma passed out to them, that side’s wing-back would rush forward to close them down. Under heavy pressure and with the passes to the other defenders and midfielders cut off by Inter’s man-marking, they generally looked to squeeze the ball down the line for the winger ahead of them, however Inter’s defence would shift across to cover behind the wing-back rushing forward and both Godin and Skriniar were comfortable pushing up into Milan’s half to defend.
It was an uneventful first half, albeit Inter looked the better of the two sides. This could be tied primarily to their intensity: when they pressed, they went sprinting after Milan’s players and they caught out their rivals several times near their own penalty area, meaning Milan rarely effectively played out from the back, resorting to long balls at goal kicks by the end of the half.
Compared to them, Milan rarely mustered more than a jog. Leao and Piatek would curve their runs to block the pass back across to De Vrij but they never moved fast enough to actually put pressure on the outside centre-backs – more often than not, this curving of their runs simply opened up space ahead of Godin and Skriniar for the centre-backs to stride into.
Secondly, Inter’s shape lent itself to their gameplan better than Milan’s. The back five allowed them to cover the width of the pitch, whereas Milan could be stretched, with the back four and midfield three expected to cover more ground to shift towards the ball. More often than not, Inter would simply look to drop long balls in behind Milan’s backline for their forwards to chase, however the few times they went down one flank then switched out to the other, they troubled Milan.
Likewise, Inter found a simple way of getting the ball into midfield which was rarely utilised. They would bait the central player into pressing De Vrij, who would close down the Dutchman while blocking the pass into Brozovic, but another Inter midfielder would come short to receive the ball and bounce it into Brozovic’s feet, with the Milan attacker off chasing after De Vrij. A Milan midfielder would often follow the Inter midfielder coming short, however as all Stefano Sensi or Nicolo Barella needed to do was take one touch to play it backwards, Milan couldn’t really do anything to stop them.
Mid-way through the half, Milan changed to a 4-3-3 formation, with Suso moving out to the wing and Piatek now in the centre when defending.
Giampaolo talked about overhauling his system just one game into the season: “Suso is an extraordinary player, but he probably has different characteristics and we need to get them to play in their natural roles. We’ll have to work on it and certainly in a different way, probably 4-3-3.
“It’s not their fault, they have tried really hard, but I mustn’t try to transform their very nature. That is not my job. I have to make the most of these players and their qualities.
“Until today, we didn’t see that so clearly. I thought at the start that it was just Suso becoming a trequartista, but we have to look beyond that, take some principles and try to completely reorganise everything upfront.
“Even if we had won the game, that would be the case. We are sterile, I don’t like the movements in attack, this team is not suited to this football.
“I am not throwing anything out, it’s just that I have to focus on some other details from now on.”
With Suso struggling to influence the match, Giampaolo once again ditched his 4-3-1-2 and moved the Spaniard wide, where he was able to see more of the ball. Milan still struggled to get the ball out of defence though and, when they did manage to, Inter dropped back into a defensive shape that Milan never really looked like breaking down. Piatek also didn’t pay as much attention to marking Brozovic as Suso did, which did little to assuage the feeling that Inter had a greater control over the match.
Inter ending up taking the lead just minutes into the second half. They won a free-kick near the touchline and took it short to Brozovic at the edge of Milan’s box. The Croatian’s shot took a deflection off of Leao that sent it away from the near post, where Donnarumma dived, towards the back post.
In typical Conte fashion, having taken the lead, Inter now preoccupied themselves with defending it. They didn’t engage Milan in their own half anymore, dropping back into their defensive shape: the back five shielded by the midfield, while the forwards split wide to either block the pass into the full-backs or to track back and defend against them if they received the ball.
Having to break down eleven men behind the ball, Milan had little response. A few times they managed to drill the ball into the feet of an attacker, who would lay it off for a supporting runner, picking up the pace and getting into the attacking third, however Inter had so many players back they always had someone on hand to nip in and claim the ball. Less convincing were Milan’s crosses, both full-backs constantly overhitting them while trying to hit a penalty area filled with Inter defenders. Milan’s best moments of the game came when they could get Leao running against Godin, but that became harder to do once Inter dropped off to defend their lead.
Inter switched to a 3-4-3 shape when Matteo Politano was brought on for Lautaro Martinez and, straight after, Inter scored a second. They attacked down the right then switched the ball out to the left, where Barella had the time to pick out a cross for Lukaku to double their lead – exactly the kind of stretching of play they had rarely bothered with beforehand.
Unsurprisingly, Inter held out to continue their 100% record. It was another forgettable performance from them but you can’t really call it unconvincing. They aren’t setting the world alight yet they look a yard faster at everything than their opponents and look in control even when without the ball for long stretches.