With the racist abuse of Romelu Lukaku by Cagliari supporters and the neverending soap opera of Mauro Icardi’s life dominating attention, it’s easy to forget that a football match took place in Sardinia this weekend. A match in which Internazionale claimed another three points under new coach Antonio Conte, boosting hopes that he will be the one to finally put an end to his former club Juventus’ stranglehold on the scudetto.
Both teams lined up in 3-5-2 formations.
Inter made no changes to the team that beat Lecce, keeping Samir Handanovic in goal, the back three of Milan Skriniar, Andrea Ranocchia and Danilo D’Ambrosio, flanked by wing-backs Kwadwo Asamoah and Antonio Candreva. Marcelo Brozovic, Stefano Sensi and Matias Vecino supporting Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku in attack, with new signing Alexis Sanchez only getting a place on the bench.
Rolando Maran made several changes to the team that lost to Brescia, not least their formation. In came new signings Robin Olsen in goal, Luca Pellegrini at left wing-back and Marko Rog in midfield. They were joined by Fabio Pisacane, Luca Ceppitelli and Ragnar Klavan in defence, Nahitan Nandez on the opposite flank to Pellegrini, former Inter man Radja Nainggolan and Artur Ionita in midfield, and Alberto Cerri and Joao Pedro in attack.
Cagliari mixed sitting off when out of possession with a man-orientated pressing scheme. This meant they rarely engaged Inter too high up the pitch, with Cerri and Pedro dropping off to block passes into Brozovic, however if Inter passed backwards Cagliari players would start chasing after Inter’s defenders, trying to get tight to them. Rog and Ionita would both push forward to close down the outside centre-back, one of the attackers would push up to Ranocchia while the other ensured Brozovic didn’t go free, and the wing-back pushed up to meet his opposite number.
The idea was to cut off the options for a short pass, with every nearby man in an Inter shirt having one in a Cagliari shirt breathing down their neck. This didn’t really limit Inter’s ability to move the ball forward though, as they were content to simply hit a cross-field pass out to the defender on the other flank. Rog and Ionita were reluctant to go immediately chasing after the defender when this pass occurred before the other had moved back into midfield, so the Inter defender generally had time to control the ball and move forward, as Cagliari were forced back into their defensive shape.
Cagliari’s backline also looked to stick tight to their man, often pulling them quite far out of position. When Rog or Ionita pushed forward for example, this often left Sensi or Vecino open behind them even if Nainggolan moved across to close the gap somewhat, so the centre-backs would move higher to pick up the free man, ensuring he didn’t have too much space to pick up the ball.
The defenders would keep an even closer eye on the forwards, ensuring they couldn’t turn if they received the ball to feet. Them keeping so tight to the forwards enabled Inter to make runs into the gaps behind them, either the other attacker making diagonal runs in behind or one of the midfielders, Vecino threatening several times, bursting through from deep. However Cagliari’s back five meant there was always generally someone on hand to cover, stopping Inter from getting a free run on goal.
Inter also tried to press but it was even less effective than Cagliari’s. Vecino had generally been the midfielder to push up and join the attack against Lecce but this week it was Sensi, so it generally fell to him as the highest midfielder to get tight to Nainggolan. Ahead of him, Lukaku and Martinez would position themselves between the Cagliari back three and when the ball was played out they would close down the two nearest the ball. Cagliari’s back three would spread far out across the pitch and were confident on the ball though, so when Inter’s attacking partnership went chasing after them, they would simply draw them over to one side then spread it out to the other side, with the defender then having space to push forward on the ball and pick out a pass.
Although they could get past Inter’s first line of defence easily, Cagliari weren’t really threatening higher up. The centre-back would push forward with the ball then look to switch play back out to the wing-back on the other flank, with Nainggolan often using his passing range to act as a go-between, receiving a short pass from one side then drilling it out to the other. The wing-back would then look to cross the ball into the box, with Ionita pushing forward to join Pedro and Cerri in the box. Inter’s back five meant the penalty area was always crowded however, and Cagliari’s wing-backs couldn’t stretch Inter’s back line, rarely able to pull off much more than a poor looping cross.
With neither team’s pressing functioning well and ten defenders on the pitch, both teams were able to get into attacking areas but neither could really create many out and out chances. Inter took the lead when Martinez headed home a cross following a corner mid-way through the first half and Cagliari equalised in the second with a cross of their own: Nandez hooking the ball onto the head of Pedro. Both were the kind of attacks the defenders were having to face time and again and had generally dealt with without issue, but sheer frequency ground both down at least once.
After a fairly even game in the first 45 minutes, Cagliari gained control in the opening stages of the second half. This was largely due to them engaging Inter higher up the pitch, as Ionita would push up alongside Pedro and substitute Giovanni Simeone so that they could get up close to each of Inter’s back three. Inter were still able to pass around Cagliari’s press but they were having to work much harder to do it, enabling Cagliari to push them back and attack.
On the other hand, Inter looked a threat on the counter throughout the match. They always showed a willingness to exploit the space behind Cagliari’s wing-backs whenever they ventured forward. One of the most obvious examples was when Pellegrini went chasing after Inter’s centre-backs in an attempt to win back the ball without the support of his teammates and Inter immediately slid a ball through for Candreva, however typically it was Asamoah on the left flank that Inter looked for. The Ghanaian looked much sharper here than he had against Lecce, slipping past Nandez and Pisacane several times.
Lukaku’s hold-up play also helped, laying off the ball to his teammates with a quality first touch that has been missing from his game for the last few years. He scored and set up the winning goal, picking up a pass from deep and spinning to play in the advancing Sensi, who was tripped by Pisacane for a penalty. Despite having to endure very audible monkey noises from the Cagliari fans as he waited to take his spot kick, Lukaku tucked it away cool as you like.
Inter’s counter-attacking wasn’t merely a matter of individuals though. They were quick at moving the ball, knocking it between themselves with one or two touches in a league that tends to take its time with the ball. Inter look sharp, able to turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye while other teams trudge back into position.
It wasn’t the most convincing performance by Inter, however it was a win. Perhaps of equal importance though is how quickly Inter are acclimatising themselves to Conte’s methods. They look sharp, slick on the counter and their defensive solidity allows them to look in control even if they lose momentum of the match. Cagliari were arguably the better team in terms of the run of play, however Inter had the quality that made them look like confident winners.