The Serie A season is underway and Internazionale’s year starts with a visit from promoted Lecce.
Antonio Conte’s return to his homeland has got supporters excited at the prospect of Inter ending his former club Juventus’ stanglehold on the scudetto. He set up his new team in a 3-5-2 formation for his first game in charge.
Fabio Liverani opted for a 4-3-3 shape. Lecce’s formation is unlike a typical 4-3-3 where the wingers drop back in line with the midfield when defending, but was instead more akin to Liverpool’s: Andrea La Mantia and Filippo Falco stay up alongside Gianluca Lapadula, tucking inside to block passes through the middle. The Milanese heat doesn’t lend itself to the intensive pressing of Liverpool though, and in typical Italian fashion Lecce’s backline sits deep rather than high, so this shape did little to help Lecce defensively.
Liverani’s idea was presumably to flood the centre of the pitch to encourage Inter to pass wide, where Lecce would then press them and trap them against the touchline (this is the first I have seen of them so bear in mind I am being very presumptuous here and working off how such as set-up usually functions). The first part worked, as Inter did pass the ball out to the wing-backs, but Lecce rarely managed to trap Inter effectively.
It was the responsibility of either the outside midfielder or the full-back to close down the wing-back depending on where on the pitch he received the ball – nearer Inter’s half and it was the outside midfielder, deeper into Lecce’s and it was the full-back. Neither really managed it effectively though. It was partially a lack of intensity and partially systemic: they weren’t racing out quick enough to stop Inter’s wing-backs but they were also having to cover a lot of ground to get out to them.
Lecce’s midfielders had a lot of ground to cover in general. Their backline stayed deep and when the ball went wide the attackers would push up to block the pass back to the Inter centre-backs, so Lecce would be left massively stretched. The Lecce midfield would have to cover all that space between the defence and attack, which left them with a lot to worry about. They had to worry about passes into Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez in attack, with Matias Vecino usually pushing up alongside them too, which meant they couldn’t wander too far from their backline, but they also had to follow Inter’s roaming midfielders to stop the ball from being played straight back inside too. On top of that, they had to worry about the wing-backs advancing down the wings.
Inter played Lecce like a fiddle though. Their defensive line would drop off in possession when the ball went wide, dragging Lecce’s forwards far away from their midfield to open up the middle even more. The midfielders were excellent under pressure, and Vecino and Stefano Sensi would also sometimes move out towards the touchline, allowing the wing-backs to push further forward and causing a major headache for Lecce’s midfielders: if they stuck close to the Vecino or Sensi then the ball would just be hit over their head to the wing-back, who now has even more space to use, but if they don’t follow the midfielder then he just has space to pick up the ball and advance with it.
Most of the time, Inter didn’t even bother drawing Lecce’s pressure. Their back three would spread out across the width of the pitch, they would play it out to one of the outside centre-backs, drawing Lecce over to that side of the pitch, and then they would hit a cross-field ball out to the wing-back on the opposite flank, picking up the ball in the final third with space to exploit.
As Lecce’s attacking trio wouldn’t track back too far, Inter found it easy to keep them pinned back once the ball entered Lecce’s half, attacking down one flank and then playing the ball backwards into midfield to move it out to the other side. Lecce’s midfielders were having to drop back so deep to protect the defence that they didn’t really have any chance to break out as Inter’s players were the only ones around the edge of the area to get to their clearances.
Inter’s opening goal was mixture of all these factors. The ball started on the right, was switched to the left, Kwadwo Asamoah sent in a cross that was blocked, but an Inter player picked up the clearance and sent it back out to Asamoah, who, rather than crossing this time, knocks the ball inside for Marcelo Brozovic. The Croatian had the space to curl the ball into the net from the edge of the area.
Their second minutes later was broadly the same. They won the ball back on the right, worked the ball out to Asamoah on the left, whose cross was blocked and fell to Sensi on the edge of the area. His shot rebounded back off of Vecino, however Sensi is the first to the ball again, dribbles past two players and finishes inside the box.
The away side had managed a few decent attacks early on, as them keeping their attackers high let them get at Inter’s defence quickly on the break while the wing-backs were caught up the pitch. Their main attacking plan was attacking the space behind the wing-backs, getting the full-backs or midfielders to overlap as Falco and La Mantia tried to tie up Asamoah and Antonio Candreva. The resulting crosses tended to be easily dealt with by Inter’s centre-backs or Samir Handanovic keen to jump out and palm it away.
With a comfortable lead, Inter began to sit off and allow Lecce more of the ball. The start of the second half was an entertaining end-to-end spell, with Inter still finding it easy to pass around Lecce but allowing their opponents to push into their half with the ball. Inter would quickly get plenty of men behind the ball though, so Lecce never truly looked like scoring despite getting into the attacking third.
Sitting off a bit, we got to see a little of new signing Lukaku’s hold-up play. The Belgian looks in much better shape than he did at the end of his time at Manchester United – his pace proving a threat on the counter and his first touch sharp enough to lay off the ball to his teammates. He managed a debut goal by following in a Martinez long shot that Gabriel could only palm away in front of him.
In desperate need of a goal, Lecce’s forwards were forced into chasing after Inter’s defenders, which only made it easier to pass around them. They had pretty much no chance of getting back into the game even before substitute Diego Farias was sent off and Candreva added a fourth for Inter.
An impressive start for Conte, but you have to imagine Inter will face far tougher tests than this if they are going to win the scudetto.