Having not been able to replicate their unbeaten league form, Arsenal came to San Siro after a disappointing start to their UEFA Champions League campaign. The Gunners had picked up just 4 points from 4 Champions League games, with a sole win over Dynamo Kiev at Highbury. They hadn’t won any of their first three games, losing 0-3 to Internazionale at Highbury and 2-1 at Kiev.
They barely managed to hold off Lokomotiv Moscow to a goalless draw. All these happened before Arsenal picked up a crucial 2-1 victory over Kiev at Highbury. Inter, on the other hand had fairly successful start and were set for progressing to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League at the expense of Arsenal. Arsenal visited San Siro knowing that anything other than a win would knock them out of the much coveted tournament
THE STARTING LINE UPS
Arsenal came into the game with a fair share of their injury problems. Arsenal were without Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp( he didn’t travel for the away UCL games usually), Sylvain Wiltord and Lauren. Moreover Gilberto Silva wasn’t fully match fit. Alvaro Recoba was the only key player missing out for Inter Milan.
Inter (5-2-3) | Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni
1- Toldo; 2- Cordoba, 23- Materazzi, 17-F Cannavaro; 4-Javier Zanetti, 6-Cristiano Zanetti, 8- Lamouchi, 31- Brechet; 7- van der Meyde, 32-C Vieri, 30-O Martins.
Arsenal (4-4-2) | Manager: Arsene Wenger
1-J Lehmann; 28-Kolo Toure, 18-P Cygan, 23-S Campbell, 3-A Cole; 8-F Ljungberg, 15-R Parlour, 17-Edu, 7-R Pires; 14-Thierry Henry, 25-N Kanu.
Inter started with an unorthodox formation with 3 central defenders (Cordoba, Materazzi, Cannavaro), 2 wing backs (Javier Zanetti and Brechet), with 2 central midfielders (C Zanetti and Lamouchi). There were three forwards with Vieri in the centre being flanked by Van der Meyde on the left and the Nigerian Obafemi Martins on the right. The three forward system suprisingly consisted of 3 wide forwards instead of a winger or an inside forward.
Arsenal played a flat 4-4-2 with Lehmann in goal. Kolo Toure slotted at the right back position in place of the injured Lauren. Sol Campbell and Pascal Cygan played at the heart of the defence while Ashley Cole was the left back. The first team pair of Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira were absent but Ray Parlour and Edu replaced them commendably. They were flanked by the French- Swedish duo of Pires and Ljungberg. Thierry Henry and Nwankwo Kanu partnered each other upfront as Arsenal came into the game needing win and only a win.
Defensive rigidity via compact structures:
Both the teams started the game cautiously sticking to their traditional game style, thereby not taking the risky route. The teams had their fair share of possession with Inter Milan looking to spray long balls to Christian Vieri more often than not. Arsenal, on the other hand relied on counters to create chances. The presence of excellent defenders on both ends of the pitch provided defensive rigidity to both the teams, with Inter being impenetrable at times.
Sol Campbell on the other end was solid as rock containing the beefed up Christian Vieri at ease. His defensive counterpart Cygan, however was very sloppy during the early stages of the game. Inter tried to exploit the calamitous nature of Cygan but the other defenders put in an excellent shift to keep the Inter attackers at bay. The pace of Obafemi Martins caused problems for Arsenal coupled with his tendency to get in the space between Cole and Cygan unsettled Arsenal’s structure.
The zonal marking in place at Arsenal coupled with the physical nature of Sol Campbell restricted Inter from capitalizing on the long balls sprayed to Vieri or to the wings. The long balls were effectively shut down by the presence of tall and physically imposing defenders. The lack of any real wingers meant the Arsenal defence had the freedom to stay very compact in the centre, the image of which is shown below. This resulted in Arsenal limiting the space and the time with the ball for Inter.
The three central defenders and the presence of two wingbacks restricted Arsenal to very few chances and in the opening 20 minutes Arsenal couldn’t find any way to open up the Inter defence. Pires and Ljungberg along with the 2 strikers were kept in check by the Inter defenders. Both the wingers hugging the byline wasn’t working at Arsenal and Inter’s rigid marking resulted in Arsenal struggling to create chances at the start.
In essence, Inter looked to shut shop down center and force Arsenal wide. With the tendency of Arsenal wingers to drift inside, the width in offer was not sufficient in penetrating the Inter back line. Arsenal on the other hand, used their compact 4-4-2 shape to ensure that Inter did not have much joy in the final third.
Dynamic interchanges from Arsenal and a rigid shape in Inter:
As the game moved on Arsenal slowly begin to assert their influence on the game with intricate passes creating triangles. Edu acted as the dictator while Ray Parlour was the ball carrying midfielder in addition to their responsibilities of marshalling the defence. The presence of the midfield duo made sure that there was ample connectivity between the defence and attack.
Along with players like Robert Pires, Kanu and Henry who prefer to come to deep and help in the building of attacks from the centre.. As Kanu and Pires dropped deep they were left unmarked so as to not lose the basic defensive shape. This allowed Arsenal additional passing options to create overloads. The marauding Ashley Cole also played a crucial role as he saw the ball very often in this game.
Inter did not possess any playmaker in their 11 and it hurt Inter very much as they were left short in numbers and controlling the game in the centre. Lamouchi and C Zanetti were not playmakers, they were all action midfielders, and this was one of the major reasons for Inter losing by such margin. They almost did not have any grip on the centre and their attack was left toothless because of this. They had to mostly rely on long balls to create chances. Arsenal upped the intensity of the game after taking a 2-1 lead pushing higher and higher up the pitch.
Pires drifting to the centre created overloads in the centre and this disrupted the defensive structure of both the teams. When Kanu came off for Gilberto Silva, Arsenal shifted to a cautious 4-5-1 giving Inter more time on the ball and the chance to create chances. Any chances inside the penalty box were cleared with ease. Due to the brilliant defensive discipline of the Arsenal team, Inter were forced to take long shots despite having a considerable amount of ball.
Transitions the order of the day:
The presence of solid tacklers in both defence and midfield made sure that Arsenal retrieved the ball as soon as they lost it. The counter pressing and the compactness in the centre reduced the passing opportunities for Inter in the centre and they were forced to go for a more direct approach. Whenever an Inter player had the ball, Arsenal players were quick to surround him in numbers, cutting his passing options and restricting him to long balls.
The rigorous marking in the opposition half is seen above. Here we can see Zanetti looking for passing options while all his nearest passing options are effectively marked by the Arsenal players. This forced Inter Milan to spray long balls which were shut down by the tall and imposing Arsenal defenders.
Arsenal looked to counter press if they lost in the ball in the final third as seen from the above scenario, while resorting to a compact block within their block. The presence of wide and quick players meant that Arsenal could hurt Inter on the break and this was to be the case much throughout the match as Inter suffered a lot of turnovers in the midfield that resulted in a dangerous attack ending near Inter’s goal. The creativity and the movement ensured that Arsenal could have stable progressions into the final third.
Left sided dynamics:
The amazing interplay and the understanding among the trio was a major trademark of the Invincibles side. Against Inter, the trio was at their very best. With Arsenal preferring to attack down the left, these three imposed themselves big time in the game. Arsenal looked blistering down the left. With Ashley Cole marauding forward with the ball, Henry drifting out left, Pires and Ljungberg had a couple of missed goal scoring opportunities. In the early stages of the game, Robert Pires was kept in check by Zanetti when he was hugging the byline.
But as the game progressed Robert Pires moved narrower, which resulted in Cole bombing out wide creating a numerical 2v1 advantage over Zanetti. The movement of Cole and Pires repeatedly disrupted the defensive structure with Inter having to play with a back four at times. This along with Henry’s movement displaced the Inter defense considerably. Thierry Henry scored 2 and bagged 2 assists while Pires scored one in what proved to be an admirable partnership for the Gunners.
The above image shows how Cole had lots of space throughout the game. The space was created because of Robert Pires moving inside. Along with Theirry Henry, this trio was instrumental in Arsenal coming out of top
Chaotic end and substitutions:
Fabio Cannavaro was taken off due to an injury and Pasquale replaced him with Bretchet moving into centerback position and Pasquale being the left wing back. After Meyde was replaced by Julio Cruz, Pasquale along with Cruz injected freshness and intensity to the Inter game. Gilberto Silva replaced Kanu after which Parlour moved out wide and Ljungberg became the second striker.
This left Arsenal numerically short in attack for a short period of time. Jeremie Aliadere replaced Henry after 88 minuted and ended up with an assist for his pass which led to a Robert Pires goal. Arsenal became rampant at the end scoring thrice in the last 5 minutes with Henry, Edu and Pires getting on the scoresheet as a lack of confidence resulted in repeated setbacks for Inter
Arsenal recorded their biggest ever away win in European football and they eventually ended up as group winners before faltering in the latter stages of the tournament. Inter however failed to qualify for the next level. A Thierry Henry masterclass which saw him have a hand in four of the five Arsenal goals put Arsenal in cruise control. Arsenal became the first English team to beat Internazionale at San Siro – one of their memorable moments among many in their remarkable ‘Invincibles’ season.