Inter seem revitalized after the acquisition of Antonio Conte as well as the number of exciting summer signings including Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Stefano Sensi, and Nicolo Barella. For the first time in a long time it seems Inter will finally be able to challenge Juventus for the Serie A. Fresh off a 4-0 win against Lecce, Inter faced a Cagliari side that were coming off a 1-0 loss to newly promoted Brescia and barely escaped relegation last season. Everything seemed to point to another dominating victory for Inter.

However, this tactical analysis will show the tactics Cagliari employed to put up a more stubborn performance than expected in Nainggolan’s reunion with his former teammates. 

Lineups

On paper, both Inter and Cagliari lined up in a 3-5-2, however, this would often change as both played with a staggered midfield depending on the phase of play. During the build-up, Marcelo Brozovic was the primary ball progressor, while Matias Vecino and Sensi took up more advanced positions. For Cagliari, Radja Nainggolan was the primary ball progressor, with Marko Rog ahead of him and Artur Ionita would be the most advanced midfielder, taking up space in between Inter’s defensive and midfield lines. 

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Cagliari vs Inter – starting XIs

Inter’s emphasis on diamonds in the build-up

During the build-up, there was a strong emphasis on forming wide diamonds by Conte as you can see below. This seems to be a recurring theme for Conte sides as he used wide diamonds to great effect with Chelsea during the 2016/17 Premier League season. However, in this game, he did so in a slightly asymmetrical fashion. Kwadwo Asamoah often dropped in from the left wing, leaving space for Sensi to advance into, forming a diamond. By forming a diamond, each player on the ball has several passing options available to them.

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Asamoah drops, Sensi advances to form a diamond

The right-hand side was slightly different. It was very visible that Vecino often told players to switch the ball from the left to the right, at which point he positioned himself between Danilo D’Ambrosio and Antonio Candreva. This allowed Candreva to occupy himself higher up the pitch where he’s most dangerous. Lukaku would drop in to support when this happened to complete the diamond. It also afforded D’Ambrosio the opportunity to dribble into the space vacated by Vecino in the middle of the pitch. D’Ambrosio is very comfortable on the ball given he has primarily been deployed as a right-back throughout his career.

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Ambrosio dribbling into space, Vecino positions himself between Candreva and Ambrosio, Lukaku drops to form multiple diamonds

However, this build-up was quite fluid as occasionally Candreva dropped while Vecino would make an underlapping run ahead of him. What’s very noticeable is how Conte can dictate play from the touchline. When the below image is seen live, Conte orchestrates the play by telling Candreva to play into Lautaro Martinez, urging the run from Vecino and prompting Martinez to play the ball through the defence.

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Vecino makes the run beyond Candreva, Conte can be seen signalling below

Sensi or Brozovic would also drop into Asamoah’s position, pushing him further up the pitch. Pushing Asamoah further up the pitch worked to great effect as oftentimes, he was able to isolate Cagliari’s right-wing back Nandez on multiple occasions and beat him. Asamoah’s dribbling statistics highlight how dominant he was, attempting six dribbles – more than anyone on the pitch, five against Nandez beating him four times.

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Sensi positions himself between Skriniar and Asamoah pushing Asamoah up the pitch

Inter pressing structure & attacking transitions

While defending, Inter’s shape resembled a 3-4-1-2 as Sensi would usually press Cagliari’s deepest midfielder who was Nainggolan. Ionita would usually be the most advanced Cagliari midfielder between Inter’s defensive and midfield lines, which forced D’Ambrosio to step up and cover while Rog would occasionally drop deeper at which point Brozovic would cover him. This reduced the influence that Nainngolan and Rog had on the game. When Cagliari were in possession, Lukaku and Martinez would bend their runs forcing Cagliari out wide and preventing Cagliari’s midfielders from getting on the ball.

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Inter midfield pressing structure, Martinez bending his run while pressing

Furthermore, having Sensi much higher up the pitch when pressing is exceptionally useful in attacking transitions where he finds himself in space, can make use of his exceptional passing ability, and manipulation of small spaces to slip passes into the strikers as he does here, but Lukaku is unable to convert. 

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Sensi in attacking transition playing Lukaku through on goal

Another example can be seen below, where after winning the ball back, Inter can attack an unprepared Cagliari defence. Sensi, being Inter’s most advanced midfielder makes a run in behind Cagliari, and through his trickery is able to draw the game-winning penalty. 

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Sensi making a run in behind Cagliari defence

Cagliari organized press

Rolando Maran seemed to have his team very well organized and communicating efficiently in this match. For most of the game, Cagliari were happy to sit in a mid/low block with a flat midfield 3 to stifle Inter’s passing options. Joao Pedro and Cerri rarely decided to press Inter’s centre-backs, choosing instead to block central passes into midfield. This was successful in preventing Brozovic from receiving the ball centrally, as we can see from the stats that there were only 22 passes into Brozovic from Inter’s 3 centre-backs.

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Cerri and Pedro covering Inter’s midfield passing lanes

However, if one person decided to press, that was a trigger for the whole team to press. Below, Vecino drops in between D’Ambrosio and Candreva as discussed before and Ionita decides to press him. Joao Pedro sees this and joins Ionita in pressing Inter’s CBs and when the ball is played centrally to Ranocchia, Cerri decides to press.

Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Ionita presses Vecino, triggering Joao Pedro to press
Serie A 2019/20: Cagliari vs Inter - Tactical Analysis tactics
Cerri now follows and presses Ranocchia

By both defending deep and pressing as a team, Cagliari were able to maximize their defensive efficiency and make this a very tough game for Inter.

Conclusion

As shown in this analysis, both teams were effective in stifling each other but ultimately Inter’s quality shone through. Conte admitted post-match that this game was very tough and emphasized the need for improvement. However, he will be delighted by how well Sensi has adapted since his move as well as the dominating performance from Asamoah both offensively and defensively.

In a game that will cast a dark cloud over Cagliari for the racist abuse suffered by Romelu Lukaku, they do have reason to be optimistic. Maran will be encouraged after a dogged performance against a team of Inter’s quality, and with Radja Nainggolan they have added bundles of energy and quality in midfield. However, the fact is they’ve lost their opening two games and need to win games soon to avoid the pressure of relegation.



Artwork by @chapulana

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