The New Year brought a new clash between Inter Milan and Napoli, one of the age-old historical fixtures of Italian football. Whilst Inter have been flying this year, looking like the most likely challengers to Juventus’ domestic dominance and leading the league heading into this fixture, they hadn’t won away at Napoli in Serie A since 1997. In this fixture, however, it finally changed, as Inter ran away 3-1 as winners.
In this tactical analysis, I will be looking at how, despite what the match stats may indicate, Inter Milan were in total control of this fixture. Even though Napoli had more shots, more possession, and a higher xG, Inter never looked like losing the match. They achieved this through structural brilliance, a rapid counter-attack, and Napoli’s lack of a real gameplan.
I believe, a clear indicator of how each team plays is obvious from the average positioning of both. Inter’s defence was solid in their positioning, with Milan Škriniar being slightly advanced on account of his propensity to play out from the back with great skill. Marcelo Brozović sat right in front with the other two central midfielders drifting out wide in attack, whilst Lautaro Martínez and Romelu Lukaku played very close to one another and, as they have all season, worked brilliantly as a pair.
Napoli, on the other hand, was a bit of a mess. Their midfield 3 featured Piotr Zieliński playing incredibly high up and arguably cluttering the space around Arkadiusz Milik and Lorenzo Insigne on the left. This also exposes just how much space there was on the Napoli left in defence. Zieliński was their most advanced player in midfield, Rui their most advanced defender by far, and Insigne their most advanced player overall. What this left was their number 22, Di Lorenzo, being left to cover huge amounts of space when Inter countered at pace, despite being a natural full-back jettisoned into the team due to the injuries of Koulibaly and Maksimovic. This was symptomatic of the issues, there just seemed to be no plan for Gattuso’s Napoli.
A huge misconception within Football is that Possession is equal to control. That has possibly come about due to the dominance of Barcelona and Spain in the late 00s and early 2010s but is far from the truth. This game was clear undeniable proof of that fact. Napoli had 56% of possession, yet so much of this was simply passive passing moves around an impenetrable Inter low block of 5 and 3.
Inter sat incredibly compact and worked hard for one another, constantly covering space and making sure that no player became isolated. Thus, despite Napoli dominating possession in the period leading up to the passage of play displayed above, they were very unlikely to break down the Inter defence as they had such a fantastic midfield structure and well-drilled defensive line. On the contrary, within 30 seconds of the above screenshot, Inter had gone up the other end and scored. As mentioned above, Napoli was hugely over-committed in the wider areas and in midfield, and so when a mistake was pounced on, this is the situation in which Napoli had left their centre backs.
These kind of mistakes are understandable when you are chasing the game and get caught out throwing men forward to try and win it. 13 minutes in at 0-0, however, against a potent counter-attacking side with the most lethal front 2 in all of Europe this is inexcusable. The blind side full-back is not only not tucked in, but he also isn’t even in the frame when the ball is lost, leaving Manolas and Di Lorenzo in an awful position, a goal the consequence for their slopiness.
Inter may not have controlled the ball, but they controlled the game. Napoli was tactically naive and played right into Conte’s hands, playing a gung ho possession style of play against one of the most potent counter-attacking teams in Europe, let alone Italy. The Napoli tactics were simply all wrong in this, whilst Inter’s tactics and sheer structural brilliance powered them past Gattuso’s men.
As previously mentioned, Napoli did not just lead in possession, they also led in xG. This however arguably, just as with Napoli’s superior possession, is an inconsequential statistic as I will demonstrate. Inter’s tactical setup in big games revolves around two major factors. Inter know that their backline and midfield are incredibly well-drilled, and thus are able to play a wonderfully effective low block that are also fantastic at evading the press. The second, and more pertinent factor, is Inter’s recognition that they have two elite finishers in Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku.
Over the course of the match, Napoli had an xG of 2.12 and 18 shots. Romelu Lukaku took 3 shots and managed an xG of only 0.27. Lukaku scored 2, whilst Napoli only managed the 1.
When playing a counter-attacking style as Inter Milan did, it is vital that you know your strikers will finish the chances you provide them. In Lukaku and Martinez, Inter Milan have this, and in Milik, Napoli does not. The superior xG of Napoli is relatively pointless when the players taking those shots are executing incredibly poorly. Though they had 18 shots, some from decent positions, they managed only 7 of these on target, the majority of which were central or at a decent height for the keeper. When compared with Inter’s shot map, which indicates shots positioned in difficult areas for the keeper to save, it is clear how Napoli’s superior xG was ruined by their inferior finishing.
Napoli had their moments in the game, but the vast majority of proceedings were under the complete control of Inter. Playing away from home, Inter had very little reason to move away from their compact structure, and their tactics worked a treat providing an easy victory in a fixture that has given them very little in terms of success in previous years, even at the height of the Nerazzurri’s domestic dominance. This was a tactical masterclass by Antonio Conte as can be seen in the analysis above and a real blunder by Genarro Gattuso.