Inter Milan and Cagliari faced each other in the San Siro this weekend. For Antonio Conte, it was important to keep pace with Juventus at the top of the table. This alone set high expectations for this game and how Inter Milan dealt with such pressure will be focused on in our tactical analysis. Inter Milan are aiming to contend with Juventus in Serie A, but it didn’t convert into a win, as Cagliari showed great defensive effort and tenacity. In our analysis, we will also explain Cagliari’s tactics and show how Rolando Maran prepared for the game.
Lineups [via Wyscout].
Both teams had the same game plan. Inter and Cagliari lined up in a 3-5-2 formation. At Inter, new signing Ashley Young started in place of the suspended Antonio Candreva, and Marcelo Brozović was replaced by Borja Valero due to injury. For the away side, Fabio Pisacane was suspended and was replaced by Sebastian Walukiewicz, while Robin Olsen dropped out due to the return of Alessio Cragno. The consequences of these changes will be explained further on.
Inter’s organised structure stands out
Like in Conte’s usual set-up, Inter’s game out of possession was structured and always kept shape in the different phases of play. The initial 3-5-2 formation would change into a 3-4-3 structure when Inter had the ball, with Stefano Sensi pushing high.
Centre-back Stefan de Vrij is seen progressing up the field. Note Sensi (middle of the screen), who would often move forward and operate in the space just off the left striker, in this case, Lautaro Martínez.
This structure could be seen almost every time Inter Milan were in possession. Building up using alternating versions of a back three is something Conte has always used at each of his clubs, to great success. With Alessandro Bastoni under the guidance of Stefan de Vrij and Milan Škriniar, he has three technically strong players which ensures a stable build-up game. They mostly tried to advance the ball through de Vrij as the centre of the back three, who would attempt to break the lines with his long passes.
Cagliari defended in a 3-5-2 with a focus on cutting off the space for the front two to operate.
Again, watch Inter’s positioning. Here, Cristiano Biraghi pushes forward up the left flank, whilst his opposite wingback, Ashley Young, tended to stay further back. Occasionally, this led to situations where the left flank was overloaded, like in the following image.
Wingback Cristiano Biraghi (top of the screen) is seen pushing forward to provide the overlap for crossing possibilities, aiming towards Romelu Lukaku.
Still, Inter’s positioning is good, even if it is not optimal. Romelu Lukaku up front looks to drag the Cagliari defence, while Lautaro Martínez gets on the ball to pop a shot on goal. With at least five players defending at all times, it becomes difficult to break through for la Nerazzurri. Cagliari also shifted their attention towards defending the centre as a consequence.
This was important for Inter as we saw them carve out plenty of opportunities to score on goal, and some great ones were made, but it was up to poor finishing why this game did not end in their favour. Perhaps in setting in for a squad which is ultimately thin in squad depth in certain areas, particularly up front.
Ashley Young: a surprise weapon
An outsider might be confused by the decision to start Ashley Young right away, considering other options like Danilo D’Ambrosio. Despite this, Young started and finished the entire game, and enjoyed a thoroughly decent debut for the Italian side.
Look at Young’s (#15) position. During the match, he sat back more often than Inter’s other wingback Biraghi.
While the midfield would push forward, with Nicolò Barella often operating the space down the right flank, Young would stay back in these scenarios and support the back three. Thus, it became impossible for Cagliari to deal with overloads down both flanks, so Inter had to make sure they took advantage of spaces left by them.
Nevertheless, it was not the case that Young never got forward. When he did progress up the pitch, he found himself in useful positions for a cross.
Ashley Young (#15) seen receiving the ball in an advanced position, providing the cross for Lautaro Martínez’s first goal, headed in at the back post.
During the match, Young took 57 touches, provided 3 key passes, and completed 4 tackles and interceptions to make for a well-rounded first appearance for Inter Milan. His first cross of the game was delicately placed lobbed ball into the box for Lautaro Martínez to get his head on the end of for the goal. Although it was not a perfect performance, by virtue of his age, he was dribbled past on 3 occasions, completing just 1 dribble, and finding his teammates with 71% of passes.
All these actions rounded up to make a solid debut performance for the Englishman. He was involved in the game from a defensive standpoint all game long, and he was restless in retaining possession for his side. This added real energy to a right flank which often lacks it, due to Candreva lacking the legs to do so in 2020 on a consistent basis. Not to mention with Biraghi moving far higher up the pitch, this added to the usefulness of Young’s defensive actions, providing much-needed balance.
Cagliari control the tempo
Somewhat surprisingly, Maran’s side looked to control possession. While breaking through the centre didn’t work, Cagliari also tried their luck with penetrations and one-on-one positions for Pellegrini on the left-wing.
As they looked to nullify Inter’s tactics with the same formation, they also looked to the combination of their two strikers, Pedro and Simeone. Their linkup has been ever-present this Serie A campaign, with this linkup being more fruitful for Pedro than Simeone this season. Simeone has often sacrificed his own output for the benefit of his teammates, especially Pedro.
Notice Giovanni Simeone, dropping deeper to gather the ball, to knock onto his striker partner for the match, João Pedro, who looks to hit Inter on the counter.
Radja Nainggolan has also reaped the rewards of this linkup when pushing further forward from midfield, scoring plenty of goals from outside the box. An example of this is the one he scores in this match, which will be analysed later on.
Generally, Cagliari looked to play as more of a cohesive unit, when compared to Inter at least. Their forwards would drop deeper in order to link the midfield to the attack. This would draw in the Inter defence and give space in behind for the overlapping wingbacks. Cagliari was playing a higher line than Inter, as they looked to dictate the tempo of the match from the back.
In this match, the front two were far from their brilliant best, particularly Simeone. Pedro put in a decent performance, completing 91% of his passes, and 2 dribbles, but he failed to take a single shot on goal, despite playing in a side controlling 57% of possession. Simeone managed to take 2 shots on goal and completed 3 dribbles, but he only won 24% of his duels, a very poor rate.
Radja the liberator
Nainggolan’s performance was one to commend against his parent club, especially since Cagliari looked to be the underdogs in this matchup. Usually, when an ageing box-to-box midfielder is playing, they may suffer from the intensity of the opposition, but Nainggolan did not. Nainggolan did not miss a beat, offensively.
Radja Nainggolan makes a late run from midfield to take a successful long shot on goal to score in the 78th minute.
Offensively, he took 4 shots on goal (1 on target), the most of any Cagliari player. This applied pressure on the opposing team, but it also provided the attacking impetus for Cagliari to create chances. His dribbling was excellent, completing 5 take-ons, which helped his side move up the field, and get into spaces where they could provide a key pass or take a shot. In the game himself, he provided 2 key passes, an okay number for a central midfielder, who was tasked with playing a deeper role later on in the game.
Defensively, he did not hold himself to the highest esteem. He only won 56% of his duels, letting his man escape him on too few occasions. He only registered 1 tackle and failed to register a single interception, wherein all fairness the defensive work was shared across the midfield.
A great tactical clash between Inter Milan and Cagliari ended with a slightly unfortunate 1-1 draw, for Inter. Expected Goals had this tie down 1.96-0.61 in Inter’s favour.
Despite having far less possession, Inter carved out more opportunities and more opportunities of higher quality. Nonetheless, they weren’t able to convert the chances they had, with Lukaku the biggest culprit, taking a game high 5 shots. Sometimes the best strikers around have off days, and this would have to be one for the Belgian striker, although at least he is still getting in the positions to score. Additionally, Sensi was quite wasteful with his possession of the ball, opting to take shots from just on the edge of the box, rather than looking for the pass. Against teams who look to nullify the supply into the front two, Inter struggle to find goals from anywhere else on the pitch. Their third highest goal scorer is Stefano Sensi on 3 league goals. To become more dangerous, Inter need to find more consistent output from players outside of their forwards. Ashley Young has taken the right step in this, by providing an assist on his debut, but Inter need some goals from midfield as well.
Although the points were shared on the day, Cagliari need to start producing better performances to get out the rut they are currently in. They endured a great start to the campaign but now they have Parma and AC Milan breathing down their necks for 6th spot in the league. Perhaps the return of Alessio Cragno will bring back some confidence to a defence which has now conceded 15 goals in their last six matches. João Pedro has been excellent for Cagliari this season, but he needs help from the rest of his team, with his output far better than any of his compatriots. Not only has he had great output, but his underlying numbers have been good, providing 1.7 shots in the box per 90. Players such as Giovanni Simeone and Nahitan Nández have had poor individual seasons, and they need to improve in the second half of the season to push Cagliari forward, rather than see them fall further down the table.