This week saw a return to club football after an eventful International break. Going into a taxing run of fixtures that are almost certain to shape up the remainder of the jam-packed calendar, UEFA Champions League came back again. Wednesday night saw the fall of a mighty hero in Diego Maradona before San Siro played spectacle to a marquee clash between Inter Milan and Real Madrid. Both teams needed to win in what was a potential group B deciding match-up.
Inter, in particular, found themselves clinging on for dear life after accumulating a paltry point from three games. Real Madrid were not worse off, yet required the victory to mount a challenge for the top spot with four points in the bag.
Ultimately, the Spanish side triumphed comfortably with a 2-0 margin, plunging Conte’s side into more depths of despair. This tactical analysis will dive into the tactics behind how Zinedine Zidane outdid his counterpart.
Inter made a couple of changes compared to their comeback win against Torino at the weekend. Lautaro Martínez returned to the lineup at the expense of ex-Manchester United forward Alexis Sánchez. Meanwhile, Milan Škriniar replaced Andrea Ranocchia in the backline. The man to watch was clearly Romelu Lukaku, who has scored 18 goals in 20 games already.
Real Madrid visited Italy with an unchanged lineup from their La Liga clash against Villareal. Without Sergio Ramos, Nacho Fernandez continued to play makeshift centre-back alongside Raphael Varane. Karim Benzema, their top scorer, was also absent, with Mariano Díaz looking to carry on from his strike on Saturday. The formation was a 4-2-3-1, with Martin Ødegaard filling in the hole behind the striker.
Real’s left spelt danger
Zidane set his team up in the initial stages with a clear plan to attack the opposition’s right flank. Former Madrid player Achraf Hakimi was at the back of a target right from the off. His tendency was to venture forward, often putting his side into danger. As a result, most of Real’s attacks flowed through the left in the early proceedings. Eden Hazard, Ferland Mendy, and Ødegaard enjoyed fruitful possessions throughout the game in that region. It played a crucial part in the opening goal.
In the snapshots above, we can see the build-up towards the first goal of the game. Mendy went on an inward run to create space for the lapping Hazard. Consequently, he drew Hakimi out of position, evident through the circles over the Inter defender.
With the full-back out of position, Škriniar had to cover the attacking threat of Hazard down the flank. However, the downside of it was that it left the central portions of the penalty area vastly unguarded. It was rightfully exploited as Hazard skipped past the Slovakian who challenged him and played the ball to Ødegaard. The Norwegian had ample time and space to pick out Nacho in a dangerous spot. The lack of communication hence resulted in Nico Barella plunging into an untimed tackle. Hazard promptly culminated this ripple effect with a calmly slotted penalty.
After missing the first encounter against Los Blancos, all eyes were on Lukaku, entering the contest bang in form. Compounded to this was the absence of Ramos, without whom Madrid have suffered significantly in the recent past. However, Varane and his troop marshaled the Belgian well. This section will provide an analysis of the reasons that were behind a quiet night for the centre forward.
Inter’s midfield was provided very little joy to run the park in the entire game. They were rarely able to string together meaningful sequences of play in opposing territory. As a result, they often resorted to long balls or rushed crosses into the box. It was comfortably dealt with by Real’s defence. Even when he wanted to cut inside from the right, Lukaku’s usual impact was stifled.
In this instance, Lukaku received the ball on the right flank, from where he usually favors to drift in and dart towards the goal. He had plushes of grass to run into, and on a foot race, he would beat Nacho any day.
Deputizing for the club captain, Nacho demonstrated great tenacity and robustness in dealing with the tricky forward. He put in a foot in front of the jinking Lukaku and sent the ball towards the touchline. It further meant that Lukaku drifted away from the goal, which in itself would have been a mini-victory. However, that was not all. He sensed lethargy from the frontman and dove into a perfectly timed sliding tackle. It stopped the attack in its tracks and enabled the defence to settle. This trend continued throughout the match.
Inter’s sloppiness penalised them
While Zidane’s team deserved the plaudits for a sound shift, Inter were equally responsible for their part in the defeat. The entire backline looked very nervy the whole way through. The holding midfielders did little to boost their confidence. The first goal came as a direct result of a lapse of judgment from Barella. The most substantial blow for the treble winners of 2010, though, occurred when Arturo Vidal received a red card for arguing at the referee. Inter never rallied from it, basically losing the game within the half-hour mark.
Here is an illustration of the carelessness shown by the Inter players. Madrid had eight players camped in the opposition territory, looking to pounce upon anything loose. Upon intense pressure, Ashley Young should have looked to play the ball upfield to release a runner. Instead, he passed it aimlessly into a risky area of the pitch. It needed Škriniar to clean up before Hazard could reach it. Despite that, the blue-and-black didn’t learn from it.
Vidal received the ball from the centre-back in a tight-spot. Without showing the fundamental awareness to look before attempting a pass, he nonchalantly sprayed it to his left. Mendy used his pace perfectly when intercepting it and advancing further up. If not for some indecision by the Frenchman, the move would have been a goal, another time gifted by Inter.
In a bid for progression to the knockout stages, the better side ultimately came up with the goods. Zidane can be happy with his side’s performance, but the same does not apply to Antonio Conte.
Real Madrid now sit at seven points from fourth, one behind Borussia Mönchengladbach in group B. A victory will assure their passage to the next stage, which, barring a miracle, should be achieved.
On the other hand, Inter now face the barrels of elimination. They only have a solitary point to their name in four outings in the UEFA Champions League. They are in a must-win situation, a failure of which may not be sufficient for even a place in the Europa League.