Fiorentina vs Inter Milan(0-1) – Tactical Analysis: Inzaghi’s Men Edge Past La Viola In A Game Of Fine Margins

Fiorentina vs Inter Milan(0-1) – Tactical Analysis: Inzaghi’s Men Edge Past La Viola In A Game Of Fine Margins

  • Tactics
  • February 8, 2024
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Simeone Inzaghi has built a formidable Inter side with limited resources. On a night under the lights at the Artemio Franchi a tight VAR call and a huge save by Yann Sommer from the subsequent penalty would help Inter do just about enough to get the job done against a Fiorentina side who were wasteful in front of goal with the chances they created despite dominating possession.

Italian football has slowly emerged out of the doldrums it found itself in for the best part of the past decade. Cast yourself back over two or even three decades ago and Italian clubs finding themselves in major European knockouts was almost a nailed-down certainty. But the influx of billionaire owners and investment in leagues abroad left Italian clubs feeding off scraps. The bipartisan agreements between UEFA and each of Europe’s elite leagues that FFP brought about in 2011/12 did aim to restore parity, in some sense at least, but it took some time for the reignition of the Serie A engine.

Last season both Milan clubs and Napoli made it to the Champions League quarterfinals; the first time three Italian teams featured in the last eight of the competition since 2006. Inter would of course go all the way to the Champions League final, but were defeated by an inspired Man City side, as the Citizens went on to win an iconic treble. But with Juve, Roma and Fiorentina also reaching the quarters of the Europa League and the Conference League last season respectively, the ‘calcio’ had well and truly made its comeback in 2022/23.

Nevertheless, at the forefront of this Italian ‘rimonta’ is a well-drilled, tactically dynamic and positionally aware Inter side led by Simone Inzaghi. An inspired Spaletti-led Napoli broke away from the rest of the pack to emerge outright and runaway winners of the Serie A last season winning their first Scudetto in thirty-three years. But the narratives in terms of the Serie A title race this season, have been predominantly Inter, who just seem like a cut above the rest.

Inter under Inzaghi are a different animal – their only loss in the league this season came against Sassuolo on matchday six. It’s been the Nerrazzuri’s tough and at times impenetrable defense that has been the underlying basis of Inzaghi’s success as they stand firm at the summit of the Serie A table. Going into matchday twenty-two against Fiorentina, Inzaghi’s Inter had only conceded ten goals; the best defensive record in the Serie A. La Viola on the other hand were modestly just above mid-table in eighth, and have conceded thrice as many goals as Inter, shipping in thirty.

Inter lined up in their typical 3-5-2 shape against Fiorentina. Yann Sommer remained in goal, followed by the center-back trio of Alessandro Bastoni and Benjamin Pavard on either side with Stefan de Vrij anchoring the defense. Carlos Augusto was named instead of Federico Dimarco at left wing-back as Matteo Darmian filled up the right wing back slot. Henrikh Mkhitaryan retained his place from Inter’s 5-1 win over Monza but Kristjan Asllani and Davide Frattesi were named in midfield instead of Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Nicolo Barella. Meanwhile, Inzaghi opted for his preferred front two of Lautaro Martinez and Marcus Thuram as strikers.

Fiorentina manager Vincenzo Italiano went with a 4-2-3-1 formation with a back four comprising Davide Faraoni and Fabian Parisi at right and left back respectively while Lucas Martinez Quarta and Luca Ranieri paired together in central defense. Arthur and Alfred Duncan were named as the double pivots in midfield while Jonathan Ikone, and club captain Giacomo Bonavetura played down the right and left flanks with Lucas Beltran named as the attacking midfielder or shadow striker behind M’Bala Nzola who lead the line up front.

A Page Out Of Bielsa’s Playbook

The game started with Fiorentina on the front foot. La Viola were gifted a big chance early on, just thirty seconds into the game after Inter keeper Yann Sommer’s underhit pass was pounced upon by Bonaventura who laid it off to Nzola. The striker couldn’t finish and struck his shot against Sommer from a tight angle, but was rightly adjudged to be offside to the relief of the traveling Inter fans in the stadium.

Fiorentina started the game positively as they built from the back as Quarta stepped out into midfield with the ball as the fullbacks Faraoni and Parisi maintained the width while Arthur pulled the strings centrally. However, Fiorentia got little purchase despite having the lionshare of possession as Inter were resilient in their mid to low block in a 5-3-2 shape without the ball. Inter forced Fiorentina into errors and looked to capitalise on turnovers to hit Fiorentina on the break utilizing a passive press to force mistakes and look to hurt their opposition decisively.

The goal for Inter, however, came from a set piece shortly after a move straight out of the Marcelo Bielsa playbook. 

(Caption: Minute 13’: Inter’s buildup to win the corner that lead to the goal. Frattesi plays a lateral pass into the fullback Darmian. Lautaro Martinez makes a decoy run towards the ball to drag his marker Ranieri with him as Parisi presses the ball carrier Darmian. The third man i.e. Thuram makes a run in behind beating Fiorentina’s offside trap as Darmian plays a first time ball into the space ahead of Thuram and Inter are through into the final third)

Thuram hit a low cross into bombarding fullback Carlos Augusto’s path after getting into the box following a classic Bielsa ‘third man’ routine in build up, but Augusto was thwarted by a last ditch challenge by Fiorentina right back Faraoni, resulting in a corner.

Inter captain Lautaro Martinez has flattered to deceive at times, particularly exemplified by his limited minutes in Argentina’s 2022 FIFA World Cup-winning campaign (although reports suggested he was nursing an injury) but he has largely impressed for the black and blue of Milan in his pre Hernan Crespo post Radamel Falcao mold. Martinez darted towards the near post area and rose first to nod Kristjan Asllani’s corner into the net to give Inter the 1-0 lead in the fourteenth minute. There was a VAR review to check whether Martinez fouled his marker Parisi leading up to his header, but the goal stood.

It seemed like a game Martinez would score in. The signs were apparent as the Argentine forward blazed a shot over the bar in the ninth minute after he bore down on the Fiorentina goal after intercepting a poor pass by Quarta just five minutes before giving Inter the lead. Despite a slightly slow start to his Inter career having signed from Racing Club in July 2018, Martinez has scored twenty-one goals in Serie A for Inter in each of the last two seasons and after his goal in this game, he’s already on nineteen goals in the league this season.

Fiorentina rue missed chances 

Inter’s five-man defensive blockade along with the three midfielders sitting in front of them meant that Fiorentina found it exasperatingly difficult to play in between the lines centrally and as a result, they were forced to play horizontal passes out wide. Oftentimes, in the first half, it was a 3v2 or 3v1 in Inter’s favour in the box for their defensive line as Inter’s three center backs numerically outnumbered Fiorentina’s front two of Nzola and Beltran. Inter’s press also forced Fiorentina wide while the home side’s crosses were dealt with easily and met by Inter’s towering defenders Pavard, de Vrij and Bastoni given their superior height in the box. It certainly seemed as though this was Inzaghi’s gameplan, i.e. to suffocate the central zones, force Fiorentina wide and deal with the balls into the box using their numerical and physical advantage.

In the second half, Vincenzo Italiano made a few tweaks, perhaps observing this numerical mismatch his front line faced and Fiorentina’s inability to play through the lines centrally. Maxime Lopez replaced Arthur in midfield after half-time and Nzola drifted out wide and deeper at times, in an effort to drag Inter’s defence out of position. Meanwhile, Ikone, Beltran and Bonaventura aimed to go man for man and overload the box against Inter’s back five. Italiano also instructed his players to play more direct, in an effort to bypass Inter’s defensive stranglehold and it was rather apparent as the home side’s best chances came from longer balls into the box in the second half.

(Caption: Minute 59’: Chance for Fiorentina. Fiorentina overload the Inter box going man for man after Quarta plays the ball out wide to Ikone who takes on Mkhitaryan and Bastoni before delivering a cross across the box which is a bit too high as it narrowly misses the heads of the runners into the box.)

Inzaghi made a triple change around the sixty-minute mark to consolidate Inter’s lead bringing on Denzel Dumfries, Francesco Acerbi and Marko Arnautovic for Matteo Darmian, Alessandro Bastoni and Marcus Thuram respectively in straight like-for-like swaps. Meanwhile, Italiano brought on Nicolas Gonzalez for Ikone in the sixty-first minute. Italiano’s changes and tweaks resulted in Fiorentina creating three good chances between the sixty-sixth and seventy-third minute, all resulting from direct balls over the top of Inter’s backline or longer balls into the box.

To Nzola’s credit he was the only one chipping away, applying pressure and causing problems for Inter’s stubborn defense, but he was rather wasteful with the chances presented to him. The Angolan forward’s best chance came in the sixty-eighth minute as Quarta’s long ball found him in the box. The African striker outmuscled his marker de Vrij and spun and shot towards goal, but Pavard made a decisive block as the ball eventually fell harmlessly to Sommer. In hindsight, Nzola could’ve passed it to Bonaventura who was free to tap the ball into the net, but it’s these fine margins that often define games. The game started to open up a bit by then and Inter could have had another in the sixty-third minute after Arnautovic scored with a tidy finish, but Mkhitaryan had strayed offside in the build up and the goal was disallowed.

A goalie’s redemption 

As the football cliche goes, goalkeepers are proverbially labelled to be rather eccentric (just ask Lautaro Martinez about his Argentine teammate and namesake Emiliano Martinez). Inter goalkeeper Yann Sommer was signed for a knockdown price of about six million euros from Bayern Munich in the summer after Andre Onana departed to Old Trafford. The jury is still out on the Swiss shot-stopper, but against Fiorentina he quickly turned from villain to hero in the space of a few minutes.

Sommer clattered into and punched Nzola in the head in the seventy-first minute after contesting an aerial duel with the Angolan striker just after Luca Ranieri’s long ball into the box was headed on by Nicolas Gonzalez towards the Fiorentina striker. Quarta’s header from the rebound of Sommer’s punch was then cleared almost off the line by Pavard. Following some VAR deliberation and delay, the referee went to the monitor and subsequently pointed to the spot. However, substitute Gonzalez’s tame penalty was saved by Sommer as the keeper correctly guessed and dived to his right. That was arguably game, set and match as Fiorentina created far too little to note after the penalty miss. Martinez and Pavard were subbed off for Alexis Sanchez and Yann Bisseck in the seventy-eighth and eighty-third minute respectively, but by then the three points for Inter were in the bag.

Key Conclusions

This game was firmly a clash of two contrasting football ideologies i.e possession vs position, with the latter getting the better over the former. Fiorentina had fifty-eight percent of ball possession compared to Inter’s forty-two percent, but Inter managed the game astutely after going in front. How difficult to breach and stubborn is this Inter defense? Against Fiorentina it was glaringly evident as La Viola couldn’t score despite taking fourteen shots on goal registering four on target while accumulating an xG of 1.84. Inter meanwhile had eight shots on the Fiorentina goal but maybe the most telling stat was that the Milan outfit created zero big chances from open play, much to Fiorentina’s credit.

It’s no secret that this defense is the bedrock from which Inzaghi has built his Inter team ground up. Conceding just ten goals in twenty-one games is a staggering achievement and it seems as though Inzaghi will bank on his air-tight defense to continue their superior defensive displays firmly pitting them as favourites for the Serie A title if they can push on maintaining the same level of performances until the end of the season.

For Fiorentina, it’s a case of being stuck in the same feedback loop. They find themselves in eighth again, the same league position they finished in last season. However, they did show some encouraging signs against their opponents on the night. It’s not easy going against the meanest defense in Italy, but they did cause the Nerrazzuri some problems and did shut them out from open play. It was enough evidence to suggest that they could eventually finish a few places higher come the end of the season with securing European football the main target for Italiano’s men.

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