Date : 06/01/2016
Venue : Stadio Carlo Castellani
Competition : Serie A 2015/2016, Matchday 18
For the first game of the new year, Roberto Mancini chose to field a side with Samir Handanovic under the posts behind a defense consisting of D’Ambrosio, Miranda, Jeison Murillo and Nagatomo (from right to left). Protecting the defense was Gary Medel with Brozovic and Kondogbia playing some meters in front of him. Adem Ljajic played mostly on the right wing but had the freedom to move centrally or create numerical advantages on the opposite wing together with Perisic. Finally, up front played Icardi as the lone striker, in a shape resembling a 4-5-1.
A few words about Empoli
Last year Empoli were up again in the Serie A and fascinated everyone in the Italian peninsula, with their high energy football and fearless mentality, playing their style of play even against the bigger teams. Their architect was Maurizio Sarri, who actually managed to keep them up despite the fact that their side was unchanged compared to the one that played in Serie B.
Their style of play included, a very horizontally and laterally compact shape in a 4-3-1-2 formation with a very high defensive line that used the offside trap when necessary. In front of defense played a regista (Valdifiori) who was the creator. Their evident lack of width was no problem, however, as their distances were enough close that quick passing combinations were easily created. Up front the two forwards were responsible for stretching their opposing defenses in order to create space for the number 10 (Saponara to run into). On their defensive phase they pressed high and for big parts of the games too.
With Maurizio Sarri leaving from Napoli though, and their primary creator (Valdifiori ) and GK (Sepe) leaving too, many were already writing them off before the start of the season , especially after hearing about the uknown Giampaolo coming as a coach.
Giampaolo, however, has done an incredible job this season. He put his ego aside and decided not to fix something that isn’t broken just to implement his style of play and helped the new players learn that new style of play, molding it though to their characteristics.
This was the style of play that was seen against Inter too, as Giampaolo brought to the field a side with Skorupski as the GK with Laurini, Costa, Barba and Rui protecting him. Paredes was the defensive midfielder with Zielinski and Buchel in front of him. Maccarone and Pucciarelli played up front trying to create space for Saponara who was making runs from behind.
Empoli started the game by pressing high, forcing the Inter defenders and Handanovic to kick the ball long most of the times.
On the above example, although they let Handanovic pass the ball to one of the defenders, they immediately start the press in order to force Miranda into a long ball.
Inter’s defense and their pressing problems
Empoli’s lack of attacking width, enabled Inter to have smaller spaces between their players horizontally, creating a 5v3 against the 3 opposition Midfielders that were trying to receive the ball in order to build up the game. This forced Empoli to either pass the ball wide or long or choose to risk a pass through the middle. Also, Medel was cutting the passing lane to Saponara.
When it came to pressing, however, problems appeared for the Nerazzurri.
These problems were created by the fact that Icardi (as in the previous game against Lazio) had to press two players. He first pressed the CBs, but with Empoli having a 4v3 numerical superiority at the centre of the field, that meant that the opponent defensive midfielder, who Icardi was responsible to press too, was pretty much always an unmarked option who, if passed to, had the time and space to create.
As you can see in the above screenshots, Icardi has just pressed the CBs, but the DM is ready to receive the ball immediately or after 1 or 2 passes, with the Argentinian unable to reach and press him that quickly.
Icardi scores just before the half time
During the whole first half, Empoli was the only dangerous team, pressing high and not enabling Inter to keep the ball for big periods of time. The Milanese were able to have some chances only on the transition and with shots outside the area mostly.
Two minutes before the end of the first half , though , Icardi scored.
Let’s take a small look at his goal:
Although, this was a very easy goal for the captain of the Nerazzurri it was another proof that he is a great scorer from inside the area and a Striker that knows very well the fundamentals of goal scoring.
As you can see Icardi runs from deep and behind the back of the CB Barba in order not to be seen. Although Barba turns his head to see the positioning of Icardi a second before this screenshot was taken, immediately after he turns to look at the ball, Icardi starts his run taking there decisive one or two steps without the defender following and freeing himself to score.
It also has to be mentioned that this goal was scored, because seconds before, the Empoli players were too passive on their pressing, allowing Brozovic, although they were 3 against 1, to pass the ball to Ljajic, who found space and passed the ball to Perisic who made the assist.
Second Half: Mancini’s tactical changes lock the game
Mancini saw what went wrong during the first half when it came to his team pressing, and tried to solve that by putting Ljajic behind Icardi as the number. Inter now played with a shape that resembled a 4-3-1-2 but with only Icardi centrally and Perisic still playing at the left wing.
On the offensive part of the game, this tactical change gave D’Ambrosio a lot of space on the right wing since no one else of his teammates occupied it now.
Ljajic was closer now, too, to the other two Inter primary creators, Brozovic and Perisic and had the chance to combine much better. This good connectivity hided the lack of width, when the ball was on the left since there was no right winger on the opposite side to stretch the Empoli defense.
On the defensive side of the game, this change created a natural 4v4 on the centre of the field ( as in the image below), that forced Empoli to either play long or build from the wings, a much less dangerous area on the pitch.
Another interesting thing that was seen in the second half, was Nagatomo’s positioning when the ball was on his opposite side on attack. He was moving centrally in order to be ready to press Empoli players that were ready to receive the ball in order to initiate a counter attack.
With the game coming to an end in around twenty minutes, Empoli unable to find space centrally tried to move the ball wide to Croce (who replaced Buchel) that tried to combine with Livaja who dropped from his line in order to help with the Build-Up and drag defenders with him also.
Mancini didn’t stay without a response though, as his team now and for the last 10 minutes changed their shape in their defensive third in something like a 4-4-1-1 , with Ljajic in front of midfield ready to press the Empoli player who would try to recycle the possession of the ball, and Perisic protecting the defensive width on the left and being aware of runs behind Nagatomo.
Empoli lost their concentration and had no clear mind in that period, choosing to cross the ball many times, a way which was not going to bring many results especially against an aerially astute team such as Inter.
Mancini brought in Juan Jesus for the last five minutes to replace Ljajic (probably to eliminate any aerial threat on the penalty area), changing his shape to a 5-4-1 to close the game.
Another game, another 1-0 win for Mancini and Inter, who fixed the main first half problem during the break. Empoli made a great appearance but their lack of energy and concentration in many parts of the second resulted in not challenging Inter enough to make them concede a goal.
P.S. Another great game by Gary Medel who closed every open space that was created by Empoli forwards dragging Inter defenders out of line. He also eliminated the threat created by the runs of Saponara.