Luciano Spalletti & Inter’s Midfield Crisis

Luciano Spalletti & Inter’s Midfield Crisis
January 7, 2019 10:30
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We’ve reached the halfway mark of the Serie A season and Inter find themselves in a Champions League position sitting in 3rd place in the league table. Considering how the club toiled in the midtable for far too long, this is something that would normally be celebrated at this time of year. But this isn’t years past.

Having finally remembered what Champions League tastes like fans no longer expect to just barely qualify for the top 4. They expect improvement, guaranteed qualification, and, above all else, positive movement towards Inter reclaiming their position as one of the world’s top clubs.

The squad overhaul last summer placated the supporters for a while, but a steady stream of unconvincing and inconsistent performances has reignited agitation. Inter have won 2, drew 4, and lost 3 matches over the past 9 across all competitions. There’s clearly an issue and it needs to be addressed immediately.

Supporters and even members of the club are shifting the blame everywhere, with Luciano Spalletti seemingly being the only one to pin it on himself. But the reality of what’s at fault is simple—Inter’s roster, as constructed, is not good enough. Compared to last season the roster has undoubtedly improved which is a massive part of why Inter have managed to hang onto a Champions League spot despite their struggles. But there are clear issues in the midfield that need to be addressed immediately if the club want to guarantee their place in the European competition for the second year in a row.

But before we can appreciate why the midfield is a problem and how to address it, it’s imperative to first understand what tactics Spalletti ran at Roma, how those apply to the current squad, and the problems that have come with it.

Most infamously, Spalletti brought the False 9 back to prominence during his first stint with Roma. Lacking a proper striker, Francesco Totti was asked to fall deep and collect the ball from the midfield before dribbling back in attack. Opposition centerbacks were forced either: 1) let Totti shoot from distances, something he was prolific at; or 2) close the gap but open a hole for one of the wingers to run through. The latter would lead to a series of interplay between the front 3 to create scoring opportunities. The system changed Roma from a midtable side to one of Italy’s best teams.

During Spalletti’s second run at Roma he switched to a 3-4-3 with 2 wingbacks. While the system was able to pack a serious punch during counter attacks, the buildup during possession is most relevant. The wingbacks pushed forward and made overlapping runs with the wingers. In the midfield the ball moved side-to-side to push defenses around and when an opportunity presented a quick, long pass to out to the wings. A series of runs would be made near simultaneously: one player would make an overlapping run down the touchline, one midfielder would push forward, and someone from the opposite touchline would shift to provide cover in the midfield. This is highlighted in the following set of images where a blue arrow indicates a run, a red arrow indicates a pass, and the player in the rectangle possess the ball.

As seen in the far-right image above, the winger (or wingback) would be faced with a choice to make, all of which are illustrated in the images below. Once again- the player in the box has the ball, a blue arrow indicates a run or dribble, a red arrow indicates a pass, and a yellow arrow indicates a shot attempt. The first option would be to simply pass the ball back to the central midfield followed by a run into the space originally occupied by the wingback. The central midfielder and opposite side wingback would return to their original positions and buildup play would reset.

The second options would be to pass to the overlapping runner who would then cross the ball into the box. As this unfolds, the winger from this example would run back to occupy the empty space left by the overlapping run. The third option sees the player with the ball cut inwards and be faced with another series of choices. He can either: 1) Shoot the ball himself; 2) attempt to pass the ball to the striker for a shot; or 3) pass the ball to the central midfielder who could attempt a shot himself, pass the ball to the striker for an attempt, or reset the possession entirely. As this unfolds the overlapping runner would return to his original position deeper in the midfield.

Player in box in possession; Blue arrow indicates run; Red arrow indicates pass; Yellow arrow indicates shot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While there are added complexities to the systems from both spells at Roma, these are the bare basic bones comprising them. And both tactics together make up the skeleton of what he wants to run with this Inter Milan side.

After some experimentation in the first few matches, Spalletti has settled on primarily running 2 different formations: a 4-2-3-1, which Spalletti also utilized while at Zenit St. Petersburg, and a 4-3-3. Side-to-side ball movement with overlapping runs on the wing is the tactical foundation for both formations. Of course, for all the scheming and thought that has gone into this, all of it would be for naught if the striker is unable to find some space, since he’s involved in no less than 3 permutations of possible buildup. This is the first conundrum Spalletti had to solve.

As Inter’s primary, and usually only, goal scoring threat Mauri Icardi commands the respect of every team’s defenders. So much so that often enough teams simply plan to double mark him with their centerbacks to neutralize his threat, almost daring anyone else on the team to be the one to beat them. And surely enough, once that happens the Biscione lose their fangs in attack.

In order to work around this, Spalletti has resorted to using to tactics from his first days at Roma by using a sort of pseudo-False 9 with Radja Nainggolan at central attacking midfield (CAM). In theory, Nainggolan’s presence at the edge of the box and his ability to shoot from long range should pull some of the pressure off Icardi which makes it options 2 and 3 from above far more viable. Additionally, by playing someone like Nainggolan as a CAM, Inter give them a bit more versatility in buildup play. In addition to what was outlined earlier, Nainggolan can fall a bit deeper into the midfield to collect the ball, thus creating a pockets of triangles with every member of the attack. This allows for further variation in the buildup and make it easier to scramble opposing defenses.

When this system has been implemented, Inter have enjoyed considerably more success. Of the 8 matches it’s been used in in Serie A, Inter have won 7 and lost only 1. Average match statistics also suggest a significant improvement for the team compared to other formations that have been used. Possession and passing accuracy averages remain constant across all formations, however running a 4-2-3-1 has the team averaging 3 more key passes, 4 more total shots, and 1 more shot on target per match. Furthermore, all strikers and wingers see significant boosts in their average match ratings, likely due to a more dynamic attack. Kwadwo Asamoah also sees a sizeable performance boost as his average match rating jumps from 6.7 to 7.0 in a 4-2-3-1 compared to other formations.

Unfortunately, a slew of injuries has forced Spalletti to move away from the 4-2-3-1 that helped propel Inter during their run of 10 wins in 12 matches to the 4-3-3 that has been predominantly used since the beginning of November. The core principles remain the same except rather than a permanent presence play behind Icardi, an additional central midfielder is added.

Most of the time the 4-3-3 formation has a midfield composed of Joao Mario on the left, either Roberto Gagliardini or Mattias Vecino on the right, and Marcelo Brozovic in the middle. All 3 midfielders participate in buildup play, with Mario tasked with moving forward into the void left by Nainggolan and Brozovic moving forward into the space previously occupied by Mario. This creates a similar shape as the attack in a 4-2-3-1 setup.

While it should be business as usual, results have been mixed to outright bad. Inter have seen both their best and worst performances of the season versus Lazio and Atalanta, respectively, and have only managed 3 wins, 2 draws, and 2 losses in the 7 Serie A matches they’ve utilized this setup. And in addition to statistical drops in key passes, total shots, and shots on target, Inter have seen a drop in their overall scoring. In the 4-2-3-1 Inter have scored 14 goals in Serie A while they’ve netted 13 times in the 4-3-3. On the surface that doesn’t indicate any offensive struggles, but 8 of the 13 goals came in the matches versus Lazio and Genoa. Since those matches, Inter have struggled to find the back of the net and have occasionally needed the assistance of penalties to help them score.

All things considered though, the regression following the switch makes sense.

I previously wrote about Joao Mario’s misuse since joining Inter, making special note of his dribbling, vision, and passing abilities as a central midfielder. Given Inter’s tactical model, his attributes make him invaluable to the club’s buildup play. Per both WhoScored and Understat, Joao Mario ties with Brozovic in producing 1.6 key passes per 90 minutes, good enough to tie for a team lead for key passes from a central midfielder. Compared to all midfielders in Serie A who’ve logged at least 5 appearances, this puts him in a 4-way tie for 12th best, only 0.1 key passes per 90 off from being in a 6-way tie for 7th. Joao Mario also produces more assists per 90 minutes (A90), than any other central midfielder on the Inter Milan roster. Some of these statistics can be visualized in the following comparison chart from Understat.

But in that same article I also made note of Mario’s reluctance to shoot the ball, and right now that hesitation is a huge part of the team’s attacking struggles. In his first 1.5 years with Inter Mario shot the ball approximately 1.51 times per 90 minutes from outside the box. In this year’s campaign he’s averaging 1.78 shots per 90 minutes from the same area, a miniscule improvement. For comparison, over the past 3 season Brozovic is averaging 2.07 shots and Nainggolan is averaging 3.44 shots per 90 minutes from outside of the box. Simply put, defenses recognize they do not need to pressure Joao Mario and maintain their defensive focus on neutralizing Icardi, which in turn leads to a drop in attacking production.

So as of now there are a few conclusions that can be made based off everything we know: 1) Inter Milan are just better when they’re setup in a 4-2-3-1; 2) Icardi needs someone to pull attention off of him on the edge of the box if Nainggolan isn’t available to; 3) Joao Mario is needed on the pitch for his passing abilities but can’t be relied on to help Icardi. So what is Spalletti to do?

Some have suggested starting Lautaro Martinez as the man behind Icardi since he’s occasionally taken up that position during his time at Racing Club in Argentina. But simply occupying the space isn’t enough, as some extent of the value Nainggolan brings to the position needs to be replicated. While Martinez can shoot from distance and can pull pressure off Icardi, he, unfortunately, also has deficits in his passing abilities and wouldn’t be able to consistently help in buildup play. In fact, when starting or substituted in for more than 20 minutes Martinez hardly gets involved in any aspect of the passing game. The greatest number of passes he attempted in any match is 15, which happened when he started against Sassuolo. For reference, that’s less than double what Nainggolan has attempted in all but 1 match when he gets significant playing time.

The more obvious solution would be to bring Brozovic further up the pitch. He’s got the passing ability, can and like to shoot from distance, has a goal-scoring record from outside the box, and has the passing ability to remain a part of buildup. But Spalletti can’t do that.

This is where the midfield issues mentioned way back in the beginning start to kick into effect.

By designing a system in which players in the attacking half of the pitch are moving around freely and asked to routinely provide cover for one another when runs are made, the 2 centerbacks on the pitch are left more isolated than they are in more traditional tactical environment when fullbacks push up the pitch. Because of this, far more is asked of the central midfielders than just being involved in buildup play.

Specifically, Spalletti asks his central midfielders to provide cover for the defense. At Roma, this was only really asked of Daniele De Rossi since the team had 3 centerbacks on the pitch. But with Inter operating with only a 2 centerback formation, both central midfielders are asked to drop back with different tasks. One midfielder is tasked with closing out the man in possession and making a run with him. The other midfielder is tasked with dropping deep near the edge of the box to assist the centerbacks while maintaining positional awareness to keep tabs on any incoming passes. Where these runs are made vary depending on the circumstances of the attack (ex- the midfielder closing out the man in possession could be out wide while his partner is in the middle of the pitch, or vice versa).

But for this to work, the central midfielders need to be able to contribute on both sides of the ball. Inter do not have many players who can do this. Nainggolan was tasked with this job before, but between needing him behind Icardi and his increased age, he can’t be called upon that role anymore. Most the rest of the midfielders have glaring flaws.

Borja Valero has aged. Joao Mario is good at intercepting passes but struggles at with ball winning tackles and aerial battles, so he would need a dedicated defensive midfielder. And both Gagliardini and Vecino are slower players who can contribute defensively both in air and on ground, but neither can contribute effectively in buildup play nor are they proper defensive midfielders who can be paired with Mario.

That leaves only Brozovic as the most complete midfielder despite having a handful of defensive deficiencies himself. But he’s been effective despite playing out of position. In addition to his offensive contributions Brozovic ranks 8th for his defensive contributions amongst all midfielders who have played at least 10 Serie A matches this season, per Squawka’s comparison matrix. He’s become a vital component on the defensive side.

And thus, Spalletti is in a Catch-22 because of his midfield. Inter are clearly better in a 4-2-3-1, but he can’t move Brozovic forward because, while problems in the final third would be solved, a new set of problem would arise in buildup play and defense. At the same time, leaving Brozovic in the midfield isn’t solving any of the attacking issues and the team’s form has stalled and risks going into a tailspin. It’s a lose-lose situation.

The only way out of this situation for the club is simple—bring in a new midfielder.

Through all the fervor of the new signings and being linked to a star player like Luka Modric, many forgot that this team was never properly completed. Early on Spalletti clearly recognized the need for another midfielder to avoid this very problem and asked the club’s management to bring someone in. For a time it seem Inter had their man with Arturo Vidal, with reporting across all major outlets saying a deal was all but done. But along the way eyes wandered and the balls were dropped and no further midfield signings were made, despite the team being linked to Vidal, Modric, Leandro Paredes, Mousa Dembele, amongst others.

With the window opening up in a matter of days, Inter have an opportunity to fix this mistake.

Just scanning the names the club had been linked to it’s clear Spalletti requested someone who is considered a “complete midfielder.” A man who can play a pass in buildup, dribble on their own, but provide above adequate cover for the centerbacks. And, given Inter’s current predicament, a man who is good enough to slot in and provide the needed boost without requiring much lead time to integrate into the squad.

But these kinds of players are hard to find and harder to convince clubs to let go of at a reasonable price, especially in the middle of a season when the cost of business generally goes up. With Financial Fair Play regulations still in effect for one final window, getting this exact kind of player in January is pretty much impossible. At this point Inter need someone who can mitigate the circumstances and pull pressure off Icardi either directly or indirectly.

There’s seemingly two avenues left for the club to accomplish this: 1) Bring in a dedicated attacking midfielder to draw attention from Icardi directly; 2) sign a central midfielder to take on Brozovic’s current responsibilities, thus freeing the latter to either slot behind Icardi in a 4-2-3-1 or push foward from the midfield in the 4-3-3.

If rumors are to be believed, Marotta seems to be exploring both options. Rumors have been linking the club to a host of names like Aaron Ramsey, Adrien Rabiot, Mesut Ozil, and Toni Kroos for several week. But significant doubts about availability loom for all these men and it seems increasingly unlikely that moves materialize with reports coming out.

Ultimately Marotta is going to have to get creative. Should Inter miss out on all of those names, the club is going to have to find someone from a club like Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Manchester United, etc who has fallen out of favor. Additionally, the team will have to negotiate a loan with option to buy deal for that player, much like they did with Rafinha from Barcelona last year. Thankfully both Marotta and the club have experience in both of these avenues.

But who the club signs and what route they take to to address the current concerns is a major mystery that Inter fans will have to hope is done properly.

For all the challenges Inter Milan have faced this season the side is still vastly improved compared to years past. Despite a 2-month run of poor performances the club are still in a Champions League spot which could not be said after last season’s shockingly bad run of matches. All us supporters can do is hope the team can find that form after a few small adjustments to fix the issues facing the midfield. Because when the pieces fall into place, Spalletti’s tactics coupled with the team’s execution have produced nothing but gorgeous football worthy of being played on the San Siro pitch.

Avi Saini
By Avi Saini

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