A Tactical Analysis Of Inter Under Antonio Conte – Part 3: Defensive Phase

A Tactical Analysis Of Inter Under Antonio Conte – Part 3: Defensive Phase
November 16, 2019 10:30
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This 5 part series aims to analyze Inter’s first 16 official games of the 2019/2020 season, which coincidentally also are the first matches under the Antonio Conte era.

In the first part an introduction was presented and in the second part the build-up play was analyzed. In this piece an in-depth analysis of the Nerazzurri’s defensive transitions will be discussed.

Defensive Transition

When it comes to the defensive transition phase, Antonio Conte is lucky to have a roster full of players that constantly track back, as well as having strikers who react very quickly when possession of the ball is lost.

When the ball is lost, the players closest to the ball apply pressure, while the rest get back to their positions. If the ball is between two lines, meaning either between the defensive and midfield lines or between the midfielders and forwards, pressure from all direction is applied.

All those reactions and defensive transition principles can be seen in the video below:

This team, however, does not only depend on the players’ reactions when the ball is lost but on their organization during the build-up phase that prepares them for the loss of possession.

As we can see in the video the closest to the ball central midfielder and the defensive midfielder, or both defensive midfielders if Inter are building-up in a 3-4-2-1, stay outside the penalty area in order to either stop or slow down a possible counterattack through the centre of the pitch.

The wingback on the opposite side of the pitch, also moves towards the centre, when he does not have that freedom to attack the second post on crosses, which depends on the opponent.

When the ball is lost, the 2 strikers and the central midfielder that has attacked the penalty area will press, and the central defenders will follow every movement the opponent strikers make towards the ball.

This is done in order to not let them turn and face towards the Inter goal, knowing also that there is always the security of the extra central defender behind them.

The other central midfielder and the defensive midfielder will act as mentioned above while the wing-backs will either follow the runs of the opposition wingers or wing-backs or they will move a few meters towards the centre to press the ball and help the midfielders.

However, Inter show some weaknesses in this phase of the game. Weaknesses that have to do primarily with the characteristics of some of their players. Sensi, who is 168 cm tall, sometimes faces problems against very strong and explosive opponents, due to his height/strength combination.

Brozovic also struggles here, despite the fact that he has improved immensely in the last two seasons, and remains a player that sometimes may over-commit himself and be too aggressive. This leads to the opponents running past him very easily in some situations, mainly when it comes to big, open spaces.

These weaknesses though, have not hurt Inter yet, because firstly, they have not been a very common phenomenon. The 3 central defenders offer good cover and the characteristics of the other midfielders, Gagliardini and Vecino help in solving possible problems.

Defensive Phase

One of Inter’s main characteristics is applying pressure high up the pitch, with the midfielders matching the opposition’s shape by man marking them.

The way they press, however gets adjusted each week depending on the opponent as in the examples below:

Against Teams With A 4-3-1-2 Formation

In the matches against Lecce, Parma and Juventus who built-up play in a 4-3-1-2 formation, the 2 forwards pressure the 2 central defenders, the opponents defensive and central midfielders are man marked, while the full-backs are pressured by Inter’s wing-backs.

The 3 cenral defenders and the wingback on the opposite side of the ball, will create a 4 man defensive line that is responsible for the opponent’s forwards and trequartista.

Against AC Milan

Against an AC Milan that was building-up in a 4-3-2-1 formation, Conte wanted his two wing-backs to stay back as much as possible in order to not allow 1 vs 1 situations on the wings, where the Inter central defenders would have had difficulty against Rafael Leão and Suso.

AC Milan is also a team with very little movement and was struggling in finding their forwards in between the lines.

This lead Conte to ask his forwards to press the AC Milan central defenders with direction from the outside towards the inside, in order to force them to make a pass in the centre of the pitch, where the 3 midfielders were man marked.

If they couldn’t force that, as was the case many timed in the match, and the ball was received by a fullback, then the wing-back moved up to press as usual.

Against Barcelona

With Griezmann and Messi playing on the wings, Conte wanted to keep his wing-backs back as much as possible and ordered his forwards to press the central defenders again from the outside towards the inside in order to force them to make a pass towards the centre of the pitch where their 3 closest options, the midfielders, were man marked.

Against Udinese

With both teams utilizing a 3-4-2-1/5-2-2-1 formation, the Nerazzurri pressed the 3 opposition central defenders in a 3 vs 3 with the intention to force the ball towards the wing.

There the wing-back was pressing the opponent’s wing-back, or forced a long ball towards the Udinese striker and the two attacking midfielders/inside forwards/trequartisti behind him, in an area where Inter created a 4 vs 3 with the 3 central defenders and the defensive midfielder on the opposite side of the ball.

This was also the only match in which Inter, with the ball in their own half, were not constantly applying pressure on the defensive midfielder when he had the ball, as Jajalo is considered not dangerous against an organized defense.

Against Sampdoria, Bologna, Hellas Verona & Brescia

Against teams that build-up with 3 central defenders and 2 defensive midfielders, like Sampdoria, Bologna and Hellas Verona, Inter pressed the central defenders with the 2 strikers and central midfielder closest to the ball, while the opposition defensive midfielders were marked by the other central midfielder and Inter’s defensive midfielder Brozovic.

The opposition trequartista was marked by the central defenders in the few cases the ball reached those spaces.

Against Brescia, Gagliardini was man marking the defensive midfielder Tonali, while Barella and Brozovic were covering the space behind him.

The 2 strikers were pressing the 3 central defenders with the intention to push the ball towards the wing. If Brescia’s central defender decided to move higher up with the ball, then he was pressed by the midfielders closest to him, being Barella and Brozovic.

Against Cagliari & Lazio

Against teams that build-up in a 3-5-2 formation and have midfielders that are either creative, dangerous between the lines or can make very well-timed runs towards the penalty area, Conte’s team man marked in midfield with the forwards trying to force a pass centrally, by applying pressure towards the centre when the ball was at the feet of the central defender in the middle of the 3 man defence.

The strikers also positioned themselves in a way that didn’t allow the central defenders to move up with the ball. Forcing the opponent centrally and not allowing him to move a lot on the wing from where they could cross the ball, was also a way to neutralize two teams that attack the penalty area with many players that make well-timed runs as their strong point, as much as possible.

Against Borussia Dortmund

With Dortmund building-up in a 3-4-2-1 in the match at the Giuseppe Meazza, Inter pressed high up the pitch with the two strikers initiating their pressing runs when the ball was moving towards the right or left central defender in order to force them towards the wing.

There, the wing-back was pressing the Dortmund wing-back while in the centre of the pitch the two central midfielders were marking Borussia’s defensive midfielder and Brozovic remained in front of the defense.

In the second match between those two teams, Dortmund was building-up in 4-2-3-1. The 2 strikers were pressing the two central defenders in order to force the ball towards the wing where the wing-back would move up to press the Dortmund full-back. In the centre of the pitch there was a 3 vs 3.

Problems When Pressing

However, Inter are not always successful when pressing. Against teams with continuous movements, rotation of positions and asymmetric formations during their build-up phase, the Inter players face a lot of problems.

Not only in deciding who to man mark and when to pass the responsibility of the opponent to a teammate but also with the numerical superiority that the opponents were creating around the ball.

In the video below you can see the problems faced against Sassuolo and Slavia Praha.

Defending Inside Their Own Half

When the ball is in the defensive third of the pitch, Inter is organized in 5-3-2, or in a 5-4-1/5-2-2-1 on the few occasions that they built-up with a 3-4-2-1, with the forwards positioning themselves in front of or behind the ball depending on the situation, the opponent and their teammates’ needs.

The defenders and the midfielders defend zonally with the closest player on the ball always applying pressure.

When it comes to applying pressure on the ball in central areas, we can actually find one of Inter’s few weak points.

This ‘problem’ derives from the fact that when the ball is moving towards the opponents’ defensive midfielder, the player responsible for applying pressure is, the most central of the midfielders, Brozovic.

This means that if the opponents move the ball quickly and make a well-times pass they can find a teammate in front of the defensive line and in the space behind the Croatian.

This weak point however, does not seem to punish Inter as of yet, as Brozovic is a player that can cover space very quickly.

The defensive line of 5 instead of 4 players offers extra cover and the in most cases the opponents do not have the quality to make the passes needed to exploit those spaces.

Defensive Adjustments During The Game

With the need to seal the result, in the last 10-15 minutes of a match, Inter usually change their defensive formation to a 5-4-1 as occurred against AC Milan, Sassuolo and Borussia Dortmund away, in order to increase the pressure on the wings in the defensive third and also avoid possible 1 vs 1 situations on the wings after a change of side by the opponent.

In the match against Barcelona and with the score at 1-1, Inter started defending in a 5-3-1-1 formation with Sensi behind Lautaro Martinez in order to mark and apply more pressure on the Catalans’ defensive midfielder.

In the next part of this series, the discussion will focus on the attacking transition.

All videos & images used are in accordance with the Copyright Disclaimer under section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, where allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, education and research.

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Thanos Chelas
By Thanos Chelas


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