The Milan Derby, also known as the Derby della Madonnina, was played on Saturday afternoon at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, with the Nerazzurri as the nominal hosts. It was an exciting contest between two fierce rivals, two fine teams and two tactically astute coaches, and the outcome was uncertain right to the final whistle of referee Marco Guida.
Ivan Perisic opened the scoring for Inter in the 38th minute, but Olivier Giroud strike twice between minutes 75 and 78 to make sure it was the Rossoneri whose tally was increased by three points in the end.
The effective wing-backs
Perisic was deployed as the left wing-back in a 3-5-2 system, with Denzel Dumfries chosen ahead of Matteo Darmian on the right, and both players were heavily involved in everything their team did at either end of the pitch.
It was particularly interesting to see how effective Dumfries was in limiting the usually potent attacking impetus of Milan left-back Theo Hernandez, by pinning him down and forcing him to work relentlessly in defence, deep in his own half. The Dutchman even put the ball in the back of the net, outdoing Hernandez in the air and heading a cross from Perisic past Mike Maignon early in the match, but the goal was disallowed for offside. Meanwhile, Perisic was a constant menace on the left, frequently getting the better of Milan’s Davide Calabria and whipping in dangerous crosses.
Perisic’s goal was also a fine example of an obviously trained cooperation between the two. As Hakan Calhanoglu took his corner from the right, aiming for his teammates on the far post, it was the movement and actions of Dumfries that confused the Milan defenders and rendered them incapable of marking Perisic properly, and the Croatia international was thus left free to control his volleyed shot from close range and make it impossible to save.
Another thing worthy of mentioning when it comes to the tactical approach devised by Simone Inzaghi for this clash was the role of Alessandro Bastoni. Whenever the right circumstances for it arose, Perisic and Dumfries would drop a bit deeper and pay more attention to defensive responsibilities, acting more as classic fullbacks. That allowed for one of the three centre-backs to leave his designated position and appear elsewhere quite unexpectedly.
Bastoni was the man chosen for that, and his occasional presence on an attacking flank forced the Milan defence to do extra work in those areas, and he also represented significant aerial threat when wondering into the opposition box. Tall and lanky, with a lot of pace and fine ball control for his frame, the 22-year-old is perfectly suited for this job. Managers in the modern game like players who can do different things on the pitch and represent an unknown quantity for the opposition, and it would hardly be surprising if clubs around Europe started showing interest in his services in the coming window.
Milan’s early struggles
In the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ante Rebic, Olivier Giroud was given the task of leading the line upfront, with Raphael Leao and Alexis Saelemaekers on his flanks and Franck Kessie just behind. It should be noted that Kessie usually plays in a deeper midfield role and isn’t quite as creative as a proper No.10 should be.
Giroud was cut off and deprived of suitable support for long periods of the match, particularly in the first half, which resulted in the Rossoneri looking rather tame in attack. The long balls that were frequently aimed at the Frenchman were hard to contest for with the likes of Milan Skriniar and Stefan de Vrij constantly on his back, and even when he did win those headers, Leao, Saelemaekers and Kessie were nowhere near enough to take advantage. The only situations where Stefano Pioli’s men posed any danger for the goal of Samir Handanovic were a powerful shot from range by Sandro Tonali which Handanovic saved with some difficulty, and one moment when Saelemaekers summoned all his skill, went past a couple of opponents and reached the edge of the box, before the defenders crowded him out.
The tide shifts
After the break, Milan seemed to have snapped out of their ineffective approach to the game. The only outfield player in the red-and-black who played really well throughout the match was Ismael Bennacer, and as his contribution grew, so Milan’s chances of actually getting something from the game increased. He was everywhere while defending, and frequently helped Tonali organize play from deep. In the end, when the turnaround was already done, he was so spent that Pioli felt it prudent to replace him with the fresh legs of Rade Krunic for the final 10 minutes.
Another moment that obviously had an impact in the change of pace for Milan was the introduction of Brahim Diaz instead of Kessie two minutes before the hour-mark. The Spaniard looked very lively in the opposition half and gave Inter’s midfielders a lot of defensive work to do. Inzaghi eventually reacted by withdrawing the creativity of Calhanoglu to make way for the fighting spirit of Arturo Vidal. Nonetheless, just two minutes after Vidal’s introduction, Diaz was in the thick of things once more and his shot from inside the box caught a deflection, changing direction so as to come within reach of Giroud who pounced and netted the equalizer from close range.
The goal brought fresh hope and strength to the former Arsenal and Chelsea striker. Another two minutes later, receiving a pass aimed straight at his feet while looking away from the goal, Giroud turned around with surprising skill and agility, and got the better of both De Vrij and Handanovic to score again.
In retrospect, it seems to have been a mistake from Inzaghi and his team to focus so much on keeping Milan at bay after the break, practically guarding a one-goal lead. It was then turn for Edin Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez, who had looked lively before, to feel isolated from the main battle on the pitch, and Simone’s decision to replace Martinez with Alexis Sanchez in the 69th minute brought no change. Neither did it help when he replaced Brozovic with Matias Vecino and withdrew Bastoni for Darmian in the 82nd, shifting to a back-four system. It was too late by then.
The race is open
Inter entered this clash with a four-point advantage over their city rivals, as well as Napoli, and that with a game in hand on both. Had they won, they would likely have taken the Rossoneri completely out of the race for the Scudetto, and that will only have increased the pain they must be feeling now. They came very close.
Now, of course, they still have that game in hand, but the gap between the Milan teams is now only one point, and Napoli could yet equal Milan’s tally when they face Venezia on Sunday. Even Atalanta, who also have a game in hand on Milan and Napoli, could theoretically yet enter the race providing they beat Cagliari on Sunday. However, it’s hard to see Juventus standing any chance, being 11 points off Inter with the same number of matches played.
If you love Italian football, strap yourselves in. It promises to be an exciting ride right down to the final round.