Barcelona travelled to the iconic San Siro this Tuesday and met Inter Milan in the fourth leg of the Champions League group stage. After securing the win at the Camp Nou two weeks ago, the Catalans were on a quest to find yet another which would see them officially top the group and proceed to the knockout stages safely. In the end, the teams shared the spoils of war after a one-all draw on a rain-soaked podium.
The hosts will be quite content with the result while the visitors can only regret all those missed chances in front of the goal, courtesy of a truly inspired Handanović between the sticks.
This tactical analysis will use statistics to try and explain how things went down in Milan and how Nerazzurri held off a dominant Blaugrana side and secured a big point.
Barca (4-3-3): Ter Stegen – Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba – Busquets, Rakitić, Arthur – Coutinho, Dembele, Suarez
Bench: Cillessen, Semedo, Chumi, Vidal, Rafinha, Alena, Malcom
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Inter Milan (4-1-4-1): Handanović – Vrsaljko, de Vrij, Skriniar, Asamoah – Vecino, Brozović, Politano, Nainggolan, Perišić – Icardi
Bench: Padelli, Martinez, Keita Balde, Valero, D’Ambrosio, Miranda, Candreva
Coach: Luciano Spalletti
No big changes were expected once again for the away team which now definitely has its gala XI almost set in stone. Ernesto Valverde decided to field mostly the same team that managed to keep his record clean in the past couple of weeks. Still, the more conservative option in Rafinha was dropped in favour of the more pacey and unpredictable Ousmane Dembele, which yielded mixed results for Barcelona.
The rest of the squad was intact and operated in a familiar 4-3-3 system. Tactical transitions were also made when there was a change of personnel within the ranks. In the end, some unlikely heroes broke the deadlock for the Catalans but alas it was not enough to get the victory.
Luciano Spalletti, on the other hand, decided to shuffle the cards a bit and change the staff from the last time these two teams met. Granted, due to some injuries, not all players were available to him at the Camp Nou, and this was also the case on Tuesday, to some extent.
Gagliardini and Joao Mario, who were crucial in their battering of Genoa (5-0) in Serie A were absent but Radja Nainggolan returned to reclaim his position in the starting 11. The Croat Šime Vrsaljko replaced Danilo D’Ambrosio on the right-back position and Stefan de Vrij was back in action instead of Miranda at center-back. Politano was also given the nod in front of Candreva on the right flank as the hosts assumed their 4-1-4-1 formation.
Different Podium, Same Show
Although a quite different Inter was expected to turn up in front of their fans, especially after getting the news that Lionel Messi will sit in the stands for one more game, the Nerazzurri were quickly pinned back and dominated for the entirety of the first half. The early themes were almost identical to the ones we have seen in Catalunya two weeks ago.
Barcelona expectedly dominated possession heavily and Inter was soaking up as much as they could without actually conceding real chances to the visitors. When the Catalans stepped into Inter’s half, the hosts would assume a compact 5-4-1 formation with one goal in mind: Force Barcelona into the middle where they were outnumbered. This would mean that only Icardi, the ex-La Masia boy, was left higher up the pitch, while the rest of the team mostly turtled up.
Still, in instances when they repelled Barcelona’s attacks, Inter would follow the ball all the way into Barcelona’s half, pressing the back line in an attempt to force mistakes. Those situations were mostly rare as Barcelona on average spent 66% of the time in Inter’s half in the first 45 minutes, which even went as high as 71% in the period from 30th– 45th-minute mark.
Inter were aware of Barcelona’s tendency to let the full-backs overlap, especially Jordi Alba, who is in red-hot form at the moment. To prevent this from happening, their setup was extremely narrow and Politano would often back-track to assist Vrsaljko in containing the sprinting Spaniard. Although this was effective in defending, it was also quite limiting when going forward.
Politano was needed in pushing the line higher up but with him going all the way back to support the back five, and a similar thing happening with Ivan Perišić on the other side, Icardi was often left completely isolated among Barcelona’s defenders.
The fact that he only touched the ball a total of seven times in the first half (all of those around the midfield area) is not surprising at all. In a way, by pinning Inter down, Barcelona also negated their counter-attacking capabilities that come with fast-paced wingers.
Still, the hosts were most dangerous when coming out of a fast transition, which was their edge over the visitors. With almost everyone in Barcelona’s squad spending time in Inter’s half, losing a ball also spelt problems. Relatively slow Catalan centre-backs would quickly be left behind by the pacey Inter wingers and in those moments, Perišić and Politano would send crosses into the box.
Usually, the Italians do favour their left flank as their biggest attacking outlet but in this game, the preference was on the other side of the pitch where Šime Vrsaljko operated. 56% of all of their crosses in the box happened from the right, but when it came to true positional attacks that yielded dangerous situations, everything was happening through the middle of the park.
A staggering 76% of positional attacks that gave Inter a total of 0.76 xG took place in the middle lane. The flanks, although used to some extent, remained silent with 2% (0.02 xG) on the left and the remaining 22% (0.22) on the right. The only counterattack that resulted in a shot was also done through the middle.
Barcelona were knocking on the door the whole 45 minutes but the home side would not budge. Most of that was due to outstanding heroics by the man between the sticks, Samir Handanović, who made a total of seven saves. His counterpart on the Blaugrana side did not make a single one. Granted, he was not really called upon throughout the game but when he was, he couldn’t react fast enough.
The Three Musketeers
Even though Ernesto Valverde regularly gets a lot of slack for the lack of rotation, in some areas of the pitch, that argument falls flat. This is especially true concerning the midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Arthur Melo. This deadly combination is where everything good starts for Barcelona, and if they struggle, the whole team struggles.
In the Inter game, they were (mostly) superb. The first half domination was the direct result of their handiwork which was made possible by some intricate passing of the ball. Barcelona made a total of 53 passes (47 completed) in the zone 14 and 10 of those went into the box (7 were successful).
Ivan Rakitić completed 89% of his passes but also had the most recoveries of the ball with a total of 16. This was even higher than all the defenders as Alba was the second best with 12 and Pique with nine. Arthur Melo had an outstanding 97% passing accuracy and 6.1% of total team possession on his own. Paired with two scoring chances created, the young Brazilian did not disappoint. Busquets was also on point with 96% accuracy and pulling the strings from behind.
The Unlikely Hero(es)
Still, with all that time on the ball and all those chances created, Barcelona could still not breach Inter’s defence and break the deadlock. They needed a new outlet, and it arrived in the form of the most unlikely and most surprising figure – Malcom.
After playing only 25 minutes in the domestic League since his arrival and 80 minutes in one Copa del Rey match, the young Brazilian was out to prove a point. He replaced Ousmane Dembele for the last 10 minutes of the game and instantly made an impact.
Although his finish and movement were superb, it was Philippe Coutinho, his countryman, who set everything in motion. Coincidentally, Coutinho played one of his best games in a Blaugrana shirt to date. On paper, Coutinho was still played as a left wing but the tweaks in his positioning were glaring. Instead of just occupying the left half-space, Phil would drop all the way down to the midfield and carry the ball to the final third.
This not only created an extra man for the highly congested Inter middle lane but also positioned him where his creativity on the ball could be used to its fullest. His 96% passing accuracy, one assist, and two key passes are telling enough but considering how he usually struggles with duels, his 13/17 duels won stat is the most refreshing to see.
He was also the player with the second highest tally of total shots in the game with eight, only behind Suarez who had nine. Unfortunately, three were blocked and one was off target so his decision making can still improve in certain situations.
The Icardi Effect
As we already mentioned, Mauro Icardi did not really see much of the ball throughout the game. Although as Barcelona slowly yielded the possession a bit in the latter stages of the second half, he was steadily more involved but yet to make a proper impact on the game.
Until the 87th minute, Inter was without a shot on target, and the first real threat in front of Marc-Andre ter Stegen resulted in a goal. That is all Mauro Icardi needs. One chance, one opportunity, and a couple of seconds to score. And score he did.
It was actually Busquets who failed to properly clear the ball, sending it only as far as Vecino and the latter succeeds in getting to Icardi. A strong finish between the legs of the keeper meant that Inter was leaving San Siro with a point in hand.
It was not really a night to remember for the Italians but just as Barcelona were telling themselves after the last game against Rayo Vallecano – the result is the only thing that matters. Although the Catalans have now officially become the first team to successfully transition to the knockout stages, the battle for first place in group B remains open.
With two games to go, Inter and Tottenham Hotspur will be looking to cause some upsets in the final stages of this introductory part of the Champions League.
Barcelona, on the other hand, have survived this Messi-less period and can now prepare for the return of the king. They have maybe failed to win in Italy once more but the way they played without their best player is encouraging enough.
The fact that they have been more dominant in Europe than at home also sends a clear message to their rivals.
This year they are coming for the biggest trophy in club football, and at the moment, they seem like one of the favourites to lift it.