The UEFA Champions League tie between Inter Milan and Barcelona ended in a 2-1 win for the Catalonians. Inter Milan needed a win and for Borussia Dortmund to lose their game with Slavia Prague to stand any chance of qualifying for the next round of the competition. Unfortunately for the Nerazzurri, they came up short at the San Siro.
This tactical analysis will dissect each team’s tactics examining the key tactical talking points from this match with in-depth analysis.
Both teams set up in a 3-5-2 configuration, which for Barcelona is something we haven’t seen before, certainly this season. As Barcelona had already progressed to the next round, they made a lot of changes to the team that faced Borussia Dortmund in the last Champions League fixture. Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Busquets, De Jong, Dembele, Messi, and Suarez were all dropped in favour of a younger group.
Inter Milan made one change from their 3-1 away win in Prague as they switched D’Ambrosio for Candreva. As the game progressed, Inter later made a tactical switch as they were pushing forward by removing Borja Valero and replacing him with Esposito and moving to a more attacking 3-4-1-2.
As you can imagine, Barcelona had the majority of the possession in this game. Their possession did not drop below 57% throughout the game. Apart from the reverse fixture versus Inter Milan, this was the highest level of possession and highest number of passes they had made throughout their Champions League campaign.
Barcelona’s switch to a back three made building up from the back much easier than a back four as Inter played a front two. This is a very Bielsista philosophy: “If you play with two strikers, we will play with three centre-backs”.
Once the ball had been played out from the goalkeeper to the centre-backs, the next most-used destination was Ivan Rakitic. The ball was played to him by the centre-backs 38 times during the match – more than any other in the four-player-chain. When the ball was played into Rakitic, in true ‘Juego de posición’ style, he was usually surrounded by opposition players. This is done to attract the opponent to him to free up space elsewhere. The following image highlights this perfectly.
Rakitic’s positioning and Umtiti’s pass has attracted five Inter Milan players to the ball. The next pass from here is crucial. The ball could be played out first time to Clement Lenglet who can then drive forward into space, or it could be played back to Umtiti to increase the effect of attraction from the Inter players.
Rakitic chooses the second option. He plays the ball back to Umtiti but Inter are very clever here. They know what Barcelona are trying to achieve and only Borja presses and this allows Inter to hold their “box” shaped position in midfield.
This was a common theme of Barcelona’s build-up play. When the ball came into Rakitic, Alena, or Vidal, the ball would usually be played sideways or backwards. This is not a negative observation – as Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola would famously say, “The intention is not to move the ball, rather move the opposition”. They were trying to draw Inter Milan out, to get the ball in behind. The issue with this was that Inter were wise in their defensive positioning and were not drawn out often.
The ball was passed far more between the back three and middle three than the wing-back and front two. Griezmann and Carles Perez only passed the ball to each other four times in this match.
When the ball finally made into the final third, Barcelona were very static, and this was due to a couple of things. One reason was the space between Inter Milan’s back five and their midfield three was very limited. The second reason was that Barcelona would come to the ball rather than try and break the lines.
Carles Perez was very good at finding pockets of space in between these lines, but at times would not break into the space behind Inter’s backline now and then.
If Griezmann were more central in the scene above, to occupy the centre-backs more, then Carles Perez could have spun in behind them. When Perez scored to make it one-nil, it was down to some excellent movement and through Vidal being positioned higher.
Inter’s backline now had two to deal with rather than Perez dropping deep by himself. The ball from Griezmann was very direct and unlike many balls played by Barcelona throughout the game.
Barcelona were very lucky to be leading 1-0 at half-time. They achieved expected goals of 0.63 with the goal being 0.21 xG. The second goal was a lovely strike from Ansu Fati from the edge of the box.
Inter Milan’s build-up was very similar as Barca pressed in a front two but when it was required, Inter played more direct to beat the press. Inter would try and play the ball more into the wide areas rather than the centre, like Barcelona, as they preferred to keep the ball away from the opposition rather than play directly into it.
Many of the balls played out from the back were played into Godin, as he is most proficient with the ball, who would then move the ball into D’Ambrosio, Brozovic, or Vecino. Brozovic, in particular, was very good at dropping back towards the back three to help ball retention.
When moving into the final third, Inter played the opposite way to Barcelona. They had three or four players pushing back the back three, but no one dropping deep to help create chances.
Inter Milan’s goal came from Lukaku finding himself free in between Barcelona’s midfield and centre-backs.
Out of Possession
Barcelona and Inter Milan played very similar mid to low blocks as shown below. The first chart is Barcelona’s successful challenges and the following is Inter’s. Inter played a slightly higher press than Barcelona.
Neither team played the same defensive lines as we are used to as Barcelona’s PPDA was 11.35 compared to their average of 8.59 and Inter Milan’s was 12.53 compared to an average of 10.12.
As the game went on, Barcelona pressed higher and higher as they tried to stop Inter coming forward.
It’s the UEFA Europa League for Inter this season and based on this performance against a weaker Barcelona team, it’s probably somewhat deserved. They didn’t play like a team that needed to win to have any chance of qualifying for the next round. What is most important to them now is that they are leading Serie A and that is now the biggest prize in their eyes.
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