The big game in Italian football this weekend was the clash between AS Roma and Internazionale in an early test for two possible title contenders. Both clubs came into the season with new coaches and both clubs got off to a perfect start with Eusebio Di Francesco leading his Roma to an impressive 1-0 win in Bergamo against Atalanta while former Roma coach Luciano Spalletti led his new-look Inter to a strong 3-0 win over Fiorentina in their opener. It was expected to be a fascinating clash between two great tacticians that share some similarities in their tactical template. On the day though, the more experienced Spalletti would draw on his extensive knowledge of Roma’s squad to lead Inter to a very impressive 3-1 win.
Roma came into the game in Di Francesco’s usual 4-3-3 with Alisson in goal, Juan Jesus at right back, Kostas Manolas and Federico Fazio in central defence with Aleksandar Kolarov at left-back. In midfield, Daniele De Rossi balanced behind Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman with Edin Dzeko leading the attack flanked by Gregoire Defrel and Diego Perotti.
Spalletti set Inter up in a 4-2-3-1 where he matched his central midfield up against Roma’s. Samir Handanovic was in goal behind a back four that read Danilo D’Ambrosio, Milan Skriniar, Miranda and Yuto Nagatomo. Roberto Gagliardini and Matias Vecino formed a double pivot with Borja Valero as a number 10. Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perisic marshalled the wings with Mauro Icardi leading the line.
Inter started brightly as the midfield three went man to man with Roma’s midfield. Gagliardini marked Strootman, Vecino picked up Nainggolan and Valero marked De Rossi. Situationally, Valero would join Icardi to form a front two when pressing which left De Rossi unmarked, which in turn saw the closest midfielder out of Vecino and Gagliardini to leave his man to mark De Rossi. Below is one of those situations where Valero has pressed the goalkeeper Alisson. Gagliardini then presses De Rossi who has just received the pass from the goalkeeper. To the left, we see Strootman unmarked as Gagliardini has prioritized De Rossi to stop the attack early.
On the other half of the pitch, Roma performed similar pressing actions as their midfielders simply man-marked the player who previously had man-marked them. An example of this can be seen below with Dzeko pressing the ball-carrier Skriniar, Nainggolan marking Vecino, Strootman going tight to Gagliardini and Perotti in a position to close down D’Ambrosio if the pass is played there. At the top, we see Defrel in a position where he’s ready to press both Miranda or the left-back Nagatomo.
The man-oriented pressing from both sides led to Roma, in particular, having troubles playing out from the back. Inter had some ideas to get around this which we’ll look at later.
Roma would strike first in the 15th minute despite Inter’s bright start. The goal was a superb combination between Roma’s top performers from last year, Nainggolan and Dzeko. The Belgian midfielder picked the ball up in the right half-space and chipped a pass into the Bosnian who cushioned the ball on his chest prior to finishing with a thumping volley.
Roma had some interesting solutions to getting out of Inter’s press after going 1-0 up and started to take the initiative. The clip below illustrates this when Inter mess up their coverage of De Rossi. Valero leaves the Roma captain to press Manolas but the Greek defender shows his skill by dribbling away from the Spaniard to feed De Rossi in plenty of space. Nainggolan then moves wide which drags Vecino away and De Rossi can find Dzeko along the ground. Dzeko can use Nainggolan as the third man with the Belgian in plenty of space thanks to Defrel’s inverted run. Similar situations occurred on plenty of occasions with Dzeko dropping deeper to become an option to create a central passing lane and get behind Inter’s midfield. The type of movement from Nainggolan and Defrel is typical of Di Francesco’s approach.
Inter had two solutions to Roma’s midfield marking. The first one was simply the superb passing ability of Skriniar who fed passes to Valero or Candreva in the right half-space to progress behind Roma’s midfield line quickly. The other was more interesting as it involved the centre-backs dribbling towards the midfield area to provoke a pressing action from either Strootman or Nainggolan to win a second of space for Vecino or Gagliardini. In the video below we see how Miranda attracts a slight pressing action from Nainggolan which leaves Vecino free and Inter could then threaten in behind with a superb pass from Gagliardini.
Spalletti had also highlighted an area where Inter could hurt Roma – the areas of space outside De Rossi behind Strootman and Nainggolan. Due to the man-oriented pressing from Roma’s midfielders, Vecino and Gagliardini attracted attention and Valero could roam into the space outside of De Rossi to pick the ball up and progress the attack. Candreva would also pop into this area at times to pick the ball up as well and Vecino started to move behind his marker when the ball was on the opposite side and he was out of his opponent’s sight. In this way, Inter forced De Rossi to move and managed to find threatening positions with players facing Roma’s back four.
With his team trailing at the break, Spalletti made an attacking substitution when he replaced the energetic and hardworking Gagliardini with the Portuguese attacking midfielder Joao Mario. He entered the pitch as the number 10 and Valero moved into the double pivot alongside Vecino where he played last week. The reshuffle meant Inter now had a true playmaker deeper with the creative Mario taking over Valero’s linking role in the final third. Roma had a superb chance to double their lead just after the hour mark though, when a terrific attack led to Perotti hitting the post. The attack represented everything Di Francesco wants his team to do in possession and shows that this side is being moulded into his.
With luck seemingly on Inter’s side at this point, they would equalise just five minutes later when Icardi finally got his chance. Inter’s press led to Juan Jesus aimlessly hitting the ball long straight into the middle where Vecino headed it down to Candreva who attacked at pace and played in Icardi who showed his predatory instincts while giving Inter a deserved equaliser.
Inter now had momentum with them and started to dominate more but Roma threatened on the counter-attack with both Nainggolan and Stephan El Shaarawy having good chances. Spalletti would get his reward though for his focus on finding players outside the De Rossi action area when Mario picked up the ball and set up Ivan Perisic in a 1 vs 1 with Juan Jesus. The Croat went past him and found Icardi in the box who showed all of his class when he received, turned and finished emphatically to put Inter ahead. This goal came straight from a goalkick!
Roma were now in real trouble and lost the plot when trying to get back into the game. Nainggolan blasted over from close range after superb play from Perotti but the collective possession play wasn’t good enough and Roma lacked ideas and creativity to break through Inter’s deeper block. Inter sat deeper and invited Roma to take care of the ball but Roma weren’t structured anymore and couldn’t find a way through. The video below highlights the problem they had. No one plays a progressive pass and the ball just travels sideways or backwards and moves very slowly.
Inter, by contrast, were totally in control and never looked unsure of themselves. They would clinch the win on the counter-attack when Mario won the ball before feeding Perisic who once again skipped round his opponent to set up Vecino to tap home from close range to seal the victory.
Inter’s 3-1 win was a statement of intent as they continued their perfect start to the season. Spalletti highlighted his tactical quality as he found the weaknesses in Roma’s defensive structure and his players exploited them ruthlessly. Inter look well-organised defensively and tactically structured in attack too with Spalletti’s positional play suiting new signings Skriniar, Valero and Vecino very well. The trio were superb and Skriniar in particular looks like a terrific prospect at centre-half. Roma will be disappointed after leading for so long but there are encouraging signs for the new coach. With some luck Perotti, Nainggolan and Kolarov’s efforts (which all hit the post) would have gone in and put them 2-0 up and probably led them to a win. Di Francesco still has work to do to get everything right, especially the build up play when opponents man-mark, but the team is showing signs of playing the way the coach wants too. It will be exciting to continue following both sides in a season that promises to be very exciting in Italy.