When Frank De Boer was sacked from Inter in October, the club was in a state of chaos. The team was grossly under-performing, the club captain Mauro Icardi was caught up in a war of words with the club’s own ultras and there was speculation surrounding the Chinese owners, Suning. With the Dutch coach gone, sporting director Piero Ausilio convinced the owners to give former Lazio coach Stefan Pioli the chance to stabilize the club. Indeed, in Pioli’s first press conference he gave himself the nickname “the stabilizer”. Ever since Pioli’s first game in charge, a derby showdown with Milan ending in a draw, Inter have been very consistent and won basically every game they’ve been expected to win and have been elevated into fifth place. They’ve lost against other big teams where each side have had plenty of time to work with their coaches, notably Juventus, Napoli and Roma, but strong wins against Atalanta, Lazio and Fiorentina has been recorded. Pioli’s work with a broken squad without confidence has been nothing short of remarkable in the short space of time he’s been in the job.
Tactically, Pioli has been very flexible. Without the ball Inter have been quite consistent in their use of a 4-4-1-1, but in possession they’ve alternated between 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1. In the latter attacking shape, one full back pushes on while another stays back to create a back three and one winger move centrally into the half-space. In some games, notably against Genoa and Roma, Inter have used a 3-4-3/5-2-2-1 also when out of possession to force opponents wide with a midfield box.
Below you see Inter’s two main systems this season.
In the two videos below you can clearly see one of Inter’s defensive principles, namely force the play wide and recover the ball in the wide areas. The shape in these two clips is the 5-2-2-1 where a midfield box is created between the two central midfielders and the two attacking midfielders.
The same basic principle applies when Inter defend in a 4-4-1-1 (which they mostly do). Icardi starts the press with the number 10 (Ever Banega or Joao Mario) as they try to shield the centre and force the opponents to pass the ball to the full back where the winger will press. The whole team quickly shifts across to overload around the ball and increase their chances of winning the ball back.
Atalanta are forced wide where Ivan Perisic stops the pass forward.
Same thing here, the ball is played wide, aggressive press from Perisic, Banega and Geoffrey Kondogbia sees Atalanta forced into a long, uncontrolled pass that Joao Miranda can easily win to regain possession for Inter.
Direct, vertical attacking
Going forward, Inter are very direct and vertical in their approach as they look to quickly progress the ball into their attacking players. Below you see how Miranda steps forward with the ball while the movement from Roberto Gagliardini and Kondogbia to receive attracts the Torino midfielders, opening up a huge space between their lines which Perisic notices and finds a good position. Miranda’s pass splits the midfield and Inter are on the attack.
This presence between the lines is a huge part of Inter’s attacking strategy. They quickly try to work the ball into the space between the opposition defence and midfield where the likes of Joao Mario, Banega, Candreva, Eder and Perisic thrives. Below is an example of how direct Inter are in their approach. Danilo D’Ambrosio floats the ball in to Icardi between the lines and Inter can combine quickly before attacking down the right.
An interesting aspect of Inter’s attacking play is the balancing movements between full backs and wingers. They consistently read each others movement to occupy different vertical lines to increase the possibility to combine. In the clip below we have an outstanding example of this approach. On the right, winger Candreva stays wide while the full back D’Ambrosio moves into the right half-space. On the opposite side winger Perisic has moved into the left half-space while full back Cristian Ansaldi stays wide. This type of movement makes it difficult for the opposition as Inter occupies both wings, both half-spaces and the central area through Icardi.
Chance creation and goalscoring
A key source of Inter’s chance creation is crossing. Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perisic are two of the most effective wingers in European football and their crossing ability is excellent. Especially Candreva can serve in all kinds of crosses from his right hand side. With the movement and finishing of Icardi in the penalty area, Inter will always be a threat from crosses.
With the quality of the players in the squad, Inter also have the quality to break down deep-lying defences. Banega’s passing and creativity is fantastic and with him on the pitch Inter will always create chances. Adding him to the passing ability of Brozovic, Gagliardini and Mario as well as the dribbling and crossing from Candreva and Perisic with the movement and finishing of Icardi and Eder makes Inter a really threatening team also when they try to break down a deep block.
With Inter’s strong and balanced defence and the ball-winning ability of Gagliardini and Kondogbia/Brozovic in midfield added to the speed and technical ability of the wingers and forwards, Inter will always be a threat from counterattacks. Pioli’s has the set up perfectly for this since as soon the ball is won Inter look to break forward at speed. In the clip below you see a few examples. After the ball is won, players sprint forward and the first pass is always played to a teammate on the run. The midfielders will join the attack and are open to cutbacks from wingers.
As you see, Inter are devastating on the counterattack with Icardi, Candreva and Perisic leading the attacking transition.
Stefano Pioli’s work with Inter has been superb ever since coming into the club and he’s lifted Inter into the European places. The Champions League still seem a big ask with eight points separating Inter from Napoli in third place. Still, Pioli has found a perfect mix for the players in his squad and Inter play an exciting, quick, vertical style of football which is extremely pleasing to watch. They defend with a compact team that move in unison across the pitch and have a very solid base with the back four and the two central midfielders which allows the front four to focus on the attack. Players like Candreva, Perisic and Icardi thrive in Pioli’s football and the signing of Gagliardini to the midfield has been inspired. With more time together, Inter will surely start adding wins against the big teams as well and with the right recruitment in the summer they might even challenge for the Scudetto next season.