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The Inter Milan reload was not meant to take this long. When Jose Mourinho left the Nerazzurri as European champions in 2010, Inter covered their eyes from the elephant in the room. The elephant being that this side had reached it’s peak, performance and age wise. However, as the story goes, Moratti hired Benitez and didn’t put an emphasis on youth.

Inter’s denial to reload as soon as they hit the peak of the mountain was a fatal mistake. And now seemingly every action they’ve taken since then seems to be yet another mistake.

The hiring of Frank de Boer in summer was one that, I personally, found to be Inter’s best hire since 2010. As evidenced by his time with Ajax, he would bring an identity that would be progressive in the long term. Something they have been missing for quite some time.

However, it hasn’t all gone smoothly for de Boer. Inter currently lie in 14th place in Serie A, eight points off the Champions League places. There have been encouraging signs, most notably the 2-1 victory over Juventus. But such moments have been overshadowed by losses against Sparta Prague and Cagliari in recent weeks.

So what’s wrong with Inter?

Everyone has their own theory, but mine is based on the issues I see with Inter’s build-up play.

Build-up play is everything in-between a GK and a chance being created (wherever on the pitch). A lot of Inter’s build-up problems stem from the first phase. This is the beginning of a play, usually when the ball is being brought out of the defence.

The modern importance of playing out from the back

(Hey, screw your shameless self Twitter promotion) Sorry.

Ball playing centrebacks are unbelievably important in the modern era. Long gone is the age of the ‘rock’ centreback who was defensively sound, but technically left a lot to be desired. Centre backs today should be capable in both defending but also sound in the technical aspects of their game.

Such players eliminate a lot of problems for teams, and these all apply to de Boer’s team. If a centreback is initiating the first phase of build-up, it eliminates the need for a midfielder to do so. This means you are already better off numerically across the pitch as your midfielder hasn’t had to drop deep. The benefits of this include more recipients of the ball to progress it, opponents’ defensive structure can be spread across the field, etc.

Unfortunately for Inter, they don’t have a centre back that fits this profile. Instead, Gary Medel has to drop deep and receive the ball of one of the centre backs and it slows down Inter’s whole play. Here’s an example clip from their 1-1 draw with Bologna:

As you can see, there is a chain reaction all across the pitch, just from one thing. I’ll break down some of the important components.

Poor positioning from the fullbacks

Both Miangue and Santon have really poor positioning in this sequence. Inter do not up the tempo to a level they’d have more success with and it starts from the back. As soon as Handanovic is in control of the ball, both FBs should be pushing high and wide, this does several things:

  • Offers a recipient of the ball in a more advanced area. This means play can be sped up and potential areas of exploitation can be found
  • Spreads Bologna’s FWD and MF lines. If their lines are more spread trying to cover players, Inter can play line splitting passes and exploit Bologna’s potential mistakes
  • It means advanced players can stay in advanced areas and don’t have to drop deep (more on this later).

As you can see at 0:21 in the video, the ball is played to Santon (21). Bologna’s forward press is respectable but Santon is in a position where he makes it easy for him to hunted down.

Because Santon wasn’t proactive enough and didn’t move up the pitch as soon as play commenced, Banega comes deep and wide to help move the ball.

This is a really ineffective area for Banega, as illustrated in the clip above where he is pressed and unable to do much of anything with the ball. However, if Santon was in this area, as he should be, then there are options available. If Banega doesn’t drop deep then there’s another player forward for Inter to play to. In a crucial area, too, the central zone.

It’s also worth noting Kondogbia’s play has been generally atrocious this season. Billed as a box to box player who would offer some penetration ball carrying to a lifeless Inter team, he hasn’t lived up to the bill. He doesn’t bring the ball out from the back, he offers little offensively, and his positioning ruins the entire spacing Inter’s MF.

Why Banega up the pitch is crucial

Number tens dropping deep to form a midfield three and help midfield stability is nothing new in the modern game, but for Inter, Banega should be hesitant to drop deep.

Medel is often slow to get back into the correct MF position once he has initiated play. With just one player in midfield (Gnoukouri in this clip, Joao Mario otherwise), this hinders Inter’s progression of the ball, so Banega has to drop deep to form what is essentially a 4-1-2-2-1.

With Banega central, the only achievable, passing options are in wide areas. Playing the ball to Icardi’s feet outside of the box isn’t really a progressive play, especially when Inter’s wingers enjoy hugging the touchline, there is no chance of a one-two play to create a quick chance.

So with Banega, dropped deep and no central presence, Inter are forced into wide areas. Here’s why this is a problem…

The inefficiency of wide areas

Consider crossing the primitive form of chance creation. As football has evolved, many minds within football have had their caveman-fire moment, it’s probably best to avoid crossing as best you can. Don’t cancel it out of your playbook entirely, but it should in no way be your first thought when trying to create a goal scoring opportunity

One of the reasons being scoring from crosses is actually rather difficult. In the Premier League between 2010 – 2014, only 1.2% of crosses resulted in goals. That number does rise to 1.8% if you look at crosses followed by a goal within five seconds. But still, it’s incredibly inefficient, especially when you consider the amount of turnovers created by crossing with the opponents usually regaining possession.

It’s probably harsh to say crossing is bad and that’s that.  As with football there are many variables that go into evaluating a situation. The closer you are to the touchline when you cross the ball, the less likely that ball is going find itself in the back of the net. Low crosses are also better than high crosses. Both of these variables link to the fact the opponent has more time to react to both of these. A low cross near the edge of the penalty box is more likely to catch the opponent off guard.

Unfortunately, Inter don’t follow this trend. Statistically, they’re an average crossing team. Which isn’t really enough for a side that uses crosses as their main chance creation tool and has Champions League aspirations.

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(Unfortunately, I don’t have the data to distinguish between open play and set piece crosses. However, open play crosses are completed at an average rate of 20.7%, set pieces one at 30.8%)

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Another reason crosses are inefficient is because they lead to headers more than anything else. Which are absurdly hard to score. In fact, headers are considerably worse at scoring than ground shots in every single spot on the pitch. (Via Statsbomb via Colin Trainor)

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Sure, it’s obviously harder to get a shot in a central location like it is with a cross. But when you consider the conversion rates of the two, across all scenarios. The more efficient option becomes clear.

The importance of effective central presence 

Having a player in the central area, just outside the penalty box is incredibly important. Statistically, it is the most efficient area for passes to be played which lead to goals (after passing that are played from already inside the penalty area). Meaning if Banega is too deep in midfield, Inter don’t have anyone there and have to go wide.

In Dustin Ward’s article on converting dangerous passing into shots. He talks about ‘danger passes’ and the ‘danger zone’, which is essentially the fifteen yard radius from the centre of the goal line.

If you pass into this area, and get a shot off. It has a far higher chance of ending up in the back of the net than any other pass on the pitch, essentially.

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(How often deep passes are converted directly into assisted shots)

That’s better. As you can see passing from central areas is so much better for chance creation. Only 1 out of 29 passes from the corners turns into a assisted shot while 1 out of 8 from the middle outside the box turn into assisted shots.

Where Perisic/Candreva end up crossing has 3.5-3.8% chance of being converted into an assisted shot. Where Banega should be passing from has a 12.5% chance. Whether you like it or not, football is a numbers game.

So you can see. Banega being deep means he isn’t in the position to play these passes and thus Inter are forced into wide areas, which are inefficient. We’ve finally come full circle.

Some other notes on the importance of central zones:

Grant and Williams (1999) did a research on Manchester United during the 1999/2000 season and found that passing was the most common form of assist. Moreover, the majority of passing assists came from central attacking area.

Horn et al. (2002) found teams were more than 4 times more likely to score goals by playing directly into the penalty area than playing laterally to the wings. They also found that the ball was kept in the ‘central zone’ for 2.7 seconds in average in order to score a goal. If the possession lasts over 8 seconds, then it won’t produce an attempt on goal.

What can Inter do?

The Dutchman has seemingly survived the Monday, with a home game against Torino which could kickstart Inter’s season if there’s a process here that Nerazzurri faithful just need to trust.

The Inter board can blame De Boer if they so wish, but as evidenced by his time with Ajax, he has a clear plan. Rather, the Inter board should look at their appalling summer, in which they were indecisive about Mancini’s future, had poor summer dealings and didn’t give either De Boer or Mancini the players they wanted.

For me, it’s evident that Inter are better as a counter attacking team with an emphasis on counterpressing. I wrote about this in my tactical review of Inter’s win over Juventus, particularly referencing Inter’s front press and their desire to shrink the field. You can read about following the link above.

You can follow my football ramblings on Twitter.

 

 

 

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