It is often said that goals win games. That statement is as true as steel. Goals scored for one’s team puts that team in a winning position. However, goals conceded can have the same result…for the opposing team.
Despite the best efforts of Lucio–statistically rated as the best all-round central defender across Europe thus far this season*–Inter’s defence has been anything but sure.
Inter have conceded 34 goals in the league already this season, despite 13 games still left to play. 34 was the final tally of goals conceded in Inter’s title-winning season back in 09/10. They concede at a rate of 1.36 per game, meaning that at that rate, they would have conceded 52 goals by the end of the campaign. That would exceed the total they conceded last season (43). Why have Inter failed to keep the back door closed?
Poor Defending of Through Balls
There is an obvious lack of pace in the Inter backline and this has been exploited to the fullest extent possible. The likes of Lucio, Walter Samuel, and Andrea Ranocchia have struggled to cope with balls in behind them. Thus, Julio Cesar has been hung out to dry repeatedly this season.
Inter love playing the offside trap, but for the sake of tightening up at the back, it may be in Claudio Ranieri’s best interests to drop his central defenders a bit deeper to compensate for their lack of pace.
Losing Aerial Duels
Quite simply, to play at center back, one has to be very strong in the air. Lucio, despite leading the club in tackles made per game (3.1), interceptions made per game (4.6), and clearances made per game (10.1), his lack of aerial duels won per game (1.5) has cost Inter dear. His regular partner, Walter Samuel, wins just 1.8 headers per game–not good enough either. Andrea Ranocchia leads the charts for Inter with 2.5 headers won per game.
Why does this statistic matter? Simply put, if the central defenders don’t win their headers, then the opposing player can flick the ball on or knock the ball down for their team-mate running in behind. The end result, more often than not–bearing in mind that Inter’s central defenders aren’t pacey enough to catch anyone–is a goal-scoring opportunity for the opposing team.
The solution here? Andrea Ranocchia needs to be Lucio’s regular partner at the back. Walter Samuel has been better in the air than Lucio, but Lucio’s better all-round performance at the heart of the defence makes him the first-choice pick alongside Ranocchia–Inter’s strongest defender in the air.
Poor Defending On the Flanks
Claudio Ranieri has to really shoulder the blame here. Although using a total of 6 different formations since taking charge of Inter, he has clearly preferred the 4-1-2-1-2 formation. This is a narrow setup, particularly where the midfield is concerned. While it proves to be effective in its own right, at Inter, it hasn’t exactly worked out for the best. Why? One word: ‘Maicon’.
Who doesn’t appreciate the rampaging forward runs of the Brazilian right back? So attack-minded is he that he leads–yes, leads–the standings at Inter for key passes made per game! With an average of 2.9, Maicon makes more key passes per game than Wesley Sneijder (2.2)! With such commitment to the club’s attack, understandably, his defensive contribution would be minimal at best.
To be specific, Maicon makes just 1.7 tackles per game. For a defender, although a right back, this is mediocre, especially compared to left back Yuto Nagatomo, who makes 2.7 tackles per game. With such a poor defensive contribution from Maicon, the onus has been on the right central midfielder in the midfield diamond, in particular, to cover the onrushing winger AND opposing full back.
Such a heavy duty placed on the old legs of Javier Zanetti, for example, who has predominantly featured in central midfield this season, would surely result in gaps left on the right flank. Needless to say, those gaps have been repeatedly exploited. Ranieri has to find a system that accommodates Maicon yet tightens up things at the back.
Long term, this team needs an extensive overhaul. New and exciting talent needs to be ushered in if this club is to press forward and challenge the likes of Juventus, Napoli, and AC Milan–their bitter rivals–just like the good, old days.
(1) Partnering Andrea Ranocchia with Lucio in central defence and dropping them deeper…
By doing this, the central defence would be in a better position to deal both with through balls as well as aerial challenges. The presence of Ranocchia, in particular, will help fix the defence’s vulnerability in the air.
(2) Pushing Maicon higher up the pitch…
Maicon has proven to be a bit of a liability when it comes to the defensive phase of play. Pushing him higher up the pitch in a 4-2-3-1 and dropping Javier Zanetti back into his most familiar position would restore some order on the flanks. Maicon clearly likes to attack and his new position would encourage that attacking impetus of his. His only defensive instruction would be to press the opposing full back.
(3) Positioning Ricardo Álvarez on the left…
Despite gaining many plaudits for his performances as a ‘Trequartista’ for Inter, Ricardo Álvarez’s best performances–statistically–have come from the left side of midfield. He has played 5 times on the left so far this season, contributing a goal and 3 assists. As a ‘Trequartista’, he has featured 3 times, but failed to score or assist. Overall, he is a decent crosser of the ball and is great at picking out a pass.
Both Álvarez and Maicon in the 4-2-3-1 would be able to either cut inside or drive to the byline to affect the play. Thus, the team would have other creative outlets to search out in addition to Sneijder, rather than the Dutchman alone in Ranieri’s current 4-1-2-1-2 setup. Their movement and vision would aid Sneijder, giving the Dutchman decent options in the final third. As a result, he should no longer feel compelled to shoot on sight.
In addition, Álvarez has a tackle rate of 1.9 per game; thus, he should have no problem tracking the opposing full back. As with Maicon on the right, this would help Inter stop conceding unnecessary goals via wing-plays.
(4) Using Dejan Stankovic, Fredy Guarin, and Angelo Palombo in Thiago Motta’s vacated position…
Inter have really missed Motta’s passing in deep central midfield. Palombo, Guarin, and Stankovic have the passing range to try and replicate what the Brazilian-born Italian did so well before he left. With Esteban Cambiasso alongside and Andrea Poli in reserve, there would be enough bite in midfield to regain and keep possession of the ball, allowing Stankovic, Guarin, or Palombo to dictate the play from deep. The use of a deep-lying playmaker here would also help Sneijder snap out of the ‘one-man team’ ethic he has adopted over recent seasons.
There is quality in this Inter Milan side. A few tactical tweaks and a renewed sense of belief will get this team not only scoring, but winning again. It may well be too late to try and nab the last Champions League qualifying spot. However, at least Claudio Ranieri may be able to save his job by guiding Inter to a strong finish to the campaign, starting with what would be a crucial win versus Catania at the weekend. He may have ended up jobless in past similar situations, but this time, it doesn’t have to ‘happen again’.
*- Stats courtesy of whoscored.com