AC Milan – Internazionale: late Donnarumma error decides lackluster Milan derby (0-1)

This Milan derby was defined by two teams showing up without a clear idea how to create big chances. With the score being 0-0 for a very long time, watching this game felt more like the old Serie A: a defensive stalemate, featuring lots of hard fouls and a heroic striker that decides it in the end.

The game between AC Milan and Internazionale is called Il Derby della Madonnina, because it is a symbolic battle for the statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the Duomo in Milan. Not just three points are at stake in this match, as the city of Milan is still strictly divided in the rossonero (red-black) and nerazzurri (black-blue).

These two clubs share a lot more than just a city and a stadium. They used to be the same club. Internazionale was founded in 1908, after a debate about sticking with strictly talian players. A group of rebellious members did not agree with this and decided to found their own club – hence the name.

Over a hundred years have passed, and irony thrives big time. As we all know, AC Milan’s history was heavily characterized by a very good Swedish trio in the fifties and an even better Dutch trio thirty years after that. But let’s not be petty about that.

If we zoom in on the present, it is clear that Internazionale are experiencing a very weird season. Coming into this derby, they had won six games in a row, without playing actual good football in any of those matches. Like Inter have done all season, they went into the derby in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with arguably their strongest eleven, unhindered by injuries or suspensions.

Under manager Gennaro Gatusso, AC Milan always line up in a 4-3-3 formation that turns into a 4-1-4-1 shape when the opponent has the ball. Where and when Milan press is quite flexible, but if the opponent prefers a passing style build-up, Gatusso mostly prefers a mid-block. A mid block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half.

Inter’s general positioning and movements. Milan’s 4-1-4-1 is displayed.

More intensity than quality
Both teams tried to play out from the back through short passes, but only one team was successful in doing so. Whenever AC Milan was pressed by Inter, they quickly yielded possession or played a fruitless long ball in the general direction of their attackers.

When you play with three attackers – which is basically the case in a 4-2-3-1 – there are a lot of ways to press four defenders that are building up. Inter’s preferred option in the opening phase would be to let a winger come inside and press one of Milan’s central defenders. Should the open fullback be found through a pass, either Giacomo Bonaventura or Franck Kessié would step through and cover him, with Lucas Biglia filling in the space vacated in midfield.

Because AC Milan did not do a lot of pressing themselves, it was Inter that enjoyed most of the ball in the opening phase, albeit mostly in harmless territory. More on their offensive problems later, but it first should be noted that especially in the first half hour, this was not a good match of football.

There were no quick combinations, delicate movements or exciting dribbles on display. The game mostly consisted of hard duels and a lot of running, spurred on by a fiery San Siro stadium. The play had to be stopped several times because of injured players, which was further disrupted an already stuttering rhythm of the match.

This industrious phase was capped off when Inter’s combative number ten Radja Nainggolan had to be substituted after thirty minutes, after a series of fouls by Milan players. Even though the biggest damage he took seemed to be after one of his own fouls on Biglia, he could not finish the match and was replaced by good old Borja Valero.

Brozović is the passing hub, but Inter mainly feed the wingers with vertical passes coming from the fullbacks.

Inter slowly takes over
Inter’s attacking approach is very much based on crossing. Like, a lot of crossing. As everyone who regularly reads this website hopefully knows, crossing the ball is generally one of the least effective ways of scoring goals in football.

That being said, what Inter are very good at is occupying the penalty area and maximizing their chances of profiting from poor clearances and deflections. In the meantime, they make sure not to be vulnerable for counterattacks. Nainggolan and Icardi are always in the box as initial targets for the cross, the winger on the weak side The side of the pitch where the ball is not. The term is related to defenses usually being weaker on this side, since the immediate threat is on the ball side. and midfielder Matías Vecino try to arrive late in the penalty area as well. This means there are four players in the box to jostle for lost balls inside the box.

Just outside of the penalty area, the weak side fullback and Inter’s playmaker Marcelo Brozović position themselves in areas where the second ball might fall. That way, Inter is often able to keep the ball, even after a seemingly failed cross.

As the first half progressed, it gradually became harder for AC Milan to get out of their own half. Crosses would regularly be followed by Inter picking up the second ball and continuing play from there.

There is not a lot to write about in terms of actual goal-scoring chances in the first half, to be quite honest. Both teams had a goal rightly disallowed for offside and Inter’s central defender De Vrij hit the post from a corner kick. There was only one score that justified play half-time: 0-0.

The second half… looks a lot like the first
Both managers did not change anything positionally or in terms of personnel at half-time. To no surprise, the second half looked quite a lot like the first half. AC Milan sat back in their 4-1-4-1 formation and absorbed the crossing, not being able to pose a lot of threat themselves.

Inter struggled to create chances centrally and never aimed to overload Milan anywhere on the field. The fact that Inter’s four starting defenders and deepest midfielder Brozović finished the match as the five players with the most successful passes speaks volumes.

This can still be a good and beneficial statistic, if a lot of those passes by Brozović are played inside Milan’s defensive block to creative players who drift inside and try to create chances from central positions. The fact Brozović and the defenders simply did not have a lot of options to play into, and were forced to circulate the ball outside of Milan’s block was detrimental for Inter’s attacking approach, which became very one-dimensional.

Over the whole match, Milan managed to produce fourteen shots, at a value of only 0.24 Expected Goals. This indicates that on average, their shots had less than two percent chance of going in – some serious ineffective shooting. Their last chance came in the 80th minute, when Suso took a half-volley inside the penalty area, after a rare counterattack.

The introduction to this article promised a heroic deus-ex-machina striker to save the day at the end of the match. That was… not exactly how it unfolded. Even though Mauro Icardi scored the goal that won Inter this game deep in injury time, it was not an act of individual class or a brilliant finish, but rather a severe goalkeeping error.

A cross – of course, a cross –  by Vecino was horribly judged by Milan’s young goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarruma. He offered Mauro Icardi an empty net to head the ball in. If a predator like Icardi gets such a big chance to score a last-minute winner in a derby, he will always take it. 1-0 to Inter in the last minute of the game.

If one team deserved to win this Derby della Madonnina, it probably should have been Inter. No winner at all would have sufficed as well, as all in all, this was a very unspectacular game. It went against the general direction in which the Serie A is heading and as a result, this game felt like a reductionist Italian game from the nineties or early zeroes.

AC Milan are expected to contend for the spot just behind Juventus. With this squad, it remains to be seen if they actually can. Donnarumma should feel a bit worried, since it was not his first (half-)mistake of the season. In Pepe Reina, Milan have an excellent back-up goalkeeper who is more experienced and better with his feet than Donnarumma.

Inter’s season is getting stranger and stranger as time passes by. In all competitions, they have now won seven games in a row – six of those by a single goal – and rank third in the Serie A league table. On Tuesday, FC Barcelona awaits them in the Champions League. If Inter can maintain this curious hot streak they will have nine points from three Champions League matches and look certain to qualify.


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expected goals plots, passmaps and zone 14 and halfspace passmaps.

Erik Elias (29) is co-founder of Between The Posts. Dutch, so admires Johan Cruijff and his football principles, but enjoys other styles as well. [ View all posts ]


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