Internazionale – Barcelona: Barcelona Unable To Unlock Compact Inter (1-0)

Barcelona dominated possession here but struggled to get through Inter’s compact 5-3-2 shape, finding themselves with a lot of u-shaped circulation. Hakan Çalhanoğlu netted from range at the end of the first half, which left Barcelona chasing the game against a defensive scheme that they ultimately did not have the answers to.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

Inter came into this key Champions League Group Stage match with some troubling recent form, having lost successive Serie A matches against Udinese and Roma. They were also beaten at home by Bayern Munich in their first Champions League game of the season before managing a 2-0 win over Viktoria Plzen last time out. With trips to the Allianz Arena and Camp Nou looming, this home match against Barcelona took on a lot of importance.

Simone Inzaghi was without the likes of Marcelo Brozović and Romelu Lukaku for this match. Nevertheless, Inter lined up in their 3-5-2 system, with a back three of Milan Škriniar, Stefan de Vrij, Alessandro Bastoni, flanked by wing-backs Matteo Darmian and Federico Dimarco. Nicolò Barella, Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were the midfield three, while Joaquín Correa partnered Lautaro Martínez up front.

Barcelona’s defeat against Bayern Munich last time out in the Champions League was one of only two matches that they have failed to win in all competitions prior to this game. Against Bayern, their high pressing approach had shown good promise, and Barcelona could have gone ahead in the first half with some better finishing.

Xavi’s side lined up in a 4-3-3 shape here, with Sergi Roberto starting at right back, while Marcos Alonso was on the left. Andreas Christensen and Eric García were the center-backs, with Sergio Busquets in the number six role ahead of them. Gavi and Pedri were ahead of Busquets in central midfield, behind a dangerous looking front three of Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski and Ousmane Dembélé.

Cagey first half

The first half of this match was fairly tight between the two teams. The basic pattern of the game saw Inter in a low block against Barcelona’s possession game. The away side found circulation easy but struggled to move the ball into the most dangerous areas.

Inter were set up in a 5-3-2 defensive scheme and were fairly passive with their pressing. Against this, Barcelona’s nominal 4-3-3 shape transformed into a slightly asymmetric 3-2-4-1 arrangement, with Roberto playing a slightly more advanced variant of a right center-back position, while Alonso pushed up high on the left wing and Raphinha moved into the left halfspace.

Pedri balanced this by remaining deeper alongside Busquets, while Gavi pushed up in the right halfspace as Dembélé held the width. Plenty of circulation took place over the right side for Barcelona, as Roberto would push up into the space outside Inter’s strikers.

Barcelona found it easy to get into these positions, but could not move the ball into the truly dangerous areas. 

The right halfspace was relatively low-pressure for Barcelona as Mkhitaryan, Inter’s midfielder on this side, was somewhat tied back by Gavi’s advances. They also sought to isolate Dembélé against Dimarco often, although the left wing-back carried out his duties well in these situations.

Pedri also looked to drop out deeper into the left halfspace for similar reasons as Roberto on the right, as these were quite spacious areas for Barcelona. Despite the ease of circulation for Barcelona at the edges of Inter’s defensive block, moving the ball into dangerous areas became a challenge as Inter’s central defensive and midfield units were compact at the edges of the penalty box, making it hard for Barcelona to get free there.

Inter hold strong

Despite being pinned in their own half for much of the first period, Inter managed to take the lead just before the interval thanks to Çalhanoğlu’s pinpoint accurate strike from outside the box which found the bottom corner of the Barcelona net.

This set up a second half where Inter would sink deeper into their defensive stance while Barcelona looked to push on as they chased the game. Roberto and Pedri’s positions and movements in the halfspaces became more aggressive and Barcelona’s center-backs were sometimes positioned well inside the Inter half.

The pattern was essentially a more extreme version of what was seen in the first half, and had much the same outcome. Barcelona had plenty of circulation at the edges of Inter’s formation but lacked a cutting edge.

There were early second half substitutions for both sides as Edin Džeko replaced Correa and Gerard Piqué replaced Christensen. Xavi also sought to shake up the left side of the pitch around the hour mark, bringing Alonso and Raphinha off and introducing Alejandro Balde and Ansu Fati in their place.

Barcelona’s passmap tells a story of u-shaped circulation.

Fati was able to create a bit more danger for the Inter defense from this position than Raphinha had. The Brazilian had looked somewhat uncomfortable with the way he was integrated in this system throughout the game, struggling to bring his strengths in the left halfspace as he usually prefers to play from the right. He did get to play some minutes from the right as him and Dembélé swapped sides early in the half, before Xavi decided different personnel was needed.

A few minutes after being introduced, Fati was involved in a key incident as he inadvertently handballed in the buildup to a goal from Pedri, which was eventually ruled out by VAR. This situation had resulted from a cross swung into the box, which was pretty much Barcelona’s main way of threatening the Inter defense since they struggled to play through the compactness. This was particularly the case on the right side where Dembélé had the potential to put good deliveries into the box, supported by Roberto running from deep.

Inter made their own changes with around fifteen minutes of normal time left, freshening up their backline with the trio of Denzel Dumfries, Francesco Acerbi and Robin Gosens who replaced Darmian, De Vrij and Dimarco.

Barcelona continued pushing but were unable to really force the issue against a resolute Inter defense, with the away side only managing two attempts at goal in the second half, and seven in the entire match.


Inter were happy to give up possession and territory in order to remain compact defensively, and on this occasion it paid off. They did not create much throughout the game, but Çalhanoğlu’s quality from outside the box made the difference for them.

Barcelona meanwhile struggled to create tempo offensively here. They often found themselves with attacking players dropping outside Inter’s defensive shape and lacked presence against Inter’s defensive line at times.

This result leaves Xavi’s team in a difficult position in the group with three points against Inter’s six and Bayern’s nine. The one upside for Barcelona is that they will be the home team this time around for the big matches against Inter and Bayern coming up. They will need to make this home advantage count if they want to progress from this group. 

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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