Internazionale – Empoli FC: Inter Scrape Together Champions League Ticket, Relegating Empoli Along The Way (2-1)
Inter piled the pressure on Empoli in the first half, mainly with crosses and long shots, without coming close to scoring. Empoli themselves were quite brave in possession and put together some nice attacks of their own, but Inter were able to take the lead early in the second half. After Empoli’s equalizer it looked as if Inter’s top four hopes were in real trouble, until Radja Nainggolan scored a dramatic winner in the final ten minutes.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
Inter knew that a win in this game would ensure Champions League qualification for next season. Coach Luciano Spalletti made three changes from last week’s 4-1 defeat at Napoli. Stefan de Vrij came in at center-back in place of Miranda, Matías Vecino replaced Roberto Gagliardini in central midfield and Mauro Icardi was restored as the striker as youngster Lautaro Martínez dropped to the bench.
Some voices in the game have stated that the pressure to battle relegation is a lot more stressful than competing for a title or European tickets. Prior to this game, Empoli had gone on a run of three wins in a row, as they tried to dig themselves out of relegation trouble. In order to avoid the Serie B, they would have to match the result of Genoa, who were playing away at Fiorentina. Coach Aurelio Andreazzoli named an unchanged starting eleven, compared to the one that beat Torino 4-1 last time out.
Inter bombard Empoli area, fail to score
Inter’s 4-2-3-1 formation was interestingly somewhat asymmetrical when they had possession. Firstly because of the positioning of the fullbacks, where Danilo D’Ambrosio as the right back would usually stay deeper and tuck in closer to his center-backs. Meanwhile on the other side, Kwadwo Asamoah had quite an attacking role and was in large part responsible for providing width and overlapping When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. runs on the left.
Inter’s asymmetric way of building up against Empoli’s 5-3-2 formation.
The behavior of the fullbacks fit that of the wingers. Matteo Politano on the right wing usually stayed wider and sought out one-versus-one opportunities against his opponents, from which point he would sometimes cut inside. On the other flank, Ivan Perišic played more as an inside forward, drifting inside and joining Mauro Icardi in the box, leaving space for Asamoah to surge into.
In midfield, Marcelo Brozović usually acted as the deepest midfielder sitting in central areas in front of the defense. Matías Vecino and Radja Nainggolan were given more mobile roles. Vecino sometimes drifted quite far out to the right, but also swapped positions with Nainggolan on some occasions, while also making late runs into the penalty box whenever possible. Nainggolan also looked to make runs into the box, but would also drop either side of Brozović to receive the ball in deeper areas.
On the defensive side, Empoli played in a 5-3-2 out of possession and were passive. Instead of pressing high up, they allowed themselves to fall into a low block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. With their narrow three man midfield, they allowed Inter to easily progress the ball through the wings, and with relatively little effort, Inter could find themselves pinning Empoli back and attacking the corners of Empoli’s box.
The space enjoyed by Inter in wide areas meant that they had plenty of opportunities to get crosses into the box, as they have done all season long. But these were generally cleared away by Empoli, as their three center-backs offered them a strong penalty area presence, as well as the three midfielders recovering to the edge of the box, the central areas were very crowded for Inter to attack.
The fact Empoli defended deep with low pressure on the ball also meant that Inter were encouraged to take shots from distance. These shots are statistically quite inefficient, but in the first half, Inter forced the Empoli goalkeeper to be alert and make some good saves due to the space they were being afforded to shoot from distance.
Overall, Inter dominated the first half against the passive defending of Empoli, but some resilient emergency defending and goalkeeping in a crowded penalty box meant that Empoli were able to get through to half time without conceding.
Spalletti’s substitution is decisive
Spalletti decided to add another attacking threat to the game with the introduction of Keita Baldé in place of Asamoah. This substitute meant that Perišić moved to left back so that Baldé could occupy the left wing. While gambling with Perišic at left back was a risk, it also made some sense given Inter’s domination in the first half where aside from a few Empoli counterattacks Inter had little defending to do.
It did not take long for Baldé to have an impact; early in the second half his low, powerful strike from just outside the box found its way past Bartlomiej Dragowski in the Empoli goal who had pulled off some good saves up until that point.
Inter had a chance to extend their lead ten minutes later, but Dragowski continued to be decisive in the game as he was able to save Icardi’s disappointing penalty to keep Inter’s lead to just one goal. Reminiscent of his display against Atalanta Bergamo, the goalkeeper offered another great performance between the sticks.
Empoli brave in possession
Although Empoli’s defensive approach in the first half especially was quite passive, their possession play throughout the game was actually quite brave and ambitious. Once they got the ball, Andreazzoli’s team played much more constructively than one might expect for a relegation threatened team away at Inter.
They tried to play out from the back in their 3-5-2 shape, using third man runs A passing combination between two players, while a third player simultaneously makes a run, usually in behind the opponent’s defensive line. After the initial combination, the ball is quickly played in depth for the third player to run onto. in particular to try and progress the ball upfield. Key to their possession play was their deepest midfielder Ismaël Bennacer who provided a composed presence in the center of the pitch and acted as a linking pin to connect the whole team.
Empoli’s possession game was also risky. Inter’s 4-2-3-1 shape matched up against Empoli’s midfield three, meaning that Empoli’s closest passing options were usually pressured. Empoli had some ball losses in their own half which on another day may have been punished more harshly.
Empoli’s best moments came when they got the ball quickly into the feet of their two strikers, who linked up together very well with one and two touch combinations, as well as bringing midfielders into play. A key figure in this was Hamed Traoré who provided a dangerous presence driving forward from midfield to join the strikers.
Traoré’s prominence in the attack was demonstrated in Empoli’s goal, as he arrived at the back post to tap in their equalizer with fifteen minutes left to play, after a well-worked move down the right side of the pitch.
Inter prevail despite late Empoli surge
Empoli’s joy did not last for long though, as within five minutes Inter had replied through Nainggolan’s finish into an open goal after Icardi’s shot rebounded off the post.
Inter then largely sat back to defend their lead against a sudden attacking wave of Empoli, who knew that a defeat would see them relegated, as Genoa were drawing 0-0 at Fiorentina. They came very close to scoring. Striker Francesco Caputo fired the ball across the Inter six yard box, forcing D’Ambrosio to make a block which ended up with the ball hitting the Inter crossbar in order to prevent another Empoli tap in at the far post. Substitute Salih Uçan also missed a decent chance one-on-one with Samir Handanović.
There was further drama in stoppage time. Empoli’s goalkeeper Dragowski continued to be a protagonist in the game, this time going up for a corner as his team desperately looked for an equaliser. The ball was cleared, and Inter brought the ball up the pitch with the Empoli goal empty. Brozović’s controlled striker from his own half found the back of the empty net, and Inter thought they had sealed the game. However, upon VAR inspection it was seen that Keita Baldé had fouled Dragowski off the ball as he tried to get back, the goal was chalked off and Baldé given his second booking.
Inter were nevertheless able to hold onto their win and secure Champions League football for the second season running. Overall Inter deserved the win, even if they did ride their luck in certain incidents such as D’Ambrosio hitting his own crossbar in the late stages of the game.
The draw for Genoa against Fiorentina sealed Empoli’s fate as they were not able to find an equalizer against Inter. Their performance in this game, and in the second half of the season, deserves a bit of credit at least. They allowed Inter a lot of shots and relied on good goalkeeping to stay in the game, but their adventurous attitude in possession led to some nice combination play in forward areas to create chances, and they played their part in making the game an entertaining end to the Serie A season.
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