Internazionale – Liverpool: Sagacious Set-pieces Sting San Siro To Complete Italian Job (0-2)
Inter Milan might be short on experience of late at this stage of the Champions League, but they rose to the occasion to go toe to toe with their illustrious guests. Were it not for Liverpool’s rock at the back, we might have been telling a very different story. However, riding out the storm, a fatal weapon from the Reds struck twice to transform the complexion of this enthralling duel.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
The renaissance of Inter Milan takes its next significant step. The Scudetto holders have fortified their stronghold in Italy. Winning their first Serie A title since the historic treble of 2010 last year, they are duking it out with AC Milan to take the top spot for the second year on the spin. But where Antonio Conte had broken the curse, Simone Inzaghi has been cementing favorable auspices. Entry to the last sixteen has ended a decade long drought. Could his men push their luck against one of Europe’s best?
An emblem of excellence, Liverpool have been in a formidable run of form. Just about in reach of an imperious Manchester City outfit, Jürgen Klopp’s men still hold a stake in four trophies: a credit to their resurgence from a campaign beset with injury. But to make their way back to the summit of European football, the away team will be keen to go deep in the Champions League. A strong result would lay down the first marker to advancing beyond the quarter-final stage they reached in 2021.
Offering continuity from Conte, Inzaghi did not deviate from his usual 3-5-2 formation. The Inter manager made a pair of changes to the starting eleven that drew 1-1 last time out with Napoli. At the back, Alessandro Bastoni had missed out on the weekend due to an ankle sprain but fought his way back from injury to play. Another pillar, Nicolò Barella, was absent with a suspension he picked up from a group stage red card against Real Madrid. Arturo Vidal deputized in the middle of the park.
Likewise, from the other dugout, Klopp stuck to a 4-3-3 shape. Overseeing a narrow 1-0 win over Burnley on the road, he rotated more heavily. A straight swap at the heart of the back four saw Joël Matip make way for Ibrahima Konaté. Diogo Jota replaced Roberto Firmino in the middle of the front three, and Thiago Alcântara stepped into the midfield. But the most striking name was that of Harvey Elliot, who would feature a mere ten days after his return to action in the FA Cup against Cardiff City.
Last stand rectifies reactive rearguard
Fresh from pressing issues against Napoli, the hosts were keen not to let lightning strike twice. Facing a team whose dynamic frontline could punish similar errors, Inter set up with more clarity off the ball.
Riddle (https://t.co/kX4XxCeB3t) solved:— Dario Pergolizzi (@dariopergolizzi) February 17, 2022
High&tight man-oriented pressing with both WBs going for LFC FBs on ballside, while giving cover in defensive line ball-far. Remarkable solution: Brozovic on Fabinho allowed for less swaps and intensity preservation. Simple&aggressive. https://t.co/SBhoCFcOmN
Still operating from a 3-5-2 shape, Inzaghi’s troops went man-for-man. Both wing-backs were mainly responsible for tracking the fullbacks. The marking was prominent in the middle of the park. From the base of the midfield, Marcelo Brozović moved higher, orienting himself to Fabinho. The two eights to either side of him locked onto their opposite men. Therefore, a 3-on-3 frequently emerged at the back.
However, Inzaghi’s men did not always handle the threat ideally. An asymmetry in the midfield, placing Elliott higher up the pitch, and the sharp movement of the front three, let the visitors break into the box with relative ease. But clear cut shots at goal were harder to come by. Making a frantic last stand in the penalty area, the central defenders denied Liverpool at the last hurdle time and again.
Liverpool’s lively press
Perhaps the most dominant tactical battle in the first half pitted Inter’s buildup against Liverpool’s pressing scheme. Usual principles manifested from their 4-3-3 formation. Through the middle of the front three, Jota shadowed the central option in the form of Brozović. The two wingers narrowed off but still sought to cover the outward passing lanes. The eights either moved forward to control Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Vidal or slid out to the flanks if a pass went through the ball near winger. So, a compact central block, supple with midfield support, formed to stifle any play out from the back.
Inter’s flexible play on the ball grounded itself in a set of core concepts. From the back, the three central defenders did not line up symmetrically. Instead, the chain tilted to the left, giving Bastoni the license to operate as if he were a fullback. Multiple men can then drop into the first line of the buildup to create a base of four. Mainly Brozović or Vidal fulfilled this role. Further rotations on the flanks and multiple reconfigurations among the back three gifted Inzaghi’s men a high level of variability.
8th minute: pressing sequence from Liverpool. Jota stays deep to block the passing lane to Brozović, while Mané stands near to Škriniar, trapping the play in a controlled zone from which Elliott can shift horizontally were Vidal to receive the ball. Salah’s arcuate sprint forces de Vrij inward. The central defender seeks a line breaking pass into Edin Džeko, but the pass flicks off Jota to trickle to Fabinho.
But the hosts did not find the right set of tools to crack the press. Çalhanoğlu came closest to breaking the deadlock with a strike that rattled the crossbar, but a tense stalemate had manifested at the break.
Klopp was the first to turn to his bench, albeit out of compulsion. Jota suffered a blow that dealt him a swollen ankle, cutting short his night. Firmino took his place in the frontline, seeking to generate more control in the middle of the park. But it was Inter that flew out of the traps to kick off the second half.
Above all, the home team focused more strategically on diagonal switches to unleash Ivan Perišić in the final third. The potential of Bastoni’s asymmetrical role to pin Salah as a means of breaking down the left came into fruition, and the wing-back shone as a deliverer of crosses, giving Trent Alexander-Arnold a tricky night. Once Inzaghi’s men passed the halfway line, four or even five men loaded Liverpool’s back four, pinning the guests back for around a quarter of an hour. The sterling work of the central defenders was a vital bulwark to weather the storm. Klopp then looked to play his part.
Klopp stems the tide
The manager made a triple substitution. Jordan Henderson assumed responsibility for the armband, coming on for Fabinho. Naby Keïta replaced Elliot in midfield, and Mané made way for Luis Díaz.
The alterations let Liverpool settle the play much more. Keïta interpreted his role less aggressively than Elliot, while Firmino’s roaming role from the center of the field generated superiorities behind Brozović. Klopp’s men had not wrestled full control over the game, but their class would soon strike.
Robertson whipped in an inswinging delivery from a corner on the right flank towards the edge of the six yard box. Firmino had raced across his marker, Bastoni, deftly glancing a header to the far post. Samir Handanović dived in vain along the goal line, unable to stop Liverpool from taking the lead.
To make matters worse, they struck once more in the 83rd minute. Again a set-piece provided the context for the goal. From the second phase of a free kick, a cross from Alexander-Arnold found Van Dijk, who won the first ball, nodding down the ball towards the edge of the box. His compatriot, de Vrij, shanked a clearance, sending the play into the path of Salah. His strike bitterly ricocheted its way beyond the goalkeeper to double the away team’s lead. The Italians now have a mountain to climb.
Inzaghi’s men were victims of a painful reminder of the caliber of outfit one can face in the knockout stages of the Champions League. The phase at the start of the second half was where they ought to have made their superiority count on the scoreline. Yet, notwithstanding the final margin of defeat, they ended the game having still lived up to their part in producing a competitive fixture.
Liverpool pulled through to secure a result indicative of their recent European pedigree. Not only did Klopp notice and react to the swing in momentum that Inter experienced after the restart, but also his men grounded their advantage in this tie in rehearsal of the art of marginal gains. It is not the first time that a tight duel has gone their way on account of set-pieces, underscoring once more the centrality of fine details at the highest level. The contest is far from over, but the bulwark of a two goal lead has given the side an ideal platform from which they can move on into the last eight of this competition.
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