The second Milan derby of the season sees the city rivals separated by just one point in Serie A. The probable line-ups reflect the tactical changes both clubs have made since their last meeting.
Inter Milan have switched between a 4-3-1-2 system and a 3-5-2 variation all season. Against AC Milan in October Andrea Stramaccioni opted for a back three, but an injury to Walter Samuel has seen Inter persist with a 4-3-1-2 in recent weeks. This is slightly confused by the successful implementation of a 4-2-3-1 shape against CFR Cluj in the Europa League, but against a league rival Inter will probably revert to a more conservative midfield diamond. Rodrigo Palacio should replace the injured Diego Milito in attack alongside Antonio Cassano. In midfield Stramaccioni has a dilemma – he has preferred to play Esteban Cambiasso, Zdravko Kuzmanovic and Walter Gargano behind Fredy Guarin, but the form of Ricardo Alvarez in midweek and the recent signing of Mateo Kovacic brings them into contention. Alvarez, Palacio and Kovacic would all be attacking inclusions, so the addition of any of these players would be a statement of intent from the ‘home’ side. It may be that Stramaccioni opts for caution to start, especially given their capitulation at Fiorentina last weekend.
Milan are returning to league action after their celebrated victory over Barcelona in the Champions League. Massimiliano Allegri has been widely praised for his tactical plan against the Catalans, and will surely want to transfer the team’s performance to Sunday’s derby. The cup-tied Mario Balotelli will return in place of Giampaolo Pazzini in attack, and Allegri may choose to rest others from the energy-sapping Barcelona performance. Massimo Ambrosini may be rested in midfield, while M’Baye Niang could offer a more attacking option to Kevin-Prince Boateng in the front three.
Tactical Comparison: 4-3-1-2 vs 4-1-2-3
The benefits of Inter combating Milan’s 4-1-2-3 with an extra man in midfield is likely to outweigh the temptation to persist with the 4-2-3-1 system used in the Europa League, and Allegri’s dynamic front three should rule out a 3-5-2 system for the hosts. Therefore Stramiccioni’s side will want to maximise their midfield advantage by dominating possession. Milan have an advantage out wide, where Inter’s narrow midfield offer them a chance for their full backs to attack unopposed.
The pattern of the game will centre on who can utilise their strength best, or rather which team can neutralise their opponent’s advantage. Milan will want to keep compact in defence to prevent Inter from dominating possession in midfield. Should Boateng play he will naturally move infield to help out with the midfield battle. Similarly Kevin Constant and Ignazio Abate, Allegri’s spare men in defence, will occasionally be drawn into more central areas and should be prepared to track runs from Stramaccioni’s ‘carrileros’ Cambiasso and Gargano. The reverse is true for Inter. Straccioni’s midfield will need to shuttle laterally across the pitch to prevent Milan’s wingers and full backs outnumbering Yuto Nagatomo and Javier Zanetti on the flanks.
Tactical Adjustments: Inter’s front three
While Milan appear to have good defensive cover for Inter’s attacking trio, the movement of Cassano, Palacio and Guarin will complicate matters. The three players work in unison to engineer space – Cassano and Palacio move laterally to drag the opponent’s centre backs out to the flanks, while Guarin makes direct forward runs to exploit space in the defence.
This can cause Allegri’s team problems as Milan will be looking for Constant and Abate to get forward in support of attacks. Cassano and Palacio will look to exploit this by finding space in behind the full backs, which will create uncertainty in the Milan back line as to how best to mark them – do the centre backs move wide or do the full backs stay back?
Guarin’s verticality will also be a challenge. Riccardo Montolivo was generally the deepest of the three central midfielders against Barcelona, but he is by no means a natural in the role. His preference is to occupy the space between the lines rather than track midfield runners. Against the archetypal advanced midfielder this is suitable – Montolivo has an opponent looking to remain in his vicinity and defensive duties become a matter of shutting down space. Guarin performs the role differently, acting more as a shuttler linking the defensive element of the side with the front two. His aim will be to run through the space guarded by Montolivo rather than loiter in it. Therefore Montolivo has a problem – his natural instinct will be to remain in midfield but his defensive duties will drag him into his defenders. Unless Montolivo delegates the responsibility for Guarin effectively the Inter midfielder may find himself allowed to make forward runs untracked.
Individual Analysis: Inter’s deepest midfielder
The deepest of Inter’s midfield will have a key role to play in ball retention and initiating attacks. This is likely to be Kuzmanovic – the Serbian midfielder has been a regular since his January arrival – but a better passer of the ball may be more appropriate. Unlike most Italian sides Milan’s attacking threat is out wide, so a nominal holding midfielder is less important for Stramaccioni’s side. Instead, given the time likely to be afforded the deepest Inter midfielder, Kuzmanovic is more likely to be influential in an attacking capacity then a defensive one.
Inter have other options for the role, namely Kovacic. Stramaccioni has demonstrated his enthusiasm to include the young playmaker, but Kovacic is more accustomed to a more advanced position than a deep midfield role. Yet Kovacic’s passing qualities may be better suited than Kuzmanovic’s defensive ability. With Inter vulnerable down they flanks they will need to take advantage of their strength through the middle, and a calm, accurate passer would be an asset in a congested midfield.
Inter’s team is designed to control midfield – last weekend their failure to do that against Fiorentina essentially cost them a hold in the game. For Allegri, Milan overcame Barcelona by competing in a congested midfield area against a team lacking attacking width and breaking quickly down the flanks – the same plan could be just as suitable against Inter. So much depends on either sides deepest midfielder – Inter have to use their spare man to initiate attacks, whereas Milan’s will need to defend well against Guarin. Ironically the two managers are likely to have the wrong players – Montolivo would be ideal in a deep playmaking role for Stramaccioni, while Allegri would benefit from Kuzmanovic’s defensive awareness.