In the reverse fixture earlier in the season, Inter Milan manager Andrea Stramaccioni selected an ambitious 3-4-3 shape that succeeded in bringing Juventus’ 49 game unbeaten run in the league to an end. It must be tempting for Stramaccioni to attempt the same tactic, but their 4-1 Europa League victory over Tottenham may give him a dilemma. Inter have appeared keen on playing a 4-3-1-2 shape for some time, and their victory over Spurs may have been their best performance in the formation this season. Therefore Stramaccioni can stick or twist – look to build on a strong performance in a familiar system, or switch back to the game plan that worked once before. Whatever shape they play, Diego Milito’s injury means Antonio Cassano will lead the line, supported by two of Rodrigo Palacio, Fredy Guarin and Ricardo Alvarez. In defence Yuto Nagatomo will compete with Alvaro Pereira for the left back position, while Walter Samuel’s return from injury means that he will compete with Cristian Chivu to replace Juan Jesus alongside Andrea Ranocchia in defence.
Antonio Conte will have one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League Quarter Final against Bayern Munich, but has rarely rotated anywhere other than his forward line. Mirko Vucinic and Alessandro Matri have emerged as Conte’s pairing of choice, but Sebastian Giovinco offers an alternative option. With Juventus enjoying a nine point lead at the top of Serie A Conte can afford to let his attention drift to Europe, but will likely want to avenge their previous defeat.
As Stamaccioni will have to choose between Inter’s customary 4-3-1-2 system or reverting to a 3-4-2-1 shape, both options will be assessed.
Inter’s 3-4-2-1 vs Juventus’ 3-1-4-2
In November Inter caused a huge upset by beating the champions in their new stadium for the first time. Stramaccioni’s success was largely down to a fluid front three that offered attacking width and aggressively pressed the home side’s three-man defence. Milito played as a central target man with Cassano attacking the left channel and Palacio the right. Guarin was then introduced after half time to play closer to Andrea Pirlo, who was enjoying too much freedom. In the centre of the pitch Inter’s two-man midfield competed well with Juventus’ pair, just as the four wing backs countered each other out wide. In defence Inter retained a spare man against Vucinic and Giovinco.
Stramaccioni may concede that the success of the forward line came in two stages. With a classic front three starting the game Inter were able to press Juventus high up the pitch, but Pirlo enjoyed time in possession when he found himself on the ball. Guarin’s introduction behind a front two saw this problem corrected but at the expense of pressing Juventus’ defence 3vs3. With Milito injured Stramaccioni will have to play Cassano in the central role, but will have to choose between Guarin and Alvarez to play alongside Palacio. Guarin would offer energy in central areas that will help combat Pirlo, whilst Palacio would offer more natural width. Stramaccioni may opt for a blend of the two tactics – by fielding both Guarin and Palacio either side of Cassano he still has two players comfortable moving wide and stretching the Juventus back line, but also includes the energy and central positioning of Guarin to counter the opponent’s key playmaker.
Elsewhere Inter have players remarkably suited to countering the threat of Conte’s side. Esteban Cambiasso and Walter Gargano are one of the few Serie A midfield combinations capable of matching the strength and energy of Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal. Out wide Nagatomo and Pereira are both more comfortable as wing backs than full backs and should offer Stephen Lichtsteiner a genuine opponent, whilst the ageless Javier Zanetti has the experience to frustrate Kwadwo Asamoah. Finally Chivu, Samuel and Ranocchia are all comfortable in a back three.
Conte is used to teams matching Juventus’ shape with a 3-4-3/3-5-2 variation of their own, and will surely have learned from their previous meeting, but will still rely on the deepest four players having the ability to engineer space for themselves from where to launch attacks.
Inter’s 4-3-1-2 vs Juventus’ 3-1-4-2
Alternatively Stramaccioni could look to build on the Tottenham performance and continue with his 4-3-1-2 system. The victory may not have kept Inter in Europe, but it did demonstrate a balance in midfield and fluidity in attack that has often been missing in Stramaccioni’s side this season. The system has selection benefits – with Palacio alongside there would be less pressure on Cassano replacing Milito as the main goal threat, while Samuel wouldn’t need to be rushed back if he isn’t considered fully fit, with Chivu able to line up alongside Ranocchia. In attack the tactic has the same benefits as the 3-4-3 option – Guarin is likely to be selected over Alvarez to occupy Pirlo, whilst Palacio and Cassano will work the channels to pull Juventus’ centre backs out of position. However elsewhere the balance changes, and Inter’s extra strength in central midfield is compensated by a vulnerability in defence and out wide.
Inter’s midfield diamond would give Stramaccioni an extra man in the centre of the pitch, which may allow the home side more time in possession. With Cambiasso and Gargano tasked with engaging Marchisio and Vidal, Inter can choose between Mateo Kovacic and Zdravko Kuzmanovic to play as the spare man. Kovacic is the more attacking option and would offer a creative presence at the base of the midfield, whilst Kuzmanovic would operate as an extra ball winner. Much would be determined by the influence of Juventus’ wing backs on Inter’s midfield formation. If Cambiasso and Gargano are constantly dragged wide to combat Asamoah and Lichtsteiner, then Kuzmanovic would arguably be more useful against Juventus’ midfield pair. Alternatively if Inter’s full backs are brave with their positioning and able to close down the opposing wing backs, allowing the midfield trio to remain central, Kovacic would be more useful as a deep playmaker.
In defence Inter find themselves without a spare man. Both centre backs would be occupied by the constant movement of Juventus’ forwards, leaving Nagatomo and Zanetti to decide whether to stay in line or move forward to engage the wing backs. The former ensures greater defensive solidity but at the cost of giving up the midfield battle, whereas latter would help the midfield battle, but leave the centre backs exposed.
This game should answer two question: the first is whether Stramaccioni feels that his team is strong enough to compete with the league’s leaders without resorting to a specialised game plan; the second is whether Conte can adapt to an aggressive pressing game and find a way to engineer space for Pirlo. This is a far more important game for Inter than Juventus – the home side have the chance to get themselves back into European contention, while Tuesday’s match against Bayern Munich will be Conte’s real focus. Stramaccioni has come under fire for his tactical tinkering all season, but his victory over Conte in November will still be a source of pride. Should he attempt it again and succeed he will once again prove his tactical qualities, yet there is surely also benefit in identifying a preferred style from which to develop. This game is more than chance a chance for three points for Stramaccioni – it might just define his season.