Inter Milan's midfield conundrum must be solved before derby
On Sunday evening the city of Milan will be enveloped with feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and excitement as the Derby della Madonnina descends upon the city once more. The 164th Serie A fixture between the two will doubtlessly kick off to a back drop of explosions that echo around the huge concrete pillars of the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. While the Curva Nord will literally bounce to the tune of "Chi non salta Rossonero e" (He who does not jump is a Milan fan) and the choreography will unveil their poignant messages, the game often can seem to be a secondary process. However, it won't be secondary for Inter Milan manager Roberto Mancini, who will be hoping that he has solved his problems in midfield that saw his team torn apart against Juventus in midweek.
The problems against "The Old Lady" were evident from the start. The team looked much too defensive and by the nature of their personnel, they played very deep. Geoffrey Kondogbia, Gary Medel and Felipe Melo invited pressure and left a huge gap between themselves and the front three. When asked to press, they failed to do so in unison or in a structured manner; the result was a nightmare.
The season so far has seen a continued disconnect in the team. While strong defensively, Inter have struggled to supply the wide players and especially forward Mauro Icardi. Even in the games that they have dominated possession (against Atalanta, Genoa and Carpi for example) they have played high up the pitch and simply passed from left to right allowing the opposition to gather en masse behind the ball. This has seen the team exhibit a lack of creativity as they are unable to unlock the defences with any sort of purposeful passing, while remaining vulnerable to the counterattack.
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The evidence for this can be found by watching Inter's main striker. Icardi and especially Stevan Jovetic start in the No. 9 position but soon start to come deep looking for the ball. Mancini screamed at the Montenegrin to stay in position during the recent match in Bergamo but to some extent you cannot blame them. With Ivan Perisic often coming deep to defend, the only outlet seems to be Adem Ljajic, raising the question: why can't Inter's midfield three offer anything innovative or direct?
Kondogbia has been perhaps the biggest disappointment for Mancini so far, as he has only shown glimpses of what he is capable. If ever there has been an example of a player playing with "the brakes on", it is the young Frenchman. He has admitted that he has struggled with the game tactically and that he needs time to adapt; his performances have certainly looked like those of a man with little confidence. He sits very deep and seems reluctant to run forward with the ball, therefore offering little in terms of threat or supply. The disappointment in this is that on the few occasions when he has gotten forward, he has been extremely effective and it is perhaps up to the coach to encourage this.
Both Gary Medel and Felipe Melo can both operate as the holding player and both do their jobs well. Playing them together is yet another headache for Mancini as they again do not offer enough going forward. It is arguable as to whether any game in Serie A necessitates that both of these players be on the field at the same time. What is even more surprising is the lack of playing time Assane Demoya Gnoukouri has had. While he could play alongside Medel and hold, he is also an attacking threat. In the Milan derby in April 2015 the young Ivorian was Inter's metronome in the midfield and managed to supply the wide players with a delectable range of passing. Now it seems that the player's future will be out on loan for the rest of the season, although he is in the squad for Sunday.
How Mancini fixes the problem of the gap between attack and midfield and therefore supply does not lie in the transfer market. New arrival Eder will be no good to Inter if they cannot get him the ball. The Nerazzurri do have players who can help the coach with this problem, especially in the form of Ljajic and Marcelo Brozovic, as both have produced some excellent displays this season. It seems that the 51-year-old coach is now looking to these players for the derby, to try and control the middle of the pitch and create.
Mancini was asked in his news conference after the Juve loss about his midfield on more than one occasion and the coach hinted that bringing more players is not the solution, arguing that Inter led the pack until Christmas so they must have been doing something right. Gazzetta dello Sport has also predicted a shift in the coach's thought process and the daily has predicted that Mancini will field a 4-3-3, with a midfield consisting of Brozovic, Medel and Kondogbia. Ljajic will supposedly feature on the wing with Jonathan Biabiany on the other side but the Serbian is also effective in the Trequartista role if needed.
While the Derby can often be overshadowed by the incredible atmosphere that surrounds it, there will be no hiding place for Inter on Sunday. Their poor form in January has thrown up questions, not just about style and effectiveness of the system and individuals, but also about the coach's ability to fix them. While the likes of Ljajic and Brozovic have shown that they are perhaps Inter's two most creative players, just throwing them in will not work. Mancini now has to see how he can utilize them as part of his offensive strategy. If not, then it is simply throwing paint at a canvas and hoping it creates a picture.
Richard Hall is an Italian football writer contributing to ESPN, The Guardian, Daily Mail, IBWM and Football Italia. Follow him on Twitter @Gentleman_Ultra.