Wednesday’s Champions League encounter at the San Siro had been billed as Rafa Benitez’s last chance. The last game he had before owner Massimo Moratti would put him to the sword in the hope of rescuing what has so far been a tumultuous season. In the end they secured a place in the Champions League knock out rounds following a nervous 1-0 victory at home to Dutch champions Twente Enschede. The deciding goal scored by Esteban Cambiasso in the 56th minute, ironically the player rumoured to have asked Moratti to find a way to get rid of Benitez just a few weeks ago.
The pressure on Rafa Benitez’s shoulder has been steadily mounting. In the early season exchanges he appeared to have revolutionised Inter’s style of play – making them a thoroughly exciting, attacking team to watch while maintaining the results that have been consistent for some 5 seasons. This was all going on while Liverpool, his former club, wept his departure together with the arrival of Grandad Hodgson; Benitez was of course still to blame for that catastrophe. Since those early exchanges things have taken a turn for the worse for Benitez and he was left with 2 games to save his job. He lost the first, which brings us nicely onto Wednesday evening’s events.
A mere cursory glance at the starting line up gives us an indication of the kind of trouble that Inter are currently in. A back line composed of Ivan Cordoba, Lucio, Marco Materazzi and Javier Zanetti hardly inspires confidence when the side require a win to keep up with Tottenham Hotspur in the group. Cordoba was selected ahead of David Santon – on the bench – after the young full back has failed to really kick on after showing signs of early promise and an abhorrently poor display against Chievo on Sunday.
Looking at the bench proved to be even more worrying, only Thiago Motta and David Santon played any sort of role in the treble winning side of last season. The depleted squad have had to call on players with no experience at league level, never mind in the Champions League. The Inter benched comprised of youngsters including Biraghi (18), Crisetig (17), Nwankwo (19) and Natalino (18) all of whom have made just 4 first team appearances between them.
With the prospect of such aged full backs, Benitez deployed Inter as a 4-2-4 with Eto’o and Biabiany on the wings and Pandev and Sneijder operating in the central areas. The attempt to provide width using only his forward players required a great deal of discipline from Eto’o and Biabiany. Any deviation from their flanks would make the side very narrow going forward and easy to stifle. In the first half Inter’s play was focused down the left hand flank – combination play between Sneijder and Eto’o helping to maintain possession in Twente’s final third.
This can be seen in the chalkboard above. First of all, we can see that Eto’o receives all of his passes in the wide left channel. We can also see from the first half passes made by Inter that there is a heavy bias toward the left flank; indeed during the game Pandev was largely anonymous in the first half. Despite lots of possession high up on the left flank, there was rarely a ball available into the box and only 7 crosses were attempted in the first half.
In the second half we saw Inter spread the ball a little more evenly across the playing surface, Biabiany and Pandev became slightly more involved in the build up play but they were still rarely at the heart of the action. The goal itself came in the 55th minute from a set piece, Sneijder blasted a free kick into the wall and Esteban Cambiasso reacted to the the multiple ricochets to fire home from about 10 yards out. Cambiasso was unmarked after having hid behind the wall prior to the free kick, Twente could’ve done much better with that despite the fortunate dropping of the ball.
Despite eventually taking the lead Inter were never comfortable in either half, Twente had their fair share of possession and threatened to score on numerous occasions – Castellazzi and the woodwork coming to the rescue of the Milanese a number of times. However, the telling statistic is that Inter had 3 times as many attempts (27 vs 9) and they had 9 shots on target. Twente had few shots and when they did arrive they were not particularly potent or accurate (barring the couple that hit the crossbar).
The formation used by Inter (4-2-4) allowed them to keep the Twente defence occupied for the majority of the game, but it also gave their own players plenty of work to do. The formation requires an incredible amount of technical ability to be shown by the players at the centre of the action – Stankovic and Cambiasso in this case. Cambiasso focused his passing to the left flank, and from a slightly deeper position, compared to Stankovic who sat just ahead of the centre circle and spread play to both flanks. Both players will have had lots of work to do when defending because they were essentially outnumbered by Twente’s 4-2-3-1.
It was no surprise to see Stankovic had completed the 2nd highest number of passes (50), surprisingly behind Samuel Eto’o who attempted 53 but completed some 13% less than Stankovic.
Benitez was correct in his pre-match prediction, Inter did not lose. However, the manner of the victory left much to be desired. Despite fielding what has inherently been regarding as an ultra attacking formation there was little fire power behind the Inter win, mostly due to some defensive frailty. Inter fans and Rafa sympathisers will hopefully forgive me for saying that this was one of the most boring 4-2-4 performances I have ever witnessed, but at least Rafa is getting the job done.
The headlines in the papers a few weeks ago were asking if Benitez would be eating his panettone – will he still be in a job at Christmas? I think he will, purely because of the circumstances he finds himself in. Injuries and lack of additions in the summer have not given him the best conditions to work in, but a workman should never blame their tools.