With Inter and Milan locking horns in the latest instalment of the Derby Della Madonnina in match-day 23, both sides will be going in with differing objectives.
On one hand, Antonio Conte’s men, the official ‘anti-Juve’, will be looking to keep pace at the top with the Italian champions while the rossoneri will be eager to close down a seven-point gap between them and top four.
While earlier in the season it looked like Milan would be in for another indifferent year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival has coincided with a return to form. Since their 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Atalanta, Pioli’s men are unbeaten in their last seven in all competitions. Inter, by contrast, have struggled since the turn of the new year and have drawn three of their last four Serie A clashes.
Here are three things to look out for on Sunday!
1) Midfield battle – Conte’s 3-5-2 vs. Pioli’s 4-4-2.
Since assuming the reins, Pioli has implemented a basic 4-4-2 formation and is slowly getting the most from some of the club’s misfiring players, including Ante Rebić and Samu Castillejo. While the results have been there, Milan, at times, have been overrun in the midfield as Pioli’s 4-4-2 is rather flat. Against Brescia, for example, Milan were left exposed and were lucky to walk away with all three points.
As has been the case since he’s coached Juve, Conte tends to load up the middle with three midfielders, one regista and two mezz’ale, who tend to do most of the running and offer defensive cover between the lines. In possession, these interior midfielders like to sit in half-spaces in the final third to receive the ball in dangerous areas.
Christian Eriksen’s arrival will only help in this respect and the Danish international will be licking his lips at the prospect of carving open the rossoneri’s rearguard. If Milan are to have a shot in this game, Pioli will need to alter his tactical setup and ensure Inter don’t gain numerical superiority in the middle of the park all-while keeping a particular focus on Eriksen who will likely be fielded right behind both strikers.
2) Christian Eriksen – 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2? Trequartista or mezz’ala?
The worst-kept secret of the January mercato was Eriksen’s transfer to Inter, but after weeks of rumors, it finally got done. Now that he’s with the nerazzurri, however, question marks remain over where he will feature. In his first appearances with the club, Conte has altered his preferred 3-5-2 for a more fluid 3-4-1-2 with Eriksen occupying the trequartista role behind the strikers.
In the past, Conte has been reluctant to shift away from his rigid shape and typically perservered with his tried-and-tested 3-5-2. When he had Pirlo, Vidal, Marchisio and Pogba at Juve, it was the Frenchman who, at times, featured higher up the pitch in a 3-5-1-1. While it’s unlikely he does that with Eriksen, it remains a possibility.
The Derby della Madonnina will be the first real test for an Eriksen-led Inter and it will be interesting if Conte persists with him in an advanced role. After all, a mezz’ala role doesn’t exactly suit the former Tottenham man and isn’t why he was signed. With a big three points up for grabs, Eriksen is definitely one to watch.
3) Ibrahimovic-Leao face their first real test.
Since Ibrahimovic’s arrival, the big Swede has formed an effective partnership with Rafael Leão and the duo have established themselves as Pioli’s undisputed front-two. With the former PSG man holding up play, Leão plays in a support role and makes the most of his turn of pace and ability to take on his man. Until now, Milan have had success with the Leão-Ibra partnership, but they have yet to be put to the test by an elite defence.
Taking nothing away from their opponents, Milan have played Cagliari, SPAL, Udinese, Brescia, Torino, and Verona. While each side represents their own challenges, none of them, bar Verona, come close to Inter when it comes to defensive solidity. It will be interesting to see the Ibra-Leão partnership go to work against Conte’s back-three in what is undoubtedly their first real test since coming to be.
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