From the Touchline: Pioli Gambles on Inter Beating Juventus At Their Own Game

Serie A

Stefan Pioli had a good problem on his hands. His Inter club was in form. The doldrums of earlier in the season were gone and the Nerazzurri had climbed to within points of a Champions League place. Standing in their way to reclaiming their usual spot as a scudetto contender was their nemesis Juventus. This chapter of the Derby d’Italia would impact the title race, although Juventus entered the match simply seeking to maintain their lead in first. It also had an element of revenge, since Inter had won the first match-up in September.

When planning the match strategy against Juve, Pioli probably knew simply sitting back and absorbing pressure was near impossible. For one, Juventus has too many weapons at their disposal and Inter’s defense, while quality, is not comparable. So Pioli decided to try and match the home side at their own game. When the line-ups were announced it looked like Pioli’s side would line-up in a 4-5-1/4-2-3-1. Instead, once the match kicked off Inter shifted into a formation familiar to the home crowd, a 3-4-3. Danilo D’Ambrosio started out on the left for the first time in months with the intent of pressuring Juve on the wings. Mauro Icardi would man the middle and the Portuguese sensation Joao Mario behind as a creative attacker.

In practicality this line-up was a gamble, as the early flow of play showed. Inter planned to allow Juventus to have the ball some but when they secured possession, they would build up pressure through a short passing game all the while looking for a cutting run from one of the attacking players or Antonio Candreva/Ivan Perisic wider to get the ball in. The style left space in the middle where Juve is strongest and they arguably should have taken an early lead if not for luck and Samir Handanovic. It also left Icardi alone in the middle while Joao Mario roamed. Once Juve didn’t grab their early lead, the match settled into a more back and forth for most of the first half with both sides having excellent chances.

History is a series of “what ifs”, and you have to wonder what changes if any Pioli would have made if they would have entered the half scoreless. Juan Cuadrado’s wonder strike eliminated that possibility and once the momentum was unchanged early in the second half, Pioli switched strategies. Less than 15 minutes into the second half, Pioli decided to fortify the midfield as a way to build pressure. Eder came on for Candreva and Perisic switched sides in order to give more options, but instead the changes made Inter more one dimensional. While they did create some opportunities, moving to a more traditional two-striker set-up played into Juventus’ strategy. The final gasp to grab a goal was taking off the pizzazz of Joao Mario and put on Rodrigo Palacio.

Inter cannot be faulted for gambling, especially since the margin of victory was so thin. This match could have been 1-1 as likely as it could have been 3-0 Juventus. Inter could have played more defensively or conservatively, but decided to gamble that they could grab the first goal and dictate play. Maybe if Roberto Gagliardini could have converted some early chances or some fouls had gone called or uncalled, the strategy would have paid off. However, margins are thin against a world-class club like Juventus and the smallest mistakes can be terminal to your chances of winning the match.