Derby mania sends the Nerazzurri top of the league
Welcome to “Anatomy of a Win”, where we take a famous result from this season and break down how it happened. Today we look at Inter’s come from behind victory in the Derby della Madonnina from February 2020.
Inter came from two goals down to complete the comeback with a stellar second half performance. The win propelled Inter back to the top of the table and cemented the existence of a three horse race for the Scudetto. The loss for Milan was disappointing, especially given the manner in which they lost. It put a massive dent in the Rossoneri‘s confidence, especially having only lost one league game in their last 11 going into this match.
This is the classic example of the old phrase “a game of two halves.” In the first half, Milan were largely the dominant team. Despite Inter’s 3-5-2 formation giving them a numerical advantage in midfield over Milan’s 4-4-2, Milan dominated possession and controlled the middle of the park. Algerian midfielder Ismaël Bennacer put together what was possibly his best half in a Milan shirt, seemingly winning every tackle and 50/50 ball and using his excellent passing ability to provide the foundation for Milan’s attacks. The main focal point of the team, however, was a man who needs no introduction. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has plenty of Milan Derby experience, having featured for both Inter and AC Milan during his career, and his arrival back in Milan from America in January kicked off the Rossoneri run of form that they took into the derby. He became the main focal point around which every part of the Milan team moved. His ability to occupy the center backs and hold the ball up allowed the players around him, namely Ante Rebic and Hakan Calhanoglu, to attack the open spaces and find opportunities to test Inter back up keeper Daniele Padelli. Ibrahimovic was responsible for both goals in the first half, with his knockdown being turned in by Rebic for the opener and later doubling the lead with a goal of his own off a corner. Stefano Pioli’s men entered halftime with a comfortable 2-0 lead, having been the better side the whole of the first half and dreaming of a memorable victory over their hated neighbors.
Milan’s brilliance in the first half was only equalled by Inter’s impotence. Antonio Conte’s men were uncharacteristically languid, lacking any energy and fight that you would normally expect from a Conte team and in a match as big as this one. Romelu Lukaku was seemingly the only major attacking threat, but apart from one major chance, where Mathias Vecino fired a Lukaku cutback pass directly at the keeper, Inter were not threatening. They seemed strangely content with allowing Milan to have time on the ball in midfield, not providing any pressure despite their numerical advantage. They had issues with midfield depth throughout the season, with Vecino, among others, not filling the necessary voids when injuries hit their first team starters, but with both Nicolo Barella and Marcelo Brozovic fully fit and featuring, the Inter midfield should have performed better than they did. The defense had a problem containing Ibrahimovic. Diego Godin, who did not enjoy a good first season in a Nerazzurri shirt, was partially at fault for the first goal, allowing Ibrahimovic to tower over him to knock the ball down toward Rebic. The normally reliable Milan Skriniar was responsible for the second goal, losing Ibrahimovic on the corner kick and allowing him to be unmarked in front of the goal. Daniele Padelli, who came in for the injured Samir Handanovic, was not exuding confidence in goal, and he was largely responsible for Rebic’s opener due to his poor positioning. It was a comedy of errors and shortfalls for Inter in the first half, and I imagine Conte was not too pleased with his team when halftime rolled around.
Whatever Conte said to the Inter team in the dressing room at halftime seemingly worked, as Inter came out in the second half looking like a team possessed. Within ten minutes after the restart, Inter were level. Brozovic fired a stinging volley past Donnarumma to bring them back into the game on 51 minutes, before Vecino atoned for his earlier mistakes by firing Alexis Sanchez’s cut back pass into the back of the net. In the sheer mania that followed that goal and the subsequent VAR review, the goal was incorrectly credited to Romelu Lukaku. Regardless of who scored it, Inter were level. 45 minutes of mistakes and errors was atoned for in just eight minutes. Milan were able to get their footing back in the match after the Inter blitz, but could not find a way through a more lively Nerazzurri midfield and defense. With 20 minutes to go, Stefan De Vrij fired Inter into the lead with a glancing header from an Antonio Candreva corner. As things stood, Antonio Conte’s men were sitting atop Serie A, but the match was far from over. Milan had a few more chances to earn a point, with Ibrahimovic coming mere inches away from equalizing. Christian Eriksen, making his Milan Derby debut, also came close for Inter, rattling the crossbar with a free kick from well over 30 yards out. In the third minute of stoppage time, Romelu Lukaku would head home a Victor Moses cross, sealing the three points for Inter and sending the Nerazzurro half of the San Siro into raucous celebration.
How was Inter able to turn things around in the second half? Well, they were just better. It is, at least sort of, that simple. Inter played with much more aggression and energy, especially in midfield. Vecino, Barella, and Brozovic really took control of the middle of the park, limiting the influence that Bennacer and other Milan players could have in possession. That increased control over the match provided more chances for Lukaku and Sanchez to impact the game going forward. The significantly increased pressure at the beginning of the second half led to the two goals, and the momentum noticeably swung in Inter’s favor. While Milan did their best to get back into the match, Stefan De Vrij’s goal was a deserved go ahead goal for an Inter team that largely dominated the second half. You could perhaps criticize Pioli of being too slow to change the team to counter Inter’s resurgence. The first two Milan substitutes, Rafael Leao and Lucas Paqueta, both could have influenced the match and potentially helped Milan retake the lead had they been introduced earlier than the 80th minute. Leao’s pace caused some problems, and Paqueta was able to provide service into the attackers, with his cross being the one Ibrahimovic redirected onto the post. Milan were just unable to fully recover from the shell shock of Inter’s two goals in ten minutes at the start of the second half, and the trademarked grit and tenacity showed by Antonio Conte’s men carried them to victory. You can criticize Conte all that you want, but he absolutely gets those characteristics instilled into every team he manages. The visible joy and excitement shown in the celebrations following Lukaku’s goal show a team that demonstrates that Conte level of passion and fighting spirit. It was another imperfect performance, but it was enough for the win. Inter were top of the league.