Empoli hosted league leaders Inter Milan in the first round of Serie A matches after the winter break. Having gone four matches without dropping points, Marco Giampaolo’s side were in a confident mood, while Inter had to win after both Fiorentina and Juventus won their first matches of 2016.
Roberto Mancini left Stevan Jovetic on the bench and started Mauro Icardi up front on his own. In midfield, Geoffrey Kondogbia got the nod ahead of Fredy Guarin as Felipe Melo’s replacement after the Brazilian was sent off against Lazio in the Beneamata’s last match. Meanwhile, Marco Giampaolo went for what was arguably Empoli’s best XI. Ricardo Saponara played behind Massimo Macarone and Manuel Pucciarelli, with a creative and exciting young trio of Piotr Zielinski, Leandro Paredes and Marcel Buchel behind them.
Empoli came straight out of the blocks and afforded Inter little time and space on the ball, allowing them to gain a foothold of the match. Below is an example of Empoli doing this by not allowing Inter to play out from the back.
Here we can see the front two very high up the pitch, forcing Inter’s centre backs to fan out wide almost in line with Handanovic, while Saponara marks the Inter midfielder that drops between the centre backs and the midfield trio behind pushes up accordingly. The Empoli forwards, however, do not put direct pressure on the centre backs but instead look to block their passing options to the midfielders.
Their body position directs Inter towards the full backs - in the above picture, Miranda’s best option is to either pass to D’ambrosio or back to Handanovic. The problem with the first option is that Buchel is close enough to the full back to put pressure on him. So Miranda opted for the latter and Handanovic then passed to Brozovic, who was momentarily free but was immediately pressurised by Saponara. This left him no choice but to boot the ball forward to Perisic, who could not bring the ball under control due to Empoli’s high pressure, thus giving the home side possession in a good position in Inter’s half.
Later in the half, Inter combated this by dropping two of their central midfielders deep in the space created by the centre backs.
In the image above, we can see both Brozovic and Kondogbia in the space between the centre backs. This created a man advantage for Inter by them having a 4v3 against Empoli’s triumvirate of attackers. As a result, Inter could then play their way out of the pressing they faced from Giampaolo’s men. In a situation similar to the one in the image above - just moments before it in fact - Brozovic came deep to give Inter the man advantage, Saponara tried to press but being outnumbered meant Brozovic was easily able to break away from the press and move the ball forward. However, his pass looking for Perisic was blocked by the referee.
Inter recovered the ball and then the situation above arose. Once more, Handanovic was able to casually pass the ball to Brozovic, but this time he opted to go out wide to Miranda. This was, however, the wrong option, not because Inter immediately lost possession from another long ball upfield but rather because Miranda had fewer options since he was forced closer to the touchline by Macarone, thereby limiting the central options.
Another similar situation arose for Inter just over a minute later. This time, Medel and Kondogbia were the two players to drop deep.
As a side note, in the situation above, Inter actually had a 5v3 due to Nagatomo also positioning himself deeper whereas D’ambrosio had pushed on and Miranda was positioned in the right fullback position. In this situation, Kondogbia received the ball from Handanovic and then ran all the way well into Empoli’s half before passing to Perisic, whose cross was a little disappointing. Although he could easily have played a wall pass with either Medel or less likely Murillo due to Inter’s advantage, this was Kondogbia utilising his ability to run with the ball to full effect. The point still stands that Inter used this strategy well to counter Empoli’s pressing.
Another factor of Empoli’s pressing was the depth of the defensive line. In most cases the defensive line was a bit too deep, and thus there was a sizable amount of space - or at least enough space - to take advantage of from an Inter perspective.
In the image above, Medel has the ball for Inter after Empoli’s press was unsuccessful. As we can see, there is space behind the midfield of Empoli. The attentions of the Empoli defence were too focused on Icardi and thus kept their defensive line deep; in a situation like this, you would expect someone like Ljajic to take advantage, however the Serb on this occasion was out wide and unable to fully do so. Ljajic was rather disappointing in this respect; he would often come too deep or out wide to receive the ball and not enough in between the lines.
Incidentally, on the occasion he did, he played a vital role in the winning goal. His movement into the space between midfield and defence allowed Brozovic to play him the ball with which he then picked out Perisic in an outside foot pass. The Croat was now 1v1 with Laurini, and it clearly was a qualitative advantage for Inter as Perisic is capable of tearing apart even the best defenders in a 1v1 situation. He beat Laurini easily and his cross was met by Icardi for Inter to take the lead.
The goal really gave Inter control of the match. They came out for the second half and, through good counter pressing on the occasions they lost the ball, managed to suffocate Empoli and not allow them into any dangerous positions. This pressure however was never going to really be part of Inter’s game plan throughout the second half, and they eventually settled into their usual mid-low bloc and just about saw out the result.
Even though their pressing lacked compactness at times and allowed Inter to play their way out, Empoli can be buoyed by their performance. While they will be disappointed to have lost their winning streak, they can still be fairly satisfied with their performance.
Inter, on the other hand, can be pleased with the result, and Mancini showed intelligence in reacting to Empoli’s aggression. They continue to roll on and are certainly contenders for the scudetto.