Qualifying for the 2018–19 Champions League was a massive achievement for Inter Milan, a club that had been in the wilderness for the majority of the 2010s. It was a feather in the cap for Luciano Spalletti in his first season as Inter manager. The return of Champions League football meant that one of the giants in Italian football were finally back on the path towards success and big European nights under the lights. This was reflected in their transfer recruitment with the acquisition of talents like Radja Nainggolan, Keita Balde, Lautaro Martinez, and Stefan De Vrij: notable talents brought in with the hopes of building off of their successful 2017–18 campaign. This made Inter one of the more exciting clubs to follow coming into this season and while it was probably a bit much to ask them to become title contenders instantly, there wasn’t much reason to think that Inter shouldn't be able to complete for a top four spot once again
The results have been solid. Inter are in 3rd currently, on pace for 80 points which would be their highest point tally since winning the Scudetto in 2009–10. Their statistical profile looks solid enough for a club trying to finish in the top 4 in Italy. They’re controlling a healthy share of both shot quantity and shot quality. While Inter’s attack isn't exactly firing on all cylinders, it’s been perfectly functional as one that uses volume to eventually break down the opposition.
When Inter play from the back, they progress the ball at a deliberately slow pace, probing for passing lanes through the middle of the pitch and if nothing is present, they’ll recycle the ball backwards and start again. In Milan Škriniar and De Vrij, Inter have center backs who are comfortable in possession of the ball and have the requisite skillset to make passes that bypass defensive lines. If they’re playing against a side that is happy to cede territory, the center backs are comfortable enough carrying the ball into the opposition half. Their usage of fullbacks is interesting because at times it can look asymmetrical with Kwadwo Asamoah as a wing-back on the left side while Danilo D’Ambrosio is closer to the center-back pairing. When things are right, Inter can progress the ball into the opposition final third with relative ease. They even uncorked this play that I don’t remember seeing before, where Marcelo Brozović set a pick for Nainggolan to get him open and receive a pass in stride.
Inter’s match against Sampdoria, however, was an example of just how jumbled Inter's approach could get when matched with an opponent that combined both aggressive pressing and discipline in covering passing lanes. Off of goal kicks, Inter would split their center backs and bring a midfielder through the middle to present another option for the keeper, a common setup for teams playing out from the back. Sampdoria were ready for it and played an almost exclusive man marking setup that junked up their approach and didn’t allow many chances to find passing lanes through the middle. This caused Inter to turn the ball over on numerous occasions, even at times within their own final third.
Inter’s buildup as a whole has been okay though what is perhaps more fascinating with them is what goes on in the final third. In an age where there’s a greater sophistication about shot locations and the process that goes into accumulating good shots consistently, Inter ignore all that. Under Spalletti, they’ve been the highest usage crossing side in Serie A and they’ve continued that this season. Through eight games this season, Inter were tied with SPAL 2013 for the highest proportion of entries into the penalty box that come via crosses at 40%. While not a completely linear relationship, the general trend is that as you accumulate more talent as a club, you’ll tend to be less reliant on crosses as a vehicle towards generating shots in the penalty box. Inter are one of those teams that runs counter to that argument.
There’s an interesting cross sport comparison between crossing in soccer and isolation basketball (going one on one against your defender) in the NBA. It’s been proven that shots in the box that come from crosses on average have a lower likelihood of going in than shots in the box that don’t come from crosses. Crossing is hard and it’s not appreciated enough within mainstream football analysis how inefficient of a strategy it can be. This is especially true for headers given that shot quality is noticeably influenced by opponent pressure and just the act of heading a ball is hard. Among play types in basketball, isolation is among the most inefficient and something that’s been generally phased out i over the past five to 10 years. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either play in their respective sport so long as there’s some form of moderation that goes into it, or if you do have a scheme that features heavy usage of crossing or iso ball, you have the personnel to tilt the balance in your favor (2016–18 Real Madrid and the 2017–18 Houston Rockets are examples of this).
All of this is to say that through the first two months, the degree to which Inter have relied on crosses to gain access to the penalty box has started to hit the upper bounds of the personnel they have to work with, and it’s made Mauro Icardi look like an isolated figure at times up top. It explains to why despite having a healthy expected goal output per game, Inter’s xG per shot at just under 0.10 leaves a bit to be desired. When the ball gets to the wide areas, especially on the left wing, it’s a common sight to see Ivan Perisic get the ball in an isolated duel with his marker and launch a cross into the box. Among players who have played at least 300 minutes this season for Inter, no one has come close to completing as many crosses as Perisic.
At their worst, Inter will settle for the type of crosses that would make fans moan in disdain. The play will be labored with little to no flow, the ball gets to the flanks and is whipped into the box with a numerical disadvantage that makes it easy enough to defend. This has happened a fair amount with Inter this season and it represents the worst type of crossing. If as the opposition you’re forcing an attack to attempt crosses from long distance and you’re not outnumbered in the box, you’ve pretty much done your job.
This isn’t to say that all of their crossing attempts are low quality, because that would be false. Not all crosses are equal, just like not all isolation plays in basketball are the same and there’s some sophistication that goes on with Inter’s crossing. When Matias Vecino is part of the double pivot, he’ll come into the penalty box and turn a potential numerical disadvantage into a neutral setup and make it easier for the teammate to find a target for his cross. Inter have been able to create crossing opportunities that have been worthwhile. This for example was a nice play off of a throw in. Vecino drags his man just far enough that it allows Nainggolan to run into the free space and make a low cross off into the six yard box. The cross didn’t work but it’s one that came from a shorter distance and had some rhythm preceding the attempted pass.
This was another play that I thought was a nice way of turning a three against three into a potential dangerous shot. Inter have a tendency to cross/lob passes into the box from longer distances. Some of those attempts don’t have much of a chance of succeeding, but this one was different. Two of the three Inter players in the box are higher up which creates space to exploit near the six yard box. Perisic makes a run into that area and would’ve had a goal scoring opportunity had the pass not been blocked.
Inter are an interesting case of blending some of the modern day principles regarding ball progression with an old school penchant for finishing a high volume of sequences via crosses. Through the past year and change under Luciano Spalletti, the pluses have outweighed the minuses and the club is in a better position as a result of this gameplan in attack. The worry with having an attack so dependent on crossing is that there'll come a point where the returns start to diminish. In the event that Inter reach that point, can they conjure up a plan that is more focused on accumulating higher quality shots?
Inter haven't quite hit the heights that some may have hoped for coming into the season, as they're trying to gel and get some of the new additions that were brought in over the summer up to speed, but they've still been a functional attacking unit that grinds opponents into submission. Along with a solid defense, that's been good enough for 3rd place through nine games and an 80 point pace prorated to 38 games. The focus moving forward should be adding a bit more diversity to their attack, even if that does come at the cost of a little bit of their shot volume. From there, we could perhaps see Inter's attack kick into a higher gear.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association