The eagerly anticipated derby della Madonnina was again expected to be a tight affair, with both sides needing a win. Mancini’s Inter had suffered a significant dip in form since their loss to Lazio just before Christmas, and needed 3 points to keep in touch with the leaders. Mihajlovic, on the other hand, had experienced a period of renewed confidence and better performances from his team – not perfect, but signs of definite improvement. Tonight he made one change, bringing in Kucka for Bertolacci in central midfield in the 4-4-2. Mancini made the decision to include Santon at right-back, which seemed surprising in a game of this magnitude, and handed Eder his debut alongside Jovetic – not his former team-mate Icardi.
The game started in reasonably lively fashion, after a short wait for Montolivo and Juan Jesus to plant a tree, with attacking intent from both sides. It was Milan who controlled the first couple of minutes, getting numbers forward, with Abate putting in a cross and Niang having a positive run at the opposition defence. This quickly turned into a period of pressure for Inter, who stretched the Milan defence from a great pass forward by Perisic to put Eder away down the right. Romagnoli was caught pushing up on Eder and left space in behind. Unfortunately the new signing couldn’t find anyone in the middle. Mihajlovic would probably have been slightly worries about Inter isolating and targeting Romagnoli early on, after previous displays of edginess – for example against Roma recently. Eder was involved again shortly after, with a cross coming into the box from Jesus meeting him in the box, but the header was bizarrely off target from what seemed like a great opportunity to score. The Inter striker was looking lively in the opening ten minutes, making another run, only for a foul to be given against him, when it could have gone the other way leaving the Milan defender in trouble. Perisic was getting a chance to run down the right, looking to cut-in when he could, and seemingly had a good link with Santon, demonstrating some nice interplay in that channel.
Kucka impressive and aggressive
A key performer for Milan in the early stages (and throughout the match) was Kucka. He’d been brought back in by Mihajlovic, presumably to strengthen the midfield – which was clearly the less physical of the two teams. However, alongside Montolivo, they were very good at making tackles and breaking up Inter attacks. Kucka showed his worth in multiple areas in the first 20 minutes alone. We saw him tracking down the ball in the right-back area, running through the middle to the box in possession only to be brought down by a foul that wasn’t given (and then charging back to regain the ball), ‘roughing up’ Brozovic, and getting forward to cross into dangerous areas. The versatility and work-rate that Kucka brings to Milan is massively important in big games like this. Similarly, Montolivo has the most interceptions in Serie A this season, and although they miss a more creative aspect from central positions, the Rossoneri captain has been very influential. They seem to have a good dynamic in midfield, and although maybe not the classic central partnership, they appear to work very well at times. The Milan duo clearly won the midfield battle over Medel and Brozovic.
Juventus came into the match looking for their 11th consecutive Serie A win, and wanting to put pressure on Napoli at the top of the table. They had their back-line trio of Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci back together, in a familiar 3-5-2. Evra came back in on the left, Pogba into midfield and Mandzukic started alongside Dybala up top. Spalletti, aiming to turn his side’s fortunes around and keep pace with the top three, went with a similar set-up although having Nainggolan almost behind the strikers. This differed from their last outing, against Verona, as Castan and Torosidis made way for Rudiger and Vainqueur. De Rossi slipped back into the back three. Salah played as a forward, along with Dzeko.
Juve first-half domination
Although a slightly cagey opening, we got a general feel for the approach that both sides were taking. Juve, as they often do, pressed from the front with the benefit of having the two strikers that can squeeze the opposition into playing the ball out quickly from the back. Roma were more inclined to sit back and let their opponents have the ball, potentially trying to catch them on the break when possible. This early possession and movement up the pitch appeared to give Juve the upper hand and set the tone for the half. Something we saw in the first ten minutes or so was Pogba getting down the left, troubling Roma, and getting crosses in. He was being afforded a concerning amount of space around this area of the pitch. I’m not sure that this was a deliberate ploy to attack Florenzi, who isn’t the best full-back when it comes to defensive positioning or tackling, but it looked like a possible avenue for attack. However, as the game went on, it was predominantly Evra who was the one to move into this area.
De Rossi didn’t do himself any favours by getting booked early after an off-the-ball incident with Mandzukic. He was possibly lucky to stay on the pitch after replays showed a punching motion into the striker’s back and he appears to stand on him as well. Not too long after, Rudiger was also booked after an unnecessary challenge (and could have been carded just before), leaving Roma’s defence on a relatively thin line after only 15 minutes. Dybala was getting into pockets of space between the lines, which he usually does, and was already starting to have an influence (we’ll cover Dybala’s role later). Despite already being pretty deep, Roma probably could have benefited by having someone closer to Dybala to nullify his impact – Vainqueur being the most likely candidate. Nainggolan was dropping deep to help out Roma’s defensive efforts, and with him being there it gave the possibility of him starting counter-attacks, which he has tried to do from a naturally deeper position – like against Milan. However, Juve never really allowed this, and the Belgian’s influence was very limited. Demonstrated on 29 minutes, he had the chance to instigate a counter-attack but lost the ball carelessly. Nainggolan was also well marshalled in the attacking half, making only 9 passes in the attacking third all game. Chiellini proved this on 27 minutes by rushing out of his defensive line to meet the Roma midfielder on the ball, giving away a foul in the process.
Coming into this match, both sides would have been very happy with their start to the season. Napoli remained top after Inter’s draw in Bergamo, and Sassuolo had crept up to sixth – ahead of Empoli, Milan and Lazio. The two teams met on the opening day of the season, where Sarri lost (his first game in charge) 2-1 due to a late Sansone header. Sassuolo were fielding a somewhat different attack this time around, albeit a familiar 4-3-3/4-1-4-1, starting with Falcinelli, Politano and Sansone (Berardi missing through suspension). Napoli brought back Ghoulam at left-back and Insigne came in for Mertens. Maybe somewhat surprisingly, Chiriches started ahead of Koulibaly in the heart of defence.
Left wingers – Sansone vs Insigne
The main area of threat for both teams during the majority of the match was the left flank. The two wingers on this side were probably the two best players for each team. Immediately we saw the threat of the Sassuolo’s Sansone, who capitalised on Hysaj’s mistake to win a penalty in the second minute of the game. It was really a series of three errors from Napoli’s right back, each one leading to an increase in significance of the next, which offered Sassuolo a route to goal. First of all, Hysaj hit a lazy pass/clearance straight to an opponent about 20 yards away. Then the ball was played back over his head, as he had perhaps come too far infield out of position to leave the opposition winger slightly open. Hysaj managed to get something on the ball, but as he went to clear it, he missed his kick and allowed Sansone to gather and run into the box. Albiol then puts in a clumsy ‘tackle’, bringing down Sansone as he shifts the ball to the right, and concedes the penalty. It was all a bit unnecessary, as Albiol gets square on to the attacker and sticks a leg out, even as Allan is coming in to alleviate any danger – Sansone still would have had a lot to do to score. Regardless, the penalty was dispatched by Falcinelli in the absence of Berardi, and the visitors took the early lead.
Straight away after this, Duncan played a long pass through down the left, and Sansone had another chance to run forward with the ball. This time Allan got back to interfere earlier, and although the Sassuolo winger shrugged him off once, the combination of Allan and Albiol managed to contain Sansone at the byline and his subsequent cross was cleared for a corner. At first, its easy to assume that Hysaj is the one being helped out by Allan again, but the Napoli right back is actually caught miles up the pitch, and its Albiol that comes across to cover, with Chiriches the one making the eventual clearance in the middle.
From this point, it was Insigne who had the majority of the chances on the left, using his pace and control to try to open up the opposition defence. When he picks up the ball out wide, he has a few options. Napoli use the ball over the top from the inside-left position to their advantage a lot, usually with Callejon, Higuain or Hamsik running ahead. That’s one option – to pick out a run of an attacker and try and play a ball over the top. Napoli are also great on the counter, and they can build the attack by playing short passes until they are able to slip Higuain through – this is another option for Insigne – to lay the ball off and keep possession going forward for his team. Alternatively, he can run at the defence, cutting inside or out, to try and get into the penalty area himself. This is what makes it really hard for teams to defend against Napoli, particularly on the counter-attack, because they get their attacking players moving around the ball really quickly and effectively. The man in possession, in this case Insigne, has plenty of options as he drives towards goal. His link-up play, particularly with Higuain and Hamsik, has been extremely effective and was a notable difference between the two teams. Their performance today was made even more impressive by the fact that one of the key features in Sassuolo’s game is their ability to get men back behind the ball and make recovery runs. Although reasonably good at counter-attacking themselves, Sassuolo don’t have the same level of link up play. Sansone didn’t have the fluid movement around him that could either drag defenders around or provide options for quick passes to cut through the defence.
With both managers under pressure, this game at the Olimpico was billed as one that could cost either man their job. Roma have undoubtedly been on a bad run, which has seen them pick up only one win in their last 9 matches, leaving Garcia on thin ice and in poor standing with the fans. Mihajlovic has also endured some bad results recently, admittedly not to the same degree as Roma, but draws with Carpi and Verona as well as a loss in the week to Bologna have seen Milan struggle to stay in the race for Europe. The home side were without Dzeko, serving a suspension, so Umar Sadiq started up front, with Falque and Gervinho attacking on the wings in a 4-3-3 set up. Milan continued with a 4-4-2, although with Kucka in for Montolivo in central midfield and Adriano alongside Bacca up front.
Early Roma goal dictates play
From the whistle, Rudi Garcia’s side were looking like they wanted to control the game and get off to a quick start. Milan appeared slightly nervy and on the back foot, with the main culprit being Romagnoli – he looked immediately under pressure and made mistakes early on. Sadiq had a chance in the opening seconds, as the Milan defender allowed the ball to bounce without any real assertiveness and Sadiq got a shot away in the box that lead to a good save. After the early warning signs, soon came the first goal. It arrived from a familiar source, a Pjanic free-kick, which was won through a shirt-pull by Romagnoli as the ball came towards Sadiq. The free-kick was flighted into the box, dipping at the back post area, where Rudiger was running in to volley goalwards with ease. The Milan defensive line was poor – Abate and Zapata served only to play the Roma players onside as they retreated back into the box too early to play offside, and too late to affect the runners behind them – one of which was the subsequently unmarked Rudiger.
Roma still had chances after the goal, they continued to worry Milan’s defence. Sadiq created another opportunity as the ball was thrown into him inside the box, he was allowed to turn sharply and lay it off to Pjanic who just missed the target. Again though, it was poor defending by Milan in the area, with Romagnoli kind of waving a foot out and Bertolacci perhaps scared to make a tackle in the box. We did have glimpses of Milan going forward, with Abate getting high up on the right wing for the first time, failing to pick anyone out with a cross, and a couple of tame shots from distance. They enjoyed periods with the ball and made their way into Roma’s territory, but it was the home side that continued to look the more incisive at times, and Sadiq again appeared to have the beating of Romagnoli, as he ran onto a ball over the top but was flagged offside. This, frustratingly, was a feature of Roma’s play throughout the match – offsides from long balls as the attacker (usually Sadiq) was slow in jogging back into position. There were a few underlying factors that contributed to this, aside from lazy movement from attackers. In particular, Milan’s high defensive line pushing up, and some pressing high up the pitch (from both teams) which forced the ball long on occasions. The difference was that Milan tried to avoid playing it long, they didn’t really need to, and Roma didn’t mind going long because they had pace to worry Milan’s high line in behind. Also, Szczesny went long with his kicks quite a lot (although notably sloppy in doing so).
Manchester United went into this game with a well publicised run of four consecutive losses, and needed a boost, not only to keep them in and amongst the front runners in the Premiership, but to take some pressure off of their manager. Chelsea’s poor first half of the season had cost Mourinho his job, and now the team look to rebuild their campaign under Hiddink. As the team sheets were revealed, we saw that Chelsea had no recognised striker in the squad, with Costa suspended and Remy & Falcao not fit, but the new Blues boss gave nothing much away pre-game. He hinted about the attacking players in his team having freedom in movement and a ‘wait and see’ attitude towards the system, although we assumed Hazard would start the most advanced. United re-called captain Rooney to the starting line-up, as he had an impact from the bench in the last game.
Both teams fielded variants of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Chelsea brought in Zouma for an injured Cahill, and Mikel came in where Fabregas would have taken up position alongside Matic. Willian and Pedro occupied wide positions, with Oscar behind Hazard centrally. United pushed Rooney into a forward role, with Martial out wide on the left and Mata on the right (although he didn’t really stay there). Schweinsteiger came back after his suspension to partner Schneiderlin in the middle, with Darmian and Young as full-backs. Herrera was the one who was put into the number 10 role behind Rooney. Depay and Fellaini were the main two that Van Gaal could look to on the bench to come on if needed and impact the game, and Hiddink was even more limited – with Ramires the most experienced dice to role.
Early United pressure
From the kick-off, Man United started the much brighter team, and it was pretty clear they wanted to make an impression with more urgency – you could tell that it wasn’t an ordinary game for them. The first major chance came via a nice pass inside from Rooney to Mata on the right, no one was tight enough to Mata who got a shot away that smashed into the frame of the goal and away to safety. From that, Martial had his first exchange with Darmian on the opposite wing, which lead to a cross and eventually out for a corner. The pressure was broken up slightly by a Chelsea attack, when Blind slipped and Hazard got a cross in – strangely enough it was Young being the only United man in the middle to stop it reaching Pedro, who was in acres of space coming in at the back post. From the resulting corner, De Gea made a fantastic reaction save to deny Terry scoring a powerful header. United’s aerial defence from balls into their area was questionable all game, although Chelsea never really took advantage of this, and on this occasion it was Rooney who was closest to Terry, but never matching his run.
Chelsea didn’t make it a priority to close down the United players in their half, which allowed time and space to players on the ball. Blind carried it over the halfway-line on one occasion as Hazard and Oscar stood and watched, the ball eventually was worked out to Young on the right in an advanced position. Possibly more dangerously, Chelsea neglected to mark Schweinsteiger and/or Schneiderlin on several occasions, allowing them space to operate. This in turn meant that they had the option and freedom to bring more players into play – notably the wide men (pic below). Rooney was dropping deep at times, as he does, to try and get involved with the play more, but this drew him into Matic and Mikel’s territory. United’s main threat appeared to be down the left hand side with Martial and Darmian on the wing. A comparison we can make here is with what we saw in Arsenal’s win over Manchester City a few days ago. Koscielny would come out of defence with the ball, and look to play it in to Ozil along the floor, who would get between the lines and drift out to the left to receive it. In tonight’s case, Blind came forward slightly, and played the ball into Rooney who came deep between the lines, but was followed by Zouma. United weren’t really allowed to dictate any meaningful attacks from this central area (which may have been different if it was Fabregas instead of Mikel there), although they were allowed to use this area to spread the play out wide from. Ozil had space to operate in that and find a more direct route to goal, as Toure had offered this by not tracking back, whereas Mikel and Matic were more defensive minded and spatially aware. However, just after Blind’s ball into Rooney was returned to him, the Dutchman came forward again and found the much more penetrative route down the outside left to Darmian, who had space open up by Martial’s clever run inside.
Set up as being one of the biggest matches in the title race so far this season, Manchester City travelled to the Emirates with no win and only one goal in the previous four away league matches. They lined-up in what was effectively a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Silva playing in the number 10 role behind Aguero. Toure and Fernandinho occupied the central midfield positions and, somewhat surprisingly, Delph and De Bruyne were the wide men. Looking to close the gap to Leicester at the top, Arsenal fielded a similar shape, but with more traditionally advanced wingers in Walcott and Campbell. Ozil continued behind Giroud, with Ramsey and Flamini holding in the middle.
Arsenal started with some early possession, as the game began at a pretty slow tempo. It was understandably cagey, with a lot riding on the result for both teams, and neither wanting to give a psychological boost to the other in leaving gaps open at the start of the game. A main talking point was Pellegrini’s decision to start Delph on the left instead of Sterling. Some saw this as a negative move, but it was one that helped keep Bellerin contained in the first half, and ended up forcing most of Arsenal’s attack down the other flank. Even at 4 minutes into the game, you could see Toure pointing to Delph and the gesturing to the space he needed to cover down the left – an area that the manager had clearly highlighted to them before the game. City had a couple of chances to find a route to goal, with De Bruyne running with the ball through the middle early on and and then a cut back on Silva on the edge of the box who shot over. The Spanish playmaker found himself with a fair amount of time on the ball on that occasion, but this was a rarity throughout most of the game, as he was closely marshalled by Flamini, and the Arsenal defence were generally good at holding their shape – not allowing Silva to drift between the lines to affect the play. Flamini was seen on several occasions pointing and organising his team in front of him when on the back-foot. It seemed to work pretty well, and although Ramsey came deep to collect the ball, he was the one who looked forward, while Flamini was holding as opposed to being fully box-to-box.
A common occurrence in the opening periods of the game was Koscielny moving out of defence with the ball, over the halfway line, and looking to play straight passes into the front-men (shown below). Often this would be Ozil finding space in front of City’s defence and losing the attachment of Toure by drifting left. We saw it at least four times in the first 25 minutes – Koscielny picking up the ball and moving forward, then looking to try and find someone in the final third to slot the ball to. It was an effective transition between defence and attack, and one that was able to offer a direct route to goal with Ozil being able to receive the ball, turn and pass without being pressured into a mistake. It was a bit surprising that Pellegrini didn’t do more to suppress the threat of Ozil’s movement, but Toure wasn’t disciplined or deep enough to stick to him, and as much as Otamendi likes to engage the ball and be pro-active, his focus was usually Giroud. A makeshift option may have been to switch Toure and Fernandinho to allow the latter to try and block that ball that Koscielny was consistently looking for. However, by 33 minutes it was too late, as Arsenal exploited this route for the first goal. Interestingly enough, Fernandinho was actually over that side of the pitch this time, but not quite far enough to cover off Ozil, who received Koscielny’s pass to feet, turned and passed. Walcott picked it up and bent a fantastic strike inside the far post to put the home team in front.