Inter: (3-4-1-2) Handanovic; Kolarov, De Vrij, D’Ambrosio; Perisic, Vidal, Barella, Darmian; Eriksen; Sanchez, Lukaku
Gladbach: (4-2-3-1) Sommer; Bensebaini, Ginter, Elvedi, Lainer; Kramer, Neuhaus; Thuram, Embolo, Hofmann; Pléa
A game which started as a slow-burner erupted in the second half, as both sides hoped to capitalise on Real Madrid’s shocking home defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk and secure maximum points to start the group stage. A Romelu Lukaku opener shortly after the break was cancelled out by Ramy Bensebaini’s penalty in the 60th minute after Marcus Thuram once again caught out an opponent with his proverbial quick feet for a big man to draw the foul from Arturo Vidal, awarded on review. Jonas Hofmann looked to have won it after a scintillating, defence-decimating pass from Florian Neuhaus set him through, and he coolly slotted through Samir Handanovic’s legs. An eternal VAR check later and Gladbach’s lead was confirmed. Once again, however, Marco Rose’s men were unable to see out the win, with Lukaku bundling in a flicked-on corner in stoppage time. By xG, Inter were 3.51 to Gladbach’s 1.45, so Rose will be satisfied with the draw, but failing to defend a corner in those circumstances is galling.
We haven’t even mentioned Lautaro Martinez hitting the post, appealing for a penalty and Samir Handanovic wiping out Alassane Pléa and avoiding a red card, all in the same minute. It was an exhilarating game, by the end, and a fantastic way to mark Gladbach’s return to the big-time.
Before we get into the tactical breakdown, please enjoy this pass once again, which more or less confounds any analysis beyond the word outrageous.
Dream team assembled
Gladbach were able to reunite the attacking trident of Marcus Thuram, Alassane Pléa and Breel Embolo for the first time on a pitch this season. It allowed for a sort of lop-sided 4-2-3-1, where Embolo and Pléa can interchange in the middle and Thuram cut in on his right foot from the left.
There first half did not see much by way of clear-cut opportunities for Gladbach, though there were a few near misses where the final ball was not quite there. A little lack of fluency is understandable when all three individually need more match fitness, let alone time playing together.
The first half ended on an encouraging note, when Thuram was able to outmuscle D’Ambrosio, feed Pléa, whose intelligent first time ball found Embolo. His centre for Hofmann was just in front of him, but it showed the spaces that the attacking trio could create and exploit, as well as the value of working on patterns of play and automatisms that aren’t necessarily based around traditional ideas of fixed attacking formations and central strikers (though that it was Hofmann left to try and get on the end of the cross does suggest a possible deficiency in this approach.)
Further evidence of the improving fluency came in the second half, where Pléa dropped deep in traditional fashion to set up the Gladbach counter after Embolo won a header…
…pressed aggressively when the initial pass was cut out, forcing a turnover…
…and then fed in Thuram, who drew the foul from Vidal.
But Pléa, Thuram and Embolo were not the only attacking unit to be reunited after too long apart. Lukaku and Lautaro might only have been separated for one half of football, but that was clearly 45 minutes too many from an Inter perspective.
Lukaku was able to cause Nico Elvedi plenty of problems in the first half, but Elvedi put up a good fight and was able to limit his chances and influence. Here he is up for the physical battle and though Inter retain possession, Elvedi forces the ball backwards and does not let Lukaku hold it up and bring others up the pitch.
But as well as the physical battle, it is Lukaku’s cleverness and deftness of touch which makes him so unplayable at times. In this example, he flicks the ball before Elvedi can get close, and the Swiss defender has little choice but to follow Eriksen and the ball as Bensebaini is caught up the pitch.
He is still out wide when Matteo Darmian eventually crosses, and with Christoph Kramer now picking up Lukaku in the middle, a better ball could have caused real issues for Gladbach.
Part of what makes Lukaku so hard to deal with is that he fancies himself in any one on one battle, and so requires normally more than one defender to contain him. Here it is Kramer who tries to help Elvedi out, but Lukaku still finds Sanchez, who gives the ball back…
…and with a nice stepover Lukaku beats Elvedi and flashes the best chance of the first half just wide.
Lautaro joins in
After the game, Hofmann said, a little derisively perhaps, that 99% of Inter’s gameplan was to get the ball to Lukaku. Although Sanchez got involved in the game in that chance, Gladbach’s defence struggled most after half-time, when they suddenly didn’t just have Lukaku to worry about, but Lautaro Martinez too.
Straight away in the second half, an early warning sign. Again Kramer tries to help Elvedi contain Lukaku…
…again they are unable to, and Eriksen is away down the wing.
That leaves Eriksen free to cross to Lautaro, and Matthias Ginter has to deal with him alone. The cross is bad, and Ginter, so strong in these situations, clears easily.
However, it sets a pattern for a Ginter/Lautaro match-up that was going to cause the German many more problems than Sanchez did in the first half. Because while Ginter was always favourite in this situation, Lautaro can operate as a natural number 9 in a way that Sanchez does not, and that gives Gladbach a second focal point for attacks to worry about.
When the ball comes out to Vidal here, Elvedi is typically tight on Lukaku, whereas Ginter does not have good position on Lautaro.
That’s understandable, given the ball has just been cleared and it is something of a broken play. But it quickly becomes apparent that Lukaku is not all that Gladbach have to be concerned with, and Lautaro poses a danger to Ginter that was just not there in the first half. Because the ball is played towards Lautaro rather than the Belgian, and he is the one to win the header which starts the scramble resulting in Lukaku’s goal.
Next, a familiar scene: Elvedi is tight to Lukaku but his touch is too good, and it releases a colleague down the right – this time Darmian.
Again Ginter is isolated with Lautaro in the box, but crosses from this area are Ginter’s specialty and no problem, right?
It’s another arguably bad cross, or at least not a traditional one, but Lautaro works wonders to some not only beat Ginter to the ball, but get a clean volley on it, and he comes very close to giving Inter the lead, smashing it against the post.
Ginter now knows he has a battle on his hands, and in the end, he is perhaps too up for the fight. When the ball is played into Lautaro in the last minute, Ginter seems to lose his composure and hauls him down, handing noted free kick specialist Aleksandar Kolarov a chance to win it right at the end, which he nearly does.
Assuming Lautaro and Lukaku are likely to start together when these teams next meet, how should Rose deal with this? One wonders whether Rose might be tempted to try a back 3, giving an extra centre-back spare. That would leave less riding on the individual matchups of Elvedi vs Lukaku and Ginter vs Lautaro, it would allow the defence to double up on whoever has the ball without the midfield losing their shape, and could generally spread out the workload. Rose has sometimes matched up back three against back three, as against Dortmund, but the format of Inter’s attack should mean that such a match-up is more successful than against BVB. He might be reluctant to break up his own attacking unit in such a reactive manner, but Pléa and Thuram could always play as a two up top with Embolo as a number 10. That could be the compromise that lets Gladbach nullify Inter’s strengths while not losing their own edge.