AC Milan meet Inter Milan this Sunday in what looks set to prove a crucial game in both teams' seasons. More than most derby clashes, this weekend's sees the pair come together at a critical juncture.
Milan have started the campaign positively, securing impressive victories over the likes of Lazio, Sassuolo and Juventus to claim a top-three spot in Serie A. As it stands, they would qualify for next season's Champions League. However, it remains to be seen if their good form is a temporary revival or a genuine sign of long-term improvement.
Inter, meanwhile, could not have had a more underwhelming beginning to this term. After last season's failed title challenge, they replaced boss Roberto Mancini with Frank de Boer in August, but the Dutchman was gone by early November. Currently they sit in a disappointing ninth place and are seriously in need of a big win to lift their spirits.
Consequently, this weekend's derby is one of opportunity for both sides. But it will also be an intensely tactical affair. Here, Bleacher Report provides a comprehensive analysis of what to expect.
Milan may be without Alessio Romagnoli after the 21-year-old picked up an injury while on international duty with Italy. His position on the left side of the Rossoneri's central defensive duo is likely to be taken by Gustavo Gomez.
Head coach Vincenzo Montella will also need to make an important decision up front. Carlos Bacca is the team's top scorer, though he has competition from Gianluca Lapadula, whose first goal for the club saw him called into the Italy squad. The former will probably get the nod.
Following De Boer's departure, Inter appointed Stefano Pioli as head coach. While versatile regarding formations, the former Lazio boss has a general preference for 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 systems, both of which have been used by the Nerazzurri this season.
As such, the only significant immediate changes Pioli is likely to make will be personnel decisions, the most important of which will be whether to start Argentinian playmaker Ever Banega or not. The player's quality should ensure he gets the nod in an offensive central midfield berth.
Milan (4-3-3): Gianluigi Donnarumma; Ignazio Abate, Gabriel Paletta, Gustavo Gomez, Mattia De Sciglio; Juraj Kucka, Manuel Locatelli, Giacomo Bonaventura; Suso, Carlos Bacca, M'Baye Niang
Inter (4-3-3): Samir Handanovic; Danilo D'Ambrosio, Miranda, Jeison Murillo, Cristian Ansaldi; Ever Banega, Gary Medel, Joao Mario; Antonio Candreva, Mauro Icardi, Ivan Perisic
Pioli and the Potential High Press
In a pre-match press conference, Pioli gave an indication as to the bold approach he has in mind for his first game in charge of Inter. "We'll need to play the game with great intensity and attention," he told reporters. "We'll need a cynical mind and a warm heart."
Those words suggest that the coach will opt for an aggressive approach in the defensive phase. This will likely involve a high press with man-orientated marking, something he actually used against Inter during his spell with Lazio.
Pioli's Biancocelesti won 2-1 at the San Siro on 20 December 2015 in what was arguably the match that precipitated the decline of Inter's title hopes last season. One of the more notable aspects of Lazio's tactics in the game was the pushing on of their central midfielders to cut off central passing options for the home side's defenders.
This defensive approach, shown below, forced Inter into panicked long balls or difficult-to-execute short passes where the ball receiver would be under direct pressure from a specific marker.
Pioli may look to replicate this scheme this Sunday for two reasons.
One reason is simply that a man-oriented marking approach is perhaps the easiest to implement in a short amount of time. Another is that Milan, while focused on building possession from the back, are yet to master this element of their game and subsequently could be hassled into giving the ball away in dangerous areas if pressed high and effectively.
Montella arrived at Milan with a reputation for nurturing an aesthetically pleasing possession game, a reputation built over three excellent years with Fiorentina. And, after fewer than six months with the Rossoneri, he is beginning to lay down similar themes at the San Siro.
The basic structure of Milan's buildup is a back four with the two full-backs in slightly advanced areas on each flank and a deep-lying midfielder dropping back centrally to offer the centre-backs a passing outlet.
This then mutates due to the movement of the full-backs. The right-back, usually Ignazio Abate, will often push further down the right while the left-back, Mattia De Sciglio, tends to operate on the same line as the deep-lying midfielder, whose importance cannot be understated.
Following an injury to Riccardo Montolivo, Manuel Locatelli has taken on the regista role. The change has had an important effect on the quality of Milan's buildup of possession, mainly because the latter is both more aware than the former in terms of where to be in order to facilitate a pass from the centre-backs and quicker in getting there.
However, Milan may encounter difficulty progressing the ball from the back to the same degree this Sunday. This issue will perhaps arise through the aforementioned possibility of Inter operating a high press, but also through the absence of Romagnoli.
The left-footer is integral to Montella's style of play due to his technical ability, close control and quality of passing. He is able to receive and retain possession comfortably under pressure and can also play threaded balls through opposition lines.
Without Romagnoli, Milan's buildup will not have the same certainty and precision, making progression to the middle third of the pitch potentially more hazardous.
Inter's Midfield Issues
Last season, Inter's greatest tactical failing was undoubtedly to do with their positional structure and linkage, or lack thereof, in midfield. Often playing without a true No. 10 and with two central midfielders in Gary Medel and Felipe Melo, whose passing is limited at best, they found it difficult to penetrate opponents, and their passing was often without real direction.
These problems have continued this season, with De Boer unable to create a cohesive midfield trident out of some outstanding individual talent. Medel and Melo remain along with dynamic ball-winner Geoffrey Kondogbia, carrier Marcelo Brozovic, the fluid Joao Mario and the technically sublime Banega, yet a workable trio has somehow yet to arise from this group.
Their lack of organisation was painfully obvious in a recent defeat to Sampdoria, as depicted below. Here, goalkeeper Samir Handanovic receives the ball only to find nominal deep-lying midfielder Mario well out of range. And, with all other options under pressure or too far away, the Slovenian ended up punting the ball out of play.
This particular issue is unlikely to be resolved by Pioli, whose Lazio side was also skewered by poor buildup play. One of the running themes throughout the Aquile's 2015-16 campaign prior to the coach's sacking was the gulf in distance between the central defenders and full-backs, which made passing out from the back a difficult proposition.
As a result, Pioli may only be emboldened to utilise a transition-based strategy for this weekend's clash with Milan, pressing high, counter-pressing often and counter-attacking at speed in order to exploit space and uncertainty, as opposed to attempting to manufacture chances through concerted possession.
Milan's Use of Wingers
When Milan look to progress the ball, Abate will often take up a high position on the right flank. This isn't done simply to give team-mates a wide outlet but to enable the inward movement of Suso, the nominal right winger.
The Spaniard has a relatively free role despite starting on the right. This often sees him move infield to take up a position somewhere between the opposition's midfield and defensive lines, and ideally in the channel between the opposition left-back and left-sided centre-back.
From this position, Suso offers Milan multiple possibilities to enhance play in the final third. One is that he offers a vertical forward pass through the lines in a more dangerous central area. Another is that he creates a conundrum for opposing defenders as to whether to come out and meet him and leave space behind, or stand off and allow him to drive forward.
On the other side, M'Baye Niang brings a different threat. And with De Sciglio often remaining deeper, the Frenchman is—unlike Suso—tasked with remaining near his touchline and providing width on the left.
This is done with the intention of isolating Niang up against the opposing full-back, where his pace, strength and skill make him an extremely tricky prospect in one-on-one situations.
Who Will Win the Tactical Battle?
Milan have had more time to acclimatise to Montella's ideas, while Inter will have had little chance to absorb Pioli's. Consequently, the former will go into this derby as the better-prepared side by quite some distance.
Pioli may be able to motivate his players for a one-off game, however. And with a high press, he could disrupt the Rossoneri's buildup, at least in the game's opening.
But as the match wears on, it is reasonable to expect that Milan, with their finely tuned passing patterns, cohesive possession game and clearer setup, will take over to secure a vital three points in their race for Champions League qualification.