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Transforming a Mourinho side Inter a Benitez side: the defensive approach

September 5, 2010


Rafa Benitez undertook a noble task by taking the Inter job. Taking over a team who managed to win pretty much everything, with Jose Mourinho making sure everyone knows that he won everything and making sure that every fan, pundit and journalist besotted with him, it is undoubtedly a difficult job. However, Rafa Benitez has a plan of action; him and his players are planning to play with more quality, aiming to transform Mourinho’s defensive stalwarts into a more fluid, aesthetically pleasing outfit.

Inter under Mourinho played a very deep 4-2-1-3, a formation that only really started to be talked about through its implementation at Inter. Jonathon Wilson believes that this system and shape will be more prominent in the next couple of years; in fact, Arsenal’s 2-1 win away at Blackburn seemed to be within the parameters of a 4-2-1-3 with Cesc Fabregas playing in that playmakers’ role.

Illustrating the deep defensive line and the two deep central midfielders that typified Mourinho's side

Here's Mourinho's front four in all their unorganised glory

There may be a huge difference between Mourinho and Benitez in their demeanour, for all you get in offensive and brash quips from Jose, you get as much nonsense and reading between the lines with Rafa. On the pitch however, they’re remarkably similar in the way they set up their teams shapewise. Of course, this is the sensible thing to do, and to use a hackneyed phrase, ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’.

Benitez, since his early days managing with Extremedura and Tenerife, has played a 4-2-3-1, regarded as the paradigm in Spain.

At Valencia, Benitez perfected his 4-2-3-1 people saw at Liverpool

He extended this tradition with his time at Liverpool, leading doltish pundits in the UK proceeding to exclaim that this system was defensive and shows the lack of initiative needed to win anything in this country. With the shape of the side pretty similar, putting a Benitez stamp on the side is more to do with the philosophy on and off the ball.

Regardless of shape, a Benitez team without the ball has always looked to work hard and win the ball back. Liverpool’s best games were the ones where they pressed high up the pitch, closing down players in all areas of the pitch – something which requires an extremely high level of fitness. After such a game against Real Madrid at home, where Liverpool were at their unrelenting best, pressurising from the first whistle. This continued on until Real Madrid looked so utterly unconvinced of their ability to score that Liverpool did not have the need to put such pressure on the ball.

Against Real Madrid, Liverpool were at their best under Benitez. Working together as a team to win the ball back in advanced areas.

This approach is in stark contrast to Mourinho’s Inter side, who against Barcelona in the Champions League, looked to keep their shape, rarely pressing outside their penalty area, looking like they’d get nosebleeds if they ventured towards the half-line. Zonal Marking alerted me to a quote from Mourinho after the game, one that is as depressing as it is clever: “We didn’t want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position – I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn’t want us to have the ball, we gave it away.”

So far, it seems that the Inter players have bought Benitez’s tactical philosophy and changes, not complaining with his call to press higher and to play a more possession based game. However, the results have not been impressive. Against Roma in the Super Cup, they were uninspired but managed to score three goals to Roma’s one. However, they got what they deserved in the European Super Cup, losing two-nil to an impressive Atlético side.

In Cambiasso and Zanetti, they had two ball-winning midfielders and without possession one of them looked to press high up the field and win the ball back quickly.

Cambiasso, instead of dropping deep, advances to press the opposition.

This is a severe difference compared to the Mourinho era, where the two midfielders were instructed to anchor the midfield, helping keep a strong shape without possession.

Atlético were able to exploit Inter’s poor defensive understanding, shown particularly in the first goal the Nerazzurri conceded. The game was riddled with poor defensive mistakes and Inter looking sloppy in the final third.

There’s nothing too wrong with this defensive line, apart from Maicon just sitting a bit deep, he would just need to step up if a player runs behind the back four.

As play progresses however, the central defenders drop very deep. The central midfielders press the player on the ball, leaving a big space behind themselves and in front of the defence. It’s this space that allows Reyes to time his run behind the defence, as well as time for the player on the ball to pick a measured pass.

With good footwork and a pinch of luck, Reyes is able to skip past a couple of Inter players who cover from the mistakes by Lúcio and Samuel and delicately powers it past Julio Cesar.

Definite teething problems exist with the new coach and the new system. The drastic changes defensively will take some time to be implemented successfully and until then there will be a few mistakes made when Inter do not have possession. Pressing well is hard to achieve, but when done well and to its best, it makes it extremely difficult for a team to retain possession and keep their composure. Look back to last season when Arsenal faced Barcelona, both teams known for being technical and superb in possession but as Jonathon Wilson pointed out, it was what they did off-the-ball that bore the end result. What Benitez is trying to achieve is admirable; transforming a deep, compact and well-drilled side into a more progressive, marauding and aggressive side. If we had a hypothetical defensive philosophy scale, they’re both on the opposite ends.

The movement from a team content to sit deep with numbers behind the ball, constricting the space available to players in the final third to constricting the space available throughout all areas of the pitch is a long and bumpy one.

For Benitez, a coach whose nickname was Arrigo Benitez when studing at Italy’s coaching school, Coverciano, pressing is, as was Arrigo Sacchi’s, the mark of a Benitez team. Pressing is a challenging thing to teach a team, as it requires eleven teammates to understand the importance of their position, even when the ball is not even near their ‘zone’. For if forwards press and the team does not press, gaps appear between the forwards and the midfield. Moving back, if the midfield press, gaps appear in front of the defence – an area where a team’s most dangerous players are usually accommodated.

There is also the problem of timing, particularly in the back four. Lúcio, Samuel, Chivu and Maicon are all used to restricting space behind them and between them, now they’re looking to restrict space in front of them when Inter’s central midfielders press. By stepping up, they’re now also vulnerable to a very simple ball over the top if they cannot time their forward movements to perfection.

Benitez may have wanted to add beauty and aesthetic delight to an extremely successful Inter side, however, he may find himself spending more time teaching his squad how to press and do the ‘ugly’ stuff first.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2010 6:52 am

    I like the illustrated photos, very helpful in understanding what you’re talking about.
    Sacchi was ironically a total worshipper of Mourinho and his Inter.

  2. September 6, 2010 10:41 am

    Nice piece Guv, but a couple of points:

    First, Cesc didn’t really play in the “1” (playmaker’s) role against Blackburn. A notable point from that game was how deep he often came, with even Song appearing ahead of him on the pitch with unusual regularity. If you have a butcher’s at the chalkboards, Cesc is (according to the heatmaps) only a tad more attacking than Song, and if anything less attacking than Diaby. A pedantic point, I know, and not remotely integral to your argument; but as this is a quality blog, rather than MotD or its like, I thought it worth clarifying.

    Secondly, many of the examples you’ve given are from very high-profile knock-out ties; such as Arsenal v Barcelona, Inter v Barcelona and so on. Given that teams often adopt one-off tactics for these games (or more extreme versions of their tactics), is it not possible that this distorts the picture? I’m always a tad wary of our tendency to note things from big matches, and assume this is what happens all the time. For example, we all know about the (still seemingly incredible) Mourinho quotation about giving the ball away, but this was specifically his response to Barcelona (the best passing and pressing side in the world). So can it really be extrapolated for describing Inter’s play per se? Did Inter really have this ‘sit back in your zones’ approach when playing, say, “easy” away games in Serie A when they needed 3 points?

    Just putting it out there (so to speak). Nice one for bringing this up (Inter and Rafa), it’s one of the most interesting current situations in European football, I think.

    • September 6, 2010 7:42 pm

      I was referencing something ZonalMarking said about their game against Blackburn to be honest. If this was an essay I would have cited ZM like this (Zonal Marking, 2010). I was just hoping to use it to qualify the statement that a 4-2-1-3 is becoming more and more used.

      You make a fantastic point. I think you’re right, but it is in these extreme games that certain tactical nuances and differences are displayed. It’s in these circumstances that managers and their tactical idiosyncrasies are at the most starkest and most interesting, and when different managers display their ‘true colours’ as it were, making them interesting games to gather information and talk about – as they provide us with a tactical insight or philosophy that we can draw comparisons. I would suppose that when Inter were playing against ‘easy’ opponents, there’s less of a need to adopt such harsh tactical instructions.

      When Liverpool played Barcelona, Benitez opted for the high-pressing game, I could have taken that game as an example of the differing philosophies to be honest and in retrospect, it would have constituted to a more water-tight article.

      • September 7, 2010 1:29 pm

        Thanks for the response, Guv. As a shameless promoter of the pseudo-sciencification (it is a word; now it is) of football analysis, I’m very much in favour of including citations to our blog posts. I’ll endeavour to start doing this too. (1)

        (1) Talking About Football, Hill (2010).

  3. September 8, 2010 9:59 pm

    To use my phrasing…. I think Benitez will turn Inter from shepherds into muggers.


  4. Steve Haslam permalink
    November 23, 2010 12:08 pm

    It is interesting how Tim Hill describes the superiority of Benitez’s approach over that of Mourinho.It seems that few teams have really followed the lead of the great pressing teams such as ajax/Holland of the seventies and AC Milan of the late eighties/early nineties.But observation of Lobanovsky’s USSR in the 1988 Euro Championship shows examples of real pressing.Especially in the semi final against Italy. They defend a corner and when they partially clear the ball it goes to an italian but Russian players in the area of the ball are continuing to run forward even though they are not in possession.Repossession is achieved and the momentum of forward movement which has already been built up when out of possession is now accelerated now that possession has been achieved and a very favourable situation is achieved.
    This is real pressing which we don’t often see except sometimes from Barcelona.The physical demands of pressing mean that a team cannot maintain it for 90 minutes, it has to be on selected occasions.I think that you need leader players of very strong character to make it work and that is why Baresi was so important at Milan.It is a pity that not many coaches have picked up the mantle from Michels and Sacchi but if Benitez is one who has then it is to be hoped that Inter’s fortunes will change in the very near future.

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