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