As Mario Gomez wheeled off in celebration at having defeated Inter in the 90th minute on Wednesday night, his Bayern Munich team-mates must have wondered if they were, in fact, playing the same side that beat them in last season’s Champions League final.
This week’s last-16 encounter was billed as a rematch of last term’s final which Jose Mourinho’s Inter won. Bayern have barely changed in that time, still employing a 4-2-3-1 formation which relies heavily on their skilful attacking midfield trident. Inter, however, have had two managers since last year’s final and the new team Leonardo is building is almost unrecognisable in terms of tactics to Mourinho’s Treble winners.
Obviously, the Nerazzurri’s new Brazilian coach has changed the mentality of the team to attack and pressure the opposition high up the pitch. Tactics Mourinho would never have dreamt of. Inter are evolving, and on the evidence of Wednesday night are not yet the finished article.
Mourinho beat Bayern using his favoured 4-2-3-1, mirroring the shape of the German club. His team sat back, giving the opposition 60 per cent of the ball in the opening half hour alone. However, they counter-attacked with aplomb and both of Diego Milito’s goals on that night came from quick moves from their own half.
Milito, therefore, is the most important difference from Mourinho and Leonardo’s starting line-ups. On Wednesday, he was injured, and hasn’t yet been available under his newest coach, meaning his attributes have been omitted from the team’s tactical set-up.
With the Argentine in the lone striker’s role, Inter had a target man willing to hold up the ball and bring others into play. It was a possibility to pump long balls in his direction effectively – and indeed, his first goal in last May’s final was the result of a direct pass from his goalkeeper. Leonardo didn’t have that option, and instead his lone striker Samuel Eto’o relied on his own dribbling or incisive through-balls that were few and far between.
The Nerazzurri were bereft of any width on Wednesday. Leonardo used a 4-3-2-1, and behind the isolated Eto’o he used Dejan Stankovic and Wesley Sneijder as attacking midfielders. Both are creative, but neither are naturally inclined to move out wide to find space. As a result, Bayern were able to close down the middle of the pitch and Inter’s most creative player – Sneijder – could only link with Eto’o sparingly.
This wasn’t the case last year. Mourinho’s three players behind the striker featured Eto’o on the right and Goran Pandev on the left, both of whom strictly played wide on their flanks. This stretched Bayern’s defence and in turn, Sneijder was afforded more room in the middle to pull the strings.
Defensively, Inter were not set out to cope with Bayern on Wednesday. Their new attacking mentality meant there was more room for the likes of Arjen Robben to dribble into, as opposed to last season when Mourinho’s deep defensive line closed off any corridors of space.
The three defensive midfielders Leonardo used – Javier Zanetti, Thiago Motta and Esteban Cambiasso – were dragged wide to help their full-backs on occasions, ruining the shape of the team and giving Bayern the opportunity to penetrate them. Their focus on defence meant did mean Bayern’s primary playmaker Bastian Schweinsteiger didn’t have possession in dangerous areas, but also meant they couldn’t get the ball to Inter’s attackers often enough.
Inter suffered down the wings when Bayern’s full-backs Phillip Lahm and Daniel Pranjic bombed forward. There were no wingers to stop them (unlike Mourinho’s Inter, who had Eto’o and Pandev out wide to prevent this threat). Admittedly, Leonardo was without the injured Pandev as well as Milito, so how he reintegrates them into a new-look team will be decisive for Inter’s progress.
In the end, it should be remembered Bayern only won due to a costly error from Julio Cesar in the last minute – a goalkeeper who is possibly still finding his confidence after the ill-fated reign of Rafa Benitez. Who knows if Inter would have kept a clean sheet had Walter Samuel been fit, rather than playing Champions League debutant Andrea Ranocchia?
Leonardo’s Inter have shown plenty of signs in Serie A they can wipe out their below-par start to the post-Mourinho era. Bayern may disagree and the ‘Special One’ may disapprove, but the Brazilian-inspired style of Leonardo could yet reap rewards for the European champions.