Inter’s perfect start is flattering but they are in better shape than Milan

Nicky Bandini on 23 September 2019

Antonio Conte never went home on Tuesday night. He was too angry – too “seriously pissed off”, in his own words – to imagine that he could get a good night’s sleep after Inter’s Champions League draw with Slavia Prague, so he went directly from San Siro back to his club’s training ground instead. The only way to work through his frustrations was to work.

“Head down and keep pedalling.” That was the mantra Conte gave at his introductory Inter press conference in July and which he has returned to several times since. A little cheesy, for a man who accused his critics of speaking in cliches when they brought up his history of underwhelming European results this week, but you could not accuse him of failing to practice what he preaches.

Conte knew his team would need to pedal especially hard during this congested early section of the fixture list. Inter had four days to prepare for the season’s first Derby della Madonnina. Milan, thanks to their suspension from European competition, were getting the full week.

The Rossoneri had been given a contrasting mission statement by their new manager, Marco Giampaolo, this summer. Hearing Conte’s plans for the Nerazzurri, he responded that he would tell his players to keep their “heads up and play football”.

On paper both men had made encouraging starts. Inter had taken maximum points. Milan had won two out of three.

Performances, though, were another matter. Inter were grateful to a red card for Rodrigo De Paul for giving them the breathing space they needed to recover from a rough start against Udinese. Milan, across all of their games, had mustered a total of five shots on target. At least Conte’s team seemed to be taking on a measure of his personality.

Inter were dreadful against Slavia Prague yet stole a draw, and almost an injury-time win, through tenaciousness alone. It was hard to identify such clear evidence of Giampaolo’s footballing philosophy at Milan.

He arrived with a reputation for attacking excellence: the man who helped Fabio Quagliarella to become Serie A’s top scorer at 36 years old. His role in that story might have been overblown. The striker told DAZN last week that Giampaolo had spoken to him “five or six times in three seasons”.

Less ambiguous was Giampaolo’s preference for a 4-3-1-2. Milan spent the whole summer preparing to play in that formation, only to abandon it after a single game, the manager observing that Krzysztof Piatek was better suited to playing as a lone striker.

After watching his No 9 continue to underwhelm in a new system, he flip-flopped back to his original plan on Saturday against Inter.

It made little difference. Milan were stodgy, and Piatek a peripheral figure, in a derby that never threatened to live up to the choreography that preceded it.

Before kick-off, fans of the Rossoneri had displayed a gargantuan image of Saint Ambrose – a fourth-century Bishop of Milan – stamping on Inter’s serpent in the Curva Sud. “Faith in the devil,” read the accompanying text.

“The legend gives us a story born of fantasy and imagination, but reality teaches us that even the protector fell into temptation.”

Milan’s head coach Marco Giampaolo gives instructions to his players during the derby defeat.
Milan’s head coach Marco Giampaolo gives instructions to his players during the derby defeat. Photograph: Matteo Bazzi/EPA

How those same supporters might have craved just a dash of fantasy, though, as they surveyed the action in midfield. Where Inter could call on the dynamism of two brilliant summer signings, Nicolò Barella and Stefano Sensi, Giampaolo had selected only Lucas Biglia, Franck Kessié and Hakan Calhanoglu, with Suso ahead of them in the No 10 role.

It might as well have been a team picked by Giampaolo’s predecessor, Gennaro Gattuso. At least he would have known better than to believe Suso would have the discipline to occupy Marcelo Brozovic in the defensive phase of the game. The Spaniard started central but drifted right soon enough, seeking the time on the ball that he craves.

Where were Milan’s own new signings? Ismaël Bennacer was named player of the tournament at this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations, while Rade Krunic contributed five goals and seven assists last season for Empoli from midfield. They were signed this summer specifically to address the club’s shortage of creativity, yet they have started only one game between them thus far.

Rafael Leão, the one summer addition who did make it into Giampaolo’s derby XI, was their best outfield performer: at least offering moments of invention on the left – and especially once his fellow new arrival Theo Hernández joined him on that flank. Besides them, only the goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma emerged with credit.

Brozovic opened the scoring after 49 minutes. Barella then crossed for Romelu Lukaku to make it 2-0 in the 78th. Inter were hardly overwhelming yet they controlled the game in midfield and took their chances eventually, after a first half in which it seemed like Saint Ambrose himself was at work to thwart his near namesake Danilo D’Ambrosio.

Victory moved Inter back to the top of the table, extending their perfect start. It also allowed for a speedy rapprochement between Brozovic and Lukaku, who celebrated together after reports of a heated argument at half-time during the draw with Slavia Prague. “If that happens sometimes, I welcome it,” said Conte at full-time on Sunday. “I only hope that in future there are fewer news leaks, that would mean we’ve grown.”

Better to grow from a position of strength. Inter are a long way from the finished article but they emerge from this season’s first derby with their perfect start intact.

Milan, by contrast, have more questions than answers. Giampaolo asked his team to keep their heads up and play football. His critics are starting to wonder when he will take a look around himself and acknowledge the more creative options available within his own squad.

Talking points

• Atalanta’s match against Fiorentina was suspended for several minutes on Sunday in response to racist chants aimed at Dalbert. It was at once encouraging to see the referee, Daniele Orsato, implementing league protocol and disheartening that such action was required. And while the abuse had come from a small section of the crowd, an announcement that the game would be abandoned if the abuse continued was met with a chorus of whistles from a far greater number.

• Extraordinary ending to the game itself. Fiorentina, who have not won a Serie A game since February, were 2-0 up till the 84th minute, then pegged back to 2-2 in the 91st, only to get a reprieve when VAR ruled that Marten de Roon had handballed in the buildup. Still, they found time to blow it, with Timothy Castagne equalising in the 95th instead.

• Aaron Ramsey scored on his debut (with the help of a chunky deflection) to help Juventus beat Verona, but the more memorable goal belonged to their opponents. The scores were still 0-0 when Samuel Di Carmine hit the post with his penalty, before Darko Lazovic cracked the rebound against the bar. Twenty seconds later, the ball was in the net anyway, via a sensational Miguel Veloso half-volley from 20 yards.

Lazio 2-0 Parma, Atalanta 2-2 Fiorentina, Bologna 1-2 Roma, Lecce 1-4 Napoli, Sampdoria 1-0 Torino, Sassuolo 3-0 Spal, Milan 0-2 Inter, Juventus 2-1 Verona, Udinese 0-1 Brescia, Cagliari 3-1 Genoa


Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Inter Milan 4 8 12
2 Juventus 4 3 10
3 Napoli 4 5 9
4 Roma 4 3 8
5 Lazio 4 4 7
6 Atalanta 4 1 7
7 Bologna 4 1 7
8 Sassuolo 4 3 6
9 Cagliari 4 2 6
10 Torino 4 0 6
11 Brescia 4 0 6
12 AC Milan 4 -1 6
13 Verona 4 -1 4
14 Genoa 4 -2 4
15 Parma 4 -3 3
16 Udinese 4 -3 3
17 SPAL 4 -4 3
18 Lecce 4 -7 3
19 Sampdoria 4 -7 3
20 Fiorentina 4 -2 2

Latest football headlines

Latest Football News