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Analysis: Inter vs Milan vs Napoli – assessing the three Serie A title contestants

Unfortunately, the big five European leagues are a bit boring in terms of title races this season.

In England, Manchester City have a nine-point lead. Although Liverpool can cut that down to six with their game in hand, Pep Guardiola’s side are in fine form and showing no signs of slipping up.

Real Madrid only have a four-point lead from Sevilla in La Liga, but the latter are repeatedly stuttering while Los Blancos’ stars have regularly delivered match-defining moments of individual brilliance to keep them at the top.

In Germany and France, the usual suspects are it again as Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have looked quite untouchable domestically this season.

However, we have a very close title race on our hands in Serie A. Following Inter Milan’s 1-1 draw with Napoli and AC Milan’s 1-0 win against Sampdoria, the defending champions ceded top spot to their local rivals. The top three are now separated by a point each, with second-placed Inter having a game in hand.

Therefore, the destiny of the Scudetto very much remains up in the air. It will most likely end up in Milan or Naples since fourth and fifth-placed Juventus and Atalanta are nine and 11 points away from the top respectively, so they are perhaps too far back to be considered challengers.

Our job here is to predict who will be celebrating at the end, and the best way to start doing that is to look back at the season to date.

The Season So Far

Apart from points, one way to assess a league is to look at the best attacks and defences. In Serie A, Inter have the best attacking united having scored 55 goals, followed by Lazio, Milan (who have 50), Hellas Verona (on the back of Giovanni Simeone’s finishing streak) and Napoli (who have 46). At the other end of the pitch, Napoli have been most successful with just 17 goals conceded, ahead of Inter (who have let in 15), Juventus, Torino and Milan (who concede more than a goal per game on average having shipped 26).

However, goals can often be a misleading metric while trying to forecast future performances, and this is where our beloved xG comes in.

In this case, the raw numbers were not deceptive at all, as Inter’s attack is comfortably the best in the league, Napoli have the least welcoming defensive unit and Milan are fourth in both metrics. This does not paint a good picture for the Rossoneri.

An entire season is a long period where teams can go through ups and downs, so while assessing how the next couple of months might go, recent form must also be taken into account. This is where things start to get exciting, as third-placed Napoli have had the best run in their last five matches with 13 points picked up from a possible 15. Milan added 10 to their tally, while Inter picked up eight points. The Nerazzurri had a very tough run of fixtures, as they have faced Lazio, Atalanta, Milan and Napoli recently, so they will not be overly disappointed with that return.

It is also worth looking at the respective styles of play of the three title protagonists.

Inter underwent a bit of a transformation last summer as head coach Antonio Conte and star players such as Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi left the club despite their title success. Simone Inzaghi decided not to fix a system that was not broken, so the defending champions have continued to line up in a 3-5-2 this season.

While defending, their shape is a 5-3-2 mid-block, and while attacking, the wing-backs and wide midfielders have total freedom to get forward while the two strikers make countermovements, so the system resembles a slightly lopsided 3-1-4-2.

Their most used starting XI’s average on-ball positions highlight their attacking rotations, with Edin Džeko dropping back from the front line regularly while Denzel Dumfries is marginally the more adventurous of the two wing-backs, which in turn is the reason why Nicolò Barella is slightly the deeper of the two wide midfielders.

Stretching opponents horizontally is the main feature of Inter’s attacking play, which is why they rank first in the league in terms of crosses, second in terms of incisive passes and third in terms of long balls.

The Nerazzurri love their set-pieces as they have lots of tall players and aerial threats in their squad, which explains why they have scored a league-high 12 goals from such situations.

Having considered all of that, it should hardly come as a surprise that Inter create a lot of their chances from the wide areas of the pitch.

Milan are quite different to their near neighbours as far as formations go, as they use a back-four in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They like to press high up the pitch in this shape, which is why they have caused the second-most high turnovers in Serie A this season.

In possession, Stefano Pioli’s system is also quite interesting, as the wingers stay wide while the full-backs make out-to-in runs while getting forward.

In transition, the wingers are encouraged to make runs in the half-spaces, and they also make movements into such central regions in sustained possession to disrupt opposition defences. Therefore, the front four are pretty close to one another in the average positions map.

They certainly look to hurt their opponents immediately after turning possession over, which is why they have the most direct attacks of any side in the division.

Unsurprisingly, this leads to them racking up a lot of incisive passes, while their pass completion rate can suffer because of this at times.

Their usage of counterattacks to create chances is also visible in their key passes map, which shows a large cluster in the central area behind the box, which is usually difficult to access but often open in transition.

Napoli have mainly used a 4-2-3-1 under Luciano Spallatti, but their style of play is fairly different to Milan’s. They do not look to press as high up the pitch and are focused instead on keeping things compact between the lines in a mid-block, but the real highlight is their possession play.

The Azzurri love to keep the ball and average a league-high 60.1%, as they break teams down patiently in their 2-4-3-1, which features lots of forward runs from the midfielders rather than the full-backs, while the wingers alternate between staying high and wide and tucking inside.

The average positions do a very good job representing the wingers’ differing roles.

Napoli’s statistics look very different to Inter and Milan’s due to their extremely patient style of play. They look very impressive in terms of possession, ball progression and pass completion, but shy away from delivering crosses or playing risky passes.

The Neapolitans look to counter-attack, albeit not with the same intensity as their title rivals. This, along with their frequent use of third-man runs in the final third, means that they too rely on the central region of the pitch to create chances.

Key Players

With a basic understanding of each team’s systems, we can now pick out their most important players.

Inter’s summer business was absolutely brilliant as they sold Lukaku and Hakimi for a huge profit before replacing them with Džeko and Dumfries. The Dutch international has been crucial on the right of attack from where he has averaged 0.45 xG+xA per 90, which makes him the league’s most threatening wing-back among those who have played at least 900 minutes. Džeko has not been half-bad either, as he already has ten goals and three assists from 10.6 xG+xA.

However, it is midfield maestro Hakan Çalhanoğlu who made the switch from local rivals Milan in the summer who is arguably their most important player.

Besides his threat in open play, the Turkish international has provided six assists from dead-ball situations, as his deliveries have been a crucial part of Inter’s set-piece successes. His key passes map highlights his superb corner deliveries.

For Milan, 24-year-old French left-back Theo Hernández has excelled in the inside full-back role, getting rewarded with a contract extension for his eight goal involvements this season. Young attacker Rafael Leão has stepped up in a dramatic fashion in the absence of top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimović, scoring six of his seven league goals in the last eight matches.

However, their most important player has undoubtedly been summer signing Mike Maignan, who has exceeded expectations in what seemed to be a thankless task of replacing Gianluigi Donnarumma. The ex-Lille shot-stopper has been the best in the division in terms of goal prevention based on the PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) model among keepers who have played more than 900 minutes, saving nearly four goals for his side.

Additionally, his distribution has also been superb. Maignan is secure with his close-range passing having completed all of his short passes this season, but he also has the ability to pick out players high up the pitch, as was evident in his assist for Leão’s goal against Sampdoria.

His chipped balls to the full-backs are also crucial in relieving pressure, and the frequency of them is clearly visible in his long passing map from the season.

Napoli’s system is tailored very well for their players to impress across the pitch. The return of Kalidou Koulibaly is sure to bolster their backline, while the same can be said for Victor Osimhen at the opposite end of the pitch since Spalletti’s side have felt the need for a regular goalscorer, especially with Lorenzo Insigne’s massive xG underperformance of 4.1 with just six league goals.

The man holding it all together, though, is midfielder Fabián Ruiz. The 25-year-old Spaniard ranks in the 90th percentile or higher among midfielders in the league in terms of touches (93.37), attempted passes (84.55), progressive passes (5.90) shot-creating actions (3.37), all per 90. He also makes 65.13 carries, 6.91 progressive carries and 2.95 carries into the final third, which is good enough for the 97th, 93rd and 97th percentiles respectively.

Additionally, he has contributed at the top end of the pitch with five goals and three assists this season. His long shooting has often saved Napoli in troublesome times, as each of his goals have come from outside the box.

Upcoming Fixtures

With 14 fixtures remaining for Inter and 13 each for Milan and Napoli, lots of drama might yet unfold. One way to assess the difficulty of the remaining fixtures for each side is to find the average SPI (Soccer Power Index – a team rating model calculated by FiveThirtyEight) of their next opponents.

This is where Inter have a significant advantage, as the average SPI of their opponents is 55.8 while this number goes up to 62.6 for Milan and further to 64.1 for Napoli. For context (and again, this is based on FiveThirtyEight’s modelling), the average quality of Inter’s opponents would be good enough for around 15th spot in the league table, while the average quality of the other two sides’ opposition would place them somewhere around 10th.

Yet more good news for Inter is that they do not have to face their direct title rivals again in this league campaign, whereas Milan will have to travel to face Napoli on gameweek 28. The defending champions have some reasonably challenging games against Fiorentina, Juventus and Roma, but four of their last five opponents are in the bottom half of the table, so they have an easy final stretch.

Apart from that match against Napoli, Milan do not have any tough fixtures until the end of April. Their last five opponents, though, include four sides in the top half of the table – namely Lazio, Fiorentina, Hellas Verona and Atalanta on the penultimate matchday – so they have a very tough run to the finish line.

The opposite is true for Napoli, who have to face Lazio and Hellas Verona on either side of the big match against Milan and soon after have back-to-back league fixtures against Atalanta, Fiorentina and Roma. On the bright side, their most formidable opponents in terms of current league position in the last five fixtures are tenth-placed Torino, so there is light at the end of the tunnel for them.

One disadvantage for Inter is that they are still in both cup competitions, whereas Milan have no European football to worry about and Napoli have been knocked out of the Coppa Italia. The defending champions also have tricky cup ties, as Liverpool await in the Champions League round of 16, along with a two-legged cup semi-final against Milan. Napoli’s European assignment is not easy either, though, as they have Barcelona in the Europa League round of 32. So, perhaps these sides might have to lose a battle or two to win the war.

Absolutely anything can happen until the end of May, but we hope one thing is sure – we will get to witness a gripping title race that goes right down to the wire in Serie A.

Stats courtesy StatsBomb via Fbref, Stats Perform via The Analyst, Vizz App and FiveThirtyEight.

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