Inter Milan just about held on. This was a contest they had controlled for large swathes in the second period, spurning several glorious opportunities to claim local bragging rights in the recent Derby della Madonnina.
But after Stefano Pioli introduced controlling midfielder Ismael Bennacer with 20 minutes remaining, an on-top Nerazzurri swiftly evolved into a unit content with walking away with a point. AC Milan piled on the pressure in the closing stages and came close through substitutes Alexis Saelemaekers and Bennacer himself, but the contest ended 1-1.
It was a thrilling derby that manifested the very best of modern-day Calcio: controversy, tactics and quality. Just over 24 hours earlier, we’d seen a much more traditional iteration of the Italian top-flight as Juventus squeaked past Fiorentina at the death.
There isn’t a comparison to be made between the two bouts, not from a tactical – despite Vincenzo Italiano’s best efforts – or entertainment perspective, and it’s becoming abundantly clear that Massimiliano Allegri’s Old Lady are some distance off the two Milanese giants.
Allegri’s unsustainable Juventus
“But, but Juventus held both AC and Inter this season,” I hear you cry. You’re correct, anonymous reader, and I’ve noted previously that as a result of Allegri’s pragmatism, the Bianconeri remain a side capable of beating anyone on any given night. We saw it in the Champions League against Chelsea in September.
However, what currently sets the once tyrannical monsters of Italian football and the two Milan clubs apart is their respective interpretations of consistency. It’s something Allegri’s men haven’t quite grasped, and the manager’s – dare I say it – outdated ideals may have something to do with that.
In contrast, the champions, Inter, have lost just once this season despite the departures of Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi. With Conte’s successor Simone Inzaghi retaining the principles inculcated by his Scudetto-winning predecessor, the Nerazzurri have a reliable system to fall back on in times of strife. Milan, meanwhile, are so well-balanced. Buoyed by the exuberance of youth and their stern centre-halves, the optimal blend of excitement and steel has been established. Such balance is epitomised by Pioli’s midfield options. Franck Kessie, Sandro Tonali and Bennacer all bring something different to the table, but each work in perfect harmony with one another when they collaborate to form Milan’s double pivot.
Their systematic cohesion and personnel balance are incomparable to Juventus. Barring the attacking exhibition against a porous Zenit outfit in Europe, Allegri’s Juve have, well, flattered to deceive, shall we say. The vintage grinta on display during their fairly impressive nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions put the rest of Calcio on red alert, but it was never going to last.
As we alluded to earlier, the unsustainability of Allegri’s approach was brought to light in a dismal week that saw the Old Lady fall to Sassuolo and Hellas Verona in consecutive outings. Simply put, you can’t block space, press sporadically and expect to win a league title. Not in an ever-evolving Serie A, nor with this group of Juve players, who lack the star power of their previous iterations.
Juventus are among a group of second-tier Serie A outfits
Right now, Juventus are among the chasing pack for the final Champions League spot. Atalanta, Lazio, Roma and potentially Fiorentina are in contention as well. All these sides, however, look a step below the current top three.
Jose Mourinho’s Roma have been unfortunate. Their xG of 22.8 sits only behind Inter in the top-flight, according to FBRef, but their inability to defend has proved costly, especially in the most recent defeat to Venezia. A Mourinho implosion seems imminent. Elsewhere, Lazio are woeful away from the Stadio Olimpico while notorious slow starters Atalanta are beginning to find their feet. Although, their home form is a worry. Nevertheless, La Dea look the most likely to compete with the current top three.
Still, all these sides are distinctly flawed and that’s something you can’t say about Napoli, Inter or AC. While they’re not among Europe’s premier outfits, they’re certainly the best Italy has to offer.
What about Napoli?
We’re yet to mention Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli, who are joint-top with Pioli’s Milan having won their opening eight games of the Serie A season. They’ve since drawn to Roma and Hellas Verona but remain unbeaten domestically. Spalletti hasn’t innovated as such to facilitate Napoli’s brilliant start, with most of the ideas established in Naples by Maurizio Sarri and Gennaro Gattuso retained by the new manager. Sure, there are subtle Spalletti idiosyncrasies thrown in as well, but nothing drastic.
While the freakish Victor Osimhen has been demonic up top and Fabian Ruiz has found his best form in a deeper-lying midfield position, the foundation for Napoli’s brilliant start has been built by early Serie A MVP candidate Kalidou Koulibaly and his defence. The Neapolitans have the joint-best defensive record in Europe’s top-five leagues, conceding four goals this term (as have Chelsea in the Premier League, although they’ve played one less game). Their xGA (expected goals against), meanwhile, is comfortably the best in Italy at 7.9.
However, it is difficult to gauge just how good Spalletti’s Napoli are. We know they’re good, but are they title-winning good? So far this season, the Partenopei have feasted on the poor somewhat. None of their ten wins this season have come against Serie A’s current top six, with their biggest victory of the campaign coming against a Juventus side without any South Americans.
We’ll soon understand just how good they are, though, Before Christmas, Napoli play Inter, Lazio, Atalanta and Milan. While they appear a cut above the likes of the Bianconeri, are Spalletti’s side as accomplished or well-balanced as the two Milan giants? All will be revealed in the coming weeks.