Sunday’s Milan derby will be unlike any seen for much of the past decade: a battle between two genuine Scudetto contenders.
Inter head into the game, the 174th league meeting with their city rivals, at the top of Serie A. They are just a point above Milan, with 16 rounds remaining, after a run of 12 wins in 15 games.
The last time these sides met in the top flight while occupying the top two positions in the table was back in April 2011, when a 3-0 win for the Rossoneri helped propel them to their most recent title.
Much of the focus will be on star strikers Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They scored all three goals in Milan’s win in the reverse fixture and clashed on the pitch in the Nerazzurri’s more recent Coppa Italia triumph.
However, according to esteemed former Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi, the real star of the show might be found in Inter’s midfield.
“Those looking for the prototype of the modern footballer should look at Nicolo Barella and they will be satisfied,” Sacchi said in his column for La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“The Inter player plays for the team and with the team, he attacks and defends, attacks with courage and fights to win the ball back.
“I’ve been following Barella since he was a kid. He came into Italy’s youth teams when I was the Azzurri’s technical director. He was not a phenomenon, he was physically frail, he did not have an incredible technique, yet he managed to reach very high levels.
“This shows that at the base of any successful career there is always hard work, training, the spirit of sacrifice and the desire to improve day after day.”
For Sacchi, Barella represents the paragon of the modern player. But what makes him so effective?
8 – Nicolò #Barella has been involved in 8 goals in the current league season (3 goals and 5 assists), a record for him in a single Serie A campaign. Explosion.#FiorentinaInter #SerieA pic.twitter.com/cVJ0hpqrSI
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) February 5, 2021
Barella is enjoying the best season of his career in terms of goal involvements, with three scored and eight assisted in 32 games in all competitions. Only five Serie A midfielders have been directly involved in more goals.
The 24-year-old has created 42 chances from open play across all competitions this term, only Milan playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu (44) has more among players in Italy’s top flight, while Barella has also completed 469 passes ending in the final third, the highest number of any midfield player among Italy’s top-tier sides.
Of course, as part of a three-man central midfield under Antonio Conte, creating opportunities is not enough (just ask Christian Eriksen). And, as Sacchi pointed out, Barella’s impact is equally impressive when it comes to keeping the opposition away from your own goal.
He is third among Serie A midfielders for tackles won in 2020-21 (35, behind Adrien Rabiot and Marten de Roon), and third for duels won (175, behind Juraj Kucka and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic). That’s a continuation of combative play honed at Cagliari, where, in his final two seasons, he was top of the league’s midfield rankings with 480 duels won.
Sacchi spoke glowingly of Barella’s bravery, of how an unassuming youngster developed into Serie A’s most influential midfielder so early in his career.
He’s right – there’s a boldness to Barella’s play that sets him apart.
In Serie A this season, he has completed 87 progressive carries in which the ball was moved between five and 10 metres up the pitch, which is the most of any attacking midfielder in the league. Twelve of his carries have ended in a chance being created, the fourth-best tally among players in his position.
These kinds of plays help Inter keep possession and limit the risk of losing the ball in dangerous areas. Indeed, Conte’s side have faced only 18 shot-ending high turnovers of possession in Serie A this term, the lowest figure in the league, while only Napoli (230) and Juventus (212) have faced fewer pressed sequences than the Nerazzurri (232).
Once in more promising positions, Barella is still the man pulling the strings. His tally of shot build-up involvements – a measure of a player’s involvement in sequences ending in a team-mate’s shot on goal or chance created – stands at 60, the most of any attacking midfielder in the league.
Looking at sequences where players are involved in the build-up and also create the chance at the end, Barella is third in the division for his position with eight, just two behind Lorenzo Insigne and Ruslan Malinovskiy.
Barella’s eagerness to be at the heart of matters on the pitch extends to when Inter don’t have the ball – at both ends of the pitch.
As well as being third among midfielders this term for tackles and duels won, Barella is fifth for regaining possession, having done so 168 times. When it comes to winning back the ball in the final third, he is top of the pile with 26 (both across all comps).
This, too, helps to set the tone for Inter’s approach. In Serie A in 2020-21, they have made 190 high turnovers, a tally bettered only by Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta pressing machine (251). Plus, only Atalanta (129) and Juve (128) have had fewer high turnovers against them than Inter (130). It’s an impressive combination, and Barella is integral to it.
As Sacchi said: “A detail that is far from negligible is the desire to put the group at the top of one’s thoughts and, in this way self-centeredness, a disease of modern football, is fought and defeated.
“Barella is proving to be a driving force.”