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Before Inter’s 2-1 win over Fiorentina in Wednesday’s Coppa Italia clash, Christian Eriksen hadn’t completed a full 90 minutes of football all season.
Well, coach Antonio Conte put an end to that statistic against Viola, leaving the Danish on the field for 90 minutes plus half an hour of extension in Florence. It was an interesting tactic from the Italian. Was it some form of punishment? Was it a mind game?
Or was he leaving his outcast in the store window for as long as possible?
If it was the latter, he would have been better off playing Eriksen in a role he’s played before, rather than throwing him to the bottom and letting him learn to swim in 120 minutes.
Eriksen played a deep midfield role against Fiorentina, accompanying Arturo Vidal at the head of defense, while Roberto Gagliardini was free to roam the field in search of space.
It was a curious selection from Conte, who, instead of completely excluding the attacking midfielder, decided to try to get him into his rigid formation without trequartistas.
What were the results of this experiment, then? Well, mixed, to say the least.
Eriksen is a man who plays the game at his own speed and since he is not blessed with pace, he has mastered the art of affecting matches within the limitations of his own shortcomings. That understanding of the game has allowed him to catch half pass opportunities on his radar and then deliver them just before an opponent closes it.
But when playing a much, much deeper role with much less immediate pressure, the Dane seemed to have almost too time to think, waste time on possession and slow down Inter. It was a hand brake to his attacks, putting his foot on the ball too often and ignoring impatient Alexis Sánchez and Lautaro Martínez.
Another notable learning curve Eriksen suffered during the game was his passing selection. The 28-year-old has made a living by opting for a riskier pass, and his willingness to sacrifice possession for a potentially winning assist has made him the better player he is today.
However, you don’t have those freedoms when you play alone in front of defense. Eriksen nearly freed Fiorentina for the perfect counterattack in the first half, slamming a square ball into no-man’s-land and encouraging La Viola to break the beat on an exposed endline.
He also threw his team into chaos late in the second half, getting caught in possession high up the field and allowing a three-on-two attack to develop behind him. Fortunately for Eriksen, his well-trained defense avoided his blush both times.
If you’re learning Marcelo Brozovic’s role as a playmaker, then you also lacked buckets of tenacity at tackle, the endless stamina and energy required for the team to move vertically, and an overall finesse for the role. It was to be expected, of course.
He also had his good times. The midfielder was in his element when pushed, stepping out of harm’s way with clean footwork or one-touch passes to free up his teammates on acres of space. Overall, his passes were as precise and accurate as you would expect, and he even created a couple of chances and put the Fiorentina goalkeeper to the test with two long-range attempts.
Statistically, he played a good game and, as far as Conte’s experiments go, this was one of his most successful tests, offering hope that Eriksen has a future at the club.
However, those near-assists and goal cracks came when he decided to abandon his defensive duties and listened to his soccer instincts, something his military coach widely discourages.
It may be time for Eriksen to listen to his instincts a little more, as they must surely be telling him to get out of Inter while his reputation is intact and move to a club where he can play his own game.