FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Inter Miami has a bit of a dilemma on its hands.
Does the team go for energy or does it go for quality?
Inter Miami saw its losing streak extend to four games on Friday night after falling, 2-1, to rival Orlando City at Drv Pnk Stadium. The narrow defeat was disappointing for Inter Miami because of how well the team had competed for much of the 90 minutes against one of the best sides in MLS, but it also highlighted a quandary that head coach Phil Neville is facing.
Inter Miami had struggled to put forth respectable performances before the recent international break, leading Neville to make some tactical adjustments and one very surprising lineup change. The Englishman has put more of an emphasis on being a hard-working side, one that is tougher to play against and has enough “energy” to fight and run hard on both sides of the ball.
The team has functioned better as a result, but one issue in this new approach is that the team lacks quality. Particularly in the final third. Inter Miami has only put a combined four shots on target in the last two matches, and the lone one that found the back of the net was from distance from Gonzalo Higuain in a substitute role vs. Orlando City.
— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) June 26, 2021
Higuain has seen his minutes diminish because he is working on improving his fitness. The striker’s absence from the starting lineup, however, leaves the Herons without the type of difference-making ability that was on full display on Friday when he went on diagonal dribbling run and hit a laser-accurate, cross-body shot into the bottom corner from about 25 yards out.
The quality to do something special or make something out of nothing is necessary in soccer, a sport in which margins are usually thin and scoring is tough to come by. That is especially the case when you are a team like Inter Miami that is lacking profundity in the attack and struggling to penetrate the final third, as evidenced by the team’s collective heat map vs. Orlando City.
The ideal scenario would be for Higuain to get to top fitness and do all the type of running, pressing, and fighting that fellow forward Julian Carranza has done in his place, but that might not be a realistic expectation for a 33-year-old player whose career has defined more so by his quality than by energy and effort.
Neville may be prioritizing those latter attributes right now, but he knows the group could use more of the former.
“When you look at great players they stand up at the big moments and that is what we need in our team,” said Neville of Nani’s game-changing efforts for Orlando City on Friday night. “That is what they had tonight. They had a match-winner, they had someone that was prepared to win the game on his own, and that is why they won the game in the end.”
matuidi raises his level
Inter Miami’s improved collective performance vs. its rival was the result of several improved individual performances, and one of the best came from midfielder Blaise Matuidi.
Matuidi had one of his better nights in an Inter Miami jersey by putting forth a standout overall showing in the center of the park. The Frenchman not only moved the ball with remarkable accuracy, connecting on 92.3 percent of his passes, but he was also a disrupting force on the defensive side. The focus and physicality issues he has had with his marks on that side of the ball were replaced with an alertness and intensity that has seldom been seen from him during his time in South Florida, and that combined with Victor Ulloa’s quiet but strong showing helped the Herons put the game on their terms for large stretches.
Midfield play has long been an area of concern for Inter Miami, primarily because Matuidi has not been performing like the Designated Player that he is. The World Cup winner showed on Friday, however, that he still has the capacity to influence games in a major way, and now it is about finding that level consistently.
“What we have got to understand with Blaise is that he had something that he has never had in his career before and that was five, six months without playing football because of the extended (offseason),” said Neville. “It has took him a while to get up and running to the speed that we know, and he has been so honest and took so much accountability in terms of his performance levels needing to be better.
“I always felt that it would be better because he is a top professional. He does things right every single minute of every single day. Tonight I thought he and Victor dominated the midfield.”
Gonzalez Pirez, Figal make case to be starting duo
Two other players who enjoyed good overall shifts were Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Nicolas Figal, and they made a strong case to be the starting centerback tandem as a result.
Gonzalez Pirez and Figal played alongside one another once again due to the suspension of Ryan Shawcross, and all the Argentines did in their collective performance was completely negate in-form Orlando City striker Daryl Dike. Both Gonzalez Pirez and Figal marked Dike out of the game with physical and well-timed challenges, and they cleared out almost everything else that came their way be it with right- and left-footed cutoffs, precisely-timed tackles, and headers.
There was one notable mistake made by either of them, and that was Figal’s decision to give Nani so much space on the late winner. Figal seemed to not want to get beat for speed on the 80th-minute play, but his choice to jockey rather than press gave Nani just enough room to unleash the spectacular strike.
That aside, this was still a stellar joint performance from two centerbacks that demonstrated a good understanding with one another. Figal has been used at right back a bit this year with Shawcross starting next to Gonzalez Pirez in the middle when all three players have been available, but that should change because Gonzalez Pirez and Figal just delivered a heck of a performance.
Inter Miami Player Ratings
John McCarthy (7.5) — Could not do much on either goal and came up with a couple of good stops, including an impressive kick save.
Kelvin Leerdam (7) — One of the best players on the field during the first 70 minutes but reacted late to Chris Mueller’s run on the equalizer.
Nicolas Figal (7) — Might have shown Nani a bit too much respect on the winner by not closing him down but was key in stifling Dike.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (8) — Equally important in nullifying Dike and had several good interventions, though losing his cool in the second half could have led to a sending off.
Christian Makoun (5.5) — Was targeted by the Lions after halftime and struggled to hold up, especially on the equalizing play.
Victor Ulloa (8) — Moved the ball very precisely and put in a ton of work in what just may have been his best game with Inter Miami.
Blaise Matuidi (8) — A strong outing with accurate passing, lots of energy, and solid defensive play helped the team dictate the tempo and limit Orlando City.
Lewis Morgan (5.5) — Not his finest day with the ball, though he could have had an assist early with his pinpoint low cross.
Jay Chapman (5) — Another selfless display at the No. 10 spot, but failed to finish a great look early and also gave away the ball that led to the winner.
Brek Shea (4.5) — Worked hard without producing much in the attack before looking gassed early in the second half and getting replaced.
Julian Carranza (5.5) — Had some very good hold-up play but was never truly threatening in the final third.
Rodolfo Pizarro (4) — Ran hard but showed very little with the ball on the few touches he had.
Gonzalo Higuain (6) — Provided that bit of quality that was missing with his stupendous opening strike, though he did not see much of the ball from there.
Joevin Jones (5.5) — Serviceable late cameo on the left flank.
Federico Higuain (N/A) — Did not influence the game that much after entering late.
Phil Neville (7) – Laid out a strong game plan that prevented Orlando City from finding a rhythm in the first half and the Gonzalo Higuain substitution paid immediate dividends before things came undone in the last 20 minutes.