Inter Miami returned to action this past weekend, but one of the biggest storylines regarding the team in its Saturday game was about a player that surprisingly and curiously did not feature.
Inter Miami resumed its 2021 MLS season on Saturday night with a 1-0 loss to D.C. United, and the South Florida side did so without star striker Gonzalo Higuain. The Designated Player did not travel with the Herons for their away game, but it was not because he was injured or anything of the like.
Rather, the team explained Higuain’s absence as a technical decision, one made to help him get back to full fitness.
“The decision with Gonzalo was an easy one,” said Inter Miami head coach Phil Neville after the defeat. “We have been working hard as a team the last three weeks. He has missed quite a few days, so we just wanted him to make sure that he got back to absolute 100 percent fitness.
“He is happy with that decision. We talked, so there is no problems. It is not a big thing. He just wants to make sure that when he plays next he is at 100 percent fitness and confidence, and he is working really hard.”
There might be some element of truth to Higuain not being at peak physical conditions, but Neville’s reasoning does not entirely pass the sniff test.
Sure, the Argentine may have missed some time during the past three weeks for reasons that are unknown publicly, but still a healthy Higuain should be able to contribute in some capacity even if not fully fit. At a minimum as an attacking option off the bench for 10-15 minutes if needed. After all, he is a star player, a team captain, and one of the highest-paid players in MLS.
That Neville did not take Higuain in any capacity to a game in which Inter Miami did not fill out a full roster sheet and left several spaces open on the list of bench players seems like a clear message to the center forward and the entire team. Neville has said since last week that he wants a side that has the right attitude, commitment, and effort, and anyone who has closely watched Inter Miami’s games this year knows Higuain has not always provided that.
“I think what we said is that the players on the pitch tonight had the best attitudes, that wanted to play as a team, that were together, that had desire, that had to fight for each other. All the fundamental qualities that you need in life to succeed,” said Neville. “… The whole team never stopped running and fighting for each other. They stuck to the game plan, they trusted each other, and that has got to be the norm from now on.
“That is what we have told them and that is what we have agreed as a team.”
How things with Higuain unfold over the next couple of weeks will be a major Inter Miami subplot that bears watching. A new standard has been set, and it is up to Higuain to meet it.
NEVILLE SIMPLIFIED TACTICS
The emphasis from Inter Miami going into this rematch with D.C. United was clearly putting forth that aforementioned improved effort, attitude, and commitment. Things were better from that standpoint, and so were the tactics Neville used.
In comparison to the 3-0 home loss to D.C. United in late May in which Neville started the game in a 3-5-2 formation before switching to other looks, the Englishman simplified things here. He returned to the 4-2-3-1 system from the start, and altered the Herons’ style of play to better suit the group he has available.
Neville refrained from having his team build out of the back in an effort to avoid being high-pressed again, and opted instead to exclusively go long on every goal kick. John McCarthy appeared to be instructed to skip the back line and distribute almost all his long balls towards the left part of midfield to Brek Shea to make use of the 6-foot-3 winger’s height, with the idea being that Shea could flick on headers and force second balls that his teammates could win to begin play from midfield rather than in the riskier defensive third.
The direct play did not lead to a lot of quality soccer, but Inter Miami had moments where it was able to initiate play in the center of park well and more importantly avoided the type of turnovers at the back that had put the team in a 2-0 hole in the first 21 minutes of last month’s match against D.C. United.
On the defensive side, Neville had his troops play in a 4-4-2, with the back line more narrow than the midfield so as to try and stay compact and limit spaces in between the defenders. It worked for the most part, though centerback Ryan Shawcross had a nightmare even before being red carded, and helped Inter Miami stay in the game.
That was ultimately what Neville was looking for in this one. He wanted Inter Miami to be tougher to breakdown, with the hope being that the team could keep a cleansheet while scrapping, clawing, and fighting its way to a point or three. The idea did not produce a result in the end, but the performance was still better than the recent ones.
The REFEREEING DECISIONS were not that controversial
Two games, three ejections. Audi Field is quickly becoming a house of horror for Inter Miami.
Gregore and Ryan Shawcross were both sent off in this past weekend’s loss, joining Roman Torres as Herons that have been given their marching orders in a road game vs. D.C. United dating back to last year. There was a lot of debate in the heat of battle on Saturday and in the immediate aftermath about the calls being controversial, but they were not really.
The only one that may have been arguable is the second yellow card that midfielder Gregore was given in the 56th minute for a crunching tackle on Kevin Paredes, though the Brazilian should have known better than to put himself in that spot given that he had already been booked. Still, a final warning could have been given to Gregore there rather than the ejection that served as the turning point in the game, but head referee Fotis Bazakos opted for the latter.
— D.C. United (@dcunited) June 20, 2021
The other two decisions were spot on, however. Christian Makoun’s handball infraction in the 71st minute was a good call because of how outstretched his arms were on the play. Some might argue he was just in a natural position as a result of jumping to contest the ball, but arms are not normally as spread out as his were and his defensive posture became bigger as a result. It was unfortunate, especially since he had his back to the ball, but it was accurate.
As for Shawcross, he had shown signs of frustration on a couple of occasions prior to slamming into Joseph Mora and bringing the D.C. United player down with a horse-collar six minutes from time. The Englishman did not even argue the call when he was shown the straight red card and immediately turned to exit the field, a telling sign that showed he knew what he had done. Neville said Inter Miami plans to appeal that call, but it appears very unlikely that it gets overturned.
inter miami player ratings
John McCarthy (6) — Long-ball distribution on goal kicks followed the game plan, and made every save asked of him aside from the penalty.
Nicolas Figal (6) — Some very good defending with multiple interventions, though he got caught on the ball up the field on a couple occasions.
Ryan Shawcross (2) — Had lots of trouble following the movements of Ola Kamara early and needlessly got sent off late due to a rush of blood.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (5) — Also had some issues marking Kamara but was on the whole solid, including in the air.
Christian Makoun (5) — His no-nonsense defending out of position was quietly making him one of the team’s top players until the handball that led to the winner.
Gregore (5.5) —Was Inter Miami’s best performer before committing an avoidable foul that led to his game-changing ejection.
Blaise Matuidi (5.5) — Overall solid display with the highest passing completion of anyone on the team.
Lewis Morgan (5.5) — Set up the best scoring chance of the day with a quality through ball, but was forced to do more defending than attacking.
Jay Chapman (5) — Very few touches despite being the No. 10 due to how the team played and was forced to put in a lot of defensive work.
Brek Shea (6) — Should have finished better on his golden look, but worked like a horse in trying to compete for the numerous long balls sent his way and whipped in some good crosses early on.
Julian Carranza (4.5) — A lot of selfless running and sacrifice without ever being overly threatening in the final third.
Victor Ulloa (5) — Came in to help solidify the center of the park after Gregore’s dismissal and was his usual industrious self.
Kelvin Leerdam (5.5) — Showed a willingness to get forward and other good ideas that should earn him a start next game.
Federico Higuain (N/A) — A late Hail Mary substitution when the team was down to nine men, he had precious few touches.
Joevin Jones (5) — More involved despite entering near the end as well, as he was forced to make a few defensive plays that included a good tactical foul.
Phil Neville (5) – Simplified his tactics to better suit what he has to work with and tried to carve out a hard-fought result, but it was not enough.