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Feature | Does Serie A finally have a title race again?

With new managers on either side of the Derby d’Italia, this season has the potential for Serie A to finally regain a genuine title race.

Antonio Conte’s return to Italy had been eagerly anticipated. An astute appointment for a club with ambitions loftier than just Champions League qualification, Inter sent a clear message to the rest of the league, and Juventus in particular.

Following three years of successful development in their off-field activities – and in naming a Coach with the ambition and drive of Conte – they have taken a major step towards closing the sporting gap between themselves and the side who have won the last eight consecutive league titles in Serie A.

Aside from his perfectionist mentally and undeniable coaching talent, Conte has the firsthand experience in restoring a club to its rightful position at the top of the league that Inter require. The irony of his appointment, is that the club with which he originally achieved this feat, was now the club he now sought to overtake.

In a strange twist of fate, Conte’s appointment at Inter also coincided with a changing of the guard at his former club, Juventus. Massimo Allegri, the manager who had replaced Conte, was stepping down following a five year span in which he won five consecutive league titles. Although achieving unprecedented domestic success, his failure to win a European trophy and an extremely pragmatic brand of football left Agnelli, the Juventus chairman, keen to move in a different direction. Eventually, they placed their trust in a manager who once was a thorn in their side.

Sacked by Chelsea following a turbulent (but unfairly criticised) season, Maurizio Sarri was the man Agnelli thought best to take Juventus forward. His 2017/18 Napoli side had run the Bianconeri close, finishing four points behind the champions, but more importantly had received mass-adulation due to their high intensity, attacking and attractive style of football. At Juve, Sarri was given the task of throwing the pragmatism out with the bath water and to implement a brand new approach to a club set in its ways.

This would not be an easy challenge. Regardless of their depth of talent and seemingly endless resources, the majority of the Juventus squad had been together for the entirety of Allegri’s reign. After five years of being discouraged to press opponents, and to drop deep without possession, under Sarri, the Juve players were now being instructed to do the exact opposite. 

Perhaps expectedly, they started slowly. With unconvincing wins over lower league opposition, a draw against a struggling Fiorentina side, and, although eventually winning 4-3, squandering a 3-0 lead against Napoli, led to early criticism of the new Juventus. What would have concerned Sarri more than the results, however, was how little of his style of football had been played.

However, once again, this was to be expected. As well as his players adjusting to the unfamiliarity of new management and tactics, Juventus had also suffered injuries to key players Giorgio Chiellini, Douglas Costa and Danilo. To further complicate matters, it was evident that Sarri was struggling to find a balance within the team, even reverting from his trademark 4-3-3 formation to a 4-3-1-2. Despite all of these factors, Juventus had only dropped two points, and were second in the table.

At Inter, Conte was experiencing more immediate success. In his typical 3-5-2 formation, they had won all six of their first six games, including a comprehensive 2-0 victory over city rivals Milan. In addition to the positive results, new signings Diego Godin, Romelu Lukaku, Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi had all hit the ground running, justifying Conte’s decision to move on Icardi, Perisic and Nainggolan.

In comparison to Juventus, Conte’s Inter looked balanced and confident in performing their new tactics, and following their impressive start, topped the Serie A table. Even in their first defeat of the season, a 2-1 loss to Barcelona, they demonstrated the determination and discipline which Conte demands, playing captivating passing moves while under pressure, before developing them into devastating attacks.

As a result of Inter’s rapid adaptation to Conte’s ideas – alongside the perception of Juventus struggling to find form – further anticipation was added to the build up of their meeting in the first Derby d’Italia of the season. Not only would Conte be facing the club he served as both a player and manager, but it would provide a stern test to gauge exactly how far both teams had developed in their new systems.

While Inter lined up in the 3-5-2 as expected, Sarri stuck with the 4-3-1-2 he had deployed in Juventus’ 3-0 Champions League win earlier in the week. It should be noted, this represents clear growth of Sarri’s tactical capacity, considering his previous adamance to deploy anything but a 4-3-3 while at Napoli and Chelsea. Not only was the Juventus formation surprising, so too was the starting eleven. Rather than Higuaín, Dybala started alongside Ronaldo, while Bernardeschi played in the number 10 role that had been originally created to accommodate the absent, but not unavailable, Ramsey.

Along with the Juventus formation and team selection, the game also began in a surprising manner. As Inter pressed, Juventus played longer balls into the space behind the Inter wing backs, a tactic which opposes the philosophy of Sarri-ball. However, it proved successful. Following a long ball from Pjanic, Dybala found himself through on goal, holding off De Vrij, before firing across Handanović.

Inter looked like they could get blown away at times in the opening stages. Their defensive three were struggling to cope with the Juventus attack, as Ronaldo and Dybala were dropping wide and unmarked into the pockets of space behind D’Ambrosio and Asamoah. As soon as Inter lost possession, Sarri’s men would look for a longer ball to the wings. In one such move, Ronaldo collected the ball on the left, driving at Godin and then De Vrij, before crashing his shot against the crossbar.

As the game progressed, the Old Lady reverted to playing a shorter passing game, while Inter started to establish themselves, playing the ball more confidently and exploiting the space in wide areas. They deservedly drew level in the 18th minute, after creating an overload the right wing, Barrella crossed towards Martinez, forcing De Ligt to handle the ball. Martinez swept the ball home powerfully from the spot, drawing Inter level.

The loss through injury of Stefano Sensi before half time, along with Deigo Godin shortly after the break, substantially affected Inter‘s gameplan. Although Sensi’s replacement, Matías Vecino, struck the post with a deflected effort at the start of the second half, he struggled to have any meaningful impact on the game, lacking the energy and dynamism that Sensi has displayed so impressively this season.

After a second half in which Juventus appeared comfortable, they eventually broke a stubborn Inter defence down in the 80th minute. Godin’s replacement, 20 year-old Alessandro Bastoni, was caught ball-watching as Higuaín collected Rodrigo Bentancur’s pass before firing low past Handanović. Both Higuaín and Bentancur had been introduced by Sarri in the second-half, illuminating the contrast of each teams depth.

The final score of a 2-1 Juventus victory was deserved, and should be considered a tactical success for Sarri. After his initial decision to play longer balls, catching Inter off guard and leading to the opening goal, the away side then transformed, and performed their best depiction of Sarri-ball to date.

They pressed Inter efficiently and effectively out of possession, while in possession they played in neat triangles to progress ball through the Inter press. There were some slight lapses in concentration, however Sarri will be happy with his team’s performance in what will surely be their most difficult test of the domestic season.

On the other hand, Conte and Inter will not necessarily be disheartened by the result. The unfortunate losses of Sensi and Godin dealt a blow which potentially cost them the game, however it is arguable that the stronger bench of Juventus would have taken advantage of their fatigue regardless.

Despite this, their performance reflected one of a Conte side, maintaining their discipline and intensity, even while being outplayed. As with previous teams led by the relentless tactician, a loss has proved the catalyst for greater success, and there is certainly no possibility that this will deter his belief in his project at Inter.

However, as it stands, the gap remains between Juventus and the chasing pack, but Inter and Conte are beginning to show that it is possible to close. As both sides develop under their new managers, they will undoubtedly improve. They may falter at points in the season, but if both managers are provided with the time and resources they require, Serie A will not only be rewarded with a genuine title race, but could develop teams capable of challenging for the European titles that have evaded Italian sides for so long.

GMc

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