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FEATURE | Why Inter are better off without Christian Eriksen

Christian Eriksen is very good at football

It would not be ridiculous to suggest that Christian Eriksen is Inter’s best player. During his time in England, the Danish international established himself as one of the Premier League’s best attacking midfielders; when he left Tottenham earlier this year only David Silva had registered more Premier League assists over the last decade in England’s top flight.

Eriksen also offers a quantifiable goal threat, having left Spurs having averaged almost ten goals a season. These are the numbers of a world-class footballer, and few people who have followed Eriksen’s career would question his status as one of Europe’s finest midfielders.


But his first few months in Italy have not gone as planned. The great Dane has struggled to make the impact expected of him since his arrival in January and his indifferent performances have seen him unable to establish himself in the team.

It has been suggested that Eriksen isn’t suited to Serie A, but it doesn’t make sense that a player who has had so much success in the Premier League, Champions League and when representing Denmark internationally couldn’t adapt to Italian football. It is more probable that Eriksen’s difficulties are almost exclusively related to him not being suited to Antonio Conte and Inter’s very specific tactical setup.

Conte’s 3-5-2

Using a 3-5-2 formation that brought Inter’s Apulian coach so much success at Juventus, the 2019/20 season started brilliantly for Inter. As well as reaching the top of the Serie A table, the team exhibited an attractive brand of dynamic football synonymous with Antonio Conte sides. It was Conte football at its best, and at its best his style is not about freedom of expression but technical and tactical precision.

The efficacy of the team relies on players interpreting their roles in line with the manager’s instructions, fulfilling their individual responsibilities as part of an intricate footballing mechanism. Conte’s three-man central midfield was composed of Marcelo Brozović, as a deep-lying playmaker with Nicolò Barella and Stefano Sensi either side. This setup, and the technical ability of those players, meant that the Inter defence always had options when playing the ball out from defence.

This was something Conte insisted upon: it wasn’t enough for the opposition to close down Brozović to stop Inter playing, because Barella and Sensi were just as happy picking the ball up deep. This meant that the three central defenders and Handanović always had multiple forward
options for offloading the ball.

This setup also made it easier for Inter to stretch the opposition’s midfield, opening passing lines into the team’s strikers; Sensi and Barella’s starting positions and the freedom they were allowed to occupy wider spaces, further up the field, when Inter were in possession, created passing lines for Brozović and Inter’s central defenders to play, direct and controlled, forward passes.

Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez are excellent with their back to goal, and thrived on this kind of service, which brought Inter lots of success, especially in the early part of the season. Injuries to Sensi and Barella impacted on Inter’s performances, but despite Conte lamenting the squad’s lack of depth and experience, Borja Valero, Matías Vecino and Roberto
Gagliardini all filled in effectively enough for Inter to keep in touch at the top of the Serie A table.

The arrival of Eriksen


Even though the Dane could have arrived for free in the summer, the €20 million paid by Inter was seen as smart business. The relatively small fee allowed the Nerazzurri to pick up a player who was probably worth more than  €50 million, avoiding the inevitable competition from other clubs had
they waited for Eriksen become a free agent at the end of the season.

Ashley Young and Victor Moses completed a trio of winter signings from the Premier League. While the former Manchester United and Chelsea wide players slotted seamlessly into Conte’s formation, Eriksen
found things more difficult. Conte slowly introduced the Danish international into the team, amending his 3-5-2 into a 3-4-1-2, but Eriksen struggled to find any sort of form.

Whilst most fans and media were still of the idea that the attacking midfielder would be an excellent addition, he failed to hold down a place in the team. In Inter’s last match before lockdown, March’s Scudetto showdown against Juve, Eriksen started on the bench. He came on in the 59th minute with the score at 0-0; Juve scored five minutes after his introduction and went on to win 2-0.


Post-Lockdown


Three months later, Inter returned to action in the second leg of the Italian Cup semi-final against Napoli. Eriksen started and scored to give Inter the lead. Inter were eventually eliminated after a 1-1 draw – they had lost the first leg 0-1 – but the team played well and Eriksen’s performance was widely considered his best since joining the Nerazzurri.

It appeared that the work done during lockdown had helped the Dane adjust to his new footballing reality and Conte was once again talking up Inter’s chances of catching Juventus, with Eriksen set to play a key role.

But the Dane’s and Inter’s good form didn’t last. Even though Juve themselves stuttered, Inter went on to drop points against Sassuolo, Bologna and Fiorentina, handing the title to the Bianconeri with three games to spare. In the same period, Eriksen saw less and less of the pitch.

Even though the former Italy and Chelsea manager was insisting with the 3-4-1-2 he had first instigated to accommodate Eriksen, Conte hardly ever started the Danish international and repeatedly brought him on with just a handful of minutes to spare. Some sections of the media felt Conte’s treatment of the former Spurs man was almost disrespectful, prompting suggestions that there had been a falling out between the two.


The problems with 3-4-1-2


The change in formation hadn’t just failed to get the best out of Eriksen, it had affected the performance of the rest of the team. Brozović and Barella had more ground to cover defensively, meaning they cannot press higher up the pitch when not in possession.

Opposition teams were also finding it easier to stop Inter’s midfield, and especially Marcelo Brozović, from dictating the tempo of matches. Playing out from the back became more complicated; Eriksen’s position behind the strikers created more ‘traffic’ in the central area of the pitch, blocking the vertical passing lines from Inter’s defence into their strikers.

As a result of the tactical reshuffle to accommodate Inter’s new star man, the dynamic and vertical football that Inter had exhibited in the early part of the season had been replaced by a more horizontal and less penetrative game.


A return to 3-5-2


In the last game of the Serie A season, Inter faced high-flying Atalanta in a match that would decide who would finish second in Serie A.  The Bergamaschi were undefeated in 17 games and had scored in 25 consecutive matches. For the first time post-lockdown, Conte returned to his
signature 3-5-2. With the exception of Sensi (still recovering from injury) Inter played the same way they did at the start of the season.

With a regista and two mezzali (deep-lying midfielder with
a midfielder either side), Inter were able to press higher, covering the width of the pitch more completely. In a performance heralded by some as their best all season, they restricted Serie A’s highest scorers to very few meaningful goal-scoring opportunities.

Offensively, the team repeatedly threatened the Atalanta goal, returning to the more direct, vertical play seen at the beginning of the season. The 2-0 victory vindicated the return to a 3-5-2 and the decision to leave Eriksen out; the Dane was only introduced in the 90th minute.


Europa League Run


Conte continued with an ‘Eriksenless’ 3-5-2 in the final stages of the Europa League. In a run that saw the Nerazzurri return to their first major European final since winning the Champions League in 2010, Inter put in some of their best performances of the whole season, eliminating Getafe,
Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk before losing to Sevilla.

The return to 3-5-2 and the tactical nuances that come with it were once again being interpreted close to perfectly by Conte’s side; all of the uncertainty that had been present during the section of the season when Inter had used a 3-4-1-2 had completely disappeared.

On analysing Inter’s season, there is a strong indication that Inter’s best performances and results came when Conte employed a 3-5-2. The shift in tactics to accommodate Eriksen may have suited the Danish international but his contribution wasn’t enough to outweigh the fact that it stifled some of the other players.

In the Europa League run, Eriksen didn’t start any of Inter’s games but came on in all four. Instead of playing in his usual, central role behind the strikers, Eriksen played as one of the mezzali with some success. He scored against Getafe, played a veryn good thirty minutes against Leverkusen (in which he created multiple goalscoring opportunities) and didn’t shy away from the extra defensive duties the role entails.

It appeared that both Conte and Eriksen were coming round to the idea that Eriksen could play in that role, but Conte never became convinced enough for Eriksen to dislodge Gagliardini in the starting line-up.


Where does this leave Eriksen?

The summer transfer window had seen Inter increase their central midfield options. Radja Nainggolan returned from Cagliari, and Vidal arrived from Barcelona. They join Barella, Sensi, Brozović, Vecino and Gagliardini. As things stand, including Eriksen, Conte will have 7 players for 3 positions in midfield. It could be argued that Eriksen is the least suited to Conte’s
football out of all of them.

Even though Conte seemed unsure about Eriksen at the end of last season, a couple of good performances against lower-level opposition in pre-season convinced the Inter manager to start Inter’s number 24 in the club’s first game of the season against Fiorentina.

Inter struggled to a 4-3 win. The return to a 3-4-1-2 led to the same uncertainty that the formation had brought about in the middle of last season. Whilst Eriksen played well enough and was involved in the goal
which gave Inter a 2-1 lead, the Danish midfielder was removed as soon as Fiorentina had retaken the lead.

He was replaced by Sensi, and the reshuffle in midfield immediately gave the whole team a better balance. After the game, Conte claimed that Eriksen could have a bigger impact for Inter this year, suggesting that he could still be in the manager’s plans.

He is currently the joint top earner at the club (with Lukaku) and if he is not going to be an integral part of the team and isn’t able to make a notable contribution it’s hard to justify his 7.5 million salary + bonuses. Inter have been stung in the recent past by letting talented midfielders go to quickly; Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf both went on to win the Champions League with Milan, while a 21 year-old Philippe Coutinho went to Liverpool for just €11 million, and after five brilliant seasons in the Premier League was sold on for €160 million before winning the Champions League with Bayern Munich this year.

Realistically, though, Inter need to sell 2 or even 3 midfielders to give Conte a manageable squad size and help take care of the club’s finances. It’s difficult to question his absolute ability as a footballer but selling Eriksen makes a lot of sense.

It is almost paradoxical that getting rid of a player of such quality could make a team better, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Eriksen’s presence, and the way the rest of the team adapt to accommodate him, make Inter less effective.

The midfielder’s stock is still very high across Europe and it’s conceivable that having spent just €20 million to sign him, Inter could make a
profit.

In the world of Financial Fair Play, relieving the club of such a sizeable wage makes a lot of financial sense, but more importantly, the Dane’s departure could allow Antonio Conte to re-establish his football ideas in a way that suits the rest of the squad and might make it more likely for Inter to achieve serious success on the pitch this season.

Francesco Amesbury

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