Great teams are those that are prepared to deal with any sort of difficulty that they are faced with. Whatever challenge they face, they have an answer for it. If the opposition plays deeper, they’ll break them down and score. If the opposition press high up the pitch, they’ll either play through them or they’ll play over them. They’ll deal with numerical advantages and overload the opposition too. It is this sort of tactical flexibility and conditioning that makes teams great.
At various points last season, Antonio Conte’s Inter were accused of not being flexible enough in their approach. Conte himself was often slammed for either not making substitutions to change games or making all the wrong substitutions to stick to his own system, without being prepared to compromise and commit more men forward. It would be all to convenient to chalk this down to the old moniker of “Pazza Inter”, or Crazy Inter.
Fast forward to now, a similar Inter side is being lauded for being the best team in the country. The same Conte is being heralded as one of the best managers in the world, months after being branded as one-dimensional and robotic. The formation on paper has remained Conte’s favoured 3-5-2, but the team has acquired dynamism on and off the ball and they’ve earned the knack for being more responsive in indifferent situations.
Assembling the team
Last season, Conte had put a lot of things down to the lack of ‘his type’ of players and the lack of ‘winners’ in the side. His rants after the games against Borussia Dortmund and Atalanta were rather damning and he often teetered on the brink of potential resignation. Eyebrows were raised, attention shifted to Steven Zhang and Max Allegri sometimes. In the summer though, Conte got his ‘winners’ and he got players that he trusted to curate a system that brought the best out of the side and improved multiple players in the process.
The sale of Diego Godín did raise some eyebrows, especially since the Uruguayan had done well post-lockdown. Valentino Lazaro, who hadn’t done well as a wing-back in the 2019/20 campaign, left too. Borja Valero was only a bit-part player and he rejoined Fiorentina in the summer too.
Aleksandar Kolarov arrived as an option to play at left centre-back – the sort of role he had indeed played under Paulo Fonseca at Roma. Conte made sure that the club signed Arturo Vidal instead of Sandro Tonali, as Alexis Sánchez’s move was made permanent. With Cristiano Biraghi heading back to La Viola, Matteo Darmian arrived on a rather cheap fee from Parma, just a season after moving back to Serie A from Man United.
As Antonio Candreva headed to Sampdoria, Achraf Hakimi arrived – most prominently. Ivan Perisic returned from the Bayern Munich loan to add another option at wing-back too. Unlike last season, Conte now had wide players who were in his typical wing-back mould. While Biraghi was the most productive wing-back in Serie A in the 2019/20 campaign going by Expected Assists and Candreva enjoyed a bit of a resurgence, both of them constantly proved to be liabilities while tracking back and defending in 1v1 situations. Their athleticism was called into question – similar to Lazaro’s situation.
With Stefan de Vrij playing as the sweeper in the back three, Conte initially had Milan Škriniar as the left sided centre-back and Godin on the right. Skriniar’s struggles in the system were symptomatic of issues in the approach, as young Alessandro Bastoni was given a free run in the side on the left, leading to Škriniar and Godín later rotating on the right side of the defence.
Marcelo Brozović was generally the deepest midfielder, acting as the typical ‘regista’. The other two bits in midfield became a dilemma for Conte. While Nicolò Barella had the ability to play as the most advanced midfielder and as the box-to-box shuttler, the likes of Matías Vecino and Roberto Gagliardini never really made an impression on a regular basis. The Italian became a scapegoat numerous times, but Christian Eriksen’s January arrival made sure that Barella played as the shuttler with the ex-Tottenham man playing as the most advanced midfielder – the role that Stefano Sensi had played remarkably well before injuries caught them.
The front two – Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez – was as mercurial as always. Conte made demands for a bigger target man, but the signing never came. Sánchez became a regular rotation option in the forward positions, with the young Sebastiano Esposito making occasional appearances.
A stuttering start
With the 2019/20 campaign being Conte’s first, the team was far from perfect. In possession, the idea was hardly complicated. The wide centre-backs would play the ball to the wing-backs, who would play the ball inside for the front two to combine and create. There was reliance on late runs from midfield to win second balls too, but teams often found it easy to crowd the centre of the pitch and cut Inter out. This was because of a lack of penetration from central areas.
That clearly came to the fore in a loss to Champions League-chasing Lazio last season in February 2020. Lazio sat deep in midfield, with Luis Alberto, Sergej Milinković-Savić and Lucas Leiva, trying to use their trademark approach of killing teams on the transition. They allowed the Inter wing-backs to come forward and pass inside, but they nullified everything centrally. Inter were found wanting, as the front two were rendered useless and the lack of a proper target man left them looking one-dimensional.
A similar pattern followed in the Europa League final against Sevilla too, but that wasn’t the only weakness in the side. While the structure of the side was sound off the ball, it fell apart due to imprecise player profiles. In a game against Sassuolo earlier in the campaign, the inability of the wing-backs to defend in 1v1 situations against quicker attackers caught them off guard. While playing against a team that plays quickly across the midfield while allowing the opposition to press, Sassuolo managed to trouble Inter on the transition. Biraghi and Lazaro failed to track back and those were times when Godín and Škriniar were still getting used to playing in a back three. They were to defend wide spaces instead of being central, making them easier to go past.
Jérémie Boga troubled Lazaro with his raw pace, while Domenico Berardi got the better of Biraghi for Sassuolo’s first goal, leaving the Inter wide CBs with too much space to defend in rather unnatural areas. The same had happened in a game against Parma earlier in the campaign, when Gervinho and Yann Karamoh ran Inter ragged. That came as a result of the wing-backs failing to track back, exposing the wide CBs again and leaving the excellent De Vrij with too much to handle.
There were question marks as to why Conte failed to make attacking changes at the right time. That was apparent in the reverse game against Sassuolo, in the Europa League final and in the Champions League games against Barcelona and Dortmund. It told a lot about his lack of trust in the back-up options in the squad and instead of focusing on his faults, Conte always went on about the need for more players in the side. In hindsight, it is easy to see why he did so.
It is important to note that after lockdown, we saw Conte go along the Atalanta lines in certain phases of the game. Inter adopted the overlapping centre-back system, allowing Škriniar and Bastoni to move closer to the wing-backs, creating numerical overloads wide. They could pick out passing lanes, and their positioning prevented the opposition from going past the wing-backs and allowed Inter to be more resistant to transitions.
They could kill transitions at source, as the deepest midfielder (generally Brozović) dropped in as a temporary centre-half alongside the spare defender as play progressed. That sparked something at the club – the willingness to become more dynamic and lay down the foundation for a better squad next season.
This season, that change has become a norm for Inter every week – especially in the bigger games. They change from a 3-5-2 in a defensive phase to a 4-2-4/4-4-2 in an attacking phase, with a lot of players having got to grips with the system and having spent enough time under Conte to implement the approach. Conte had used a 4-4-2 system during his early months at Juventus and at his former clubs too, but to begin using that in an attempt to nullify Inter’s flaws was certainly admirable at the turn of the campaign.
The importance of the wide men
Having proper wing-backs on either side of the pitch has been massive for Conte in such a system. Hakimi and Darmian/Young/Perišić are comfortable playing further forward, and when Bastoni and Škriniar push forward in possession, Inter change shape in a dynamic way. Having more players provide more service from wide has been massively beneficial for the front two as well and Hakimi’s direct running has been key to making that possible.
The Moroccan, who often played in a 3-4-3 shape at Borussia Dortmund benefitted massively from having Jadon Sancho to combine with. The numerical advantages Inter get wide in the dynamic shape suits Hakimi too, as he gets to run directly at defenders in 1v1 situations. The manner in which he terrified the likes of Théo Hernandez and Fiorentina’s Igor stands testimony to that. He’s made Inter look scary on the break, which makes it barely a coincidence that Inter have scored as many as 48 goals in the second-half – five more than any other side. Hakimi’s tendency to gallop forward at every opportunity hits home for Inter when they’re in need of another goal to end the tie. Having two men to combine with suits him and that has made Inter devastating on the counter-attack.
What has also helped is Lukaku’s development as a player. The Belgian has already admitted to the fact that Conte got him training with his back to goal, with Andrea Ranocchia marking him. That attribute of his play has been silently key to Inter’s tactical development. It has allowed him to generally stick close to the opposition left centre-backs, isolate them, beat them and turn to create or score. Isolating one defender with him allows Hakimi a 1v1 situation for the opposition full-back and more space for Lautaro to operate in and score off passes from Hakimi and Lukaku.
When in possession, even the left sided wing-back is advanced forward to create essentially a front four for Inter (4-2-4). The idea is to keep the opposition defenders occupied and pin them back. This setup is similar to Conte’s Chelsea, where the team played a 3-4-3 regularly and they transformed into a front five in possession, with Marcos Alonso acting as the unorthodox aerial outlet on the left.
Christian Eriksen’s move into the middle
Eriksen’s addition has been key and even though last season wasn’t great and there was talk of him leaving in January too, there’s a reason why the Dane has settled into a deeper role. It allows Inter a creative outlet from the middle, nullifying one of their weaknesses from last season when teams like Lazio found it easy to crowd them out in the middle, as everything came from wide areas.
Eriksen did struggle initially, as he couldn’t find a home when lockdown struck Italy. Physically, he seemed down and in comparison to how Sensi had performed in the attacking midfield role, Eriksen seemed slower and would take too much time on the ball. He slowly grew into the team while playing deeper in games where Inter needed penetration from midfield and in a similar way to Miralem Pjanić, his role has now changed for good.
The ex-Tottenham man has added a new dimension to play, disallowing the opposition from being able to sit in and deny Inter space in the midfield. Formerly one of the best number tens in Europe, Eriksen knows how to slice open packed lines and he knows where the spaces are. He’s added that value to the team, making them look way less one-dimensional than they were last season.
Milan Škriniar’s resurgence
Another big development has been the rise of Škriniar, who has arguably been one of the best centre-backs in Serie A this season. A lot of his rise has been down to Marcelo Brozović and his positioning in midfield/defence. The Croatian constantly drops in as the centre-back, allowing Skriniar to move to right-back.
Škriniar, because of his natural technical ability, comes across as a proper right-back many times too. He has the knack for carrying the ball forward and feeding it to the front two or to Hakimi himself. Škriniar is also given the chance to use his right foot more often and it only helps Inter in possession and in switching shapes quickly.
As much as his use has been different, Škriniar has gotten more used to playing as a wide centre-back – and that comes with time. Essentially, Inter defends with more than three players despite playing a 3-5-2 on paper, with Bastoni and Škriniar going up as full-backs and De Vrij and Brozovic dropping in as centre-backs. As a result, Bastoni and Škriniar have to cover a lesser amount of space behind the wing-backs.
A versatile Barella
Eriksen playing deeper allows Barella to play as the advanced midfielder, tasked with making late runs in the box, moving into half-spaces and sometimes acting as a false forward to drop opposition defences apart. Considering the setup of the front four at Inter, having Barella play in that role is absolutely vital.
Barella has had 25 touches in the attacking third per 90 minutes this season, which is many more than his tally of 19.9 from the 2019/20 campaign. He’s done that while reducing his dribbles and not improving massively on his ball-carrying. He has received a pass 52.6 times per 90 minutes too this season, which is well more than the tally of 48.8 from last season. He’s also received more progressive passes from those behind him.
That isn’t to say that his creation abilities haven’t increased. He has already gathered a higher xA tally than the previous campaign. It has gone up from 1.6 to 5.4, a reflection of his improvement in creation and his placement in the final third is effective for him. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder Barella has had such a productive season.
Inter’s improvement has come from the gradual development of multiple players like Škriniar, Barella, Eriksen, Lukaku and some shrewd signings. But at the same time, they’ve benefitted from a modification of the system and it has brought them closer to perfection. While it is ironic that the likes of Kolarov and Vidal have turned out to be poor signings, a majority of Conte’s signings have worked out very well and have contributed to the system. He has crafted a system which suits their strengths and it is good enough to cover the team’s flaws. That is very sound management indeed.
Statistics from FBref