Conte’s Hot Start At Inter
After years of suffering from unrealistic expectations, Inter have put their faith in Antonio Conte. There is plenty of hope around the club to make the step Suning Holding Group has been chasing for years. In this piece, we analyze how Conte has sculpted Inter to resemble his ideas.
Written by Kareem Bianchi.
Eight years into his managerial career at the highest level we have got a clear picture of what to expect from Antonio Conte. His teams consistently feature three-at-the-back systems and not seldom we see unexpected players turn into unsung heroes in the wing-back positions. All the while, Conte will be his busy gesticulating self in an iconic black suit.
In contrast to his reputation as inflexible in his tactical setup, Conte has always adapted his positional play shapes depending on the players at his disposal. The general mechanisms of play remain untouched, but Conte has always been comfortable at compromising while remaining true to his beliefs and principles.
Since his very first days at Appiano Gentile, the home of Inter’s training facility, the newly appointed manager has manifested his intentions to utilize the 3-5-2 shape that gained popularity after its exploits at Juventus and with the Italian national team. Consequently, in perfect Conte style, a concrete list of requests was quickly submitted to CEO of Sport Giuseppe Marotta, the man in charge of Inter’s transfers.
Knowing how demanding Antonio Conte is when it comes to which players he will work with, it was hardly surprising to see those deemed unsuitable immediately discarded. Playing under Conte means signing somewhat of a pact of honor concerning the willingness to put in the maximum degree of effort and placing absolute trust in the manager’s ideas and demands. Courtesy and respect are the two cornerstones of Conte’s work, and he is not known for hesitating when decisions need to be made. Accompanying Diego Costa to the door at Chelsea through a text message is just one of the long list of controversies the Lecce-born manager was involved in throughout his career. At Inter, he showed no mercy when it came to ruling Mauro Icardi, Radja Nainggolan and Ivan Perišić out of his plans, the latter after being tested at left wing-back during pre-season and seemingly not living up to the manager’s expectations.
Through the other door, instead, walked in new signings capable of adding to a squad that demanded: “ambition, hunger, determination, and enthusiasm to bring Inter back to winning ways, back to where it deserves to be”. These were some of the opening words in Antonio Conte’s first interview with the club.
The man before
Under Luciano Spalletti, Inter made a name for themselves thanks to Icardi’s prolific goal scoring, which papered largely over the cracks of an inertially effective offensive strategy. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, the ball would be slowly circulated at the back and progressed through the wings, as the wingers and fullbacks would then cross like there was no tomorrow, regardless of the occupation of the penalty area.
The painful lack of variety in the offensive solutions made the attack predictable and over reliant on Icardi, who would often be the only player standing in the box while Inter compulsively crossed until the target was eventually hit. In the 2017/18 season, Icardi scored 38% of Inter’s non-penalty goals and during Spalletti’s tenure Inter were the team that made the most crosses per match in Europe.
In Spaletti’s two year spell, Inter did not seem to progress, and the manager himself never reached the heights expected after picking up 87 points with Roma. Ultimately, with tension mounting between the manager and the fans, a change appeared inevitable.
The Suning Holding Group has always been clear that the target for their main asset has always been to win Serie A – or at least compete closely with Juventus. Now, is there a better man than Conte at building teams from scratch by making the most out of the material at his disposal and competing at a level above what would be normally expected?
Everything starts with defense
One aspect that makes the former Chelsea manager stand out as one of the best in the world is the speed at which he is able to convey his methodology to the players and implement it in practical terms. Furthermore, this speed does not influence the effectiveness of the game model, which remains of the highest degree. An example of this was when as early as July 14th, Conte’s football was already visible and free-flowing against Lugano, even with a team that was far from complete.
Inter’s opening games in Serie A – so often the reality check to unrealistic hope – worked as an additional reassurance how things in Milan were set to change. With three wins out of three games against Lecce, Cagliari and Udinese, Conte and Inter started their journey on the right foot.
However, a relatively easy start means that the real test for Conte’s men will come in the following weeks. In the span of just four fixtures, Inter will face Milan in the Derby della Madonnina, Lazio and Juventus after a challenging trip to Barcelona for the second Champions League game in a grueling group that also features Borussia Dortmund and Slavia Praha.
Despite it being premature to make any sort of conclusions based on not even a handful of games, Inter’s opener to the newly promoted Lecce already gave a clear picture of Conte’s football in an efficient and promising style.
Who and how?
After featuring in every preseason friendly, Stefan de Vrij was expected to play at the center of the defense, however, an injury ruled him out of Inter’s first Serie A games, which saw Andrea Ranocchia replace the Dutchman. Diego Godín was also unavailable and thus Danilo D’Ambrosio started in his place, with Milan Škriniar as the only undisputed starter in defense on the field.
In sharp contrast to Spalletti’s football, each of Conte’s center-backs has a great responsibility in progressing the ball vertically. In previous seasons the burden of the buildup in defense mainly fell onto Škriniar, in charge of picking players between the lines with “laser-passes”, as well as on the fullbacks. Against Lecce and Cagliari, though, the defensive trio composed of Škriniar, Ranocchia, and D’Ambrosio averaged 62 passes.
More importantly, the buildup dynamics differed in the movement ahead of the ball. Conte’s mechanisms to find the third man or a free a player facing the opposition goal are an integral part of his team’s methods to move the ball forward, and at Inter it has not been different.
Candreva- “Conte breaks down a game into so much detail that you know if one tactic doesn’t work, you’ve got another option & another & another”— Premier League Panel (@PremLeaguePanel) September 3, 2019
Conte’s ability to coach a team to greater than the sum of it’s parts & not just spend his way out of trouble,makes him an elite coach pic.twitter.com/lQ70BT99CF
After years of pursuit, this summer Conte was finally able to coach Romelu Lukaku, who was entrusted with the attack’s keys. Despite what his size may suggest, Lukaku is a player whose physical attributes don’t guarantee him dominance over opposition center-backs when playing with his back to goal, and as such target men duties don’t suit him. Patterns like Conte’s can help him move ahead of an opponent with the necessary advantage to evade pressure, whilst allowing the Belgian the mobility he needs to thrive. As a consequence, besides engaging in coordinated movements with his attacking partner in Inter’s 3-5-2 shape, he also drops deeper to play lay-offs.
Even though the Serie A sample size is small, Lukaku’s involvement in the team’s play has already increased from an average of 12.5 passes per game in his two seasons at Manchester United to 17.5 passes and 37 touches per game at Inter.
Conversely, Lukaku’s partner Lautaro Martínez is more involved in the finishing, off the ball movement and ball-carrying, as his 7 and 8 passes completed respectively against Lecce and Cagliari demonstrate. The spot beside the Belgium international remains in contention between Alexis Sánchez and Lautaro, though, and thus the involvement on the ball from Lukaku’s partner could increase.
The midfield is probably the most department that saw most innovation. With the arrivals of Stefano Sensi and Nicolò Barella, Inter have secured themselves two youngsters suited to Conte’s style that can potentially be molded into decisive players both on and off the ball. Sensi’s season under Roberto De Zerbi helped shape the Sassuolo loanee into a player much more involved in off the ball movements.
Sassuolo’s positional play improved his positioning, adding runs in behind the defense and a diversified array of movements to the playmaker’s package. It is not, therefore, surprising how the Italian quickly imposed himself as a starter at left central midfielder, aside deep-lying playmaker Marcelo Brozović and right central midfielder Matías Vecino – still in contention with Barella. Vecino is another player whose involvement has been crucial at opening passing lanes and attacking the opposition defense with midfield runners.
Specifically, when a wing-back or center-back is in possession, the ball-near central midfielder acts as the third man. This means that he makes runs in behind the opposing midfield to open passing lanes to the closest striker and subsequently receive the third pass on the run.
#Inter Milan had a very successful start of the new season under #Conte.— kstdnv (@kstdnv4) September 4, 2019
In build-up phases, they show an interesting pattern after one of the wing-backs receiving the ball. The following run of the ball-near CM and movements of the strikers develop some interesting dynamics. pic.twitter.com/jEaaZ7xV04
Similarly, another pattern sees the ball-side midfielder move near the touchline and towards the ball. This way, he can attract an opposing midfielder and free the space behind him for the wing-back to occupy. The goal is to open a passing lane to the strikers, who can either combine between each other or free a runner from midfield into space instead.
The action described above in a preseason friendly between Inter and Juventus.
For the wing-back roles, Inter brought in Valentino Lazaro from Hertha Berlin and Cristiano Biraghi from Fiorentina, although their playing opportunities seem limited at the moment as Kwadwo Asamoah and Antonio Candreva have claimed their spot in their former manager’s – respectively at Juve and Italy – starting eleven. Already experienced in Conte’s system, they can guarantee a consistent output throughout the ninety minutes in both phases by providing width when Inter have the ball and immediately recovering their position in the back five if a counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. action fails.
Conte’s teams have a natural tendency to spread enthusiasm in their surroundings, so it is only natural for the fans to feel excited and eventually form a strong bond with the team. Every collective, without which survival would not be possible, becomes a significant contributor to the ecosystem. This phenomenon can be compared to a mutualistic symbiosis, and it is one of the reasons for the manager’s intransigence when it comes to showing the door to the problematic elements. This is due to their functioning, which is not dissimilar to parasites in an interrelationship with its symbiont, endangering the ecosystem and requiring treatment before its diseases cause harm to the host.
There is not a clear standout performer in Conte’s football, unless this refers to the togetherness of the collective, and it is exactly that unity that pushed Inter’s owners to place their faith in Conte’s ability to turn his sides into more than the sum of every part, a cohesive unit ready to recite their manager’s “sutras” by heart.