It’s no surprise that Antonio Conte has had an immediate impact on Inter. He won three Serie A titles at Juventus, exceeded expectations with a poor Italy national team and took Chelsea from 10th to Premier League winners in his first season. Neither is it surprising that he has done it using the same tactics and formation.
At Juventus he started with a back four but quickly changed to a 3-5-2 formation that remained his preferred system. He used the same method with Italy and, except for a brief flirtation with a back four at the beginning of his time with Chelsea, reverted to his tried-and-trusted game plan.
Conte will change to a 3-4-3 if it suits the players at his disposal, as was the case at Stamford Bridge, where Eden Hazard and Pedro played either side of Diego Costa. He has also used it this season at his new club, Inter, when Stefano Sensi and Matteo Politano took up similar positions behind Romelu Lukaku in the Nerazzuri‘s win against Udinese.
This Inter team has many, if not all, of the components needed to replicate the successes of previous Conte teams. So are they the real deal this season, and are they going to replace Juve as the champions of Italy? (They visit Sampdoria on Saturday: stream live on ESPN+, 12 p.m. ET, U.S. only.) If not, what might hold them back?
Conte’s best teams all begin with the defence. The back three of Diego Godin, Stefan de Vrij and Milan Skriniar are good in the air, read the game and have formed a good understanding. They push up at the right time to make the team compact and can defend the space behind them when needed. What Conte doesn’t have, though, is a centre-back with the passing skill of Leonardo Bonucci or David Luiz, whom he had at Juventus and Chelsea, respectively, and that limits Inter’s ability to play out from the back.
Furthermore, Conte has the choice of four wing-backs to help augment his system. Against Lazio, Cristiano Biraghi and Danilo D’Ambrosio started. Both were involved in the winning goal, with Biraghi crossing for D`Ambrosio to score. Previously, Kwadwo Asamoah, who played under Conte at Juventus, had started on the left. Although injuries have affected his athleticism, his positional knowledge is just as good, as he highlighted against Milan when nullifying Suso and Andrea Conti, but he isn’t as dynamic in attacking areas.
On the right, Conte has rotated between Antonio Candreva and D’Ambrosio. Candreva is a great runner with the ball and delivers excellent crosses while D’Ambrosio has better defensive qualities and is good in the air at the far post.
In midfield, Marcelo Brozovic is a willing anchor. Playing the holding role, he passes forward with quality, switches play at the right time and takes up good defensive positions even though he’ll never effect games in the same way that Andrea Pirlo and N’Golo Kante did for Juventus and Chelsea, respectively. Pirlo controlled games with his manipulation of the ball and vast passing range while Kante dominated the midfield with dynamism.
Also integral to a Conte team is fitness. The advanced midfield players, Sensi, Nicolo Barella or Matias Vecino, work tirelessly. They make runs beyond their front players, as Sensi did for his goal against Udinese, or into space behind the opposition’s full-backs, something Barella did constantly against Milan and Lazio. Defensively, they are required to press the ball in midfield or go wider to confront full-backs. However, they have a long way to go to emulate Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba at Juventus, but their job description is identical.
So why have Inter’s performances not matched the results?
Conte’s game plan is dependent on getting the ball to his strikers as often as possible. He would prefer it to be with quality but it isn’t a necessity because he expects his front players to be in a position where they will be first to the ball. He then requires his front two to link up with each other.
In his first season at Juventus, he paired any two of Mirko Vucinic, Alessandro Matri, Fabio Quagliarella, Alessandro Del Piero and Marco Borriello in a bid to get the right combination; in his second, Matri, Vucinic and Quagliarella were joined by Sebastian Giovinco. Yet it was in his third season where he found the perfect combination of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente. The Spaniard fought off defenders to keep possession while Tevez provided the guile and creativity. At Inter, who finally dispensed with Mauro Icardi this summer, his options are limited.
The importance of front players who are good with their back to goal in Conte’s structure was highlighted at the 2016 European Championships. With Graziano Pelle and Eder up front, Italy beat Belgium, Sweden and Spain while drawing with Germany. Yet when Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza played against Ireland, Conte`s game plan completely broke down.
The same happened at Chelsea. For six months before he lost his appetite, Costa’s combination play with Hazard and Pedro was brilliant, ending with Chelsea winning the title. In the second season, Alvaro Moratta was either unfit or lacking in confidence and Olivier Giroud wasn’t mobile enough. As a result, Chelsea fell out of the top four.
So why was Conte so insistent on making Lukaku his transfer priority when the Belgium international doesn’t have the skill set required for the role? He struggles to receive balls into his body without allowing his marker to get in front of him, and he doesn’t make it clear to teammates when and where he wants it. Against Udinese, Milan and Lazio, either he constantly allowed the centre-back to beat him to the ball or there was a misunderstanding between him and the player who wanted to pass to him. It was highlighted further when Inter were pressed high up the pitch by Slavia Prague and had to play more directly, escaping their Champions League opener with a 1-1 draw.
Lukaku’s movement is better the closer he gets to goal, as he demonstrated when scoring against Milan in Inter’s recent derby win. He is also dangerous when moving out to the right and running at defenders with the ball, as he does for Belgium. But unless Lukaku improves his hold-up play and forges a better understanding with either Lautaro Martinez or Politano, Conte’s hopes of success this season will end in bitter disappointment.