Antonio Conte’s appointment as Juventus manager in 2011 marked eight years since the Old Lady had last won an official league title. With the Calciopoli scandal resulting in their relegation from Serie A, the noughties were a comparatively dark decade in Juventus’ history. However Conte, alongside the head of recruitment Beppe Marotta, combined to ensure that the next ten years would be very different.
Under the Italian manager, they won four titles in four years and established the start of Juve’s modern-day dynasty. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Inter Milan’s president Steven Zhang, and indeed new CEO Beppe Marotta, decided that the best way to knock Juventus off their perch would be to hire the guy who had lifted them there in the first place. They decided to bring Conte to Milan. Per Zhang, the idea was to make Inter “credible again” and they spent the money in order to do so. In just two transfer windows at the club, Conte has been supported with 178 million euros and 15 new players.
Inter made a great start and matched Juventus stride for stride in the first few months of the season, but back to back losses before the Coronavirus lockdown (including a 2-0 defeat at Juve’s Allianz Stadium) would see the Nerazzurri slip into third, a respective eight and nine points behind Lazio and Juventus.
Formation and personnel
At Chelsea, Conte began in a 4-3-3 before reverting to his favoured three at the back. This was, however, with three forwards in a 3-4-2-1 as opposed to two forwards in a 3-5-2, which he used at Juventus. So far at Inter, the Italian head coach has opted to play with the formation that made him so successful in Italy. Indeed, he has opted for a 3-5-2 67.7% of the time this season.
Sometimes, we are forced to wonder why a manager uses particular tactics. It isn’t the case with Antonio Conte. Throughout this analysis, we will see that Conte has picked this formation with a purpose. It is the best one available in order to instil his philosophy.
The basis of Conte’s build-up play is built around his use of wide wing-backs. These ensure multiple things. First, by utilising the width they help to make the pitch as big as possible. As seen below, both wing-backs are wide, which creates a lot of space to penetrate in the middle. Lautaro uses it and runs in behind to receive and score.
However, even if Lautaro didn’t receive the ball from his run in behind, Inter would have still benefited from it. Borussia Dortmund’s centre-backs were very narrow in order to control Inter strikers so Inter’s central midfielders had space to penetrate between the wing-backs and the centre-backs.
This is Conte’s second principle. He likes his two central midfielders to penetrate space vacated by other players, whether it is from teammates or opponents. Thanks to this, they create a box overload.
But both principles can be applied simultaneously. They are even often coupled with Conte’s last principle: his patterns. The Italian manager is known for instilling his patterns at a very quick rate. He has one pattern with two variations.
The pattern is as follows. A wing-back passes the ball to one of his forwards in between the lines, subsequently drawing a player out of the defensive backline. Once the forward has the ball, he can either wait for the high central midfielders to penetrate space in behind or switch the play to the wing-back on the underloaded side where the wing-back will have the time to wait for his teammates to get into the box to deliver a cross.
Above, you can see that one of Inter Milan’s central midfielders, Roberto Gagliardini, receives the ball in a wide area and passes to Lukaku back to goal. Lukaku passes it back to him and Gagliardini is able to reach Lautaro into the vacated space. On the other side, you can see the central midfielder and the wing-back very high in order to either receive or overload the box. This action is a great encapsulation of Conte’s footballing ideas.
With this wing-back to striker pattern, you can easily imagine that Conte doesn’t hesitate to bypass his midfield to progress the ball. However, what makes Inter a complete side is due to how many options they have when in the buildup.
Indeed, they are also able to progress the ball on the ground. Marcelo Brozović and Stefan De Vrij are crucial to this. Brozović is Inter’s holding midfielder. He is the player who attempts the most passes in this Inter side, with 77.7 attempted passes per 90 minutes. The Croatian’s positional awareness allows him to either find passing lanes in between the opponent’s lines or move into space to receive the ball and progress the play.
But while Brozovic’s individual talent is important to note, the system also deserves credit. What is great with the use of a lone pivot in front of the defence is the angles that can be created to find solutions and bypass the first and second lines of your opponent.
When you only have one holding midfielder, you can cover the same area of the pitch as you did with 2 players thus stretching the opposition’s first line of pressure and creating more passing options further forward, thereby making the progression of the ball out from the back much easier. When you work with triangles on both sides of the pitch, your holding midfielder will have more angles to receive the ball. He will also have more angles when he wants to take the ball on the turn.
Below, we see Brozovic opening a passing lane for his teammate to progress the ball centrally. Then, he has a lot of space to progress into.
De Vrij is as crucial as Brozović for this Inter side. He is the sweeper in Conte’s three at the back system. He is the one tasked to lead the backline. Offensively, he also drives forward to find passing options to progress the ball. This is highlighted below. De Vrij drives forward and immediately finds Lukaku back to goal on the edge of the box.
All in all, the Italian manager is trying to instil a philosophy. He wants to make Inter a multi-dimensional threat in the offensive phase, therefore using multiple principles such as width, runs into vacated space from a third man, and use of his strikers to pin the opponent back in their own half.
The picture below highlights what Conte wants to do with his team. Two wing-backs provide width, three midfielders on an uneven line create passing angles for their teammates, while Brozovic is utilised as the team’s passing outlet from deep.
Although Conte has built a well-drilled side offensively, when you are in a 3-5-2, your two central midfielders have to be good offensively in order to support their strikers by scoring goals. Sensi has done well in this sense with five goal contributions in 762 minutes this season but Barella has struggled. He only has four goal contributions in 1420 minutes.
Offensive transitions and Lukaku’s role
The Italian manager also holds a very clear idea in regards to how his team should look when they have to defend. The image below demonstrates what Inter often looks like when the opponent has the ball. Eight players sit behind the ball with Lautaro Martinez, their second striker, between Romelu Lukaku and the midfield line. Martinez is the offensive transition link for Conte.
The other important feature to notice is the small distance between midfield and defence. These two lines ensure compactness, which helps control wide areas as well as central areas. They defend deep in their own half and we can wonder if they will be able to handle offensive transitions well. As you can see above, Lukaku isn’t in the picture. Indeed, he stays high in order to run into space to chase balls from his teammates. This is how Inter handles transitions.
It’s easy to see why Conte wanted the Belgian striker while he was the manager of Chelsea. He finally broke the bank for Lukaku last summer and has been proved right to do so.
Lukaku has scored 34.7% of Inter’s 49 league goals this season, however, his influence stretches way beyond the realm of basic statistics. He helps his team gain territory in transitions by chasing long balls or carrying the ball from deep.
The image below illustrates this. Lukaku receives the ball on the turn and gains 30 meters thanks to his ball-carrying ability.
The Belgian striker is a powerful runner. It helps him gain territory for his team on his own. Once he has progressed the ball, he waits for his teammates to be in the opponent’s half. Then, they are able to either operate quickly on the counter or to make a sustained attacking action.
With only 52.8% of the ball, Inter like to operate on the counter. They are still able to commit many players forward and overload the opponent’s box in an attempt to score. It forces teams back as they have to mark the players in these advanced positions. Thanks to this, they have already scored 14% of their league goals on penalties this season. As a matter of fact, there is a correlation between counters and penalties won.
In the picture below, Inter counter-attack. They commit five men forward and have two men alone on the other side. When Barella receives, he is still alone and Sassuolo has to overcommit to stop the shot. Eventually, Barella is fouled and Inter win a penalty.
We have seen above that Inter Milan keep eight men behind the ball when the opponent is high in Inter’s half, however, they maintain an impressive PPDA (Passes per Defensive Actions) of 8.88. This is mostly due to the efficient nature of their high press. In classic Italian style, Antonio Conte evades risks wherever possible and his press serves as a model for teams that want to be efficient whilst not being exposed.
As Inter stay compact in the middle of the pitch, players can handle wide areas in a different fashion than other sides. Most of the time, teams orientate opposite players on the outside and force them to play from there.
Inter players prefer to orientate players on wide areas but instead of closing the middle of the pitch, the wing-back steps in and doesn’t allow his opponent to drive forward. His opponent will either have to find someone in the middle, make a backpass, or attempt a long ball. When they try to make a pass in the middle, Inter players are still likely to intercept the ball as there are three or four players in this area.
Above, we can see the first case. Inter’s wing-back presses the ball-carrier. The ball-carrier sees space infield and wants to reach his teammate. Brozović steps in and intercepts the ball.
The second case is highlighted below. Wing-back presses high, players cut all passing lanes and the opponent has to pass the ball backwards.
Below is a case in which Inter press higher up the pitch. It’s natural to think that this might leave them more exposed but it really couldn’t be further from the truth. They still have three men to close in the middle who cut passing lanes. With the wing-back pressing the ball-carrier high, the ball-carrier has to drive horizontally to find a passing option on the other side. He will ultimately lose the ball and Inter will be able to counter.
Although their pressing shape has proved to be efficient, there still are some issues. These issues often occur against better opponents. Against great sides, Antonio Conte likes his team to concede possession and control space. As a result, they are deep in their own half and have to be even more focused to keep their defensive shape together. This is where mistakes occur. Deep in their own half, the wing-back is still pressing the opposite wing-back/full-back. But sometimes, they fail closing space as a unit when the wing-back steps out of the backline. This is shown below.
Inter’s wing-back presses the Borussia Dortmund wing-back, his teammates follow but they leave space in behind to their opponents for a simple one-two. Dortmund used this dynamic on the right side on three occasions in the same game and to great effect. They scored two goals from exploiting this overcommitment and won the game 3-2.
Having the control of a game is often seen as being correlated to having possession of the ball but Conte’s Inter attack this idea from a different angle as they can control games without the ball. They are far from perfect but with the second-best defence in the league, one goal away from being the best in the league, Inter are very solid at the back.
The Italian opts for a 3-5-2 in order to fit his football philosophy, an Italian one. He doesn’t want to concede and only wants to score one more goal than his opponent. His 3-5-2 allows more defensive cover thanks to the three centre-backs and three central midfielders. His two wing-backs help to stretch up the pitch. They build out from the back with their holding midfielder, Brozović.
Antonio Conte’s Inter was on the right track until recently. This is a well-drilled side, albeit still not a world-class one in terms of personnel. With another summer to build upon Conte’s philosophy, Inter fans can look forward to a serious challenge for the Serie A title next season.