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August 28, 2019

Can Antonio Conte's Inter Milan Step Up And Dethrone Juventus?

By Flavio Fusi

Why should Inter be considered a candidate for the Scudetto? The short answer is Antonio Conte.

The coach from Lecce, unemployed since Chelsea decided to fire him at the end of the 2017/2018 season, signed for Inter Milan this summer and is certainly not a man who lives by Pierre De Coubertin’s motto “the important thing is taking part”. Quite the contrary. Conte embodies the most famous quote of Giampiero Boniperti, who in 1991 convinced him to sign for Juventus when he was 22 years old: “winning is not important, it’s the only concern”.

As a matter of fact, Conte has won at least one trophy in his last five seasons on the bench of a club, winning four consecutive national championships 3 Scudetto trophies with Juventus and a Premier League in his debut season with Chelsea and an FA Cup in his second season with the Blues. That FA Cup was the high point of a turbulent season and was not enough to avert his dismissal. And his pedegree in this league is almost peerless: before the start of this season, Conte had won 67% of his 122 Serie A matches as a coach and collected an average of 2.24 points per match.

The arrival of a coach with an indisputable résumé who is also considered one of the best tacticians in the world has brought back enthusiasm to the fans of Inter despite the undeniable bond that tied Conte to their historic rival of Juventus.

President Steven Zhang’s club has thus reunited Conte and Giuseppe Marotta, protagonists of the rebirth of the “Old Lady” that began with the 2012 Scudetto. Seven years later, the goal is to bring Inter back to contend at the top of Italian football and possibly, also to top the table.

Conte is the new owner of a team that comes off a disappointing season, in which the Nerazzurri not only never managed to keep up with Juventus, who finished the season with 21 points more, but had to fight until the very last match to guarantee themselves a second consecutive Champions League qualification, the minimum target set by the club management. Champions League money is essential to allow Inter to continue their growth path while meeting the parameters of FFP.

All in all, Spalletti’s team was decent if we examined their metrics. They were respectively 4th and 3rd in the league in non-penalty xG and non-penalty xG conceded, 4th in shots and 2nd in shots conceded.

Yet Ancelotti’s Napoli, who finished last season with 10 more points on the table, were one step above them all season, averaging an xG difference of +0.84 per game, far superior than the Nerazzurri‘s +0.55. Besides, Atalanta, who also finished ahead of Spalletti’s team thanks to the head-to-head tie-breaker, performed better than Inter last season, averaging an xG difference of +0.71 propelled by the best attack of the league (77 goals scored).

Additionally, the 2018/2019 team did not produce a brand of football that was pleasing on the eye. The antithesis of the main European teams, Spalletti adopted an old school approach, proposing an offensive phase without fuss, in which crosses were often the main weapon to enter the box and creating scoring chances. Inter was by far the team that attempted the most crosses (28.8 per game), so much so that 38% of their entries into the penalty box came that way. 57% of completed passes into the box from wingers Ivan Perišić and Antonio Candreva  were crosses.

The situations of Icardi, the best forward in the team and captain who ended up on the sidelines for the frictions that arose during the negotiations for the renewal of his contract and of Nainggolan, whose disappointing performances went gone hand in hand with off-field behaviors that society did not appreciate, to put it mildly, only made things worse.

In a season to forget, it was worth noting that the defensive phase of Inter was still that of a solid team able to defend far from their own goal. Their defensive distance of 47.5 meters was the second-highest of the league and they allowed just 8.2 passes per defensive action. Although there isn’t necessarily a better strategy than another, for Conte this could certainly be a good foundation from which to start, even if his approach to pressing is different from that of his predecessor.

Another of Spalletti’s merits was to have finally found a place for Brozović, who became one of the best holding midfielders in Serie A. Conte immediately made him the lynchpin of his 3-5-2, and the Croatian has already repaid his manager’s trust with a huge goal in the first game of the season, the 4-0 against Lecce.

What is certain is that Inter 2019/20 will be profoundly different from last year in terms of style of play and interpreters. To give you an immediate idea on how different Inter will look, here is a graph of the Nerazzurri shots in 2018/19. The dots highlighted in pink are the shots taken by the players purged during the summer (Icardi, Perisic, and Nainggolan) plus Keita Baldé, who came back to Monaco after a six-month loan spell in Milan. Those four together combined for 43.9% of Inter shots and 52.9% of their total xG.

If we add Matteo Politano, another player who does not fit into Conte’s plans and that could be sold before the end of the current transfer window, to the equation, the amount rises to 56.7% of the shots and 60.7% of their xG.

The transition from Conte to Spalletti means a deep restyling of the roster, necessary both to provide the new coach with players better suited to his style of play and to replace the key players that the club has firmly decided to give up on, including the aforementioned Nainggolan, Perišić, and Icardi. The Belgian midfielder is now back in Cagliari on loan, while the same formula has allowed the Croatian wing to join his compatriot Kovac at Bayern Munich. Icardi is still in Milan, but Conte and the management decided to put him out of the team and just wait for someone to submit a bid to the Argentine striker (and that someone could yet be Juventus’ Fabio Paratici).

Free-agent Diego Godín has arrived to strengthen the defense, numerically replacing his former Atlético Madrid teammate Joao Miranda, who seemed to be in decline last season and who joined the other team in the group that controls Inter, Chinese side JS Suning. Together with De Vrij and Škriniar, Conte can now field a trio of central defenders in front of Handanović who could, at least on paper, rival those of Juventus.

In midfield, Inter loaned with an option to buy Stefano Sensi, a number 8 from Sassuolo. A player who id skillful in possession, he was one of the brightest surprises of the Nerazzurri‘s summer and further impressed scoring in his debut against Lecce.

Together with Brozović, Sensi will be responsible for building Inter’s play, while Barella, the club’s big midfield acquisition, will have a better opportunity to roam and look for space opening. Inter overpaid for him (the total cost is up to €50 million depending on the bonuses), but as I wrote in one of my previous columns, this will be a pivotal season in Barella’s career. Relieved of responsibility for building up play and under the guidance of Conte has the opportunity to make a quantum leap forward and become one of the best box-to-box midfielders in Italy and perhaps even in Europe.

Austrian wing-back Valentino Lazaro (€22 M) arrived from Hertha Berlin to play on the right flank, but he was immediately injured and relinquished his place to Candreva, who, if we overreact to a 4-0 win against Lecce will live a second youth under Conte. On the left, the return of Biraghi from Fiorentina seems almost certain: the Italian, an home-grown player for the club importantly to comply with Serie A rules about rosters, will face competition from Asamoah, among the best performers of last season. Neither Lazaro nor Biraghi’s statistical profile are particularly impressive, but Conte’s wing-backs are scarcely extremely gifted and anyhow they will both start as role players starting on the bench.

However, their biggest acquisition was Romelu Lukaku from Manchester United for over €65 million. 2018/19 wasn’t his best season (and frankly, nor was it for his team), but in recent years the Belgian has been one of the most consistent strikers in the Premier League and at just 26 he has not yet reached the peak of his career. He is supposed to replace Icardi’s goals and he looks like the ideal forward for Conte’s system. The manager wanted the player strongly judging by the warm welcome he gave him.

The one thing that Inter lacks appears to be a bit of creativity in the last third of the field and, at least numerically, one striker. Lautaro Martínez is a modern second striker who gave encouraging signals about his potential in his first season at Inter, but Conte and the management seem to be in the hunt for another forward. And once again the reinforcement could come from Manchester United with Marotta in negotiations for the loan of Alexis Sanchéz.

The Chilean has not shone in his two seasons at United but underneath the malaise has maintained an elite production in terms of assisted xG. It is true that he played mainly from the left-wing and that with Conte he would be deployed in a more central position, but he could be the right profile to flank Lukaku.

But that’s not all because it seems that there is still some hope to see Dybala wearing the black and blue shirt of Inter, with an Icardi swap a potential reality. The fit would not be immediate: Juventus’ manager Maurizio Sarri considers, probably rightly, the Argentine a number 9 and judging by his production in the last two seasons certainly “la Joya” does not seem suitable to fulfill the role of the creative trequartista alongside Lukaku. Yet, it would be undoubtedly exciting to see a combination of strikers of this level, who have not yet reached their peak, play together in the best years of their career under one of the best managers in the world.

Within a summer Inter completely changed shape and the fans have found the enthusiasm that seemed lost as shown by the support received by the team in their season debut. Conte won the championship in his first season with both Juventus and Chelsea and the team seems to have quickly assimilated his principles of play. The goal is one: to interrupt the domestic hegemony of his former team.

Article by Flavio Fusi