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 relatively dark decade in Juventus’ history. However, Conte, alongside the head of recruitment Beppe Marotta, combined to ensure that the next 10 years would be different.
Under the Italian manager, they won four titles in four years and established the start of Juventus’s modern-day dynasty.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Inter’s president Steven Zhang and 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 the San Siro.
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 in transfers and 15 new players.
Inter made a great start and matched Juventus’s stride for stride in the first few months of the season, but back-to-back losses before the COVID-19 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.
This tactical analysis will offer an in-depth look at the tactics Conte has used throughout his first season in charge at Inter.
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 with the formation that made him so successful in Italy. Indeed, he has opted for a 3-5-2 60% of the time this season.
Sometimes, we are forced to wonder why a manager uses particular tactics. It isn’t the case with 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 instill 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 plenty of space to penetrate in the middle. In this instance, Lautaro Martínez exploits the space and runs in behind to receive and score.
However, even if Martínez didn’t receive the ball from his run in behind, Inter would have still benefited from the space provided to them. Borussia Dortmund’s centre backs were very narrow in order to control Inter strikers, so Inter’s central midfielders had plenty of 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 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 automatisms, or patterns, at a rapid rate. He has one main automatism with two variations.
The pattern is as follows. A wingback passes the ball to one of his forwards in between the lines, subsequently drawing a player out of the 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 wingback on the underloaded side, where the wingback will have the time to set up a cross as he waits for his teammates to arrive in the box.
In the below scenario, Inter midfielder Roberto Gagliardini receives the ball in a wide area and passes to Romelu Lukaku who has his back to goal. Lukaku passes back to him and Gagliardini is able to find Lautaro in the vacated space.
On the other side, the central midfielder and the wingback find themselves very high up the pitch in order to either receive possession or overload the box. With this wingback-to-striker pattern, one could imagine that Conte doesn’t hesitate to bypass his midfield in order to progress the ball. However, what makes Inter a complete side is how many options they have in the build-up.
Indeed, they are also able to progress the ball on the ground, and Marcelo Brozović and Stefan De Vrij are crucial to this. As Inter’s holding midfielder, Brozović attempts the most passes in the side, with 72.4 attempted passes per 90 minutes in the league.
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. With the use of a lone pivot in front of the defence, Brozzović can easily find passing angles to bypass the pressure.
With just one holding midfielder, the team can cover the same area of the pitch as they would have done with a double pivot, 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.
Furthermore, the holding midfielder will have far more angles to receive the ball as well as to distribute it. Below, Brozović opens a passing lane for his teammate, who can then progress the ball centrally into open space.
De Vrij’s function is just as important as he is the sweeper in Conte’s three at the back system and the one tasked with leading the backline.
The Dutchman’s offensive role is depicted below as he drives forward and immediately finds Lukaku back to goal on the edge of the box.
All in all, the Italian manager is trying to instill his philosophy. He wants to make Inter a multi-dimensional threat in the offensive phase, using multiple principles such as width, runs into vacated space from a third man, and usage of his strikers to pin the opponent back in their own half.
The picture below highlights best what Conte wants to do with his team. Two wingbacks provide width, three midfielders on an uneven line create passing angles for their teammates, while Brozović is utilised as the team’s passing outlet from deep.
Although Conte has built a well-drilled side, his interior midfielders have often struggled to support their strikers in the offensive department.
Stefano Sensi started the season well, with five goal contributions in 762 minutes, but he’s been hamstrung with injuries in the second half of the season. On the other hand, Nicolò Barella has only mustered four goal contributions in 1,8434 minutes.
Offensive Transitions and Lukaku’s Role
Conte 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 Martínez, the second striker, positioning himself between Lukaku and the midfield line. Martínez 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 in turn helps them control wide areas as well as central areas and handle the opposition’s transitions.
In the above image, Lukaku is out of the picture; instead of dropping deep, he remains high up the pitch in order to run into space, chase loose balls, and lead potential offensive transitions. It’s easy to see why Conte was so desperate to sign the Belgian during his time in charge of Chelsea. He finally broke the bank for Lukaku last summer, and he hasn’t looked back.
The ex Manchester United man has scored 29% of Inter’s 73 league goals this season, although his influence stretches far beyond the realm of basic statistics. He helps his team gain territory in transitions by chasing long balls or carrying the ball from deep.
In the below example, Lukaku receives the ball on the turn and gains 30 meters thanks to his excellent ball-carrying ability.
Lukaku is a powerful runner who can lead counterattacks into the box by himself. For Inter, a team that averages 54.8% possession, this is vital.
Inter are still able to commit players forward and overload the opponent’s box in an attempt to score, which forces teams back as they have to mark the players in these advanced positions.
In the pictures below, Inter break on the counter. They commit five men forward and have two men alone on the other side. When Barella receives, he is still alone and Sassuolo’s players have to overcommit to stop the shot.
Eventually, Barella is fouled and Inter win a penalty. It should come as no surprise that 14.2% of Inter’s league goals this season have come from penalties.
Since the restart, Conte has decided to play Christian Eriksen as an advanced midfielder behind the two strikers in the 3-4-1-2. However, they haven’t changed their attacking patterns, with Lukaku tending to drop deep to drag an opponent out of position.
While Inter enjoyed attacking runs from their two advanced midfielders in a 3-5-2, they lost the penetration with the 3-4-1-2. However, they can solve this by adding offensive production from their wingbacks, especially with the arrival of Achraf Hakimi, who will join Inter next season.
While they didn’t change the way they play, Eriksen’s more advanced position naturally pushes the opponent deeper in their own half and helps Inter find players in between the lines.
This change occurred because Conte wanted to place Barella in a more advanced midfield position, while having Eriksen occupying the zones that Martínez and Lukaku vacated when they dropped deep.
As highlighted below, Martínez is in midfield and retreats from a deeper position, whilst Eriksen has taken his spot on the edge of the box so Inter can still progress the ball into their opponent’s half.
Inter Milan keep eight men behind the ball when the opponent is high in their half, however, they maintain an impressive PPDA (Passes per Defensive Actions) of 9.16. 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 teams. Most of the time, opposing teams orientate opposite players on the outside and force Inter to play from there.
Inter players prefer to orientate players on wide areas, but instead of closing the middle of the pitch, the wingback steps in and doesn’t allow his opponent to drive forward. His opponent will either have to find someone in the middle, make a back pass, 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.
In the above scenario, Inter’s wingback presses the ball-carrier. The ball-carrier sees space infield and tries to reach his teammate. Brozović steps in and intercepts the ball.
The second case is highlighted below. The wingback presses high, the players cut all passing lanes, and the opponent has to pass the ball backwards.
Below is a case in which Inter presses higher up the pitch. Instead of the pressing leaving themselves exposed, they still have three men to close in the middle who cut down passing lanes.
With the wingback pressing the ball-carrier high, the ball-carrier has to drive horizontally to find a passing option on the other side. He ultimately loses the ball and Inter are able to counter.
Although their pressing shape has proven to be efficient, there still are some issues. Against Italy’s top sides, Conte’s Inter tends to concede possession and control spaces, but as a result, they find themselves deep in their own half and have to be constantly focused on keeping their defensive shape. This is where the mistakes occur.
Deep in their own half, the wingback is still pressing the opposite wingback/fullback, but sometimes, they fail to close down space as a unit when the wingback steps out of the backline. Inter’s wingback presses the Borussia Dortmund wingback, and his teammates follow, but they leave space in behind for their opponents to play 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 went on to win the game 3-2.
Inter have struggled on defensive transitions since the start of the season, and the reduced amount of midfield players in a 3-4-1-2 only amplified it. Wingbacks often commit high and wide on offensive phases to stretch the opponent’s defensive line.
In this case, they are positioned alongside Inter’s two advanced midfielders, which leaves Brozović and Inter’s three centre backs alone on defensive transitions.
As such, they don’t have the time to track back and Inter players often find themselves in three vs three situations on counters, with Inter’s three centre backs having to man-mark their opponents.
Since the restart, Inter have conceded 12 goals in 10 games, which proves that their new system doesn’t favor them on defensive transitions. Below, we can see a four vs four situation where Parma’s Dejan Kulusevski was able to take the shot.
However, they have improved in sustaining pressure as they only conceded a bit above 8 shots per game, 3 shots below their season average.
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, and they still struggle on transitions and against better opponents, but one more year under Conte will help them solve these issues.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno