A Conte masterclass – How Inter Milan have cruised to the brink of their first Serie A title in a decade

Inter Milan are on the brink of winning the Serie A. (imago Images)
Inter Milan are on the brink of winning the Serie A. (imago Images)

Inter Milan are near the finishing line

It has been 10 years since Inter Milan fans last enjoyed their team winning the Serie A title. But it seems that they won’t have to wait any longer. I Nerazzurri are 11 points clear of Atalanta right now, who are in 2nd place. City rivals AC Milan are 13 points away.

That is a big, big gap to throw away considering just 5 games remain in the season. Inter are near the finishing line. Two wins is all they need to seal the title in a fixture list that includes a game against bottom-placed Crotone and 11th-placed Udinese. So what exactly have Inter done to end Juventus’ 9-year-long dominance? Is it their tactics, personnel, or just bad form from other teams that helped them reach the top? Let’s find out.

Tactics

Conte was appointed in the summer of 2019 at Inter and immediately took them to a title race. They lost the Serie A by just one point that season to Juve. Conte did not do anything different. He deployed at Inter the same 5-man backline with attacking full-backs as he has throughout his career, even when he was at Juventus.

That has worked beautifully for Inter Milan. He has all the players at his disposal to fit into the system and the team plays like a well-oiled machine on the pitch. Starting out with the defence, they have a solid 3-man backline with Milan Skriniar, Alessandro Bastoni, and Stefan de Vrij.

The wing-backs are Achraf Hakimi on the right, and Ashley Young/Ivan Perisic sharing game time down the left. What is good about this backline is the consistency. Looking at Image A, we can see that this backline plays a lot together in Serie A and that, of course, contributes to better chemistry.

Image A. (WhoScored)

The wing-backs

The most intriguing part of this system is the wing-backs. Let us see how the right wing-back and left wing-back operate in this team. Let us take a look at the three wing-backs with the most Serie A minutes this season for Inter. Image B shows their heatmaps so far.

Image B. (SofaScore)

This shows the amount of grass these three are covering. They can defend as well as attack, with the left-flank being particularly interesting. Perisic, according to his heatmap above, gets into more attacking positions, while Young is more balanced. This gives Conte the flexibility to change his approach each game.

Hakimi can switch gears too. When playing a high-scoring side like Atalanta, he was playing deep to guard their attacking left-midfielder, Robin Gosens. But when Inter Milan need his attacking help, he can play almost as a winger, as he did against Fiorentina in their 2-0 league win in February 2020. This becomes evident in Image C, Image D, and Image E.

Image C. (SofaScore)
Image D.
Image E.

Image E has Hakim (yellow circle) playing as a right wing-back in a flat 5-man backline to offer defensive solidity against Atalanta. Image D, on the other hand, shows Conte’s biggest missile in his artery; the attacking wing-backs.

Hakimi (red circle) is seen making a marauding run in the box, and he squares the ball into Perisic (yellow circle), who played as a left wing-back that game. That is really what they have been all about since Conte took charge.

The creative juice

The creative force of this team is supplemented by the said wing-backs. Take Image F as an example, where you can see how high Hakimi, Young, and Perisic are when it comes to xA90 (expected assists per 90 minutes) and KP90 (key passes per 90 minutes) in Serie A this season.

Image F. (Understat.com)

As expected, the midfield trio of Nicolo Barella, Christian Eriksen, and Marcelo Brozovic are there as well. Conte deploys a 3-5-2, with three central midfielders. Barella is their assist leader with 10 assists in all competitions. This brings us to our next topic.

Signings

Conte saw Mauro Icardi join PSG last summer, which would be a big loss to any team. But he filled Icardi’s void with what he already had in the team. And on top of that, made some sensational signings in the market. Assist kings Hakimi and Barella were brought in by him permanently in the summer.

Conte made the big call of letting veteran centre-back Diego Godin leave and also rid himself of deadwood in players like Borja Valero, while loaning unneeded players Antonio Candreva, Radja Naingollan, and Joao Mario. (h/t transfermarkt)

He even took the big call of making Alexis Sanchez’s deal permanent this season from Manchester United. And the Chilean has repaid his faith by racking up 5 goals and 7 assists in all competitions this season while also being the best Inter player when it comes to xA90 and KP90 in Serie A, as shown in Image F.

Seeing out games and opponents slipping up

Another thing that Inter Milan have done to perfection this season is seeing out games with narrow one-goal margins. In fact, all 7 of their last Serie A wins have come by a one-goal margin, and everyone knows this is the business end of the season.

And after 33 league games, Inter have the best defensive record in the league, with just 29 goals conceded all season. This shows Conte’s defensive system is working, and they don’t even have to compromise going forward considering they have scored the second-most number of goals in the league as well. (h/t Sky Sports)

Another factor working in their favour is their opponents slipping up. At one point, it was seen as a direct title race between the two Milan teams, with Juventus being given a chance to rise up the table as the season progresses. But only one team managed to survive the storm.

Image G. (WhoScored)

Milan have won just 5 of their last 11 Serie A games, with Juventus winning 6 of their last 11. Meanwhile, as shown in Image G, Inter have 9 wins in that time and are unbeaten in the league in 17 league games now. That is impressive resilience and what title winners are really made of.

The Attack

As we mentioned above, Conte had to replace Icardi with what he had. And he did not let the team feel Icardi’s void. Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez have been in sparkling form and really make the 3-5-2 system flourish considering the two strikers up top in this system are responsible for goals.

The two have a combined 44 goals in all competitions this season so far and have really shouldered the goal-scoring burden in the team, considering their next best scorer is Hakimi with 6. In fact, both Lukaku and Martinez are in the top 4 this season when it comes to NPxG (non-penalty expected goals), as shown in Image H.

Image H. (Understat.com)

Closing out games

What has changed from last season to this season is how Inter see out matches in the last 30 minutes. Image I shows how drastically things have changed for Inter this season as compared to the last. They are scoring more per game in the last 30 minutes of games this season and conceding fewer goals as compared to the last campaign.

Image I. (Understat.com)

Verdict

Conte’s flexible 3-5-2 formation offers Inter the chance to play as a 5-3-2 or a 3-3-4 depending on what they want from the match. That, coupled with smart signings and individual players performing to their best capacity, has seen them zoom to the top of the table.

Inter Milan will undoubtedly be the deserving winners of the league this year, and with their main players still young or in the prime of their careers, Conte would hope to build a dynasty in the years to come.

Written by Aniket Rai

An ordinary football fan, doing what he loves.

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