Inter have made a strong start to the Serie A season under coach Antonio Conte. Currently, Inter are placed on 3rd behind Juventus and Lazio. Nevertheless, in the upcoming season, Conte might challenge Juventus with a very good Inter squad. This tactical analysis provides you with a closer look at Conte´s tactics at Inter in the 2019/20 campaign.
Conte has won Serie A three times as a manager with Juventus, as well as the Premier League while at Chelsea. At both his top-flight title-winning stints, he has instituted the three-man defence that served him well.
That is why he uses the back-three at Inter as well. After 25 games, Inter have scored the fifth-most goals, but conceded the fewest. This analysis will show you the key factors for these constant statistics.
Crucial for the constancy is, that Conte has built his defence around veteran Diego Godin, constant Milan Škriniar, and talented ball-player Stefan de Vrij. Inter’s 3-5-2 usually sees two men up front with two dynamic midfielders ahead of a sitting midfielder. These are flanked by two former offensive wing-players as wing-backs.
But like many other teams, Inter is very flexible in their tactics. That is why the system can change during the game or – depending on the opponent – ahead of a game.
The big advantage of Conte´s Inter is the flexibility of their forwards. In Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martínez and Alexis Sánchez, Conte has three completely different forwards. Martínez and Lukaku of course, are out-and-out strikers. Sánchez is more a wide forward. If Conte wants a pair of strikers with a wide forward he can switch shapes within the match to a 3-4-2-1 with a midfielder moving up further forward.
The sitting midfielder, a role in which Marcelo Brozović has so far excelled this season, is there to drop deeper and help build-up, especially against teams who look to press the centre backs. Inter generally attack dynamically, rather than through a patient build-up involving the pivot, although his role in spreading play or helping the centre-backs bring the ball out should not be understated.
In the image below, Brozović is dropping deep into a pocket of space to provide a passing option for Inter´s centre-back. By receiving the ball, he has lots of time and several passing options. That is an efficient way to break the high pressing of the opponents.
Furthermore, in possession, the wing-backs are tasked with holding the width. Inter´s main method of direct progression is direct passes and layoffs through the lines. They do this all over the pitch. From a centre-back into the number eight and the number eight lays off to the number six. Then the six plays into the striker and again laying off to the eight.
In the image below, Alessandro Bastoni (centre-back) played to Nicolò Barella (number eight). Barella plays to Brozović, who can play to Martínez. Crucial for that is the use of triangles between the players.
In Lukaku and Martínez, Inter have two excellent and complementary forwards who thrive on direct balls. Lukaku especially can be used to win aerial out balls, hold up the ball, or drop off. Inter can and will play very vertically, especially if the centre backs can bring the ball out and then look to play the strikers in directly.
At Inter, De Vrij plays in the centre of the back three. Under Conte, de Vrij is the centre-back that looks to break the lines and passes into midfield. The following image provides an example of De Vrij breaking the offence, midfield and even the defensive line with just one pass during the game against Barcelona.
Of course, this is not always the case. If there is no direct way to get the forwards involved, De Vrij uses his dribbling ability to pass the first defending line. After that, he is able to play a line-breaking ball out of a midfield position.
The following image provides an example of this procedure against Roma. De Vrij passed the attacking line of the opponent before playing a through-ball to Lukaku.
Another example from the game against Barcelona: De Vrij is dribbling into the midfield area to play an interface pass to Martínez.
If there is still no option to play to a forward after dribbling into the midfield area – because the passing lane is cutted – De Vrij uses his overview to switch the point of the game. Then, he makes a long-range pass out wide to one of the wing-backs. They usually can use lots of space in front of them.
Direct link-up play
As mentioned above, Inter often create centrally thanks to the direct through balls for the strikers. When they are closer to the goal they use a direct pass from deep, a layoff to an attacker and then link.
In fact, Lukaku´s debut goal against Lecce came through this. The ball is loose, Brozović fires it into Lukaku, who links up Martínez to shoot from range. His shot is spilt, Lukaku follows up and puts the ball into the back of the net.
Lukaku is very important in this phase of the game as he is able to keep the ball waiting for passing options with the back to the opponent´s goal. Therefore, he uses his body strength as well as his good overview. All in all, 74,95% of his passes are successful. As the passes to Lukaku come from the back, he has to wait for his teammates to provide passing options. They often run from the deep into pocket of spaces. You can see that in the image below:
Martínez is opening up lots of space by running forward centrally. Now, it is up to the central midfielders to exploit the space on both sides next to Lukaku. The Belgian has two options to play to. In this case, it is more space on his right-hand side so he decides to lay-off to Barella.
Also, to control long balls from the defence is no problem for Lukaku. Often, he uses his head to link-up directly with teammates supporting him from the midfield. He wins an average of 42,8% of aerial duels which is quite a good percentage for a centre-forward.
In the following example, Lukaku is heading the ball to Sánchez who can exploit space again. In this way, Inter creates a 3-vs.-4 situation.
Attacking playing style
Otherwise, Inter look to use width to create chances. Inter attack in a 3-3-4 formation with either both wing-backs joining the front four or a wing-back switch with a midfielder.
At least one wing-back often looks to push high and isolate his opposite man. The inside midfielder will then push outwards to create overloads in the wide areas of the pitch, assisted by a striker dropping off – the other striker and midfielder are then available to make runs against the opposition centre-backs.
This is done, either to collect the ball for shots from the top of the area or to make deeper runs into the box. Inter will also look to attack this way on both sides, as both wing-backs have the ability and engine to attack and defend their flank very capably.
Against AC Milan, Conte also withdrew a striker during the match to bring on the winger Matteo Politano – he effectively played up front but wide on the right, which further allowed Inter to overload that flank and target AC Milan’s left-hand side of defence, creating more space centrally by forcing AC Milan to adjust. It is a good example of how Conte intelligently adjusts a basic pattern to exploit specific opposition weaknesses. Since Politano is not part of the Inter squad anymore, Sánchez can play in this role.
Defensive playing style
Defensively, Inter’s 3-5-2 will become a 5-3-2 during the game under periods of sustained pressure, and Conte is also happy to start with this deeper line against some teams, as he did away to Barcelona in the Champions League.
There, we can see a compact defensive shape with five defenders and three midfielders in the very near of the backline. Also, the forwards are working defensively to help the team regaining possession by reducing space for the opponents.
Generally, Inter will look to press man for man higher up the pitch, and often try to shepherd the opposition into wide areas by allowing the opposition full-backs some space and leaving them as the easiest options for a pass.
This allows Inter to stuff up the middle of the pitch, making them hard to play through, and also means when they do engage the press out wide, there is often space behind the opposition wing-backs into which they can attack.
It’s a similar ploy to that which Conte used at Chelsea, and it’s particularly effective against teams that play 4-3-3 as Inter can go man for man easily across the pitch and then counter into space out wide once the ball is won back. Against AC Milan, Inter went man-to-man in central Midfield. It was Stefano Sensi who stepped on Lucas Biglia, Brozović on Franck Kessié and Barella on Hakan Çalhanoğlu completely killing the Rossoneri possession play in midfield.
In the defensive transition as well, Conte´s philosophy shines through as Inter’s first priority is getting all men back into the defensive shape. That means that they’re difficult to break on as they return into that shape very, very quickly and add more numbers than their opponents have attackers.
We take a look at the game against Juventus again. The home team is on a counter-attack. Inter´s priority is to get as many players behind the ball as possible. That is why they make the space tight. Therefore, they have a numerical superiority with 7 defenders against 4 opponents. Most important are the two wing-backs as they have to drop back into the defensive line quickly very often during the game.
With Conte’s typically formidable and organised defence keeping things tight at the back, Inter have an extremely solid foundation from which to attack.
And, as you would expect from a Conte team, Inter is pretty good on the counter-attack. If they win the ball back, the two strikers look for out balls. And then on the break, the strikers are joined by a central midfielder and one of the wing-backs.
In the image below, Inter are on a counter-attack during the game against Juventus. Martínez is on the ball exploiting lots of free space. He has several options to choose one. Lukaku is making a centrally run in behind the defenders. That is why Brozović can use the free space opened by the Belgian. Furthermore, Martínez has the option to play out wide onto the left wing because of Young supporting the attack. If Martínez is able to pass the central midfielder of Juventus, Inter have a 4-vs.-3 situation.
Inter Milan under Conte is a fascinating team. Their shape allows security at the back at all times with three centre-backs controlling the midfield, with three midfielders and the speed of transition with two mobile wing-backs and of course two strikers.
In Barella, Roberto Gagliardini, young defender Bastoni, and Sensi, Conte has talented young Italian players – Gagliardini is the eldest at 25. They are supported by experienced leaders like Godin, while Martínez and Škriniar are also excelling. The summer acquisition of Lukaku looks smart and the squad has enough depth to sustain the title challenge, especially in midfield after the transfer of Eriksen.
With Conte at Inter, Juve´s dominance over Serie A could really be under threat. While Juventus in recent years have seen Lo Scudetto as theirs by right, Conte’s Inter will push them all the way next season and could well have enough to take the title. Therefore, Serie A looks to be in for its most exciting title race since Sarri´s Napoli pushed Juve a right to the edge. Inter could go one step further.