At the end of May 2019, Internazionale appointed ex-Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, as the head coach of the Italian giants. He was brought in due to the fact that Inter had been average in previous years, under previous managers. They hadn’t challenged for the league title in almost a decade and the appointment of the three-time Serie A-winning manager made perfect sense. Inter’s recruitment policy has been disastrous in recent years, so Conte’s appointment seemed to be a temporary fix to paper of the club’s cracks.
Regardless, Conte’s arrival has been one of relative success, but most importantly, one of progression for the Nerazzuri. They mounted their first challenge since 2011, narrowly losing out to conventional winners, Juventus, by one point. They also narrowly lost in the Europa League, losing 3-2 to the Spanish side, Sevilla, in the final in Germany. There was quite a grey cloud cast over Conte’s future with the club, at the end of the 19/20 season, following an alleged row with the Inter hierarchy. However, he has said that he is staying for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, this tactical analysis article will be a season preview of Inter for the upcoming 2020/2021 season. It will be in the form of a team scout report and an analysis of their strengths, weaknesses, team tactics, and style of play from this past season, etc, focusing on how Antonio Conte will be likely to set his side up to play in the forthcoming campaign.
Formation and Line-ups
This season, Inter used some form of a back three in every game. Conte usually deployed a 3-5-2, however, at times he also used a 3-4-3. The 3-4-1-2 was the second most used formation by Inter. This gave them a number ten to play just behind the centre-forwards. It was predominantly used in games in which Inter would dominate possession against the opponent.
This is a typical line-up used by Inter this season. Samir Handanovic was used the most in goal as he is by far the best goalkeeper at the club.
The three centre-backs changed quite a bit throughout the season. The original back three at the beginning of the season consisted of Milan Skriniar, Stefan de Vrij, and Diego Godin. Towards the second half of the season, Skriniar fell out of favour with Conte due to a string of poor performances. Allesandro Bastoni, the left-footed youngster, was his replacement. It would be widely expected that unless Inter finds a replacement in the summer, Bastoni will be one of the starting back three next season.
Marcelo Brozovic typically starts as the main defensive midfielder in the side. The players used alongside him rotate quite a lot. Nicolo Barella, Christian Eriksen, Roberto Gagliardini, and Stefano Sensi all play as the advanced central midfielders in Inter’s 3-5-2. Eriksen generally only starts when Inter will have a lot of possession and need a central creative outlet.
The most heavily rotated position for Inter this season was the wingbacks. Cristiano Biraghi and Antonio Candreva/Danilo D’Ambrosio were typically the starting wingbacks for the first half of the season. This was until Inter signed both Ashley Young and Victor Moses in the January transfer window.
Finally, Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez led the line as the main centre-forwards this season for Inter. Alexis Sanchez was usually rotated with Martinez depending on the opposition.
The footage above shows the in-game 3-5-2/5-3-2 shape used by Inter with their typical starting lineup.
Inter’s pressing system
At Chelsea, Conte was known for his very pragmatic, defensive style of counter-attacking football. They pressed very little and generally engaged with the press once the opposition reached the half-way line with the ball. However, at Inter, his team play quite different apart from their base formation. Inter, under Conte, press their opponent’s very high.
Their high press is executed by a man-oriented pressing system, which is the most common pressing system with top sides. Typically, this man-oriented pressing system is carried out in two different ways.
The first way is that the wingbacks push up to press the opposition’s fullbacks when they receive the ball;
In this image above we can see the man-oriented pressing system in action by Conte’s men. Brozovic, as the defensive midfielder, pushes up to man-mark the opponent’s pivot player.
The out-of-possession shape looks like a 5-2-1-2/3-4-1-2, during the high press, because of this. The other central midfielders usually mark the opposition’s more advanced midfielders, following their movements, whilst still trying to maintain the defensive structure.
The two centre-forwards occupy the centre-backs, angling their press in order to force the defender on the ball to play out wide to the fullback. Once the ball is played to the fullback, it is a trigger for the ball-near wingback to engage. He also angles his run, forcing them to play back inside to a very condensed central area. The ball-far wingback will drop next to the centre-backs in order to prevent the opposition from having an advanced switch of the play passing option. All of these actions can be seen in the image above.
The second pressing system used is very similar, however, there is a slight difference. This variation is more zonal and Inter like to switch between both variations in-game;
From this image, we can still see some man-oriented pressing happening. The centre-forwards are still tasked with marking the centre-backs, whilst Brozovic marks the pivot. However, the slight alteration with this system is that the wide central-midfielders engage with the fullback on their side. In the footage above, Nicolo Barella is sprinting to press the Leverkusen left-back as he receives the pass.
This is slightly more zonal because once the wide central-midfielder presses the fullback, they leave their original man. The ball-far wide central-midfielder must now leave his zone to take up this free man, by entering into his midfield partner’s zone.
The reason this pressing system is done is in the case that the opponent plays with a lot of width, like Leverkusen. Conte doesn’t want his wingbacks to leave their position to press. This leaves space in behind them for the opposition to play into and be 1v1 with their centre-backs, who lack pace, against very quick and skillful wide players.
Both of these systems give Inter a lot of solidity both centrally and in the wide areas. However, going into next season, the former might be used the most. If Inter can bring in new, more mobile centre-backs in the transfer window, they will be more capable of committing their wingbacks in the press.
Inter have been surprisingly quite a possession-based team this season. This is mainly against teams that like to sit deep, forcing Inter to be patient in possession. When they play out from the back, depending on whether they play with a single pivot or a double-pivot in midfield, Inter tend to use between 6-8 players.
The footage above portrays how Inter set up when playing out from the back in a 3-1-4-2. The single pivot, usually Brozovic, stays in front of the backline, between the opposition’s forward press. He acts as a wall passing option, allowing them to move the ball from side-to-side. He is also vital if Inter loses the ball, as he is excellent at protecting the backline during transitions. Brozovic averages 7.4 ball recoveries per 90, the highest of any Inter midfielder.
The wingbacks push up roughly around the half-way line, creating a structure of a midfield four in front of their pivot. One wingback is generally more advanced than the other. This depends on the ball-side. If the ball is on the wingback’s ball-side, he must drop to act as a passing option. The other pushes further forward to be a passing option for a switch of the play. This exact situation can be seen in the above image. The right centre-back, Godin, has received the ball, so the ball-near wingback, Candreva, has dropped to be a wide passing option. Meanwhile, Ashley Young is progressing further up the field on the far side.
The two advanced central midfielders are also very vital. One of them drops into the space between the opposition’s midfield and forward line, whilst the other moves behind their midfield line to play between the lines. This is so that Inter have a midfield passing option in between each of the opponent’s lines.
In the 5-2-1-2/3-4-1-2, Inter’s build-up is slightly different from the 3-1-4-2, much like their pressing;
In this variation of their build-up play, they use a double pivot in midfield. This double-pivot sits behind the opposition’s forward line, shifting from side-to-side depending on the ball-side.
The wingbacks and centre-backs maintain the same position, however, the player that plays as the attacking midfielder is given a free role in the build-up play. Borja Valero or Christian Eriksen generally only play in this position. Both have a good interpretation of space and move into the space that opens up for them, in order to receive a pass. This can be seen in the footage above, with Valero drifting out to the right where he is free to receive a pass. From there, they can look to progress Inter up the field, which is where they are crucial during the build-up.
In the footage, we can also see Alexis Sanchez dropping in between the lines to receive a pass. Sanchez, under Conte, plays in a front two but is mainly used as a false nine type player. He uses his creative ability to help the team progress up the field.
Transitioning from the defensive low block
We have covered how Inter presses their opponents high, attempting to win the ball high up the pitch. However, once their opponent’s break the high press, generally against good possession-based sides, they drop back into their defensive low block.
The image above shows Inter’s typical defensive low block out-of-possession. The shape looks like a 3-5-1-1. It is quite compact, and the objective is to condense the central areas of the pitch. The wingbacks only engage in a defensive duel with the opposition’s wide players once the ball is played to the flanks.
Sanchez drops back to help the rest of the team defend. He usually presses the ball-carrier on their blind-side so to win the ball and quickly look to either carry it up the field or else find Lukaku.
Lukaku, the main centre-forward, stays as the furthest up the field instead of coming back to defend. This is so that he can be the out-ball for Inter in attacking transitions once they win the ball. He will chase balls in behind the opposition’s backline, or else use his aerial ability and big physique to challenge for a long ball.
The footage above is just one example of how Lukaku’s target man archetype is really effective for Inter during attacking transitions. Once Inter win the ball, their main objective is to play to Lukaku’s feet if possible. This is because he is excellent at holding the ball up with his back to goal, holding off a defender. By holding off a defender, he is taking one of the opposition’s defenders out of the game. Inter like to have multiple runners at once making runs in behind him so that he can slip them in on goal.
His hold-up play is a particularly useful tool that Inter like to use in the final third. Rather than trying to work their way into the box, sometimes they will just play into Lukaku’s feet. From here he uses his body and rolls the defender marking him, to try and create a shooting opportunity for himself. This can be seen in the following image against Leverkusen, in which Lukaku scored from this exact pattern of play;
Areas of improvement
So far, in the transfer window, Inter have brought in Aleksandar Kolarov, from Roma. This is to provide cover at left-wingback, as well as potentially centre-back, due to the fact that Biraghi’s loan expired. Achraf Hakimi was also brought in to play at right-wingback, as Victor Moses’ loan deal also expired. Hakimi is a fantastic signing for Inter and will undoubtedly improve them massively defensively, and also offensively.
Inter have also permanently signed three of their loanees this season, Stefano Sensi, Nicolo Barella, and Alexis Sanchez, for a combined total of close to £40 million. Arturo Vidal is also reportedly close to signing for Inter, also providing much-needed cover in midfield.
However, despite some decent business, the questions surrounding their starting centre-backs next season still remains evident. Diego Godin is nearing his 35th birthday in the new year, whilst Skriniar seems to have fallen out of favour with the Italian manager. Inter lack serious pace in their backline, making it very easy for opponents to run in behind their defensive line. It would be widely expected that Inter will be looking to sign a new centre-back before the beginning of the 2020/21 season, however, there has been no movement on this front.
Chris Smalling would make a perfect signing for Inter in this transfer window. He is currently available and suits their current budget. Smalling also has experience in Serie A, with Roma, and is only thirty-years-old. He is excellent aerially and is far from slow, being very capable of covering the wide areas in a back three.
Inter have a very interesting season ahead, under Antonio Conte, in the new campaign. A season which could go one of two ways; either Inter continue to improve under Conte and mount another title challenge, potentially winning it, or else it will go disastrously wrong like Chelsea imploded in Conte’s second season in England. For fans, they will be hoping that it will be the former.
As I stated before, Inter tend to just paper over the cracks with their new signings. None more apparent than the recent signing of the near 35-year-old Kolarov. Inter seem to not be building for the future and are only looking for quick solutions instead of signing young players whom they can develop. This has been a recurring theme for multiple seasons now. If Inter are to potentially win the league in the new season, it will be solely down to the tactical expertise and managerial brilliance of Antonio Conte and his staff.