Photo Credit: Inter Milan Twitter
Even though the Nerazzuris had to wait for a decade, it is now official that Number 19 has arrived. Internazionale Milan have clinched their 19th Scudetto under Antonio Conte and will now enter into Top Seed of UEFA Champions League 2021/22 draw for the group stage. This win has made the dream of club’s longest-serving players – Samir Handanovic and Andrea Ranocchia come true of being called champions after joining the Blue and Black club in one of their leanest years in club history. With Conte ranting about club’s inability to sign ‘his type of players having winning mentality’, questions were raised over club chairman Steven Zhang’s decision to bring Antonio Conte to Giuseppe Mezza and names of Max Allegri and Roberto Mancini being spoken to replace Conte right after his first season, but he managed to turn around his fate by enabling the club to break the barren and lean period by being Italian champions dethroning Juventus reign in Serie A
The news of Antonio Conte’s arrival as head coach of Inter Milan got mixed responses after his tenure at Chelsea which was cut short to just two seasons due to numerous troubles creeping in between him, the players and the management, especially after he led them to win the Premier League in his first season in England. He returned to Italy after 5 years as a manager, managing Juventus previously from 2011-2014 where he won Scudetto with the Turin-based outfit every year along with Coppa Italia in 2012 and 2013. Even though he was accused of not being flexible enough in their approach and often was being criticized for either not making substitutions to change games or making all the wrong substitutions to stick to his own system, without being prepared to compromise and commit more men forward, he finally managed to instill the mentality of ‘If the opposition plays deeper, break them down and score and if the opposition press high up the pitch, either play through or over them. Conte has repeatedly said managing Inter will be the hardest job of his career even though he managed to take Juventus from seventh to champions or Chelsea from 10th to the Premier League title in his first year in English football, ending four of his previous five seasons in the club game as a champion. Conte, after winning Scudetto with Inter, is now being heralded as one of the best managers in the world, after previously being branded as one-dimensional and robotic. Even though he preferred playing his team in a 3-5-2 formation, he tweaked it a bit for players to be dynamic on and off the ball and be more responsive in indifferent situations. Conte fixed Inter’s major issue of players creating numerous chances including the big ones but didn’t take them and the lack of balance often left them vulnerable by abandoning the No 10, making the team play deeper with less rotation.
The club dipped their toes in the transfer market to fulfill Conte’s demands of ‘signing winners’ by adding Aleksandar Kolarov who’s arriving from AS Roma as an option to play at left centre-back to replace outgoing Uruguayan Diego Godin. Conte made sure that the club signed Arturo Vidal and made Alexis Sánchez’s move permanent. Matteo Darmian arrived on a rather cheap fee from Parma, just a season after moving back to Serie A from Man United. As Antonio Candreva headed to Sampdoria and Cristian Biraghi to Fiorentina, Achraf Hakimi arrived as the club's high profile transfer from Real Madrid. Ivan Perisic returned from the Bayern Munich loan to add another option at wing-back too. Unlike last season, Conte now had wide players who were in his typical wing-back mould.
Stefan de Vrij playing as the sweeper in the back three, Conte initially had Milan Škriniar as the left sided centre-back and Godin on the right. Skriniar’s struggles in the system were symptomatic of issues in the approach, as young Alessandro Bastoni was given a free run in the side on the left, leading to Škriniar and Godín later rotating on the right side of the defence. Diego Godin was shown the door at the start of the season which raised questions among football experts regarding the justification of his exit owing to his excellent performances in the second half of the season. Inter, opted to sign Aleksander Kolarov as his replacement from AS Roma. Marcelo Brozović was generally the deepest midfielder, acting as the typical ‘regista’. The other two bits in midfield became a dilemma for Conte. While Nicolò Barella had the ability to play as the most advanced midfielder and as the box-to-box shuttler, the likes of Matías Vecino and Roberto Gagliardini never really made an impression on a regular basis. The Italian became a scapegoat numerous times, but Christian Eriksen’s January arrival made sure that Barella played as the shuttler with the ex-Tottenham man playing as the most advanced midfielder – the role that Stefano Sensi had played remarkably well before injuries caught them. The front two – Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez – was as mercurial as always with the younger prospect Sebastiano Esposito making occasional starts for the club.
In the beginning, Inter’s major issue was lack of penetration from central areas. To counter that, Inter adopted the overlapping centre-back system, allowing Škriniar and Bastoni to move closer to the wing-backs, creating numerical overloads wide. They could pick out passing lanes, and their positioning prevented the opposition from going past the wing-backs and allowed Inter to be more resistant to transitions. They could kill transitions at source, as the deepest midfielder (generally Brozović) dropped in as a temporary centre-half alongside the spare defender as play progressed. That sparked something at the club – the willingness to become more dynamic and lay down the foundation for a better squad next season. This season, that change has become a norm for Inter every week – especially in the bigger games. They change from a 3-5-2 in a defensive phase to a 4-2-4/4-4-2 in an attacking phase, with a lot of players having got to grips with the system and having spent enough time under Conte to implement the approach. Conte had used a 4-4-2 system during his early months at Juventus and at his former clubs too, but to begin using that in an attempt to nullify Inter’s flaws was certainly admirable at the turn of the campaign.