Antonio Conte's Inter Milan side are currently sitting on top of Serie A and 9 points ahead with just 11 games to go. They are also on red hot form, winning their last 7 Serie A games whilst keeping 4 clean sheets and throughout this season, Conte has used his trusted 3 at the back system and has stuck with the 3-1-4-2 formation he's used since taking charge. This tactical analysis will look closer at Antonio Conte's tactic used during this 2020-21 season.
Three at the back has served Antonio Conte very well as a manager, winning 4 league titles, 3 Serie A's with Juventus and a Premier League title with Chelsea. At Inter, the back three are ever-present and consistent, which gives them the base to be defensively solid. Bastoni has started 24 out of the 27 games so far; De Vrij has 25 appearances, and Skrinrar has 22 starts.
The right wing-back position has been predominantly Achraf Hakimi spot whilst the left wing-back position has been rotated more often. Hakimi is an intelligent full-back who loves to get further forward and has good decision making, often timing his forward runs excellently. Ivan Perisic and Ashley Young have been on rotation on the left flank, but whoever is playing as wing-backs are expected to stay wide and offer width as they are the only wide players in this system.
Importantly, much of Conte’s principles of play and success this season has the midfield triangle of Brozovic (the playmaker), Vidal (the ball-winner) and Barella (the 8). In this, Brozovic’s positional awareness and ability on the ball has been used to allow Barella to drive forward, take up dangerous positions and create chances and Vidal to leave his position to close down. This is the key reason why the formation Conte has deployed so far this season should be thought of as more of a 3-1-4-2 rather than 3-5-2, particularly due to how low Brozovic drops during build-up phases. The Italian manager has maintained much consistency this season.
Upfront, the industrious Lautaro Martinez and aerial threat Romelu Lukaku have combined wonderfully well as a front-two. They’ve carried much of the goal threat – contributing to a combined 33 goals, 51% of Inter's goals scored in the Serie A. Lukaku also has 8 assists to his name and that highlights how important he is to this side.
Conte’s methodology of playing out from the back with Internazionale has for the most part remained consistent. They have mostly maintained a coordinated sequence of patterns when playing out from the back. Inter's main method of ball progression is using layoffs. They do this all over the pitch. This helps disorganise the opponent's shape but also allows players to find space in order to collect the ball so the team can progress collectively.
In build-up phases the back-three will often circulate the ball right to left, looking for opportunities to play in the two central midfielders. If nothing is on for the centre-mid’s in possession, they will look to play in Brozovic, who will circulate and try again, often switching to a wing-back or outside centre-back. The centre backs typically stretch the field very wide, creating more space for Brozovic should an opposition striker choose to press them.
Brozovic becomes key whenever he can get on the ball, and his first look is often either to the outside centre-backs to create space in wide areas and beat the press, or to the wing-backs who often hug the touchline. Vidal and Barella more frequently get involved higher up the field and their vertical passes forward to a striker are often matched with the striker playing it back to the wing-back, in an attempt to circulate the ball again.
As the case when playing out from the back, Inter’s passes are short, crisp and often require much off-the-ball movement. It's also key for a striker, most likely Romelu Lukaky, to drop deep and will often play a one-touch backwards pass to a wing-back or the original passer of the ball, and then look to create space again higher up the field. This is made possible with the front-two system, allowing Conte’s side to consistently have an outlet upfront even if a forward drop deep to pick up possession. This has made Inter a very efficient side, capable of maintaining possession for large periods of time. Occasionally, they can play the more direct ball as Lukaku and Martinez can both thrive off this.
OFF THE BALL WORK
Inter Milan choose to press as high as they possibly can on goal kicks and the two strikers will stick themselves perpendicular to the two centre-backs, waiting just outside the eighteen-yard box (which they are required to do). The two attacking mid’s will eliminate any opportunities for the opposition to play in their ‘number 6’ while the wing-backs will pounce instantly if the ball succeeds in reaching an opposition fullback. When the ball goes left or right, the striker is the first to press, followed by supporting movements of both central midfielders and the near-side wing-back, creating a diamond shape – the perfect shape for pressing.
Inter maintain a similar high press whenever the opposition are in their own defensive third – with the wing-backs and strikers the key figureheads. This method of pressing is particularly effective in forcing long-balls, which Inter’s back-three easily can recover. Inter’s 3-5-2 will become a 5-3-2 during lengthy spells without the ball and will look to remain compact to keep their defensive shape. But Inter are a pressing side, who like to start their engagement high with a man-orientated press. They protect central areas and force their opponents out wide which often triggers their press.
MIDFIELDERS ARE KEY
Marcelo Brozovic has quietly become one of the most accomplished defensive midfielders in the modern game. Throughout his time at Inter Milan his role has always been a bit understated and perhaps at times been overshadowed, however, Brozovic should be Conte’s first name on the team sheet every single game, due to his extremely important role at the base of the midfield triangle. The Croatian midfielder is tactically astute and fantastic in possession. He makes smart decisions on the ball and is one of just a few players in the side who actively look to open the game up with long-passes, not just short one-two’s. He’s also easily capable of driving forward, providing assists and even scoring goals. Pretty much, he’s become the integral figure to this Inter Milan side under Antonio Conte. Playing out from the back, Brozovic intelligently picks up positions in between lines. Out of possession, he’s a complete workhorse, breaking up play and disturbing simply with the positions he takes up off-the-ball.
With Brozovic’s tactical awareness and overall energy, Vidal has been useful in winning the ball for the side, completing 2.54 tackles per 90, the most in the side. Nicolo Barella operates often in the half-space and is the driving force in the midfield triangle and neither Vidal nor Barella are afraid of shooting. This midfield triangle has been integral to Conte’s success so far at Inter and whatever format he wishes to play them in, he should feel comfortable knowing that they will succeed.
Another key to Inter Milan’s success this season has been their ability to overload wide areas and utilize wing-backs to their success. This has been a key theme of Antonio Conte units wherever he’s gone. In attacking phases, wing-backs maintain their width and stretch the field as wide as they can. They are often utilized as outlets and if the ball-carrying wing-back gets closed down and can’t advance any further, they will often work it through the central midfielders and strikers to switch play to the other side. Key to this pattern of play has also been the shifting of the central midfielders to the side of the ball to overload one area. If Inter can do this effectively while maintaining width on the other side, they can completely free up space on that side for a quick switch of play.
In defensive transitions, the wing-backs have all shown their incredible fitness levels, often being required to take up positions as the outside defenders in a back-five. Often times they both do this at the same time, creating a very organized line of five players acting as a wall for the opposition to get past. This is perhaps a key reason why Inter have only conceded 3 goals in all competitions so far this season. Their defensive organization has been incredible, led by the dropping movements of their wing-backs out of possession. Back in possession, it would be hard to find a more critical pairing then the width the wing-backs can offer.
Conte's Inter side are well-drilled and are very difficult to beat. Opponents are often wary of the attacking threat but Conte's side also very well protected at the back with the use of 3 defenders and the midfielders often dominate games. No doubt, Inter Milan are a counter-attacking side and the wing-backs are important and can help inject speed during transitions.
Juventus have won Serie A the past nine seasons in a row, but this year both Milan clubs are currently sitting above Juve and it's Inter who look the strongest and favourites. Regardless of their title challenge, one thing remains certain: Antonio Conte continues to be one of the most tactically astute managers in world football.
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