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Antonio Conte

Inter Milan, 2019–

In the summer of 2019 Inter Milan turned to Antonio Conte, a favourite of their fiercest rivals Juventus, in their pursuit of the manager they hoped would return them to the top of Italian football for the first time since José Mourinho’s departure in 2010. Indeed, it was Conte who delivered Juve’s first title since the Calciopoli scandal in 2012, and who laid the foundations for the extent to which they have since dominated Serie A,

After leading Italy to Euro 2016, Conte also impressively inspired Chelsea to the 2017 Premier League title, but Inter – and largely because of the extent to which Juve have become so powerful – perhaps represent his greatest challenge. During 2019/20 they challenged for the title and were runners up in the Europa League, demonstrating significant progress, but so fierce a competitor will demand significantly more.

Playing style
Perhaps the greatest adaptation in Conte’s approach took place while he was at Juventus, where his preference for a back four was replaced by the in-possession 3-1-4-2 his other teams – Chelsea excluded – have often since used. Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba offered direct, penetrative attacking runs from midfield (below), and Marchisio and Vidal were regular goalscorers via the forward runs they made ahead of Andrea Pirlo, who operated from defensive midfield.

As was the case when he managed Italy and so far at Inter, Juve also regularly played passes around the corner that involved the deepest midfielder moving towards possession and bending a first-time pass over the opposition’s defence into the space behind their central defenders. Those passes are complemented by a front two operating on different lines – one to pull a central defender out of position while the other runs on to the pass in behind and, hopefully, into a one-on-one situation against the other central defender – an effective way of creating against opponents adopting a compact shape.

Italy’s 3-1-4-2 was significantly more direct. They lacked a ball player of Pirlo’s calibre at the base of midfield and they also had less technically-gifted attacking midfielders, so Conte encouraged his wing-backs to adopt more advanced positions and his attacking midfielders to make wider forward runs to create overloads with those wing-backs. Their front two also remained as advanced as possible for as long as possible, complementing that direct approach and ultimately discouraging opposing central defenders from moving to assist the stretched full-backs alongside them.

At Chelsea, Conte instead built a successful team on a 3-2-4-1 formation that featured Diego Costa as their lone striker, supported by narrow inside forwards – two of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian – and two wing-backs in front of a double pivot. Individually, those defensive midfielders combined with the relevant wider central defender, wing-back and inside forward to create a diamond that encouraged the wing-back to remain wide, build forwards, and move play on to the wide forward. César Azpilicueta’s advanced positioning as a central defender strengthened Chelsea’s defensive transitions – when they otherwise would have been vulnerable – and provided another proven ball player for the curved passes Conte demands. During 2017/18, Álvaro Morata particularly relished those passes.

Regardless of that shape inspiring Chelsea to the title, his return to Serie A with Inter involved Conte reverting to his 3-1-4-2 or 3-5-2. Their wing-backs – Ashley Young was among those recruited – combine with a wide-moving attacker or forward-moving attacking midfielder, or seek to beat defenders one-on-one and then deliver from a wide position. Their defensive midfielder is instead the one playing the set pass, and in a further adaptation the wing-back clips possession forwards towards one of their front two – often doing so having cut inside on to his stronger foot – ensuring their strikers follow the ball away from goal, instead of towards it, as was previously the case.

The versatility of Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez has also proved a strength. Both are as capable of holding the ball up as they are running in behind, and therefore complement each other when operating on different lines. There have also been occasions when Alexis Sánchez has been used in a front two to withdraw into a deeper position, or when a double pivot has been used behind a number 10 – Sánchez or Christian Eriksen – supporting their front two. Marcelo Brozovic is most commonly the defensive midfielder instructed to play line-breaking or bent passes (below) in their more familiar shape, and two of Nicolò Barella, Matías Vecino, Stefano Sensi, Roberto Gagliardini and Vidal make forward runs from central midfield to combine with those in more advanced positions.

Defending and pressing
The introduction of a back three at Juve meant that Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini consistently featured in central defence, and gave Conte’s attacking midfielders the freedom to make regular forward runs. When defending they reorganised with a particularly compact and organised 5-3-2 that gave opponents minimal space to attempt to play through – Conte’s Juve proved particularly difficult to penetrate. If ever they looked vulnerable, it was after their attacking midfielders and wing-backs had made those aforementioned forward runs, and opponents were positioned to quickly counter. With only a single pivot offering protection in midfield, and an occasional lack of agility in their front two that undermined their attempts to counter-press and restrict opponents to their deep block, even a back three as experienced as theirs could become stretched.

A 5-3-2 mid-block and, when necessary, a lower block, have so far proved Conte’s most successful defensive approaches. His front two is used to screen attempts to build play through central positions, forcing opponents to take play wider, and in the case of Italy at Euro 2016, limiting the potential of high-quality opponents like Toni Kroos for Germany and Sergio Busquets for Spain. A further effective trait that exists in his mid-block is the wider pressing traps that follow their front two forcing play wide; their three central midfielders shift across, covering against access through the inside channel and advancing towards the opposing full-back. With Italy, Daniele De Rossi superbly covered against access into their opposing attackers, and their wing-backs effectively limited spaces that otherwise would have existed in wide areas, protected as they were by the three central defenders behind them.

Chelsea, and since then Inter, regularly applied the same high press occasionally seen with Italy (above). At Inter, the 5-3-2 they often defend with has sometimes become a 5-2-3 in which one striker works to limit access into the opposing single pivot while the other striker and an attacking midfielder prioritise the opposing central defenders. Whatever their defensive structure, their pressing principles remain similar to Liverpool’s. With their wing-backs advancing to engage with the full-backs opposite them – even if that risks a three-on-three in defence – the aerial strength that is consistent in his central defenders mean Conte’s teams often press high to force direct balls and, ultimately, regains.

Though Chelsea’s defensive shape was a 5-4-1 mid-block, they were less vulnerable at defensive transitions because of the double pivot that remained in front of their defence. They also pressed with greater aggression in midfield; their five-strong defence and their additional midfielder gave them the potential to press all three central lanes, and in more than one direction, protecting against opponents seeking to operate between the lines without sacrificing their defensive stability. When one of their wider central defenders advanced to a position alongside their double pivot, the inside channels were also covered when possession was lost in the attacking half, and their attacking players also applied pressure from behind the ball.

Inter had Serie A’s best defensive record in 2019/20, through defending with what was typically a 5-3-2 (above), but as with Juve they have been exposed at the point of defensive transitions. When their wing-backs and attacking midfielders advance, their defensive midfielder struggles to protect the central lanes.

Inter’s goalkeeper and central defenders also aren’t as resilient as were Juve’s, or indeed Italy’s. Given that has left his wider central defenders vulnerable when defending one-on-one against a fast and capable attacker, Conte has instead experimented with a double pivot that features one advancing to contribute to attacks alongside the number 10, but still that transitional threat exists.

Antonio Conte

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