Antonio Conte has problems to solve at Inter.
Facing up against a core-less Real Madrid on Wednesday night, the Nerazzurri were distinctly second best from the get-go. It was a bout where Arturo Vidal’s sequence of stupidity in the opening period covered up Conte’s tactical failings against Zinedine Zidane.
With the Nerazzurri installing this tepid, tame press that has no right to be considered in the same breath as last season’s iteration, a technically proficient Real were able to bypass the hosts’ pressure with freakish ease. Toni Kroos enjoyed a fine evening in a deeper role.
Inter’s midfield was pulled apart. Nicolo Barella and Roberto Gagliardini frequently lost their respective assignments which often resulted in the likes of Martin Odegaard – who impressed on his Champions League debut – and Eden Hazard exploiting the gaping void between the Nerazzurri’s lines.
The home side’s structure out of possession was abysmal, easily manipulated by the determined visitors, and they were fortunate to be just one down by the time Vidal put his struggling side at a man disadvantage.
In attack, Inter are a side heavily reliant on timing, automatisms and rotations. Thus, when they’re out of sync, disaster ensues.
On Wednesday night, the Nerazzurri’s possession was stale and lifeless and anytime Inter’s backline sought to find their outlet in Romelu Lukaku, they were picked off by either Real’s savvy midfield or a proactive Nacho Fernandez – who did a sterling job on the Belgian throughout and actually won his side a penalty in the opening stages.
While the visitors’ rotations were enterprising and varied, Inter’s patterns were distinctly predictable. With Lukaku blunted and Real managing the third man – a favoured route of progression for Conte’s side which includes a runner from midfield or wing-back latching onto a Lukaku lay-off after the Belgian’s found with a direct pass – remarkably well, Inter were simply nullified from an attacking perspective.
A Rodrygo effort after the break sealed a comfortable 2-0 victory for the Spanish champions as Conte reverted to a back four in the second half – perhaps for the first time since September 2016, when his Chelsea side were beaten 3-0 by Arsenal.
Nevertheless, the result leaves Inter bottom of Group B with two points, meaning they need pretty much everything to go their way on the final two matchdays if Conte’s putrid European record isn’t to take another hit.
Seriously, it’s unexplainably poor for one of the great ‘league managers’ of the modern era.
So, what now for Conte’s Inter? They’re a side whom, despite their impressive summer investment and freakish squad depth, look a mere shadow of the outfit which, at this point last season, were enthralling the masses with Antonio Candreva at wing-back. What now?
Well, in a bid to find solutions, first we must identify the distinct problems with this Inter side.
Firstly, stopping the counter-attack. Secondly, address the lack of intensity out of possession, and thirdly, the predictability in attack. Those are the three problem areas for Conte at the moment.
In regard to their transition woes, those issues will somewhat be mitigated by the availability of Inter’s best three centre backs: Milan Skriniar, Stefan de Vrij and Alessandro Bastoni, who lined up together for the first time this season against Real. But thanks to Barella’s rashness and Vidal’s stupidity, their return outing as a trio was a difficult one.
Inter’s 13 goals against this term is only topped by the high-risk, high-reward Atalanta (14) in the top half of Serie A, with Conte’s cover options at centre-back proving sub-par. Danilo D’Ambrosio and Aleksandar Kolarov both lack athleticism, and the pair were ruthlessly exposed on the break by the speed of Milan’s wide men in the Derby della Madonnina last month.
However, issue one and two are linked, with Inter’s woes immediately after possession’s lost an obvious factor in why they’re so vulnerable at transitions.
While their positional play last season ensured they were, more often than not, in a favourable position to counter-press and prevent the opposition’s break at source, 2020/21 Inter have been nothing short of chaotic following a turnover. They look horribly unorganised at times. It’s very un-Conte like.
Opponents will often only need to bypass one Nerazzurri shirt before they’re running at a rapidly retreating back three, while Inter’s disjointed pressing game means teams need to enjoy a mere brief passing sequence or a switch of play before Inter’s structure is completely compromised and, once again, the back three are overloaded.
Last season, Inter would so often blitz their way into early leads through their overwhelming intensity before fading late on. It cost them points in January, in particular. Conte’s logic of a more passive approach appears smart but Inter’s current structural woes and worrying lack of organisation mean the Italian boss’ plans have been disastrous. Inter have transformed from an aggressive and compact unit into a passive and open one.
Thus, with pressing – a key playmaker in 2019/20 – almost taken away from the Nerazzurri, Inter have to find alternate ways to attack – perhaps methods which don’t include Lukaku, either.
However, whether it’s the use of a bona fide playmaker in Christian Eriksen – who offers a threat from range – greater innovation in relation to Achraf Hakimi’s role, losing his fetish for the mediocre Roberto Gagliardini or reintroducing Stefano Sensi following his return from injury, Conte certainly has options at his disposal.
And it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom among the Nerazzurri faithful, with calls for Conte’s head at this primitive stage of the campaign pretty silly.
Their fifth-place position in Serie A is a false one. If it wasn’t for horrible final third inefficiency, Inter would’ve secured a result in the derby and grabbed a victory against Parma.
While they’ve encountered problems this term, there’s also been enough to suggest the Nerazzurri are on the right track with Conte. Inter’s second-half resurgence against Torino on Sunday was a timely reminder of their credentials and their potential attacking potency.
Providing Inter’s world class coach can swiftly conjure up solutions to his side’s teething problems, there’s little questioning that they’ll be a part of what’s poised to be an enthralling Scudetto race in Italy.