Inter had sauntered into the home of one of Serie A’s in-form sides, scored three goals, kept a clean sheet and gone about their business in a wholly convincing manner, but Antonio Conte still found time to squeeze in a gripe.
“Nothing is ever easy at Inter.”
Yet the vast majority of the Nerazzurri’s 3-0 victory over Sassuolo on Saturday was remarkably problem free.
Sassuolo went into the weekend sitting second in the top flight, three points clear of Inter and unbeaten since August. Roberto De Zerbi’s intricate passing, high pressing team had already swept Napoli aside on their way to a swell of plaudits for their style and results.
Conte’s Inter, on the other hand, were still recovering from the tidal wave of criticism raining down upon them after a woefully limp display against Real Madrid, meekly losing 2-0 to the Spanish giants in a crucial Champions League match last midweek. One ultra group had even left a banner outside the stadium threatening the team with baseball bats unless the players ‘honoured the shirt’.
By way of response, Conte sought to nullifying Sassuolo’s strengths with a change in system. Having begun the campaign using a 3-4-1-2 – likely in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to revive misfit signing Christian Eriksen – Inter reverted to the tried and tested 3-5-2 which served them so well for much of last season.
Arturo Vidal, fresh from living up to his reckless reputation after two yellow cards in a matter of seconds against Madrid, showcased the tenacity and grit which earned him the nickname of ‘The Warrior’ during his first spell under Conte at Juventus. On the right-hand side of Inter’s midfield three, Vidal won as many tackles as any player on the pitch, while making more blocks and applying more pressures than the rest of his teammates.
For the first time, Nicolo Barella sat as the deepest in the middle of the three in an uncharacteristically restrained role for the normally buccaneering box-to-box midfielder. This season Barella has averaged more than 25 touches in the attacking third, on Saturday he made just three as he helped Inter cope with Sassuolo’s precise passing patterns.
Roberto Gagliardini, scorer of Inter’s third goal and the remaining midfielder, stressed the positive impact of the change in system, telling Sky Sport Italia (via Football Italia) after the match: “It helped, as playing with three in midfield, we were able to cover the spaces better. We also used this system last season, so we knew it well and didn’t take long to settle into it.
“I think the biggest difference today was we knew how to wait for Sassuolo and press them in the right moments. This way, we allowed them to keep the ball and pass it, but then intervened at the right time to counter.”
One of the early features of Inter’s start to the current campaign has been an increased press. Last season the Nerazzurri ranked sixth in Serie A for passes per defensive action (PPDA), a good proxy for measuring the intensity of a team’s press, according to UnderStat. This term, they sit atop the standings with the most aggressive press in the division, allowing the opposition around just seven passes before they try and steal the ball.
This invigorated press has seen the number of shots and passes into the final third Inter have conceded sizeably reduce compared to last season. However, like many pressing sides, the quality of the chances Inter do give up have rocketed skyward – going into the weekend’s fixtures, only two teams in Italy were conceding shots with a higher average expected goal (xG) value according to FBRef.
Against Sassuolo, Inter allowed their hosts to complete around 19 passes, on average, before they attempted a defensive action – meaning they sat off the Neroverdi much more than they have against other opponents. Even though Sassuolo registered a decent tally of shots on Saturday, they were from very low probability positions – often with swarm of bodies blocking the net – which barely tested goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.
One of the rare moments Inter did choose to press led to the opening goal, as Lautaro Martinez forced a turnover high up the pitch before Alexis Sanchez returned the ball for the Argentinian forward to find the net inside the opening five minutes.
Sanchez and Martinez were starting just their seventh Serie A game up front alongside one another as Romelu Lukaku was given a rare rest ahead of the upcoming Champions League. The prolific Belgium international has scored 30% of Inter’s Serie A goals since arriving at the club in the summer of 2019 and to record such a compelling win – by three clear goals – went some way to disproving suggestions Inter are overly reliant on Lukaku.
In a match they could scarcely afford to lose, Conte tweaked his tactics to produce a commanding display against more than competent opponents. Yet, should Inter go on and lose to Borussia Monchengladbach on Tuesday night the banners will be back out and the crisis klaxons whirring. As Conte knows all too well, nothing is ever easy at Inter.