Despite securing Champions League qualification for a second consecutive season, Luciano Spalletti was dismissed as Inter Milan head coach at the end of May. His replacement was announced shortly after: former Juventus, Chelsea and Italy boss Antonio Conte.
Conte arrives at an ambitious Inter. After years of being a nearly club, flirting with a title race occasionally but never truly delivering, their objective is to challenge Juve and – eventually – break their stranglehold over the Italian game.
In order to achieve this aim, Conte will have to implement his own style of play. Here, we at Tribalfootball analyse what that could involve.
PERSONNEL: PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
There is quality throughout the Inter squad for Conte to work with right away. Samir Handanovic is one of the best goalkeepers on the continent and has been for some time, while in central defence Milan Skriniar and Stefan de Vrij would get into most teams' starting elevens. Marcelo Brozovic is an exceptional playmaker, and out wide Kwadwo Asamoah and Ivan Perisic provide energy and end product. Up front, Mauro Icardi is one of Serie A's finest strikers.
However, Icardi has been linked with a move away from the club recently and – with only Lautaro Martinez for back-up – there is a need for at least one new forward. In central midfield, beside Brozovic there is only Matias Vecino, the inconsistent Roberto Gagliardini, and the ageing Borja Valero, so help is needed there too. And there is also a need for another centre-back and wing-backs, especially considering Conte has utilised a back three system throughout much of his managerial career.
There are a number of rumoured transfer dealings that would enable the new Inter coach to institute his preferred tactical approach. Diego Godin's expertise and aerial strength would go well alongside the more youthful and technical Skriniar and De Vrij; Victor Moses and Aleksandr Kolarov would offer natural wing-back options; Nicolo Barella would bring bite and class to the midfield; while Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku would significantly improve the team's striking choices.
Whether or not these transfers actually take place is yet to be seen, but all six potential additions would enhance Conte's squad in key areas.
BACK THREE OR FOUR?
Contrary to popular belief, Conte hasn't always used a back three. Indeed, throughout his time as a coach he has often first looked to implement a 4-4-2 system, or something similar. This was the case with Chelsea, Juventus and at international level with Italy. However, he ultimately settled on a back three system with all of these teams, and had great success with it.
At Chelsea, he broke away from 3-5-2 during his Premier League title-winning season, going with a 3-4-2-1 that allowed Eden Hazard to play closer to the central channels behind lone striker Diego Costa. Opponents struggled to deal with this shape and selection, and eventually many top-flight English sides responded by lining up in a back three themselves.
Conte has the personnel to use a back three immediately at Inter, without summer additions. While Spalletti preferred a back four, he did use a three-man defensive line on multiple occasions during his time at San Siro. Skriniar and De Vrij can both play anywhere across a back three, while Danilo D'Ambrosio could take up the role of full-back-turned-outside-centre-back similar to that Cesar Azpilicueta was deployed in at Chelsea. The experienced Miranda could provide decent back-up.
The wing-back roles in this system would likely be filled by Asamoah on the left and Antonio Candreva on the right, though the latter's performance levels have declined in recent years. A new right wing-back should be a priority, and Moses could solve this particular problem. But, other than that, Inter are ready to line up with a back three come the start of next term.
BUILDING, BUT NOT DOMINATING, POSSESSION
Conte doesn't have the reputation of a 'progressive' attacking manager unlike some of his peers, such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. However, the reality is he just doesn't prioritise dominating the ball as much as others – his title-winning Chelsea side had the sixth-highest possession in the Premier League in 2016/17, averaging just 54 per cent.
These numbers underlined the idea that the Italian was a predominantly defensive or counter-attacking coach, though other stats give a fuller picture. That same season, his Chelsea made 470 short passes per game – only three teams averaged significantly more. In addition, only three teams – Arsenal, Manchester City and Southampton – averaged fewer long balls per game.
Conte may not want his side to have total control of the ball in every game, but he does want his side to build out from the back via short passes. This has always been the case, and usually involves pre-planned passing patterns that allow his team to play out quickly and decisively. Having the back three also brings attacking benefits – the centre-backs can spread out and offer three different starting points for the build-up, as opposed to the two usually offered by back four systems.
Again, this shouldn't be too hard to do with an Inter side already used to building out from the back as opposed to going long – last season they had the highest average possession in Serie A and played more short passes per game than all bar Carlo Ancelotti's Napoli. They also have defenders in Skriniar and De Vrij that are not only comfortable, but effective, when playing out from the back.
LESS INTENSE DEFENCE
One change that will see a significant difference in the way Inter play next season will come in their defensive phase. Conte has generally focused on a more positional, zonal defensive approach in which players move in unison with one another, keeping their shape and denying obvious gaps for the opponent to play through them. This isn't quite as intense as the pressing games favoured by Guardiola, Klopp et al, and perhaps explains why Conte teams tend not to dominate the ball so much.
PPDA is a statistic that measures the number of passes per defensive action allowed by a team, or – in simpler terms – how aggressive they are in pressing the opposition's build-up. The lower the number, the fewer passes opponents are allowed to play before being tackled or intercepted, therefore the more aggressive the pressing. Per Understat.com, Conte's title-winning Chelsea side had a PPDA number of 11.08, which was the 13th-highest in the Premier League. By comparison, Spalletti's Inter last term had a PPDA number of 8.93, which was the third-highest in Serie A.
Tactically, Conte is likely to have Inter sit deeper, focus more on retaining a solid shape, and look to counter-attack at speed when the ball is regained. To do that, his players will need to be more positionally disciplined and more organised collectively. This will take time on the training ground, but as shown with his Italy side at Euro 2016, Conte can achieve this in a matter of months.
HOW CONTE'S INTER MIGHT LINE UP
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty regarding how Inter might look under Conte is whether or not Icardi stays.
The striker, and former captain, has had an on-off relationship with the club's fans at best, was dropped last season and was also booed by supporters. However, while his attitude off the pitch is questionable, on it he is exactly what Conte likes in a striker – hard-working, intelligent, and a precise finisher that guarantees goals.
Below is how Inter might line up under Conte with or without the Argentine hitman. Potential summer signings are in brackets.