Two years ago, Inter just and no more finished in Serie A's top four to achieve Champions League qualification. They were a club without a trophy in eight years, their last league title coming in 2010 under the guidance of Jose Mourinho. One of Italian football's giants was in need of a revival. That's when Antonio Conte stepped in.
After a first year of steady improvement that saw Inter rise to second place behind Juventus, claim their best points tally since 2009 and reach the Europa League final, Conte led Inter back to the very top of Italian football this season, guiding the Nerazzurri to the title with games left to spare. Here's how he did it.
SIGNING LUKAKU, CHANGING SHAPE
Without question, the biggest signing Inter have made during Conte's tenure is that of Romelu Lukaku. After an underwhelming second year with Manchester United, the Belgian hitman swapped Old Trafford for San Siro in an €80 million deal. Inter broke their club record transfer fee to sign Lukaku, and he has paid them back in goals, finding the net 45 times in his two seasons in Italy.
Tactically, the major change Conte made was moving away from the 4-2-3-1 favoured by his predecessor, Luciano Spalletti, and going for a 3-5-2. Conte has been associated with a back three throughout most of his career, though particularly with the Italy national team and Chelsea. During his spell in England, Conte changed the game. Few Premier League teams used a back three before he arrived, but it became much more popular once his Chelsea side dominated the league in 2016-17.
While the back three is the same, there are differences in the system Conte used at Chelsea and the one he has used with Inter. At Stamford Bridge he preferred a double pivot of Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic, but with Inter he has used Marcelo Brozovic as a lone pivot, usually with two more dynamic, box-to-box midfielders either side of him. Nicolo Barella, another of Conte's signings, has perfectly fit the box-to-box role on the right of midfield.
LUKAKU, LAUTARO, AND INTER'S RIGHT-SIDED BIAS
Up front, Conte has opted for a strike partnership of Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, as opposed to the three-front he used with Chelsea of Diego Costa supported by Eden Hazard and Pedro. Lukaku and Lautaro have formed an outstanding relationship, full of devastating interplay. They are arguably the best front two in Europe right now.
Both are capable of running behind defences with speed and clever movement, and both can also drop back and take the ball to feet with their back to goal. Conte's Inter are not a slow passing side and like to hit their front two quickly and frequently, with Lukaku a strong target defenders are unable to dispossess. The understanding between the strike pairing means that, when Lukaku receives the direct pass, Lautaro is around him and ready for the lay-off.
This season, Inter have gained a lot of success attacking down the right. Lukaku plays on the right of the front two, which partly explains why 40% of the team's attacking play goes down that side of the pitch. However, there is another compelling reason for this right-sided bias: Achraf Hakimi.
Signed from Real Madrid in a €40 million deal after two impressive seasons on loan at Borussia Dortmund, Hakimi has injected quality at right wing-back. Previously, Conte relied on experienced former winger Antonio Candreva, but Hakimi has added greater pace, skill and goal threat. Alongside Alexis Sanchez, he is Inter's joint-third top-scorer this term, behind Lukaku and Lautaro. With seven goals and eight assists, he averages 0.53 goal involvements per 90 minutes (essentially, setting up or scoring a goal every other game).
Hakimi overlaps down the right, hits the by-line and supplies quality crosses. He can also penetrate on the dribble or run infield, swapping positions with Barella moving wide, or make runs behind the last line. This variety, combined with an ability to score from inside or outside the box and with either foot, has turned Hakimi into one of the most potent wing-backs in the game.
Conte places great attacking emphasis on his wide men, and the return of Ivan Perisic has added a similar goal threat from left wing-back. Perisic has three goals and four assists, averaging 0.36 goal involvements per 90. It's not Hakimi levels, but it's not bad at all. And the pair have at times combined with one another: when one crosses, the other hits the back post to try and finish.
CONTE-STYLE DEFENCE AND FAST COUNTERS
Defensively, Conte teams rarely fall into the 'high pressure' bracket. His Chelsea team were more than happy to sit deep, soak up opposition attacks, then counter. It's a similar focus with Inter, who only average 51.9% possession and are 13th in Serie A in passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA), a metric that measures pressing intensity.
Rather than pressing high to rush opponents, force mistakes or win the ball in their half, Inter let their opposition have possession at the back. They only press high from goal kicks, going man-to-man. Otherwise they defend in a 5-3-2 mid-block and press on passes into midfield. Lukaku and Lautaro work well as a unit to block passes through the centre and slow the opponent down, while the midfield shifts as one to remain compact while getting closer to the ball.
Inter's pressing is to contain rather than harass, and they wait patiently to steal balls in midfield using the numbers they get centrally in their 5-3-2 defensive shape. Then, once they have regained the ball, they look to counter quickly. Lukaku is a real threat in these moments, combining his speed and strength with clever movement. Often, he will pull wide towards the right, get outside the defender, then drive inside 1-versus-1, cutting onto his left foot to feed a teammate or to shoot himself.
Of Inter's 82 league goals scored this season, nine have come on the counter-attack. That's just under 11% of their total, and more than any other Serie A side has managed from breakaways. Again, it's a recurring theme of Conte teams past - Inter, just as Chelsea and Italy before, have evolved into a ruthless counter-attacking machine.
Inter have a reputation for blowing up at inopportune moments. Just when everyone expects them to break through and win major honours, they lose their nerve. Even in one-off big games, they have, historically, consistently failed to seal victory. But that has all changed under Conte, whose winning mentality has impacted on every top team he has coached.
Conte is a demanding manager, on and off the field. He expects the highest standards from everyone around him, including his players. Ashley Young, who joined Inter from Manchester United last season, has praised this aspect of Conte's managerial persona. "He's won trophies and he's got an ambition to want to achieve things. I want to do that as well," Young said last January. "With a manager like that, you want to go out there and fight for him."
Inter have broken Juventus' stranglehold of Italian football. And, when considering their change in tactics, personnel and mentality over the last two years, Conte's influence on their success is clearly visible.