Edited by Anaamaya Mishra
Let’s rewind our memories by an entire decade. The year is 2010; the month is April. It’s time for the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League with the clash of two historic clubs – FC Barcelona and Inter Milan.
Barcelona, led by an array of world-class footballers like Lionel Messi, Xavier Hernandez and Zlatan Ibrahimović were the perennial favourites, with manager Pep Guardiola having won the unprecedented sextuple in the previous season. Their style of play focused on highly accurate short passing with an emphasis on retaining possession of the ball; frustrating the opposition and eventually leading to gaps in the oppositions defensive lines.
On the other hand, were Inter Milan – led by none other than Jose Mourinho. They had conceded only once throughout the four games in the knockout stages but recorded a rather tame tally of five goals in as many matches. It remained to be seen if they could keep up with the Barcelona juggernaut, especially after their 4-1 mauling of Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It was going to be a very tough tie for Inter; their second leg being at the home of the champions would not help their cause either.
The first leg began at the San Siro as Inter looked to gain some sort of momentum in the game. But it took Barcelona less than twenty minutes to open the scoring through Pedro. Inter were trailing at home to the reigning European champions, how could they respond?
The response was relatively quick, as Wesley Sneijder wrong-footed the Blaugrana keeper Victor Valdes before scoring, making it 1-1 in the thirtieth minute. Barcelona kept pushing to take the lead, but a stern Nerazzuri defence led by Lucio and Javier Zanetti made sure that the visitors did not get another opening. It remained 1-1 until the half-time interval.
To everyone’s surprise, it was the hosts who took the lead early in the second half, with Maicon bombarding forward from full-back to collect a low cross from Diego Milito; the Brazilian’s strike into the bottom corner meant that the Italians led by 2 goals to Barcelona’s 1. The Spaniards responded well, forcing two excellent saves off Julio Cesar as they attempted to raise the tempo of the game. But the game seemed to be over when Milito netted the third just past the hour-mark, with Barcelona getting caught out at the back after committing numbers forward.
The job was not done yet, as a dreaded visit to the Camp Nou awaited them. But they had given themselves an excellent opportunity to upset the favourites and to possibly go on and win the competition. Mourinho had tactically outclassed Guardiola.
Inter held on in the second-leg to dump Barça out of the competition. No one had given them a chance, but they had defied all the odds and reached the final for the first time in 28 years.
In the final, Inter comfortably defeated Bayern Munich to win the UEFA Champions League for the third time, their first in 45 years. It was a proud moment for the blue half of Milan as they finally tasted victory in a similar manner to their cross-town rivals and counterparts. Mourinho had achieved the unthinkable in his last season in Milan by winning the Serie A, Coppa Italia and the Champions League, thereby completing an unprecedented treble in Italian football.
However, Real Madrid came calling for the Portuguese tactician to replace Manuel Pellegrini at the Santiago Bernabéu. He expressed his disappointment at leaving Inter, but also stated that “if you don’t coach Real Madrid then you will always have a gap in your career”.
But in his two years, he had carved a legacy for himself at Inter, creating an excellent foundation for the club to prosper in the seasons after him. Inter were a powerhouse now, and they were here at the top to stay.
Or were they?
Rafael Benitez was the man who took over, fresh from getting the sack at Liverpool. Under him, the Nerazzurri won the Supercoppa Italia and the FIFA Club World Cup in 2010, but league performances remained poor, leading to Benitez getting the sack on December 23rd 2010, days after winning the Club World Cup final.
His replacement, Leonardo managed to improve their league performances, securing 30 points in the first 12 games. However, he did not extend his contract, leaving San Siro at the end of the season as Inter failed to win the title for the first time since 2006.
At the beginning of the 2011-12 season, chairman Massimo Moratti transferred away promising young defender Davide Santon and inexcusably, Samuel Eto’o, who had scored 53 times in all competitions in his two seasons with the team. This was despite the fact that his other first-team forward, Diego Milito, was coming off a terrible season that saw him score only eight goals and one that led him to the satirical bidone d’oro (golden trash can) award as the worst player in Italy for the 2011 calendar year. The move also meant that unease seeped within the squad, as Thiago Motta indicated that it was one of the major reasons why he pushed hard for the eventual transfer to PSG.
What followed was a succession of managers, three alone during the 2011-12 season as Inter once again failed to reach the heights of the Mourinho era in any manner whatsoever. This lack of continuity had a disastrous effect on the team. The first one was Gian Piero Gasperini whose system was deemed to be totally incompatible for the players on his roster. Following the now Atalanta manager was Claudio Ranieri, who spent much time experimenting with formations and lineups. Under Andrea Stramaccioni, Inter had their worst season in recent history as they finished 9th in 2012-13.
It was hard to believe that the same club which now found itself outside of the European spots had won the league three years ago. There was trouble in the upper hierarchy of the club too. The club was to sell a minority share to a Chinese consortium led by Kenneth Huang who promised a new stadium project. However, the takeover attempt failed as Inter were left in dire financial straits. They no longer possessed the allure to attract world-class players, nor for world-class managers. The squad left was painfully mediocre. The new arrivals didn’t help either, many of which were considered to be unsatisfactory for a club of Inter’s power and prestige.
More tumultuous times-
Walter Mazzarri took over at the Meazza for the 2013-14 season and managed to somewhat improve Inter’s fortunes by finishing 5th. However, there was more trouble at the top, as I Nerazzurri just could not catch a break when it came to their administrative game. The shares of the club were owned by a chain of holding companies, including Moratti’s Internazionale Holding S.r.l., leaving a sense of financial insecurity around the club.
Mazzarri was sacked 11 games into the 2014-15 season, as Inter were left languishing in the ninth place. Roberto Mancini returned to Inter in these troubling times, with many fans expecting him to be the messiah who miraculously pulled them out of obscurity. But to no avail, as they finished 9th at the end of the 14-15 season, but Mancini stayed as fans were ready to give the Premier League winning manager the benefit of the doubt.
La Beneamata improved significantly during the 2015-16 season as they finished fourth and managed to qualify for the UEFA Europa League. Mancini didn’t extend his contract at the end of the season and left the club. During the summer, Chinese company Suning Holdings Group bought almost all the shares of the club
The person entrusted in continuing the upward trajectory at Inter was Frank de Boer. Adding onto Inter’s poor and almost amusing frailties in their recruitments, the Dutchman followed a similar path to much of his predecessors at the Milan-based club.
Inter never really recovered from a 2-0 loss to Chievo Verona and de Boer was sacked soon. Stefan Pioli took over, and he began well, winning 12 of the first 16 games in charge. However, two draws and five losses towards the end of the campaign meant that he was sacked before the season ended, on May 9th, as Inter finished 6th.
Former Roma manager, Luciano Spalletti was the next in line as the Inter manager. Could he change the fortunes of a club stuck in transition for the last 7 years? The answer was a pleasant yes as, after 11 months of his appointment, the Nerazzurri qualified for group stages of the UEFA Champions League for the 2018/19 season.
Now the job was to maintain this going into the next season. Inter were unfortunately knocked out of the UEFA Champions League group stages on the last day of group stages, with eventual finalists Tottenham taking their place, knocking Inter down to the Europa League where they were knocked out by Eintracht Frankfurt in the Round of 16.
In Serie A, Inter had a roller-coaster of a season, starting the season well and being in contention for a title race with Juventus. However, a poor start to 2019 calendar year meant that Inter could now only challenge for a Champions League spot, which they achieved, albeit on the last day of the season.
Since joining Inter, Spalletti could never exhibit enough boldness to challenge the current status quo in Serie A, nor within the club. Another example that showcased Spalletti’s timid approach was when Joao Mario was publicly criticised and disrespected more than once. Despite that, Spalletti surprisingly allowed him to get back into the team after the midfielder’s loan spell at West Ham came to an end. Ultimately, the board did not envisage Spalletti as a viable candidate for a long-term project; with his successor being Antonio Conte.
Antonio Conte, ‘The Godfather’:
Antonio Conte is a man who needs no introduction. Having taken the Serie A by storm at the turn of the decade by winning three consecutive league titles with Juventus, Conte took his talents to the national team where he had a hugely successful 2-year tenure, reviving the Azzurri after a highly disappointing FIFA World Cup 2014 campaign before winning the Premier League with Chelsea in his debut season in charge.
Conte’s work in restoring Juventus to the top of Italian football garnered plaudits from all across Europe and drew inevitable comparisons with José Mourinho, Marcello Lippi and Arrigo Sacchi – primarily due to his obsession with tactics, his winning mentality and ability to foster great team spirit among his players. He also demonstrated a notable tactical versatility and meticulousness as a coach, adopting several different formations in an attempt to find the most suitable system to match his players’ skills. The formations he adopted included 4–2–4, 4–1–4–1, 3–3–4, and 4–3–3 before he finally settled on his now trademark 3–5–2 or 5–3–2.
Conte as a manager has never been shy to tweak things in his favour. A perfect example of this was when the Italian signed Andrea Pirlo on a free transfer from AC Milan. Pirlo became one of Conte’s key players at Juventus and as a deep-lying playmaker was instrumental in their domestic successes.
Known for his temper, one famous incident where Conte made his thoughts known was in 2014 when he tore into Buffon prior to the final game of the season for speaking to the players about the bonuses that were due to the players having won the title already. Conte also implements a very strict approach when it comes to his players’ diets and curfew before matches.
Conte could also be said to be responsible for a mini-revolution in the English Premier League, as many teams adapted a 3-at-the-back system implemented by him in his first season at Chelsea. Having started the season with a 4-1-4-1, two big losses against Liverpool and Arsenal acted as a catalyst in their winning charge for the title. The turning point for the Londoners quickly came after shifting to a 3-4-3 formation in the next game. Chelsea went on a 13-game winning streak which led them to an extremely comfortable title triumph.
There are a lot of reasons why Inter Milan and Antonio Conte are a match made in heaven. It marks Conte’s return to Serie A in an attempt to defeat the footballing machine he created in Turin. If anyone can do it, it is Antonio Conte. His track record of successes wherever he has travelled makes for a sound acquisition for the club and their long-term project. His aggression and passion to win, complementing his insatiable nature is something Inter could definitely use to prosper in their bid to win the elusive Scudetto. They hope to put the horrendous record of 12 managers in 10 years behind them.
Antonio Conte’s Tactics at Inter –
No surprises as Conte has opted to continue primarily with a 3-1-4-2, a slight variation of the 3-4-3 he used while at Chelsea. His success is a testament to his tactical flexibility – which has facilitated his teams to prosper in different formats and leagues.
His back 3 is built around veteran Diego Godin, who arrived this summer after a glittering career at Atletico Madrid, with young ball-playing defender Milan Skriniar and the Stefan De Vrij forming a defence difficult to unlock regularly.
The wing-backs, which have been such an important part of Conte’s setups throughout his career continue to remain key. On the left flank, we have ex-Juventus player Kwadwo Asamoah who has played under Conte in the past. Enjoying a career revival under the new manager while on the right are either one of Daniel D’Ambrosio or Antonio Candreva. By signing Ashley Young this in the winter transfer window, Conte has made sure that there is enough experience and utility if required.
Conte’s success this season is rooted in the midfield, where the triangle of Marcelo Brozovic, Stefano Sensi and Nicolo Barella have operated impressively.
Brozovic operates as the deepest of the three, excelling as a holding-midfielder and helping the centre-backs beat the high press when subjected to it. He becomes key while in possession of the ball. His first look is often either to the outside centre-backs to create space in wide areas and beat the press, or to the wing-backs who often hug the touchline. Brozovic has established himself as one of the first names on the team sheet. The Croatian is tactically astute, highly industrious and superb in possession, enabling the other midfielders to advance higher up the pitch and make things happen.
Sensi and Barella more frequently get involved higher up the field and their vertical passes forward to a striker are often matched with the striker playing it back to the wing-back, in an attempt to circulate the ball again.
In some matches, such as the 1-0 win over Lazio, the formation has shifted into a double-pivot of Barella and Brozovic with a more advanced ‘number 10’, who happened to be Mattias Vecino
This midfield triangle has been integral to Conte’s success so far at Inter. In whichever format he wishes to play them in, he should hold comfort in the fact that they would succeed more often than not.
Inter attack dynamically, instead of a patient buildup involving the pivot. In the form of the two forwards in Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, Inter have players who will thrive on direct balls. Lukaku can play with his back against the goal, hold up the ball, and win aerial duels allowing Lautaro to make deadly runs within opposition lines. Inter will look to play vertically, making use of their complementary forwards to create combinations which will disturb defences.
But the Nerazzurri aren’t limited to verticality. Their wing-backs will look to bring the ball further up the pitch to overload either one of the flanks, forcing the opposition to adjust. One example this season was when Conte brought on winger Matteo Politano to play as a wide forward against A.C. Milan this season, causing Milan’s left flank to be overloaded whilst enabling spaces on the other flank to exploit. This showcases Conte’s intelligence to make subtle changes in his team’s set up to exploit weaknesses in the opposition.
Defensively, Inter’s forwards press as high as they can. When the ball goes left or right, the striker is the first to press, followed by supporting movements of both central midfielders and the near-side wing-back, creating an optimal shape while applying pressure – a diamond. Under periods of sustained pressure, the 3-5-2 eventually becomes a 5-3-2. Conte is not afraid to let his centre-backs stay deep, a policy he implemented against Barcelona in the Champions League. Their midfield triangle indicates that it is hard to play through Inter’s midfield; thereby forcing the opposition to keep the ball in the wide areas itself.
However, Conte is not afraid to ask for his wing-backs to press the wide players as usually there’s space behind them waiting to be exploited. This ploy works wonderfully against teams that play 4-3-3, as Inter can go man-for-man easily and counter after winning the ball back.
Can Inter end Juventus’ monopoly?
In recent seasons, we have seen a host of teams competing with Juventus at the start of every season for the Serie A title, but on most occasions, the title challenge from those teams has seemingly fizzled out – season after season, as they attempt to match Juventus’ might, either in quality or depth.
Conte has tried his best to prevent it from happening again. His summer signings were shrewd and clever, focusing on depth across all areas. In Gagliardini, Bastoni, Sensi and Barella, Conte has a young Italian core, flanked by the experience provided by Asamoah, Samir Handanovic and Godin.
The forward pairing of Lukaku and Lautaro has arguably been the deadliest in the Serie A this season, with the duo netting 36 goals across all competitions while keeping talented players like Alexis Sanchez and Matteo Politano on the bench. Politano since has left for pastures new in Napoli. Lukaku meanwhile, is proving himself to be worth every penny of the €65M Conte convinced the board to spend.
He and the board have been shrewd in the January transfer window as well, with the signing of Christian Eriksen providing a major boost to an already solid midfield. In Ashley Young and Victor Moses, he has gained two utility players with tremendous experience, adding to the depth in the wing-back positions.
Inter lie three points off leaders Juventus at the end of January. With the recent acquisitions, they wouldn’t be bothered too much about the depth in their squad. The unfortunate exit from the UEFA Champions League in the group stages for a second year running might prove to be a blessing in disguise as Conte rallies his troops to focus on the Scudetto.
The aspirations and hopes for the elusive title have never been higher in the club’s recent frantic-decade, Antonio Conte has finally provided a breath of fresh air in a 10-year-span ridden with miseries. Inter know, that with Conte, it just might turn out to be their year.