Inter Milan are champions of the Serie A. Take a moment to say it out loud and enjoy it. After going eleven long years without a league title and after 13 different managers, the beloved Scudetto returns to Milan through Internazionale. Antonio Conte has shown the world that he is a world-class tactician and coach. Conte has transformed many players on this Inter team from average to great in his two years at the club. By winning Serie A, Inter have also put an end to Juventus’ nine year era of dominance, not that Juventus put up much of a fight this season.
When the season began, no one considered Inter as potential Serie A champions. Inter didn’t start the season poorly by any means, but by exiting the Champions League in the group stages while local rivals AC Milan had wrapped up the Serie A title in December, Inter defied expectations.
In fairness to Inter, their Champions League departure came from a group of death that featured: Real Madrid, no explanation needed, Borussia Mönchengladbach, who were one of the best teams in the Bundesliga at the time, and Shakhtar Donetsk, who were able to beat Real Madrid twice.
Inter have won the Serie A convincingly. Other than losing to AC Milan in October, Inter have either beaten or drawn all of their rival title challengers; they were the hardest team to beat and were rarely challenged by the usual Serie A competition. This is the story and analysis of how Inter won their Scudetto.
This section will be broken up into three subsections: the build-up phase, the attacking phase and the defending phase. Antonio Conte and Inter’s tactics have been nothing short of brilliant this season, especially in the build-up phase. It is a style of play that many coaches and managers will be studying for ages. Inter play with fluidity, creativity and discipline; three traits that are common amongst the elite but rarely used when talking about Inter.
Inter’s most impressive tactic is their build-up play. Many fans consider formations or teams that play with five defenders to be scared of the ball and would rather sit back and defend. While Inter are not shy of defending, they do not play with five defenders out of fear.
Inter play with three central defenders: Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan de Vrij and Milan Skriniar, and two wingbacks: Ivan Perisic, Ashley Young or Matteo Darmian on the left, while Achraf Hakimi has made the right wingback spot his own. De Vrij plays centrally while Bastoni and Skriniar play as wide center-backs.
The two wide centre-backs are crucial to this system because they can move from left and right center-back to left and right fullback in possession. By doing this, Inter can gain a numerical advantage on either side of the pitch.
Below we see how Inter play out from defence. In this example, Bastoni is occupying the left fullback space, while de Vrij and Skriniar move to the left. Right wingback Hakimi also drops into a deeper role, acting as a right fullback. Inter now create a 4v3 advantage in the middle of their third of the pitch as Marcelo Brozovic drops deep from midfield, with Bastoni and Perisic on the left flank. This allows Inter to switch between which flank they would like to focus their build-up play from.
Inter can move the ball to either flank with ease. Every player on this team is comfortable on the ball when under pressure. In the example below Inter focus play on to the right flank. Skriniar is on the ball with de Vrij close to the goalline and Hakimi on the touchline. This is done to draw the opposition press. As the opposition presses the wide areas, space is left behind.
Brozovic is crucial when this happens as he is the deepest midfielder; he looks to occupy that space. Nicolo Barella or Christian Eriksen, depending on the side of play, will then remain slightly more advanced in anticipation of a Brozovic or wide defender’s pass. Inter play out from defence by absorbing the opposition press and exploiting the space left behind.
If Inter have the ball in a slightly more advanced position in their half, they can use Romelu Lukaku or Lautaro Martinez, depending on the side of play, to drop deeper and create overloads in the wide areas. While this is happening, the other forward, Barella and Eriksen can remain central as high quality passing options. Once more, Brozovic is crucial in this role. He is a great #6 with an excellent passing ability, making him vital in moving the ball between the first, middle and final third of the pitch.
As Inter move possession from their third to the middle third, their attacking shape begins to come to life. Bastoni and Skriniar move from left and right center-back to left and right fullback. Wingbacks Ivan Perisic and Hakimi join the forward line as wingers while Brozovic joins the backline. An overload is now created in the middle third of the pitch, giving Inter plenty of time and space to find the best passing option.
As Inter transitions from defence to attack, we see that this team is not one that prefers to defend. Inter are playing their best when they have the ball. The forwards, Lukaku and Lautaro, play in many roles. One may lead the line while the other drops deeper into midfield to assist with build-up play. One may remain central while the other shifts to the wide area to create an overload against a defending fullback or wingback.
Barella and Eriksen play in the right and left half-spaces, often combining with the ball sided wingback and forward. Barella is also capable operating as a more traditional #8, moving from box-to-box with play, and a #10, sitting behind the forwards. Barella has been one of Inter’s best players this season.
Inter are capable of playing with a more traditional back three if the wide centre-backs aren’t effective in the wide areas, as discussed above. This is just another example of this team’s flexibility. If they cannot create overloads out wide, they can create overloads centrally in the middle to final third of the pitch. The forwards and all three midfielders are involved, with the wingbacks providing the width in the Inter attack.
Against teams that defend with a back four, Inter have used the tactic below to one extent or another. One wingback will remain wide, often the one opposite to the side of play. The other wingback will move inside and take up a role similar to that of an inside winger. This is done so that the four defenders and the three spaces between them are occupied by the three central attackers.
When Inter attack, they have central passing options as well as a wide option that can either attack the space behind the backline or plays a role in stretching the defending team’s backline. Below Barella will receive the ball. He can turn and run into the space that would have been occupied by a more traditional fullback or wingback because the defending team has moved into a more narrow block to handle the three central attackers.
If the inside wingbacks can’t break down a defense, Inter will use another attacking option: wide center-backs as wingbacks. Bastoni is not just an excellent defender; he’s a remarkable attacker as well. Depending on the side of play, we know that Inter will convert a wide center-back to a fullback and a wingback to a winger when in possession.
The example below shows just that. Bastoni and Perisic will combine on the left to overload the defending team’s wide players. When the defending team commits another player to the left, Eriksen will follow. This ensures that there is still a numerical advantage and overload. This tactic can be used on the right with Skriniar, Barella and Hakimi.
Below is an example of Inter attacking but on the right, instead of the left. While Skriniar isn’t as aggressive as Bastoni, the structure is similar. The ball sided midfielder, Barella, combines with the ball sided wingback, Hakimi, to overload the right flank. As this happens, the opposite wingback turned winger will remain wide while Lautaro and Lukaku remain central. Eriksen in this example is encouraged to make a late run from midfield. While Eriksen isn’t known for his open play goal contribution, his late runs into the box can and will cause havoc for defenders.
Below is an example of the previous attacking idea discussed but on the opposite flank, with Bastoni and Young combining on the left, instead of Barella and Hakimi on the right. Bastoni is an excellent attacker, I’ve mentioned that a lot; his best position when Inter have possession of the ball is in this fullback role. It becomes very hard for a defending team to handle a wingback and another oncoming wide player who does not start in a wide position.
Inter play with fluidity. Players move in and out of different roles during games all the time to overload certain areas of the pitch, drag man-markers out of position and exploit space left behind pressing teams. Every play must be comfortable playing this way in order for Conte’s system to work.
Most people will see a team that lines up in a 5-3-2 and assume that they are purely a defensive team. As we’ve seen so far, that is not the case at all. Now that you understand how Inter move the ball from their own third to the final third and how they create chances, we can take a look at how they play without the ball. While Inter are an intelligent attacking team, they don’t shy away from defending and know how to do it well.
Inter will defend in a low 5-3-2 low-block for most of their time without the ball. They rely on pressing triggers and traps to justify when they leave their positions. The defensive structure Inter use begins at the top with Lukaku and Lautaro, they prevent the opposition from using central passing options, forcing them to use wider options. Once the attacking team moves possession to either side, Inter will press with the ball sided forward, midfielder and wingback.
They use the touchline as a “twelfth man” when pressing the wide areas as the attackers either must go backwards or risk losing possession. This is due to the limited space given to them by keeping possession by the touchline.
Once possession does move to the wide areas, Inter press aggressively. The ball sided forward, Lukaku in the example below, can cover the attacking team’s backwards passing option Franck Kessié, as the ball sided wingback Hakimi presses the man on the ball. Hakimi can take a more aggressive pressing position because the Inter backline can shift from a back five to a back four, ensuring little space is left for attackers to exploit.
When attacking teams try to overload one side of the pitch Inter do not press as aggressively; this gives the attacking team too much space to exploit. Instead, Inter will use the ball sided forward, midfielder and wingback to press the attackers.
As the ball sided Inter players press the wide areas, the remaining Inter players will follow, but with a focus on shielding the inside passing options left open by the pressing players. The attackers now have no inside passing options, limited space, and must go backwards or risk losing possession entirely.
The purpose of Inter’s defensive structure is to give them the best opportunity to counter-attack once they have won the ball back. This can be seen below. When Inter presses the wide areas, the attacking team rarely has high quality passing options or even a backwards passing option. We have seen several players this season get pressured by Inter and look for the backwards passing option, only to see that Lukaku or Lautaro is screening them.
This forces the attackers to take more time on the ball while under pressure, which then leads to a higher chance of losing possession. When the attackers are inevitably dispossessed, Lukaku and Lautaro target the space between the central defenders while a midfielder like Barella or Eriksen looks to launch the counter-attack by carrying the ball forward themselves or by passing to the forward players.
It’s very difficult to determine which games won or lost a title for a team over the course of 38 games. A league season is a marathon, not a sprint. However, there were a few instances this season that called Inter’s title dreams into question. This section will discuss three matches that impacted Inter’s season: one that forced Conte to learn what his best starting lineup was, one that cemented Inter as legitimate title challengers, and one that confirmed Inter as being a team with an elite winning mentality.
Inter Milan 1-2 AC MIlan: Conte OUT
On October 17th, 2020, Inter were beaten by AC Milan in the Serie A. This game was a key match for Inter for a few reasons. To lose to your local rivals is devastating; to lose to your local rivals who are now challenging for a league title is even worse. To many fans, this game was the most important in a run of games that could determine Inter’s future for the rest of the season.
Prior to this game Inter had drawn Lazio and after this game they only won once (Genoa 0-2 Inter) out of five games in all competitions. Drawing Borussia Mönchengladbach, Shakhtar Donetsk and Parma, then losing to Real Madrid.
The lineup against AC Milan shows us that Inter has as much depth as a puddle. Outside of their regular starting lineup, there is very little quality in this team and AC Milan exposed that. Missing from this team is Bastoni and Skriniar. We discussed earlier how crucial they are to Inter’s system from build-up to attack.
Also missing is Christian Eriksen. If you haven’t followed Inter this season, you might not know that Eriksen did not feature for Inter regularly until he scored a winner against AC Milan in the Coppa Italia on January 26th, 2021. Before then, Conte rotated between 33 year old Arturo Vidal and Roberto Gagliardini who are both not good enough to be starting for Serie A champions.
After Inter lost this game, Conte rarely experimented with his squad, with Eriksen being the only exception. Conte does not trust the players outside of the starting lineup. If his best players were fit they played; players who were seen on the bench rarely came off it or started in a game.
This game, followed by the poor run of results that followed, was the source of anger Conte faced from Inter fans; many of who were questioning his coaching ability and if he should be fired or not.
Inter Milan 2-0 Juventus: A Statement of Intent
On January 17th, 2021, Inter hosted Juventus. Juventus had won nine Serie A titles in a row before Inter stopped them from winning a tenth this season. The importance of this match is monumental. Juventus are reigning Serie A champions.
Additionally, Juventus have the largest wage bill of any team in Serie A (La Gazzetta dello Sport) spending a whopping €230m in 2020/21. Their highest earners include Cristiano Ronaldo (€31m), Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey (both on €7m). Inter are the second highest spenders (€149m) but don’t even come close to competing with the spending power of Juventus.
Some of Inter’s highest earners (Alexis Sanchez: €7m, Vidal: €6.5m, Radja Nainggolan: €4m) are all set to leave Inter at the end of this season or the next, meaning that Inter will likely continue to have a smaller wage budget than Juventus. However, this is hardly a David vs Goliath story considering Inter are not shy of large transfer fees (Transfermarkt.com). Some of those fees being: Romelu Lukaku - €74m, Achraf Hakimi - €40m, Nicolo Barella - €27.7m and Christian Eriksen - €27m.
In fairness to Inter, it isn’t easy or cheap to build a team capable of becoming the best in the country. To win trophies you must spend intelligently. This is an idea that Inter’s rivals have failed to understand and likely why Inter is criticized by rival fans; failure to keep up with your competitors leads to you no longer being considered a competitor.
If beating one of the richest teams in the country wasn’t dramatic enough, current Inter manager Antonio Conte used to manage Juventus. He won three Serie A titles with them (2011–12, 2012–13, 2013–14) and two Supercoppa Italiana trophies as well( 2012, 2013) before resigning in 2014.
And finally, by winning this match, mainstream media could no longer ignore Inter. Juventus beat AC Milan just two weeks prior to this match. Juventus fans and the media had begun to believe that AC Milan were slowing down while Juventus could be considered title challengers. Inter took the spotlight as their title rivals began to reveal their cracks each week. If you would like to relive this game, you can do that here.
AC Milan 0-3 Inter Milan: Milan is Blue
On February 21st, 2021 Inter Milan beat AC Milan in what can be best described as a Serie A title deciding match. This reception from the fans was a stark contrast from the reverse fixture. In October, Inter fans questioned Conte’s coaching ability; in February they were feeling like champions.
In the reverse fixture it was hard to see the style in which Inter played, while AC Milan’s system was firing on all cylinders. However, Inter thoroughly dominated their local rivals as Stefano Pioli refused to make the tactical adjustments necessary to accommodate the error prone Theo Hernández.
Both teams played their best players but it was Inter who showed AC Milan how to play football. Beating Serie A title favourites AC Milan at such a crucial time of the season shows me that Inter have players who are comfortable stepping up in big games and have a winning mentality; a trait shared amongst Europe’s elite teams.The result of this match saw Inter move four points clear of second place AC Milan while cementing themselves at the top of the Serie A table, a place they would remain for the rest of the season. If you would like to relive this match, you can read my analysis where I foreshadow AC Milan’s inevitable collapse and Inter’s success here.
There is no one or few games that determine the winners of a league season, especially in a league as competitive as the Serie A. However, the games I have selected were ones that came at crucial times and asked questions of Inter. Fortunately, Conte and his team had answers.
I would like to briefly highlight Inter Milan’s weaknesses. While there aren’t many, it’s important to understand that there is always room for improvement for any team. If Inter are going to compete with the rest of European’s elite teams in the UEFA Champions League, they’ll need to fix two key problems: quality squad depth and defending the space left behind their wide center-backs turned fullbacks.
Other than Milan Skriniar, Stefan de Vrij and Alessandro Bastoni, Inter do not have high quality central defenders to replace their three starters should one or more get injured. Andrea Ranocchia is 33 years old and is not good enough for Inter. The same can be said for Danilo D’Ambrosio who turns 33 in September 2021.
In midfield, other than Brozovic, Barella and Eriksen, there is no one on this Inter team currently worth playing, with the exception of Stefano Sensi. Sensi hasn’t forced himself into this Inter team often but at 25 years old, his best years are still ahead of him. If any midfielder outside of the starting lineup has adjusted best to Conte’s tactics, it’s Sensi. Having said that, there is still much to be desired from him.Vidal and Gagliardini standout when they play for all the wrong reasons.
Going forward, Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez are near elite level strikers, the former especially. Lukaku should be in the same conversation as players like Harry Kane and Robert Lewandowski; he is the best striker in the Serie A.
Inter play a system that uses two forwards. Alexis Sanchez has done well enough to fill in for Lautaro Martinez when needed, mostly because the two of them are so similar in play style, but there is no one to fill in for Lukaku should he get injured. Lukaku isn’t just the “big one” in this striker duo; his technical ability and influence on Inter’s build-up play is unmatched by anyone in the squad or Serie A.
Inter lacks depth. They don’t need world-class players to replace their starting lineup, but they do need more than what they have. With Champions League games in addition to their Serie A and Coppa Italia games, a large fixture list will do damage to this thin Inter squad, especially with Euro 2020 this summer.
I’ve praised Inter’s attacking tactics often this season; it’s deserved, they play excellent attacking football. When you commit players forward you welcome opposition counter-attacks and that’s exactly where Inter are weakest. Below is how we see Inter playout from the back. The starting wingbacks push forward while the wide center-backs take up fullback roles. We’ve seen this before.
To counter this, defending teams will allow the Inter wingbacks to take up such high positions so that if Inter lose possession, the defending team can attack the space behind these wingbacks. The defending team will sit narrowly and cut off central passing options, forcing play wide. Inter are comfortable playing in the wide areas as we discussed above, but as the season has gone on, defending teams have gotten better at winning the ball back in the wide areas.
Below is an example taken from the game against Napoli that can be found here. Defending teams with strong wide players, in this example Matteo Politano and Lorenzo Insigne, often position themselves in the space between the wide center-back turned fullback and the most central defender.
Politano sits between Bastoni and de Vrij while Insigne sits behind Hakimi and beside Skriniar. Most of the chances Inter concede come from these areas. Inter don’t concede many high quality goal scoring opportunities often, but against Europe’s elite in the Champions League, they can’t afford to concede any.
Internazionale Milano have been an absolute pleasure to watch this season. My words will never be able to do their performances and style of play justice. In what was the most competitive Serie A season we have seen in years, Inter managed to win the league in style.
Inter are packed with technically and tactically brilliant players like Alessandro Bastoni, who can shift from left center-back to left fullback and contribute meaningfully in attack, Nicolo Barella who has redefined what it means to be a “box-to-box” midfielder in a sense that you must be as creative and technical as you are workman like, and Romelu Lukaku who is the elite center-forward that Chelsea and Manchester United fans had wished he would become for them.
Antonio Conte has done an excellent job with this team. He is one of the world's best coaches and this season encapsulates why. Inter is right for Conte and Conte is right for Inter. There is no group of players that could play under Conte as well as these Inter players do, and there is no manager who could have won a Serie A title with this group of players. Conte has gotten the absolute most out of every single player on this squad.
Inter are deserved Serie A champions. Coaches, players and fans will be talking about this Inter team when discussing the greatest Serie A teams for ages; I know I will be. Forza Inter!
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