Stefano Sensi missing the next couple of games will tell us an awful lot about whether Antonio Conte’s side can challenge for the Scudetto.
Sensi will miss the upcoming games against Sassuolo and Dortmund with a right abductor injury. Some reports peg his return as early as Parma next week. Others claim it could be a longer layoff than that. And others claim Sensi will be by back by midweek. As always with injuries: everybody claims, nobody knows.
Either way, Sensi’s absence will tell us a great deal about Inter’s potential to push Juventus the distance domestically, and whether or not they can afford to sustain a challenge on two fronts — at home and in Europe.
The demands Conte places on his team are exhausting physically and mentally. He’s constantly hit the ground running and then eventually worn out his welcome. That’s fine; it’s what the best do these days.
Conte has become a serial winner because he’s a tactical savant and because he places such exertion on players. But he’s been able to do so — make tactical tweaks here or there or burned players into the ground — because he’s had a large enough squad to consistently rotate.
Inter’s squad is thin. There aren’t plenty of like-for-like replacements. The talent drops when you remove one of the linchpins. When and where production comes from adjusts.
Sensi has been a delight so far. He has been Inter’s most consistent, best player this season, by a decent distance. Without him, Inter’s play in the final-third is in danger of becoming stilted an arrhythmic. Few do a better job of keeping the ball moving: circulating within the team’s structure and taking things into his own hands. He makes sure to get his teammates involved: he offers the ball up then demands it back, not to advance play but to keep the ball rattling along, keeping his teammates in rhythm and shuffling the defence first here and then there. Take a peak across Europe and you won’t find too many, other than those deeper lying halfbacks, who maintain that metronomic feeling at a high level.
Through seven games Sensi has tallied three goals and a pair of assists. His expected goals and expected assists are at career highs; playing with better players can in-turn make a player look better. He has already developed a good understanding with Romelu Lukaku, based on movement patterns more so than a telepathic understanding between the two. Sensi is averaging 63 touches a game and draws an average of two fouls. Defenders get frustrated. They see an undersized, slender guy running their way. Sensi teases. You see the ball, you go for it, and by the time the brain has sent the signals to your legs, he’s nudged it just a little farther. He plays with an unteachable two-steps ahead vision:
Replacing Sensi isn’t just about replacing production. It’s about finding someone who can in one breath shift the defensive backline with a glance of his eyes and in another, will be a dogged presser, leading from the front and chasing back if required:
The most obvious one-for-one replacement is Nicolo Barella, the more expensive of Inter’s summer signings. Sensi is already providing what Barella’s talent has promised. Sensi dropping from the team will put more emphasis on Barella to be a guy who puts his imprint on a game, rather than drifting through with the odd flashes here and there.
Other players may step up. Gagliardini is expected to start against Sassuolo on Sunday. Vecino is expected to start in midweek. Both are warm bodies with legs and arms and eyes and feet. They could offer something, though it’s unlikely to match Sensi’s blend of craft and authority.
And that’s fine! As long as the pair, along with Barella, put in decent shifts and Inter continue to rack up wins and points, that’s a long term win. Not every result has to be pretty. Not every midfielder can match Sensi’s grace. Perhaps the creativity will come from other areas: combination play between the forwards would be nice; the wingbacks may take on even more of a burden, perhaps too much.
It will be nice to see if a Conte team that hasn’t had its full rebuild yet can navigate such waters. Can other individuals step up when one goes down or can the team shifts its focus as and when required to grind out results?