Inter Milan’s victory over Borussia Dortmund couldn’t have gone better.
At one end of the field, Lautaro Martinez continued his fine form with a well-taken goal and a strong overall performance, while a young Sebastiano Esposito looked electrifying off the bench, winning a penalty as well as becoming Inter’s youngest ever Champions League debutant.
At the other end, Dortmund were restricted to a mere five shots by the Nerazzurri backline. Jadon Sancho in particular had a frustrating night at the hands of Antonio Conte’s signature 3-5-2, which gave Sancho very little freedom to get into his flow.
One man in particular played an important role in both of these areas, so much so that Interisti voted him their best player on Inter’s Twitter poll while Conte singled him out for extensive praise post-match. Stefan De Vrij was, quite simply, faultless.
It would be easy for the unobservant football fan to label De Vrij as the least glamorous member of Inter’s all-star defensive trio. Diego Godin stands out for obvious reasons, but Milan Skriniar too has enjoyed an elevated international profile thanks to his Serie A breakthrough at a tender age and constant links to the top dogs of the Premier League.
Further afield from Inter, Serie A has always been blessed with a multitude of great central defenders, and this season is no exception. De Vrij’s compatriot Matthijs De Ligt has attracted all sorts of attention so far in his debut season at Juventus, although not always for appraisal. Meanwhile, Kostas Manolas’ move to the south of Italy has given Napoli a star-studded duo of Manolas and Kalidou Koulibaly. In other words, De Vrij came into this season under-the-radar.
Every manager loves a pet project. And furthermore, every manager has a role in their system that requires a very specific type of footballer. Stefan De Vrij has quickly emerged as Conte’s individual project, designed to fill the key central position in his favoured three-man defense. Those with any experience of watching Conte’s Juventus or Italy sides will have recognised how crucial Leandro Bonucci was in this position. Bonucci’s range of passing, accompanied by his surprisingly smooth dribbling technique, allowed him to act as an additional playmaker. In this system, Bonucci simply couldn’t be picked up; he sat far too deep to man-mark effectively whilst his long, lofted through passes could unlock an entire team in one move. If he was ever caught out drifting forward, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli could comfortably clean up.
The parallels in the Inter defense are not exact, but they are obvious. Godin and Skriniar are so effective in their tackling, positioning and one-on-one situations that De Vrij is afforded the freedom to spray the ball, take more touches and dictate the tempo. His abilities on the ball have always been evident, but Conte has managed to unleash them in new ways.
The latest chapter in De Vrij’s reinvention is his aforementioned masterclass against Dortmund. His assist for Lautaro Martinez was typical of a Conte-style sweeper. Collecting the ball around the halfway line, he pushed forward a few yards, observing movements ahead of him, before drifting a chipped through ball into the path of Lautaro who did well to finish. It all looked very Bonucci-esque; Conte even claimed after the game that his performance was ‘like Bonucci’.
Aside from his assist, De Vrij’s numbers in Wednesday’s game speak for themselves. Most touches out of every player on the pitch. 93.8% passing accuracy. Three interceptions and three tackles. These are exactly the sort of figures Conte expects from his playmaking defender, and the sort of performances De Vrij has been turning in throughout most of this campaign so far.
Conte’s ‘New Bonucci’ plan is clearly paying off for De Vrij. What remains to be seen is whether the Dutchman can match his predecessor in the Conte system by helping Inter claim their first scudetto since 2010. Nevertheless, the signs are promising.