Getting knocked out of the Champions League will be a good thing for Antonio Conte in the long run.
No. I don’t mean in that way most commonly cited.
One of the first things spit out of the take-machine in the immediate aftermath of Inter losing to Barcelona’s reserves, dumping the team from the Champions League at the group stage for the second time in successive years, was that the team was now free to focus on the Scudetto. A team of Inter’s stature and a coach of Conte’s standards cares not for the Europa League, the theory goes. Now they can dedicate more resources to the domestic title race while Juventus compete on two fronts.
This theory is objectively obtuse. Modern football squads are giant; rest is carefully managed. Juventus have more players than they can physically register. And it’s not like the Champions League brings that many more games. If you lose in the first knockout phase, you’ve only played two extra games. Boo hoo.
To call Inter’s squad thin, however, is an insult to the very concept of thinness, which would seem to lend credence to this concept of rest aiding the title race. But that’s not accurate. Inter’s squad is so thin there’s not a whole lot of rotating they can do. Just who are these players that Conte will rotate out of the league side and slot into the Europa League squad in order to preserve the legs of a couple of first-teamers? Dump the first knockout round of the Europa League and you’ve played — you guessed it — two games!
(Also, neither competition starts up again until February. We may not even have a title race by then)
Even then, we’re dealing with a homicidally competitive coach who still has to prepare for an opponent, travel to a game, build a gameplan, give a team talk and so and so on. Conte isn’t just going to roll into Belgrade without a plan or with a team ready to get rolled over. He’s heard the growing whispers that he’s a dominant league manager who struggles in Europe. Oh, and those players being “rested” will still be sat somewhere along the bench and will still have to travel and will still have to deal with the mental and physical drain of playing a couple of games in a week.
If anything, playing in the Europa League and rotating the squad to such a degree hinders Inter’s title challenge. Players won’t get up for those games. Whatever malaise or complacency that takes over could trickle into sleepy Serie A nights. Playing on the edge of your seat every Sunday and Wednesday then Tuesday then Saturday brings its own kind of momentum. Every game is a cup final, as the cliche-ridden like to say. Losing that spirit will make the title race tougher, even it saves Lautaro’s or Lukaku’s legs here or there.
But Tuesday’s disappointment will help in other ways. Conte can better flex his power over the club. He was proven right. He moaned and moaned about squad depth. It was obvious even to the most wilfully ignorant prior to the season. It became more obvious as injuries struck and the likes of Valero graduated from afterthought to somewhat-important status.
It’s not that Suning of Beppe Marotta fought that notion. They knew this squad wasn’t good enough to compete on three fronts. They wanted to get out of the Champions League group stages, qualify for next years competition, and Conte to work over the squad while building FFP capital. Conte saw something a different: An opening to dethrone Juventus. And he wanted it now!
He didn’t get every toy in the summer. Now he’s emboldened to ask for it all — again — come January (not that he hasn’t been persistently asking throughout). He knows Inter has a very real shot at challenging a blip-filled Juve side. Sarri hasn’t figured everything out yet. He might never, opening a window for Conte to compete over the next two or three years. Or the Turin club might flex its vast resources, click into gear, and wipe away the competition again. But right now Conte knows his team is right there. Give him his first eleven for the entire season and he knows that Inter would run Juventus neck-a-neck. It’s squad depth that’s the issue (and certain first-team spots here and there).
He wants both fixed because that’s what all top class managers want all the time: more.
Few have the power to demand it. Conte made it a pre-condition of joining the club. He wanted big resources invested over and over again. He didn’t just want a Lukaku shaped present. He wanted everything. The idea of more is just bred into his DNA -- it’s ultimately what doomed his time at Chelsea. There is no final answer: What do you want? Who do you want?
Conte will keep demanding, privately and publicly. It will force the club to do more and propel them towards a more modern climate. Is it the healthiest thing long-term to submit to the ego of the messianic coach? Perhaps not. But it’s Inter’s best chance to jump the line and transform from flagging historical club back into the realm of the so-called Super Clubs.
Suning is trying to build a modern infrastructure off-the-pitch, but they need Conte to deliver instant results to help. And he knows it. That gives him pretty unprecedented power compared to most head coaches across Europe. He will demand more and more and more. And while he may not receive it all, he’ll get a bunch. And that, in the long run, is a win.
Tuesday stung in the short-term. It may not even help in the medium term. But it will help Conte shape is squad in the run -- whatever we consider “long-term” in modern football. Three years, most likely.