Once Romelu Lukaku signed the white piece of paper on Thursday, Antonio Conte heaved a sigh of relief. He had been waiting for a chance to work with Lukaku ever since Diego Costa left Chelsea. And much like the situation at Chelsea, it looked like he had to settle for Rebic (read: Morata 2.0) instead. Beppe Marotta, however, presented Conte with his top target two weeks before the season is set to begin. Inter’s squad is almost complete with the arrival of Lukaku, and it’s that time of the season where we can speculate how this squad could lineup come August 27.
This post will look into the possible options in our squad and how Conte teams have lined-up in the past to possibly arrive at the team that might start the season.
Before I start analyzing the specific positions (midfield, defense, etc.), it’s better to take a look at the formation we will play. In pre-season, Conte has primarily used a 3-5-2 and a closer look at the team and the acquisitions over the summer- Diego Godin (a third center-back) , Lazaro (a right winger who can play wing-back), Nico Barella and Stefano Sensi (both box-to-box midfielders who are highly capable of performing multiple tasks) and Romelu Lukaku (big striker who can hold up the ball)- shows us that Conte will primarily use the 3-5-2 this season and could occasionally, play a 3-4-3 with Lautaro and Politano on their respective flanks.
In an earlier post, I had left you with this graphic which showed Conte’s preference for having three central defenders, and during his last four seasons as a club manager, Conte has rarely ever drifted from this approach.
Conte at Juventus primarily used the 3-5-2 with the legendary Chiellini-Bonucci-Barzagli trio at the back, and a midfield trio of Pirlo, Pogba and Vidal. Pogba and Vidal were box-to-box midfielders who gave Pirlo the room to operate as a deep-lying playmaker. In front, Juventus had a strike partnership, usually with a taller player who was good in the air like Vucinic/Llorente and a more technical, quicker striker like Giovinco/Tevez.
Conte, in his first season at Chelsea twerked his midfield slightly and switched to a 3-4-3. The loss of an extra midfielder was compensated by the use of David Luiz, one of the best ball-progressors from the back and N’golo Kante who had the work-rate of two players.
“One day, I’m going to see you cross the ball, and then finish the cross with a header yourself.” - Claudio Ranieri to N’golo Kante.
The next season, Conte had some issues with his squad. Diego Costa wanted to leave, and with that, Conte lost his ideal striker, one who could hold up the ball and help carry the ball. Cahill’s age and Luiz’s constant injuries meant that Conte would alternate between the 3-5-2 and the 3-4-3 formation in the 2017/18 season.
The 3-5-2 at Chelsea and the personnel used in that formation somewhat resembled the team at Juventus.
Left-Sided Center-Back: Diego Godin
Conte prefers a left-footed center back at the left center back position. Chiellini was a left-back in his early days, before being pushed into central defense by Didier Deschamps. Rudiger, despite being right-footed is a versatile player who’s capable of playing on the right (Germany) and the left. Inter’s former manager, Luciano Spalletti, used Rudiger as a left-back during his days with AS Roma. Cahill was probably the only player Conte has used who had no experience playing as a left-back.
Cahill and Rudiger were not actively used to progress the ball, Chiellini however, had some ball progression duties. One similarity between the three is their aerial prowess, and all three of them had important moments in both boxes.
Cahill and more so, Chiellini were also among the best tacklers of the modern game and they were important in ensuring the opposition attackers did not get into dangerous spaces to affect the game.
I would think that Conte would use Diego Godin as the left sided center-back, as Diego Godin is well known for his ambipedal ability. And similar to the above-mentioned center backs, is a great tackler and is unparalleled in his aerial prowess bar Virgil Van Dijk.
Here is a graphic showcasing his aerial ability compared to the other Inter center-backs.
I expect Godin to start in this position, before being replaced by Alessandro Bastoni within 2 seasons time. I’m also really excited for Bastoni. He is a rarity in the modern game: a left-footed center back who’s really good in the air and with his feet. Additionally, he has an opportunity to improve his weaknesses in reading the game and defensive positioning under a legend like Godin.
Central Center-Back: Milan Skriniar
Conte in the past has used Bonucci, David Luiz and Christensen in this position. These defenders were ‘liberos’ or sweepers who would pick up loose balls in defense and immediately drive forward. Conte needs this defender to be great on the ball and carry the ball through midfield, he also needs this defender to have the passing ability to break defensive lines.
To be fair, all three of Godin, De Vrij and Skriniar could play this position, but Milan Skriniar is the best passer among the three and he’s very similar to Bonucci in that he aggressively steps out of the defensive line to stop attacks and has a knack of always choosing the right pass at the right time.
Right-Sided Center-Back: Stefan De Vrij
In a Juventus back-line filled with testosterone and bravado, Andrea Barzagli was the calming presence who could do a little bit of everything. Similarly, Azpilicueta, converted from his right back position, was an important player for Conte who would be tasked with many tasks including ball progression and covering for the extremely attacking Victor Moses.
The Inter player that could suit this mold is Stefan De Vrij and I expect him to start as the right sided center back.
Left Wing-Back: Kwadwo Asamoah
Conte is re-united with his former colleague in Asamoah who will take up that position once again. We can also expect Asamoah to improve his performance over the last season given that he will most likely return to his favored position of wing-back instead of a full-back. Asamoah has not featured in the pre-season due to his involvement with Ghana in the Africa Cup of Nations, but once he returns, you would expect him to start over Dalbert. There is some cause for concern over his recent comments after the AFCON, where he said he was uncomfortable playing as a left-sided midfielder, we can only hope that he doesn’t have any issues playing in the position that made him a star at Juventus.
The question worth asking is whether Dalbert will play an important role this season and if pre-season is ever a good measure of anything, Conte might be the manager under whom Dalbert progresses from a meme-lord player to a capable wing-back.
Central Midfield: Nicolo Barella
After his splendid Euro U-21 campaign, Nico Barella has been fairly impressive in pre-season and is ready to be Inter’s starting central midfielder who is very similar to the box-to-box midfielder used by Conte in the past – Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba, N’golo Kante and Tiémoué Bakayoko. While he might not have Kante’s motor, Pogba’s natural flair and creativity and Vidal’s pitbull-like nature and goal-scoring ability, I believe that he has a little bit of everything and will more likely blossom into a Luka Modric type player rather than the extremes like Pogba or Kante.
Here are a series of radar charts showing the difference between Barella, Kante and Pogba.
Central Midfield: Marcelo Brozovic
Marcelo Brozovic’s position in the squad is the most secure. The former box-to-box midfielder found great success as a converted holding midfielder under Spalletti. He was Serie A’s best passer last season and posted better stats than the likes of Pjanic and Zielinski. His creative abilities are not at the level of Pirlo, or even Matic yet. However, he is much more mobile than the aforementioned duo and it will be interesting to see how he’s utilized by Conte.
Central Midfield: Stefano Sensi/ Roberto Gagliardini
Stefano Sensi has no doubt been the story of the pre-season. In a perfect world, our starting midfield would be Barella -Brozovic- Sensi. However, I’m still not a 100% sure whether we can expect him to start.
One challenge that Conte might face while playing the three midfielders together, is that all three of them prefer to move about the pitch freely, and if that much freedom is given to a midfield line, structural issues might arise. However, if anybody can make this midfield work, it’s probably Conte. He has used two box-to-box midfielders together before (Pogba-Vidal and Kante-Bakayoko) and maybe we might see Brozovic completely transition into a deep lying playmaker to facilitate this.
However, Barella and Sensi are shorter players and might struggle in the air, which is why I can see Conte pairing Brozovic and Barella with Gagliardini.
There are also rumors of Conte being interested in re-uniting with Vidal. As for now, I think our midfield depth is quite strong, with Vecino and Valero still being capable contributors from the bench.
Right Wing-Back: Antonio Candreva/ Valentino Lazaro
The Inter fandom might wish that Conte only use Lazaro and completely relegate Candreva to the bench, however, the sad reality is that Lazaro’s unfortunate injury has meant that he has hardly been seen during pre-season and after the match against Valencia, Inter will not face any other teams, and it’s hard to see Lazaro as the starting right wing-back. It should go without saying that Lazaro is not originally a wing-back and Conte will be hoping that he could be our Victor Moses 2.0 a few weeks into the season.
Danilo D’ambrosio, the legend, will probably be covering both this position and De Vrij in the cup competitions.
I’m expecting Candreva to start in this position, and I’m hoping that Lazaro can take over when he is fully integrated with the squad.
Second Striker: Lautaro Martinez
Conte prefers to use a quicker, more technical striker. He typically pairs that alongside a striker who is good in the air and can hold up the ball well. Acquiring Lukaku ticks one box. Conte is also reportedly looking at Dzeko, a more technical striker to pair with Lukaku (Interestingly, Conte wanted Dzeko at Chelsea but had to settle for Olivier Giroud instead).
My pick for this position, however, has to be El Toro, his pace and dribbling ability combined with his strength and finishing makes him the perfect foil to Lukaku and I’ll be disappointed if Conte starts Dzeko in his place. Dzeko should only be bought as a backup to Lukaku in my opinion, as even though Edin Dzeko might be better with the ball at his feet than Lukaku, he’s not nearly as good as Martinez.
Striker: Romelu Lukaku
Romelu Lukaku has suffered major criticism from all corners of England. Let’s keep it straight: Lukaku is not the best with the ball at his feet. He is highly error-prone. But what is never observed his immense work-rate. His hold-up play, aerial prowess and ability to attract multiple defenders is something that will be very useful in an Antonio Conte lineup. In his Player’s Tribune article, Lukaku, who grew up in an under-privileged household, said:
“Let me tell you something — every game I ever played was a Final. When I played in the park, it was a Final. When I played during break in kindergarten, it was a Final. I’m dead-ass serious. I used to try to tear the cover off the ball every time I shot it. Full power. We weren’t hitting R1, bro. No finesse shot. I didn’t have the new FIFA. I didn’t have a Playstation. I wasn’t playing around. I was trying to kill you.”
The pairing of Lukaku and Lautaro is what excites me the most about this season.
This is the lineup I can see Conte playing for most of the season, however, there may be times where he switches to a 3-4-3 and brings in the versatile Politano to play on either flank.