The Contefication of Inter continues to rumble along at a break-neck pace. Along with the ongoing negotiations for Edin Dzeko, Conte has his eyes set on an additional box-to-box midfielder. The two names up for grabs: Arturo Vidal and Sergei Milinkovic-Savic.
SMS is one of the finest players at his position in Europe. Adding him would be a real sign of intent from the club’s new hierarchy. It’s a no brainer. If Inter can get that deal done, they must.
Adding Vidal is a more interesting discussion point. The current Barcelona midfielder played for Conte back in his Juve days and was a star. His stint with Bayern Munich was just as successful. A move to the Nou Camp beckoned, and while it hasn’t gone quite as planned, Vidal still walked off the pitch on the final day of the Spanish league campaign as a champion.
Like Conte, Vidal is a serial winner. He’s already racked up eleven (!) league titles and is in the midst of an eight-year (!!) run of back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back titles across three countries. Add him to a side featuring Diego Godin and you start to see Conte’s long-term vision come to life: tough, accountable players who have experience as champions and can have an infectious impact on the dressing room.
Bad attitudes sink talented teams. Whether it’s maliciousness, complacency or plain laziness, there will be no place for it in Conte’s squad.
News of Vidal being reunited with Conte should have been met with universal acclaim. But the fan-base appears split. There are whispers that he’s too old, that the club should plan for the future. Others see him as little more than a like-for-like replacement for Radja Nainggolan.
Inter dumped Nainggolan last week before he even had a chance to impress Conte. Upon his arrival at the club, Conte made it clear he wanted to purge elements of a dysfunctional dressing room. Nainggolan was on the hit list. A combination of poor behaviour, injuries, and age sunk his Inter career before it could take off.
A move to Cagliari was confirmed last week on an initial loan deal. The deal is clouded by the ill-health of Nainggolan’s wife, who is currently battling cancer. Nainggolan had a successful stint with Cagliari from 2010 to 2014. He chose to return this summer so that his wife could be closer to family. Few transfers this summer will be more admirable.
Back to the football implications. Nainggolan was a flop at Inter. He cost £38 million plus Davide Santon and Nicolo Zaniolo. Losing Zaniolo was a disaster: A 20-year old, homegrown talent, picked up on the cheap (£1.8 million) now valued at £40 million, per Transfermarkt. Not recouping a decent amount for Nainggolan makes the initial deal even worse. Football players are assets these days. Inter took a bath on the Zaniolo-Nainggolan deal. In the era of Financial Fair Play, that can be a team-building killer.
Nainngolan’s on-field performance was up-and-down, too. His raw numbers last season -- goals, assists -- were fine. But his attitude (partying, missing training) and injury record (frequent) stunk.
Everyone enjoys a fiery player. And that gave him a solid reputation among a portion of the fan-base who are disappointed to see him leave. That’s how I’d play, fans convince themselves. But Nainggolan often vacated his responsibilities. There was fire, true. But it wasn’t channeled and was often destructive to the teams overall defensive structure.
Elements of the fan-base continue to draw parallels between Vidal and Nainggolan. I ran a poll on the Serpents Twitter account last week asking fans whether Vidal would represent an upgrade over Nainggolan. The results were, umm, jarring:
Inter remain in talks to add Arturo Vidal. Would he be an upgrade over Nainggolan?— Serpents of Madonnina (@SerpentsOfInter) August 9, 2019
Only 48% of the people polled believed Vidal was an upgrade. That’s absurd. Vidal is a better, more impactful player. He’s had some of the same off-field issues: an errant social media post; an incident at a nightclub. But Conte has worked with Vidal before. He knows what makes him tick. He’s a champion, and any of that off-field stuff (the social media post being due to a lack of playing time) has never influenced his play.
Both Nainggolan and Vidal are box-to-box midfielders. They run hard and play passes and tackle and get into the opponent’s box. But their impacts are different. Nainggolan is more involved in the final product, passing to a shooter or taking a shot himself. Vidal is more involved in the build-up play, besting Nainggolan quite comfortably in two of the most important advanced metrics in football: the total xG of every possession the player is involved in without key passes and shots (xGBuildup90); the total xG of every possession the player is involved in (xGChain90).
In non-nerd terms: Vidal offers more in possession. The old-fashioned eye test bears this out, too.
Vidal’s role with Barca was a little different last year than in his stints with Juve and Bayern. He started in his traditional role: a shuttler playing alongside an orchestrator. But he didn’t get much playing time as he got lost in the midfield shuffle. Up to March, Vidal played only 1,218 minutes in 33 matches, an average of 37-minutes per game. After March, however, Vidal was shifted wide. He played in a front-three alongside two of Leo Messi, Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembele, and Malcom.
Vidal played nominally on the left. Ernesto Valverde’s egalitarian style allowed everyone to move and play anywhere and everywhere. Suarez, Messi, Arthur, Vidal and either starting fullback, would shift between a raft of positions. Only the defensive fulcrums – Busquets and a pair of centre backs – held their spots. Vidal would wind up in either half-space (that neat channel between the centre back and full back), as a False 9, or play in his traditional spot when starting in the central of midfield.
It was a brilliant move. Vidal thrived. Even when playing wide, Vidal would drift inside and occupy the positions where he is most dangerous. Jordi Alba was given free rein to maraud forward, overlapping and giving Barca some width. Vidal excelled trailing behind quick breaks. Rather than charge forward, he would move casually, reading everything before him. How best can I help?
It doesn’t get better than this:
Did you follow that? Watch Vidal at the top of the screen. He’s careful not to charge ahead and make it a straight 4 vs. 4.
Vidal knows he’s best served dragging a little behind. The defenders don’t know whether to pick up Suarez, Messi and Alba individually, or hold one line. In the end, they did neither.
The movement of the front two-plus-Vidal distorted the line of the defence. No one is more ruthless at punishing that than Messi.
Vidal read the landscape. In those spots, he knows exactly what to do. The ball was played back to him; his touch a little heavy. No bother. Vidal had already formed a nice wink-wink chemistry with Messi on quick counters. All four Betis defenders decelerated for a fateful half second. Look at the back line as the ball is played:
Two defenders were ripped out of the picture. Barca should have scored.
Some shuttling midfielders cannot strike that balance. They’re all gas, no break. Not Vidal. He understands sometimes the best thing to do is to sit and wait and then strike. At 33, in his 15th season, that genius remains in full bloom.
Few in football can read, trigger, then go like Vidal:
Conte’s carefully constructed eco-system relies on quick strikes. First time channel balls and lethal breaks, those are the backbone of Conte’s system. No team downloaded chances as fast and as cruelly as Conte’s Juve team. That’s what he wants from this Inter side: players springing forward, movement from the two forwards, and a pair of central midfielders knowing when and where to move in perfect sync. Vidal fits the bill perfectly.
One tidbit to monitor: how would/will Vidal jive with Stefano Sensi’s new role. Vidal, while with Conte at Juve, played a similar free role to that which Sensi has thrived in during preseason. Vidal, however, can slot into a bunch of different spots. Would his arrival shove Sensi down the pecking order, with the pair rotating the spot? Or would Conte play them either side of a more defensive, restrained midfielder, both given freedoms to shuttle and explore and create and thrive?
Understanding what a player is as opposed to what you want him to be is the crucial part of management. Few have ever identified a player’s strength and how it fits with the collective as well as Conte. His player management can be iffy at times, but his player evaluations – and how that fits his system – is the reason he’s been such a success.
Two of Sensi, Vidal, Barella, or Gagliardini either side of Brozovic would be an exciting, creative, powerful trio.
The beauty of four of that bunch is their willingness to move the ball vertically. When Pep Guardiola was bending the boundaries of football with Bayern Munich, he did so around a single doctrine: verticality. Put simply: playing the ball between the lines, and players moving between the lines.
Formations came and went. Styles came and went. There were long, drawn out periods of possession. There were rapid counter attacks. Yet everything was about moving the ball forwards and backwards, not horizontally.
Guardiola’s masterplan: sign Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal. Man, did it ever work. Vidal was at his destructive best, moving the ball forward and then following; holding his spot and shifting the defensive line. He finished his stint in Germany with an 89% pass success percentage, per WhoScored. In a system that didn’t fetishize sideways passes, but moving the ball forward, that’s an astonishing output.
Verticality is the essential part of attacking play. Conte’s pre-prepared attacking routines are all about verticality, and typically spring from the ball starting wide, with the central axis – midfielders and two strikers – distorting the defensive lines.
If you were to build Conte’s perfect shuttler in a lab, you’d land on four core traits: Smart when pressing; intelligent when breaking; covers a lot of ground; plays with verticality. Sound familiar?
Nainggolan hit a couple of those traits, but Conte doesn’t want to settle for two of four. He wants his guys who can fill his roles.
Vidal does mirror Nainggolan in some ways. He’s all too willing to go to ground. Slide tackles make terraces swoon, particularly in England. Some like to claim there’s an almost intangible benefit to these; that a player’s teammates are buoyed by seeing a hard-crunching challenge.
Nonsense. The slide tackle is a last-ditch attempt; a neon sign that illuminates a player was in a poor initial position, lacked the anticipation skills to see what was coming, and can do little more than dive at the opposition. It’s, for the most part, terrible defending. And that’s the only complaint Vidal’s managers have ever had, particularly Guardiola.
Vidal remains one of the most well-rounded midfielders in football. Few, if any, fit the demands of Conte’s system as well. A sub-par year in which he couldn’t fully break into Barcelona’s team shouldn’t diminish how folks think of him. Adding him to this Inter side would be a clear upgrade.