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Five lessons from preseason... so far

Conte being Conte. Sensi free’d up. Perisic issues. The Icardi saga. More.

Paris Saint-Germain v FC Internazionale - International Super Cup 2019 Photo by Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

1. It’s Conte’s way or the highway

Based on his track record with Juve, the national team, and at Chelsea, this was to be expected. Conte hasn’t held back his typically bombastic style this preseason, imprinting his blueprint on the club right away. He has taken shots at the club’s transfer policy -- rightfully. He’s continued the isolation of Mauro Icardi. He dumped Radja Nainggolan without giving him a chance. He’s eager to move on from Ivan Perisic, despite giving him a bunch of preseason playing time.

Sometimes building a culture takes time; sometimes, all it takes is a big-ass catalyst. Some coaches rely on a signing -- Cantona at Man United, Ronaldinho at Barcelona etc. Conte thinks he is the catalyst. And why wouldn’t he? He’s a serial winner. He isn’t in this thing to make friends. He is here to challenge for trophies.

Jettisoning veteran some of the team’s under-achieving old guard, and adding other stable, veteran pieces – Godin, Dzeko et al. – is Conte’s long-term cultural play. In the short term, he’s encouraged the club and squad to operate in the new world of modern football: Land big targets; sacrifice for the collective; chuck out anyone who isn’t buying into the cult of no personality. We are here to win, is the message. If you’re not in, move along.

Inter knew what they were getting into when they added Conte, and he’s living up to his reputation.

2. Sensi’s free role

In the world of the blogosphere (read: those who base player evaluations on Football Manager) Stefano Sensi has been considered a poor man’s Xavi. He was a little conductor; a team’s metronome. Upon arriving at Inter, he was expected to sit alongside a pair of box-to-box midfielders and pull the strings from deep before looking to engage in the attack as the ball progressed upfield, if he was on the pitch at all.

And part of that is true. Sensi has served that role, and can do so effectively. But Conte has demanded more this preseason, and Sensi has delivered. He has been given a freer role:

He marauds all over the pitch: he will play just off a pair of strikers, creating an attacking triangle, dipping to either side of the pair or plugging in between; he’ll come over to the left, allowing Dalbert to bomb forward; he’s helped lead the press from the front; he’s pushed beyond the other pair of central midfielder, who operate as a base, igniting counter attacks.

While other parts of Conte’s structure (most) demand precision, Sensi has been given license to explore and impart his own instincts on the team. Most of the team’s attacking input has flowed through Sensi on and off the ball.

That license to move has been essential as Conte cobbled together a front line during the preseason. Some of Sensi’s play is subtly gorgeous. His off-ball movement has opened up channels for others to attack (#12):

And while his teammates haven’t always taken advantage of his understanding of the geometry of the field, Sensi has proven he can takeover and punish the opposition himself:

The vision. The movement. Stupendous. This is the stuff of a poor man’s Iniesta, not Xavi. His game is so much more diverse and less predictable than that of a deep-lying playmaker. Sensi slicks and slides through defences. He reads and plays then advances.

Above is one of Conte’s set routines (something we will cover more extensively, soon). It’s a third-man runner, and it’s damn effective. Sensi knows what to do before Dalbert has even played the ball, and that mental head start allows him to glide through narrow crannies.

There’s still that metronomic skill-set to work with, though. Two-steps ahead vision is the deadliest trait for a passer; Sensi has it. This... this is audacious:

Sensi picks the ball up just inside the opponents half and pings a ball out to the right flank. It’s not quite a line drive, but it does the job. Keep track of Sensi as he moves. He can conjure space like magic, twisting and turning to avoid a defender, or having that natural ability to drift into space. This time it’s the latter.

Sensi sets up shop midway between the halfway line and the box. This time he’s sat in the quarterback pocket, ready to pull the strings. The ball is laid back to him and slides a pass perfectly between the fullback and centre half, ripping PSG’s defence open and getting the fullback in-behind.

Making those reads in real time is football’s highest art. It requires a second-by-second mapping of 21 other humans in motion – and the brain-power to think one step ahead of them.

Sensi has special gifts. He was expected to be part of a rather blah, I-guess-he’s-good midfield rotation. But his preseason performances have shown he brings something to the club that no one else currently offers.

3. Transfers are never easy

This has been a trying summer as it relates to transfers. Nothing is as frustrating as getting caught up in a transfer saga. When that saga happens to involve your team’s top scorer, former captain, and begins to balloon from a one-player drama into a four-way mess, it reaches a crisis point. Already, fingers are being pointed at management and ownership by the manager. Live up to your promises.

The intersection of the futures of Icardi, Lukaku, Dybala, Dzeko and perhaps Christian Eriksen has been draining. What are the knock on effects? Who will blink first? If they do this, will we have to do that?

Satisfying the FFP overloads has hung over every club -- except Man City, of course -- this transfer window. Lukaku’s £70 million move to Inter on Wednesday might juice the market, but everyone still seems content to sit and wait. Deadlines always spur action.

The Icardi situation hangs over everything Inter had planned in Conte’s first window, and it’s been objectively terrible for everyone involved. The team is prepared to leave Icardi out of their Champions League squad if they’re unable to sell him this summer, according to a recent report from Corriere Dello Sport. Yet it’s hard to see an Icardi landing spot at this point: Will Juve re-engage now that they’ve missed out on Lukaku? Napoli are more focused on adding Hirving Lazano. Roma don’t have the cash required, unless it becomes part of a Dzeko swap deal. Icardi, for his part, is reluctant to move to the capital.

Selling a 24-karat player for the price of 24 carrot will be a huge blow to Conte’s plans. Teams structure their annual budgets some way out. Conte has already spoken, publicly, of the promises he was made by the board when discussing the job -- the targets he wanted, the money available etc. In order to satisfy FFP, you have to believe the club factored in sales of big earners/money generators when pitching to Conte

Taking a bath on any Icardi a deal will throw everything up in the air. Inter seemingly needs the £70-80 million to finance future deals. If that number falls to £30-40 million, which seems reasonable, the team will be left in a financial and talent hole.

4. Perisic doesn’t fit

Perisic’s time with Inter is done. Whether that officially becomes the case before the close of the transfer window in a fortnight, in January, or drags out over a protracted timeframe, only he really knows.

Conte has made it clear he doesn’t fancy Perisic. He’s not wrong. Perisic’s freelancing style doesn’t match up with Conte’s carefully choreographed ecosystem. He doesn’t shine within structure; he wants to do his own thing.

It took only two weeks for Conte to figure out Perisic couldn’t fit his highly-demanding wingback role. His fit is better as the team’s shadow/deep-lying striker, but even there his skill-set doesn’t actually match-up to what Conte is looking for, nor is he good enough in that role to justify the club turning down a decent offer.

Perisic has come under fire for his refusal to pass and wastefulness in the final third. Those things don’t wash with Conte. His style is structured. Passing moves are a careful symphony. You can veer away from them every now and then, but this isn’t some kind of jazz free-for-all.

Perisic is a jazz player. That will work somewhere. But not Inter. Not with Conte. Perisic has been given plenty of runway this preseason, slotting into that support striker role. It just hasn’t clicked:

There is interest from Monaco. A fee between £20-25 million (a far cry from the Manchester United negotiations a couple of years back) would be fair. The team can then use the money to complete a deal for Edin Dzeko. Roma refuse to budge from their £30 million asking price, despite there being only a year left on his current deal.

What would essentially amounts to an accounting deal – swapping Perisic for Dzeko – makes perfect sense, even if Perisic is a couple of years younger.

5. Help still needed down the left side

One important note to start: Dalbert has been decent during preseason. But preseason football is just that: preseason. They’re friendlies, without all the intensity of a domestic or European campaign.

Dalbert has flashed promise under Conte. He’s a willing runner who fits well within the new tactical structure: providing width, pressing at the right times, making smart runs.

Those final two are the most important. Pressing can be confusing. Sometimes someone runs around with reckless abandon. They look willing, a dogged presser. But if that falls out of the tactical structure, it’s not just pointless, it’s a killer. Pressing only works when the team presses as a unit. Conte’s so-called “pressure points” are against wide centre backs and when the ball hits the flanks.

Dalbert has seems to have understood what’s demanded of him innately. He’s shown promise:

Above, watch him sit and scan. The press triggers once the ball goes wide. Dalbert closes the space and the second-flow follows in-behind. Spurs are forced to play in a small channel with no outlet ball to either side or backwards. Dalbert anticipates the next action. He knows once the ball has been played inside it can only be returned to the wing. He jumps the pass, nicks it away and launches the counter attack.

There are still major question marks, though. Dalbert’s final delivery remains a disappointment. His decision-making is up and down, and his final ball elicits more oh-god-seriously reactions than any sober man can handle. If Inter want to press beyond a top-4 challenge, Dalbert isn’t good enough to carry them through a campaign on three fronts.

He remains a decent option right now. The job likely remains Asamoah’s to lose, once he’s back up to speed. Asamoah offers more final product going forward, but it would be interesting to see how he would integrate into a demanding pressing system as he edges up in years (he has played for Conte before).

Now that the deal for Lukaku has finally wrapped, attention can turn to upgrading a position that is essential to success in Conte’s system. There are options. Could Roma’s Aleksander Kolarov, a long rumoured target, form part of a more expansive package along with Dzeko? How about a Dzeko-Kolarov for Icardi plus £15 million? It’s not great, but Inter aren’t recouping the market value for Icardi anyway, so why not grab a pair of players Conte has shown interest in?

Kolarov remains at the peak of his powers. It’s become fashionable to view him as a dead ball specialist who’s limited defensively. But that’s just not true. He’s solid enough, particularly in a back five. He remains a star in open play. Kolarov finished second in expected assists per-90 in Serie A last season, behind only Alessandro Florenzi.

Adding two guys north of 30 is a concern. That might make Fiorentina’s Cristiano Biragi (26) the better target. Inter are looking at a loan-before-buy move or a part-ex with one of the many blah midfielders Conte is ready to let go.

Biragi isn’t as good going forward as Kolarov. But he might fit the “shuttler” needs better. He’s more mobile and he reads the game well. Either would be an upgrade.