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Analysis: Stefano Sensi’s free role is the story of preseason

Sensi is everything he was build to be, and then some.

FC Internazionale Trainig Session Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Inter via Getty Images

This story originally appeared as part of: “Five things we’ve learned from preseason... so far

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.