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Speculating About Conte’s Midfield Plans

My thoughts on his rotation options for a challenging 2020/21 season

“Inter Milan’s Italian head coach Antonio Conte congratulates Inter Milan’s Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen after the UEFA Europa League round of 16 football match Inter Milan v Getafe on August 5, 2020 in Gelsenkirchen, western Germany.”
Photo by INA FASSBENDER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Ice hockey and calcio/soccer/futból are both very much TEAM games in two different ways. The primary distinction, in my opinion as a former hockey player, is that the wildly fast, end-to-end ice sport allows unlimited substitutions, with three or four “lines” of depth to rotate constantly among five positions on the ice at a time.

As a result, hockey players put in maximum intensity for each “shift” of about one minute at a time on the ice, and then switch out for the next “line” of players, in a constantly repeating cycle to prevent any single trio of attackers or any single pairing of defenders from getting too fatigued.

We have already seen Antonio Conte employ a similar sort of strategy in regards to the rotation of his wingback pairings this season — one of his most common substitution patterns was to make a double change for both wingback positions around the 60th or 70th minute of any given match.

Now, based on the options of mostly aging elite talent plus a couple of younger rising stars, I found it interesting to think about the various combinations available to Conte as “lines” for rotating situationally in the Midfield Three of his aggressively high-pressing 3-1-4-2 tactical system.

Right now, it’s looking like this will be the hypothetical “depth chart” of midfield options available to Conte in his second season with Inter:

  1. Marcelo Brozovic (27 years old)
  2. Nicolò Barella (23 years old)
  3. Christian Eriksen (28 years old)
  4. Stefano Sensi (25 years old)
  5. Arturo Vidal (33 years old)
  6. Radja Nainggolan (32 years old)
  7. Roberto Gagliardini (26 years old) and/or Matias Vecino (29 years old)
  8. Lucien Agoumé (although the 18 year old is likely to go out on loan after first securing a 4 year contract extension)

The Balanced Big Game Starters

1a.) Eriksen - Brozovic - Barella

1b.) Sensi - Brozovic - Barella

Eriksen at LCM, Brozovic as regista, and Barella at RCM would ideally be my first choice in general against most of the biggest clubs in Serie A and the Champions League. Some would probably argue that Sensi deserves to be first choice in that LCM role when healthy, and I don’t necessarily disagree... however, I remain optimistic that Eriksen could still be absolutely brilliant in that role, now that the highly skilled playmaker whom Pochettino once described as Tottenham’s “brain” has had a little more time to settle in with Inter.

The Closer Line

Vidal - Sensi - Nainggolan

Whether because of age or injury, none of these three players have the legs to be first choice starters every match, despite each of the three having world class abilities... however, coming on fresh for the last 20 or 30 minutes of a match would be devastating for an opponent’s tired midfield.

The Highlight Machine

Eriksen - Sensi - Nainggolan

Just imagine the possibilities of Eriksen’s clever flicks to set up Radja volleys, with Sensi working his magic as a facilitator of intelligent play all over the pitch starting from a central regista role... it wouldn’t be the most defensively solid trio, but in possession it definitely would be a nightmare against most of the smaller opponents’ parked buses.

The Absolute Dictators

Barella - Brozovic - Vidal

If I had to sum up how I imagine this trio in just one single word, it would be “domination.”

The Veteran Bad Boys

Nainggolan - Brozovic - Vidal

If I had to sum up how I imagine this trio in just two words, they would be “grinta” and “experience.”

The Possession-Controlling Closers

Sensi - Brozovic - Vidal

Being paired with Sensi, as opposed to Barella or Nainggolan, I think would be most likely to bring out the Pep Guardiola and Barcelona influence in Vidal, as well as the more prime Busquets-like side of Brozovic as the highly intelligent ball-playing CDM.