First, it is probably worth pointing out that it was only the Nations League group stage... but over this two match international break, both Stefano Sensi and Nicolò Barella had performances that should make every Inter supporter happy!
Friday, Sept. 4th: Bosnia and Herzegovina
In the first match against rumored Inter (and Juventus) target Edin Dzeko’s country, both Sensi and Barella were starters in Italy’s three man midfield. However, the rest of Roberto Mancini’s starting lineup was not at its strongest on this occasion, with several key players rested including Ciro Immobile and multiple better defensive options. Bosnia actually ended Italy’s 11 match unbeaten run, thanks to Dzeko’s 57th minute goal... however, Sensi equalized just ten minutes later to earn a draw rather than a loss in their first group stage match.
More directly important to Inter fans than the result, however, was the performance itself — Sensi in particular absolutely thrived as the regista at the heart of Mancini’s 4-3-3. He played the full 90 minutes, leading both teams with 120 touches in the match, and his 96 passes were also the second most (only one fewer than Bonucci’s 97) from either team.
Furthermore, Sensi didn’t just thrive in only the center of the pitch, and he didn’t just recycle possession with sideways or backwards passes as a static deep-lying playmaker...instead, in addition to attempting 10 long balls and completing 5 of them, and also having 2 key passes, Sensi put in 7 crosses from wider positions as well! The little Italian magician got highly involved in making plays all over the entire pitch.
Sensi also had a significant defensive presence, with 3 tackles plus 3 interceptions... and oh yeah, he also scored Italy’s only goal! Overall, it was a very impressive performance from a healthy Sensi, and was particularly intriguing from an Inter supporter’s perspective because it came in a different position than the one in which Sensi thrived almost a full year ago, back at the beginning of Conte’s first season with Inter.
Monday, Sept. 7th: Netherlands
Coming into this match, the Dutch national team had not lost even once in a full year since the inaugural UEFA Nations League Final against Portugal. Donny van de Beek had just completed an expensive transfer to Man Utd, while both Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay were heavily linked with transfers to join Ronald Koeman at Barcelona. Captained by Premier League-winner Virgil Van Dijk, this match was a legitimate test for Mancini’s progress at rebuilding the Italian national team.
This is a peculiar year, these are peculiar matches. The guys came here without training and preparation behind them, an unusual and unprecedented situation. We must be responsible and have respect for our players, rotate them to avoid physical problems. We do not want them to have injuries. For example, I doubt that Sensi can play two games in four days, we don’t want them to relapse.”
True to his word, Mancini did not even include Sensi in the squad the next day, which is a decision that Inter supporters should be happy about...especially since Barella turned out to be the star this time!
First of all, 5’8” (1.72 m) Barella scored the only goal of the entire match for either team... with a header... from in between 6’4” (1.94 m) Van Dijk and 5’11” (1.80 m) Nathan Aké!!! That crazy fact alone speaks volumes about Barella’s performance itself, showcasing his confidence as well as intelligent positioning to rise up between those two taller defenders for the opening goal/match winner.
Perhaps even more impressively, however, is the all-around dominance of Barella’s performance from the RCM position within the engine room of Mancini’s high-pressing 4-3-3 system. The 23 year old played a major role in pinning back the Netherlands team, as Italy essentially out-Cruyff’ed their talented Dutch opponents... the entire Italian team demonstrated a modern attacking “philosophy” whose lineage can be traced back through Jurgen Klopp and Frank Wagner straight to Arrigo Sacchi. This was a statement performance about Mancini’s new identity for the Italian national team, and it was perfectly embodied by Barella’s performance.
Barella was tied for second on the team with 2 tackles, and also tied for second with 2 interceptions. More importantly than those individual defensive stats, however, was how Barella completely neutralized a very talented opponent in his direct matchup against Frenkie De Jong! The Dutch struggled the entire time to build up play through that side, as Barella’s aggressive pressing continuously helped shut down that path in the 43% of the time that the Netherlands team actually had possession.
Barella’s 4 shot attempts was tied with Lorenzo Insigne and Depay for the most out of any player on either team... and Barella’s 2 shots on target was also tied with Insigne for the most out of any player on either team. The 23 year old also added 1 successful dribble and 2 key passes, as an all-around gegenpressing machine!
Main Takeaways for Inter
In the beginning of the season, we saw glimpses of what could be Conte’s ideal tactical vision of an aggressively high-pressing 3-1-4-2. These two Italy matches reaffirmed what we already knew about Barella being capable of thriving at the RCM position in a system that is pretty similar (at least from his perspective within a high-pressing Midfield Three).
More intriguingly, it also revealed that Sensi can thrive as the highly mobile regista of a Midfield Three — which is actually the position where most of us initially expected him to play, before Sensi actually turned out to surprise everyone as a major star of the early part of the season from LCM, in a more attacking role.
By scoring while also thriving all-around from a nominally deeper midfield role, the Bosnia and Herzegovina match proved that we might be able to see the best of both worlds from Sensi in a rotational role, with his minutes managed carefully as an excellent option for any position in Conte’s midfield.