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Serie A-nalysis: Was Inter Milan’s Start To This Season Really THAT Bad?

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Underlying performance data from the first seven Italian league match weeks tell a far more encouraging story than the “doom and gloom” narrative at the time

SS Lazio v FC Internazionale - Serie A
Antonio Conte — head coach of FC Internazionale — during one of the team’s first seven Serie A matches of this season, specifically on the road against Nazio Lazio at Stadio Olimpico on October 4, 2020 in Rome, Italy
Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

Introductory Context:

Now that Internazionale has taken a huge lead in Serie A thanks to a winning streak of 11 matches (and counting? Knock on wood.), it might be easy to forget that our beloved club’s start to the Italian league 2020/21 season went far less smoothly.

Screenshot of the standard stats from Inter’s first seven Serie A matches — provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

“Serial winner” Antonio Conte’s second season as our manager began with huge expectations as possible preseason favorites for the title. However, underwhelming results made Inter the target of heavy criticism after the first seven matches — specifically, a record of 3 wins, 3 draws, and 1 loss left us stuck at just seventh place in the league table.

“Serial winner” Antonio Conte apparently influenced pop superstar Billie Eilish’s internationally multi-platinum hit song “you should see me in a crown” (released in 2018) after leading Chelsea to win the Premier League title in the very first year of his previous job as a manager in England for the 2016/17 season!
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Despite dropping 9 points, however, we were still only 5 points behind first place AC Milan... so panicking about our very early period of underachievement was an overreaction, which has become increasingly clear with the benefit of hindsight.

Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that the Covid pandemic lockdowns resulted in an extremely short preseason, a drastically less active transfer market for squad upgrades, and an unprecedentedly congested schedule in order to finish this season in time for the postponed Euro “2020” tournament this summer.

The combination of these unusual extra challenges ended up causing a LOT of big clubs to struggle, especially at the start of this season — for example, both Manchester City and Manchester United started out with even worse domestic league records in England than ours was in Serie A... but now those two teams are actually both at the top of the Premier League table!

Seville v FC Internazionale - UEFA Europa League Final
“Antonio Conte, manager of Inter Milan, looks dejected as he walks past the UEFA Europa League Trophy with his runners up medal following the UEFA Europa League Final between Seville and FC Internazionale at RheinEnergieStadion on August 21, 2020 in Cologne, Germany”
Photo by Stuart Franklin - UEFA via Getty Images

A third particularly relevant example is Sevilla, the Spanish team who beat Inter 3-2 in last season’s Europa League Final, but also had a worse start in La Liga than ours was in the Italian league.


S.o.M. RECAP ARTICLES for our FIRST SEVEN MATCHES


Before diving into statistical analysis for the second half of this article, it is worth reviewing the recaps and official highlight videos for each of our first seven matches in order to provide full context:


OFFICIAL HIGHLIGHTS for EACH of the SEVEN MATCHES


  • Corresponding table position after the first seven matches is also listed next to the name of each opponent we played in that period
  • All of the following highlight videos are embedded from either Serie A or Inter’s official YouTube channels

AC Milan — 1st place


Atalanta — 6th place


Lazio — 9th place


Fiorentina — 12th place


Benevento — 15th place


Parma — 16th place


Genoa — 18th place


In these initial seven matches, we beat three of the four teams that we should clearly have been expected to defeat... and the other of those four has been a consistent “bogey” team for Inter since long before Conte arrived — we haven’t beaten Parma at home since April 21st, 2013, almost eight full years ago!

The remaining three of those seven opponents are capable of beating ANY team on their day. Milan in particular was a much bigger challenge than many critics had expected or acknowledged at the time — despite still being undefeated since before the pandemic lockdown began in March 2020 — and that was our ONLY loss at that point, by just a single goal... a result which was even a bit undeserved according to StatsBomb’s “xG” model, with our “Derby della Madonnina” city rivals actually “losing” by 0.1 expected goals (2.4 to 2.3).

The other two out of those seven matches were both respectable 1-1 draws against two of our fellow Top Four teams from last season. It also is no coincidence that those were both arguably our two best defensive performances by that point, as the only ones out of our first seven matches that featured what is clearly our best Back Three starting trio with Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan de Vrij, AND Milan Škriniar together at the same time!

FC Internazionale Training Session
Stefan de Vrij, Marcelo Brozovic, Alessandro Bastoni and Milan Škriniar (listed in order from left to right) of FC Internazionale during a training session at Appiano Gentile in Como, Italy
Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Inter via Getty Images

SERIE A - GOAL TOTALS after Match Week 7:

(From the “Standard Stats” category on FBref.com)


Inter’s totals and corresponding league ranks for the four main “goal” variables:

GOALS FOR:

  • GF total: 16
  • league rank: 3rd most scored

GOALS AGAINST:

  • GA total: 11
  • league rank: 12th most conceded

EXPECTED goals FOR:

  • xG total: 14.9
  • league rank: 3rd most scored

EXPECTED goals AGAINST:

  • xGA total: 9.1
  • league rank: 15th most conceded

Scatterplot: GF vs GA

GOALS FOR vs GOALS AGAINST

(bottom right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon (a.k.a. “InterPool”) using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Scatterplot: xG vs xGA

EXPECTED GOALS vs EXPECTED GOALS AGAINST

(bottom right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Scatterplot: GF vs xG

GOALS FOR: ACTUAL vs EXPECTED

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Scatterplot: GA vs xGA

GOALS AGAINST: ACTUAL vs EXPECTED

(bottom left is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Conte’s Ideal Tactical “Philosophy” Exemplified by Inter in Two Separate Matches:


After the first seven matches, Inter ranked 1st* in the entire league for every. single. one. of the following statistics listed

* unless another ranking is specified explicitly as a relevant exception


Preseason projection of Inter’s “depth chart” at every single position within Conte’s (at the time) preferred 3-4-1-2 formation — external source: https://twitter.com/EnjoyInter/status/1313172676656205824 (using the player “headshots” from Inter’s official website)

NOTE — all variables are organized here based on the separate source table categories in which FBref provides all of this data

“DEFENSIVE ACTIONS” category:

FBL-ITA-CUP-INTER-JUVENTUS
Alessandro Bastoni (L) and Arturo Vidal (R) defending against some dude named Cristiano Ronaldo (not from the first seven matches of this season... just a great picture from a couple of months later)
Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

PRESSURES:

  • SUCCESS RATE
  • FEWEST in our OWN DEFENSIVE THIRD of the Pitch

Scatterplot: PRESSURE SUCCESS RATE (%) vs ERRORS

(bottom right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Grouped Bar Chart: PRESSING by Third of the Pitch

(sorted in descending order from left to right by totals from attacking third)
Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

TACKLES:

  • SUCCESS RATE against OPPONENT’S DRIBBLE ATTEMPTS
  • Made in the ATTACKING THIRD
  • FEWEST in our OWN DEFENSIVE THIRD

Scatterplot: TACKLES against DRIBBLE ATTEMPTS — TOTAL vs SUCCESS RATE (%)

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Grouped Bar Chart: TACKLING by Third of the Pitch

(sorted in descending order from left to right by totals from attacking third)
Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Scatterplot: TACKLES in ATTACKING vs DEFENSIVE THIRD

(bottom right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

“DEFENSIVE ACTIONS” CATEGORY ANALYSIS:

These league-wide statistics from Serie A’s first seven match weeks very clearly disprove the stereotype of Conte as a “bus-parker” with “negative” tactics. Instead of sitting back, Inter actually had the #1 LOWEST totals for both pressures and tackles in our own defensive third!

Furthermore, Inter also ranked #1 for tackles and #3 for pressures in our attacking third — these facts reflect a proactively aggressive approach that would be more expected of a gegenpressing manager like Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool rather than our Italian tactician.

Contrary to the narrative that Conte’s ideal “philosophy” is “boring” or overly-defensive, these first seven matches undeniably demonstrated a desire to spend as little time as possible sitting back and defending near our own goal... and the team was mostly successful at implementing this approach, actually leading the league in pressure success rate as well as total number of tackles made against opponents’ dribble attempts.


“POSSESSION” category:

FC Internazionale v US Sassuolo - Serie A
Nicoló Barella — one of the most exciting young midfield talents, not only in Italy, but also actually throughout the entire world!
Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Inter via Getty Images

TOUCHES:

  • OVERALL TOTAL
  • In the MIDDLE THIRD
  • In the ATTACKING THIRD
  • In the OPPONENT’S BOX

Scatterplot: TOUCHES — TOTAL vs LIVE BALL

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Scatterplot: TOUCHES in ATTACKING vs DEFENSIVE THIRD

(bottom right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Grouped Bar Chart: TOUCHES by Third of the Pitch

(sorted in descending order from left to right by totals from attacking third)
Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

CARRIES:

  • TOTAL DISTANCE
  • PROGRESSIVE DISTANCE

Scatterplot: CARRIES — TOTAL vs PROGRESSIVE DISTANCE

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

“POSSESSION” CATEGORY ANALYSIS:

In these first seven matches, Inter had just the fourth fewest touches in our own defensive third... but actually led the entire league with the very most touches in literally every other area of the pitch — including the opponents’ penalty area as well as both the middle and attacking thirds overall!

Furthermore, the possession-dominating approach was not being implemented aimlessly with primarily backwards and sideways passing. On the contrary, Inter still played very “direct” by leading the league in both “progressive” (forwards-moving-only) and total distance of carries — our tactical style was creative and dangerous, NOT just futile possession merely for its own sake.

Conte’s tactical approach in every single match throughout these first seven games much more closely resembled the style of widely idolized “attacking” managers such as Klopp and Pep Guardiola, rather than legendary manager Helenio Herrera’s stereotyped defensive approach of “catenaccio” tactics with “La Grande Inter” to win multiple major trophies in the 1960s... including back-to-back European Cup trophies in the 1963/64 and 1964/65 seasons!

“PASSING” and “PASS TYPES” categories:

Torino FC v FC Internazionale - Serie A
Marcelo Brozovic — Inter’s extremely underrated single pivot regista and CDM — in action
Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Getty Images

Just to reiterate, Inter ranked 1st for ALL of these variables unless otherwise specified:

  • xA — xG assisted
  • (also #2 for actual assists)
  • Total PASSES COMPLETED of any kind — regardless of foot, height, etc.
  • Total PASSES ATTEMPTED
  • (#3 in Completion Percentage)
  • Total number of PROGRESSIVE PASSES
  • Total from LIVE BALL situations — excluding all set pieces of any kind
  • Total made while UNDER PRESSURE from the opponent
  • “Low Height” — defined as leaving the ground, but staying below shoulder level
  • PASSES RECEIVED — SUCCESS PERCENTAGE
  • TOTAL DISTANCE — added up from ALL types of Completed Passes, regardless of direction
  • PROGRESSIVE DISTANCE — similar to Total Distance, but only counting Completed Passes that went in the direction toward the opponent’s goal
  • MEDIUM range (15 to 30 yards) pass COMPLETIONS
  • MEDIUM range (15 to 30 yards) pass ATTEMPTS
  • LONG range pass COMPLETIONS — TOTAL
  • LONG range pass COMPLETIONS — PERCENTAGE
  • PASSES IN the FINAL THIRD
  • (also #2 for all passes into the penalty area)
  • CROSSES INTO the PENALTY AREA
  • KEY PASSES

Scatterplot: PASSING TOTALS — ATTEMPTS vs COMPLETIONS

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Scatterplot: PASSES UNDER PRESSURE vs TOTAL COMPLETIONS

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Scatterplot: PASSING DISTANCES — “PROGRESSIVE” vs TOTAL

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Scatterplot: PASSES in FINAL THIRD vs COMPLETED CROSSES in PENALTY AREA

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

Scatterplot: KEY PASSES vs EXPECTED ASSISTS (xA)

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

“PASSING” and “PASS TYPE” CATEGORY ANALYSES:

These two categories feature the most variables with Inter ranked #1... and also the biggest margins of dominance by far. Specifically, we led the entire league in SEVENTEEN of these passing-related stats!

I repeat — “overly-defensive” Conte’s team ranked the very highest in the entire league for 17 different passing statistics!!!

As was also mentioned in the previous category analysis, this was NOT just aimless possession with backwards and sideways passes... on the contrary, Inter actually played “champagne football” with an incredibly direct approach attacking both vertically and horizontally!

More specifically, some of the “vertically direct” statistics for which we ranked #1 included “progressive” distance, “progressive” passing attempts, both medium and long range passes, and passes into the final third.

Furthermore, some of the “horizontally direct” and actual “end product” passing statistics for which we ranked #1 included crosses into the penalty area, key passes, and expected assists!


“SHOOTING” plus “GOAL and SHOT CREATION” categories:

Torino FC v FC Internazionale - Serie A
Inter’s two top scorers — the striker pairing of Lautaro Martinez (L) and Romelu Lukaku (R) — react to one of their MANY goals with a “finger-gun” shooting celebration
Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Getty Images

“SHOOTING” category:

  • SHOT ATTEMPTS (also #4 for shots on target)
  • npxG — NON-PENALTY EXPECTED GOALS

Scatterplot: SHOT ATTEMPTS vs NON-PENALTY EXPECTED GOALS (npxG)

(top right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

“GOAL and SHOT CREATION” category:

  • SCA-PassLive — live ball passes that lead to a shot attempt
  • tied for FEWEST with ZERO penalties
  • SCA-Fld — fouls drawn leading to shot attempt

Scatterplot: SHOT-CREATION — LIVE BALL (SCA-PassLive) vs FOULS (SCA-Fld)

(bottom right is best)

Produced by Jethro Torczon using Python code with data provided by StatsBomb via FBref.com

“SHOOTING” plus “GOAL and SHOT CREATION” CATEGORY ANALYSES:

The analysis for these last two categories is pretty straightforward. Inter led the entire league in total shots — not only total attempts, but also the total created specifically from “live ball” situations — AND “expected goals” when you exclude penalty chances.

We also had the #1 FEWEST shots created from fouls, which further demonstrates that none of our stats were inflated by help from the referees... by comparison, the top four highest for SCA-Fld were Milan (by FAR), Sassuolo, Juventus, and Atalanta in that order.


FC Internazionale v US Sassuolo - Serie A
“The name of the club derives from the wish of its founding members to accept foreign players without limits as well as Italians.” This anti-xenophobic, purely meritocratic ethos upon which Internazionale was founded in 1908 is now fully embodied over a century later by the perfectly symbiotic fit between Conte and Romelu Lukaku — the 27 year old (turning 28 next month) Belgian son of Congolese immigrants whom the Italian manager has developed into a nearly unstoppable striker, arguably Top 5 in the entire world at his attacking position ever since the two finally united at Inter
Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

CONCLUSIONS:

Full disclosure — Conte initially won my respect when he overachieved at the Euro 2016 tournament with an Italian national team squad that was widely considered to be their least talented in a significantly long time. Then he became one of my very favorite managers in the world (second only to Jürgen Klopp honestly) because of his unexpectedly remarkable success and contagious passion during his two seasons (especially the first) with Chelsea. I was absolutely thrilled when Conte came to Inter, and I’ve remained his steadfast advocate ever since... even throughout our struggles at the start of this season.

I openly and shamelessly acknowledge my clear bias in Conte’s favor — the primary purpose of this article is to contradict the prevailing narrative during this rough patch. I intentionally cherry-picked statistics that reflected positively on him and our team... but I never altered any of that raw data, and frankly, the preponderance of facts provided a LOT of positive takeaways.

Screenshot from FBref.com listing “standard stats” from every single Inter match so far this season in all competitions. The rows are highlighted orange for each occasion in which Conte’s team had at least 50% of possession

These seven matches proved beyond doubt that our squad has the attacking quality to play a possession-dominating style, AND that Conte would be perfectly happy to use that more “positive” approach.

However, doing so also exposed our fragile defense — at least during the five matches out of these initial seven in which we were missing one or more members of our first choice starting Back Three. The backup defenders such as Kolarov and D’Ambrosio can contribute very well in attack, but Kolarov in particular seriously struggled with playing the high defensive line that is required for such an aggressive tactical system.

Even with our first choice Back Three playing nearly every match since these initial seven, pace is still the only major area in which all three world class Center Backs are relatively deficient. Therefore, it has become clear by now that Conte prefers a counterattacking system for this team... NOT because that is necessarily his ideal approach, but rather because it is the best way to minimize the exposure of our players’ weaknesses, and instead actually play to their strengths! Thanks to Conte’s pragmatic tactical adjustment, Inter is now on course (hopefully... knock on wood again) to win the league for the first time in 11 years.