It was already in the air for a few weeks before the end of the 2020-2021 Serie A campaign, but when the divorce between Antonio Conte and Inter was announced just days after the coronation of the club as Italian champions, CEO Giuseppe Marotta was charged with an unwanted and almost impossible task : finding the replacement of Antonio Conte.
In a football summer that will stay in history not only for Euro 2020 but also because of the unprecedented number of managerial changes in the top five European leagues, the choices for Marotta were many.
If we exclude Massimiliano Allegri who chose the more financially stable Juventus project, Maurizio Sarri, Gennaro Gattuso, Paulo Fonseca, Luciano Spalletti and Roberto de Zerbi, between others, were all possible options. It was Simone Inzaghi, however, that was chosen to lead the, pronounced difficult, post-Conte era.
But Why Simone Inzaghi?
Finding themselves in the midst of financial and organizational turmoil and with clear directions to secure a seventy million euro transfer income in order to aid the short to mid-term stability of the club, the key word for Inter’s management in search of a new coach was, stability.
And here comes, Simone Inzaghi. Having set the 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation as his tactical credo until now in his managerial career, sharing almost the same defensive principles as Antonio Conte and with the image of a calm and not difficult character, that would not have been welcomed in this new era of the club, the Lazio legend ticked all the boxes and set himself as the least dangerous bet Marotta could take.
Now let’s try to shape a scenario in which Simone Inzaghi’s successor at the Lazio bench, Maurizio Sarri, was selected instead.
Despite proving more adaptable than many thought during his tenure as a Juventus coach, Sarri seems to always choose between 4-3-3 and 4-3-1-2 shapes during buildup while being a huge believer of the zonal defense in which the ball and covering space are prioritized over the opponent.
Choosing Sarri to coach a roster that was constructed with a 3-5-2 shape in mind, with wing players that seem to maximize their potential more in wingback roles and a more man-oriented way of team-defending, would have created a survival-related question.
With no budget available to reshape the roster in his image, would he have been able adapt the team to his needs and start getting wins sooner than later in order to avoid a result crisis and reach the minimum objectives?
These doubts regarding Sarri and some of the other choices Marotta may have had, proved to be too big to be ignored. Thus, the most “Conte-esque” profile was chosen as the successor of Conte.
But where do these two coaches differ and where are they similar?
Defending – Similarities & Differences
In the clip below you will watch the basic principles, or rules, that the Lazio players followed under the guidance of Simone Inzaghi when defending in their own half or when not pressing the ball.
In a 5-3-2 shape, the forwards sit centrally in order to cut central passing lanes and force the ball towards the wing. With the ball closer to the line and the defensive half, the ball-side central midfielder presses the side center-back (if the opponent plays with 3 at the back) or the fullback. If the opponent uses wingbacks, they will be pressed by Lazio’s players in the same role.
In the same video, you will also be able to see that movements between the Lazio defensive and midfield lines are monitored and followed by the defenders, in an attempt to not let the opponents receive the ball, and in case they do, not let them turn towards the goal.
Finally, against opposition crosses and balls towards the penalty area, the defenders adopt a more man-to-man marking approach, trying to stay in physical contact with their direct opponent in order to control their movements better.
Now let’s take a look at Inter’s defensive principles during Antonio Conte’s era :
The similarities are many, right?
The way both teams were shifting from a compact mid or low block to pressing the opponent was also very similar. After a parallel or back pass, the forwards had to trigger the pressing in order to push the opponent as far away as possible from their own goal.
But were there any differences between Simone Inzaghi’s and Antonio Conte’s pressing in these last two Serie A seasons?
Due to the use of the 3-5-2 shape for the grand majority of the matches studied, the differences in terms of the positioning of the players was minimal and will not be looked at through video.
We will however take a look at the frequency, effectiveness and mainly intensity of the pressing through the metric of PPDA.
PPDA = Passes allowed Per Defensive Action in the opposition half. Thus, the more intense the pressing, the less passes allowed and the smaller the PPDA.
The bigger the PPDA, the more passes are allowed to the opposition when building up, demonstrating a less intense approach when pressing.
Inter’s PPDA for the 2019/2020 season was 8.71, reflecting Conte’s initial plan to create a proactive team with and without the ball.
In 2020/2021 however, Inter passed to 11.97 passes allowed per defensive action on average, interchanging, with the exception of a heavy-pressing almost gang-ho period at the start of the season, matches in which they sit back and waited, to ones in which pressing the opponent high was considered the best option.
In the same two-year period, Lazio passed from 12.48 to 10.38 passes allowed, alternating matches of heavy press with matches of sitting back in a low defensive block, similarly to Conte’s second season.
By looking at the graphs, we can also see that the number of matches in which more than ten passes per defensive action were allowed to the opponent were almost double for Lazio in these two years (43 to 22), demonstrating that Simone Inzaghi is more willing to set a team that decides to be patient, keep the lines close and attack on the counter with more space behind the opposition defense.
*The data presented are taken from understat.com
It seems that the chances to watch again an Inter side that presses the opponent unstoppably and intensely have decreased significantly, as Simone Inzaghi will probably pick and choose the matches in which his team will be more pro-active, deciding to sit back and leave the ball to the opponent on many occasions, much more like during the final six months of the Conte era.
*I decided not to make a specific mention of Inter’s 3-4-1-2 period, as it is very improbable, by looking at Inzaghi’s past tactical choices and Inter’s possible 2021-2022 roster, that we will see a return to this formation.
*Due to the many similarities in the two transition phases between the two coaches-clubs, I decided to focus only on the other two more controlled phases of the game.
Buildup – Differences and Similarities
The biggest difference between the two coaches in terms of coaching style stands in their methodology.
Antonio Conte is much more controlling; his teams have always had predefined movements that the players had to know like the palm of their hands in order to execute correctly and more importantly in order to read the game correctly and decide when and where to initiate those movements.
It is a choice that has provoked criticism by many against Conte as his teams can become predictable and repetitive.
When, however, he has the correct players for his plan, these players have had enough repetitions and have learned to read the game as the coach from Lecce wants, his teams are not only a spectacle to watch but incredibly effective too.
Simone Inzaghi on the other side, is more similar to Luciano Spalletti than to Antonio Conte in that sense. Some predefined movements are always present, but his players have much more freedom to improvise, decide and move where they want.
Solutions to tactical problems are always indicated to his players, however the freedom to choose alternatives in those solutions is much bigger than in Conte’s most commonly used A to B to C, etc. approach.
But let’s compare the two coaches through the use of video too.
This was a very common image during the last 3 to 4 months of the Conte era. Against teams that pressed high with 3 forwards, one of the Inter midfielders would drop between the center-backs, while the two wingbacks would push up until forming a line with the two forwards and a 4-2-4 shape as a consequence.
But Conte was not the only one turning his 3-5-2 to a 4-2-4. With Lucas Leiva dropping between the Lazio center-backs, Lazio also adopted a very similar shape in the last few months of the season and in similar situations too.
A difference compared to Inter was the more common rotation of positions, with Lucas Leiva, Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinković-Savić exchanging positions more often than their Inter counterparts.
Another characteristic of Inter’s buildup during those two years was the goalkeeper’s use as the extra man in order to avoid man to man pressing.
Pressing in one-against-one all over the pitch, the opponents had to decide whether to leave Samir Handanović free or one of the center-backs.
As a consequence, the Slovenian keeper often became the playmaker of the team, getting advantage of the midfielders’ movements to drag opponents out of position and create space, primarily for Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez.
With the addition of Reina last summer and their improved capacity to buildup in that role, Lazio became much more relied on the Spanish goalkeeper to act as the free-man and help them move the ball forward.
In a Conte team, though, there is maybe nothing more Conte-esque than the synchronized movements of the two forwards, with one moving towards the ball and the other one running in the space created by his teammate.
This was a move included in the repertoire of the Lazio forwards too in these last few years.
As demonstrated in the video below however, Simone Inzaghi left more room for improvisation and much more freedom to one of his strikers, especially Joaquín Correa who can be seen moving on the wing, receiving the ball and combining or even dropping in front of the defenders in order to help ball circulation.
It is thus, one of the biggest tactical questions in this transition between the two coaches.
Will Simone Inzaghi give as much freedom of movement to both his strikers, or will he follow Conte’s footsteps and allow only Alexis Sánchez to roam around? Will he give the Chilean even more freedom, similarly to his now ex-player from Argentina?
Probably a healthy balance between freedom and automated movements will be his choice. Asking players such as Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez to move wherever they want may mean that they will distance themselves more often from the penalty area, a loss of potential if we consider their scoring records.
Putting them in more exercises, in training, that demand more improvised solutions in closed spaces in the final third may be the correct and balanced choice in order to reduce the unpredictability of the installed Conte movements.
We will finish this tactical piece with another video, showing different Lazio buildup situations. Many similarities with Conte’s Inter can be identified again, from the two central midfielders being positioned wide and closer to the lines allowing the wingbacks to push up, to one of the midfielders dropping next to the central defender giving the freedom to one of the side center-backs to push up.
Or to the central midfielder making a diagonal run towards the wing and creating space for the wingback to cut inside.
Differences are also present though, more freedom of movement, more runs behind the defense by the central midfielders and more improvised combinations in the final third and between the lines for Lazio, contrary to an Inter that was primarily searching Lukaku to act as a wall and pass it back to either Sensi or Eriksen.
Simone Inzaghi’s similar tactical profile to his predecessor Antonio Conte helped him land the biggest job of his career and maybe his most difficult task, keep Inter competitive in a league in which the competitors are going to either improve their roster or maintain it at the same level.
His adaptability also means that Inter will not change radically in terms of tactics and that Inzaghi may adopt some of Conter’s ideas.
For example, it seems almost impossible to imagine one of Inter’s central midfielders acting as a target-man as Sergej Milinković-Savić did, in a roster in which there is Lukaku and with Barella or Sensi not surpassing the 175cm mark.
Thus, the difference maker between the two coaches will not only be the level of the 2021-2022 roster that will define the ceiling of the team but Simone Inzaghi’s management style too.
Can he inspire his new players and take 100% of their potential as his predecessor? Will he be able to handle the added media and fan pressure for results, being for the first time away from his football home?
How will his relationship with the management of the club develop if the financial and structural context suddenly changes again?
Marotta took the smallest risk he could take, now we will have to wait for the answers.