By Dharnish Iqbal.
‘Quella maglia che tu indossi… va onorata tirate fuori coglioni o veniamo coi baston’ read the banner left by Inter Milan ultras.
It roughly translates to: “That shirt you wear must be honoured, show some balls or we’ll come with sticks”.
The Curva Nord ultras of Inter Milan weren’t backwards in coming forwards in reference to their club’s abysmal form which had seen them win just twice in ten games prior to last weekend’s meeting with Sassuolo.
— Daniele Mari (@marifcinter) November 28, 2020
Inter most certainly heeded thee calls in a commanding 3-0 win against the high-flying Neroverdi. The darlings of the neutrals have stormed the league this year, attracting plaudits throughout Europe for the champagne football they have been playing under manager Roberto De Zerbi, highly touted as the next great Italian coach.
The mood among Inter fans was one of dread heading into the Sassuolo game after a calamitous display in the 2-0 loss vs Real Madrid last Wednesday, leaving them needing a minor miracle to get through to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Fans were beginning to call for Antonio Conte’s head after the torrid run of form. Patience is a rare commodity in football. One bad run means your job is under review as a football manager regardless of your previous merits.
Conte seemed aware of the gloomy atmosphere around the club and used it as fuel to demand a response from his players.
In a rip-roaring first 20 minutes, Inter blindsided and overran Sassuolo. Lautaro Martinez and Alexis Sanchez linked up brilliantly, not allowing Sassuolo to settle.
Game by game, Sanchez is suddenly looking like he is getting back to his best, while Martinez gave the type of lively performance we are more accustomed to seeing from him following a patchy start to the season.
Inter’s biggest cause for concern this year has been in defence. Normally a hallmark of a Conte managed team they have conceded 13 in the league and 13 in their last 11 games in all competitions, compared to seven at the same point in Serie A last year.
Conte has been forced to frequently tinker his defence in his religious 3-5-2 formation as Inter were affected by Covid-19.
At one point seven players were unavailable because of the virus. Rarely have we seen the preferred trio of Alessandro Bastoni, Milan Skriniar and Stefan de Vrij at the back, and it is painstakingly obvious how crucial it is that the three play together. They alter the entire outlook of the team, more assured and secure with the triad in, Inter were rarely troubled.
Conte will desperately be hoping for a run of games where he can play all three, in hopes they start to look as miserly as last season.
Having to pick from back up defenders like Aleksander Kolarov and Andrea Ranocchia spoilt Inter’s rhythm. Whenever Kolarov has played in the back three, Inter look extremely vulnerable conceding twice each time the Serbian has played against Borussia Monchengladbach, AC Milan and Parma.
It is evident from a large portion of the goals Inter have conceded this year that the vast gaps between the wing-backs and centre-backs are easy for teams to exploit. In stark contrast, against Sassuolo Inter attacked and defended as a unit, refusing to allow Sassuolo time to settle and formulate attacks.
Whenever the opposition did attack, a flurry of compact Inter shirts stood in their way, with players getting back in formidable numbers. Much was made of Sassuolo having 65% possession but Inter were happy to sit back, get bodies behind the ball, and smother Sassuolo. The plan was executed brilliantly and this looked more like the Inter of last year.
Intriguingly, versatile midfielder Nicolo Barella was deployed in front of the defence whereas in previous games he has been urged to push up and support the strikers.
Conte clearly respected Sassuolo’s success this year and was hell-bent on nullifying their attacking threat, despite them being without star man Francesco Caputo.
In the last ten games pressure has been piled on Conte, though it must be noted Inter played Real Madrid twice (unlucky not to win on the first occasion) Lazio and Atalanta, whilst dealing with a host of different injuries and frankly being pretty unlucky in front of goal.
Conte has not had the luxury of a settled team, nor the luxury of in-form wing-backs which are normally a cornerstone of effective Conte teams (Victor Moses, Marcos Alonso, Stephen Lichsteiner). He will be hoping that Achraf Hakimi can replicate his dynamic display in the splendid 4-2 comeback win against Torino last Sunday.
If the Sassuolo win was a breather, the comeback against Torino was an oxygen mask for Inter. At 2-0, Inter turned things around quickly, displaying their never say die attitude and ability to respond when going behind. As Sanchez pulled a goal back vs Torino to make it 2-1, the camera panned to Conte who gesticulated to his players to up the tempo: he wanted more.
The comfortable win against Sassuolo is a testament to the team and manager’s fighting spirit. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Conte has rapidly inflicted his personality on the team. Despite the recent run of form it wouldn’t make sense to fire him as there aren’t many better coaches out there. This Inter team is still a work in progress but under Conte, are ahead of schedule of where they need to be, currently sitting 2nd in the league 5 points behind rivals AC Milan
That said, the last ten games have been alarming for a team of Inter’s stature and questions raised of Conte are in some ways justifiable. Inter have made a mess of a group they should qualify from in the Champions League, and the owners of the club, Suning Holdings Group, have adhered to his every request in terms of player recruitment — this is exactly the team he wants.
The Sassuolo win can be used as a platform for Inter to kick on going into the fixture against Borussia Monchengladbach. More importantly, though, it showcased there is still plenty of fight left in the Italian manager at the Nerazzurri.