In case you hadn’t heard, Inter are breaking all kinds of records this season. The Nerazzurri swept aside SPAL last weekend, and in the process secured their best ever start to a top-flight campaign, winning 12 of the opening 14 rounds. They have scored at least two goals in each of their last 10 competitive matches, a stat not seen since the peak of the Roberto Mancini era at the club. In summary, Antonio Conte has got Inter purring.
But they face Roma on Friday night in what is undoubtedly their biggest league challenge of the season since the 2-1 defeat to Juventus in the Derby d’Italia in early October. With the exception of surprise packages Parma and Verona, Inter have faced sides in the bottom half of the table since losing to the Bianconeri at San Siro, masking any deficiencies that Conte’s side may have for the time being.
Their Champions League games against Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund did reveal their biggest flaw; namely, running out of steam in the last 30 minutes of games. Conte’s side were excellent in the opening 60 minutes at Camp Nou and the Westfalenstadion before the physical toll Conte takes on his players began to show.
The clash with Roma throws up a clash of ideologies between Conte and Paulo Fonseca. The Portuguese coach has taken to life in Serie A with relative ease, as Roma have won four of their last five games and currently sit joint fourth with Cagliari.
Fonseca has added some much needed vigour to Roma this season following the post-Champions League semi-final hangover that clouded the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign.
The Portuguese tactician scrapped Eusebio Di Francesco’s unworkable 4-3-3 and implemented a 4-2-3-1 formation in a bid to make the most of the players at his disposal. Fonseca demands his players keep the ball on the ground and allows them to play with a certain amount of liberal licence in attacking areas. This is in contrast to Conte, who is infamous for rehearsing the same patterns of play over and over again, drilling it into the players until it becomes second nature.
Fonseca has generally utilised a four-man backline, a key characteristic in all of his previous sides. This, again, is in sharp contrast to Conte, who has almost become defined by his use of a three-man defence, either as part of a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3, as seen in his Chelsea days. Conte first stumbled upon the advantages whilst at Juventus in the early part of the 2011-12 season in an away game against Napoli, having until then worked with four.
The Bianconeri came from 3-1 down to salvage a point at the San Paolo and Conte has never looked back. He’s used it ever since, even with the Italian national team on their route to the Euro 2016 quarter final, utilizing the Juve BBC block of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leo Bonucci to great effect.
One of the advantages of Fonseca’s 4-2-3-1 is that players are very much interchangeable. The likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Justin Kluivert, Javier Pastore and Lorenzo Pellegrini can be inserted into any of the three attacking roles behind Edin Dzeko and the Giallorossi still retain their fluidity.
Whereas in Conte’s system players are generally more rigid, he has constantly decried the Inter (and Chelsea, and Juventus) board for not signing enough players. In essence, Conte needs two players for every position in his 3-5-2, such are the demands placed upon the squad.
Yet for the moment, Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez are forming Inter’s finest partnership since Hernan Crespo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 29 league goals between them in the 2006-07 season, and securing Inter’s first title since 1989.
Already this season Lu-La, as they’ve now been unoriginally dubbed by the Italian papers, have scored a combined 22 goals in all competitions, and with their understanding improving game-by-game, they might just fire Inter to their first title in a decade.
Friday’s clash will be a test of the Nerazzurri mettle, to truly see how far they can go this season, and with Barcelona coming to town just days later for their crunch Champions League showdown, Fonseca may just get the upper hand this time.