Inter’s 2-0 win over Napoli on Tuesday wasn’t exactly the most entertaining or thrilling game in Serie A this season. It was a clash involving a club that has lost out on the purpose of winning the Scudetto and a side that has qualified for Europa League football anyway. But the game was perhaps a reminder of how good Alessandro Bastoni can be for Inter and Antonio Conte’s system. And the performance came in the absence of Milan Skriniar, who was rested on the night despite all the speculation surrounding the Slovakian.
It was further proof of just how perfectly Bastoni fits Inter’s play and understands Conte’s 3-5-2 system in a much better way than Skriniar and even Diego Godin. At only 21, he comes across as an individual who is very reliable on the ball and while he’s had some unimpressive games post-lockdown, that is perhaps true for the other Nerazzurri defenders as well. Even though Stefan de Vrij has arguably been the best defender in Serie A this season, Bastoni has really grown in stature.
Inter had signed the young defender for a fee as high as €31m in the summer of 2017 and he was immediately loaned back to Atalanta. In the summer of 2018, another loan spell followed and he was sent to Roberto D’Aversa’s Parma this time around. At both the clubs, the Italian acquired vital experience of playing in a three at the back system and that has clearly come in handy this season, as Conte has shown he trusts Bastoni for his system far more than Godin or Skriniar.
Bastoni’s first appearance under Conte didn’t come straight away. He had to wait for it, as Conte initially tried to see how the pairing of De Vrij, Godin and Skriniar would work out. He even had Danilo D’Ambrosio and the rarely seen Andrea Ranocchia feature in some games early on. While D’Ambrosio did a fair job and even got an assist against Lazio, Ranocchia was perhaps meant to be a mere back-up. Bastoni’s Serie A debut for Inter came against Sampdoria and the game saw Conte drop Godin and inevitably, the young Italian impressed and it took off from there.
Bastoni didn’t play even once in the Champions League as the Nerazzurri were knocked out of the competition in the group stages. And an argument can be made that things might have been a bit different if the former Atalanta man played in those games, considering how he’s much more comfortable playing in a 3-5-2 shape.
In more recent outings, Conte has relied on an approach which sees the wide centre-back create overloads on the flanks. This follows a pattern that is similar to Atalanta or Sheffield United in the Premier League. The idea is to have a numerical advantage in the important positions on the pitch and perhaps, increase the goal output as well. That is another thing that has played into Bastoni’s hands. Even against Napoli, he was encouraged to venture forward and often act as a left-back in some passages of play. And Bastoni didn’t let anyone down.
The 21-year-old has this dynamism about him - on and off the ball, which isn’t found in Skriniar or Godin. They are reliable at playing out from the back like Bastoni is, but they get found out whenever Inter lose the ball and the opposition attack. Bastoni knows exactly where he needs to be as the system demands the wide centre-backs to cover up in wide areas whenever the wing-backs zoom forward. Bastoni understands this and Conte has realised the value he brings to the table too.
This summer could see Inter undergo a defensive makeover. Marash Kumbulla continues to get linked, as Lazio have failed to meet Verona’s asking price for the youngster and he, like Bastoni, knows how to play in a 3-5-2. Skriniar and Godin don’t though and with Conte potentially looking for an assured guarantee, it is understandable why the duo might be on their way out.
This season may not have been one where Inter lived up to the hype of challenging for the Scudetto, but Conte wants to have a team that just gets his style of play more than the current team do. The big-name signings suggest that they are desperate to challenge for the title, but no matter how many big names like Romelu Lukaku, Christian Eriksen or Achraf Hakimi they get, a player like Bastoni will set the tone at the back.