The last few months have been very strange for Milan Skriniar. When Antonio Conte first came in to replace Luciano Spalletti at Inter last summer, many saw the Slovakian as a player who could become an icon under the maniacal Italian.
For many, Skriniar had already been one of the top ten central defenders in European football when Inter constantly lined up in a back-four. He had acquired a bit of a mean and aggressive streak and his passion for the club constantly shone through a lot of times. Be it on the ball or off, he seemed destined for huge things in the European game.
Fast forward a few enduring months for Skriniar, Conte realised that while the Slovakian can be very good for what he demands from his defenders on the ball, he wasn’t efficient enough for his tactics out of possession. In a 3-5-2 system, Conte’s three central defenders are organised in a very specific style.
The middle of the three - Stefan de Vrij, who was arguably the best defender in Serie A last season - is protected by the two wide centre-backs that are often tasked with making overloads and overlaps from the wide areas to help the wing-backs. This pattern emerged more often post-lockdown and a lot of times, Skriniar really thrived when marauding forward, and so did Alessandro Bastoni.
Once Inter lose the ball though, the wide centre-backs usually find themselves in the positions that the full-backs pick up in a flat back four. They are in wide positions at the back, implying that they cover the spaces that the wing-backs leave behind them. When the wide centre-backs are in that position, they have to cover a lot of ground off the ball and in the process, find themselves stuck in unnatural 1v1s on a regular basis. Those situations are exactly what Conte wants his defenders to thrive on, win the ball back and recycle it forward quickly. Skriniar hasn’t been capable of doing that on a consistent basis.
One can easily go back to Inter’s games against Parma and Sassuolo last season. Roberto De Zerbi’s team are one of the experts at stretching defences through quick transitions through midfield. In the wide centre-back role, Skriniar found himself really exposed against the pace and trickery of Jeremie Boga, who changed the game after coming on from the bench.
Against Parma in October, Skriniar was given a torrid time by the mercurial Gervinho, who dominated him on the right side of the 3-5-2. It isn’t difficult to find a common thread there and Diego Godin also faced similar issues after years of playing a flat 4-4-2 shape at Atletico Madrid.
In the system that Conte likes with all his heart and can be overly rigid with, the wide centre-backs have to cover loads of distance and it often requires players that belong to a specific skill set. Marash Kumbulla, who Inter missed out on, is someone Conte would have liked because he’s ideal for a back three, as his time at Verona showed. Sometimes, full-backs can often play as the wide centre-backs, such as Danilo D’Ambrosio or how Conte can potentially use Matteo Darmian or Aleksandar Kolarov.
It isn’t to say that Skriniar has a lack of pace or recovery. What troubles him is the positioning and the distance that he has to cover in Conte’s system. Bastoni has become Conte’s favoured option in the left centre-back role because he replicates Skriniar’s marauding runs off the ball and out-performs him off the ball. He can often play like a mixture of a left-back and a centre-back in the 3-5-2 and that is what Conte really needs.
Conte’s feelings towards Skriniar became all too evident when the former Sampdoria man was left on the bench in the Europa League games against Getafe, Bayer Leverkusen, Shakhtar Donetsk and Sevilla. It was a signal of intent from Conte that when he really wants to win, he wouldn’t trust Skriniar to manage games in the 3-5-2 shape, but he would want Bastoni to play in the same role.
Links with Tottenham Hotspur are clearly developing. Fans might look at how Skriniar’s downfall has come about last season and feel that he might struggle under Jose Mourinho’s Spurs as well, especially since the Portuguese coach has experimented with a back three and they constantly transition from a back four to a back three. But usually, it is the left-back that plays a dynamic role on the left side of the defence and the centre-backs are much more conservative and central.
There’ll be much less distance to be covered and consequently a much lesser risk of getting exposed by pacy forwards - especially since Spurs now have Sergio Reguilon at left-back, who happens to be a highly athletic option. Inter fans would hate to see Skriniar depart, but this season could be make or break for Conte. He is desperate for success and only wants players that he really trusts. Sadly, Skriniar isn’t someone he trusts for his system.