Three matches, three victories.
In league play at least, it’s a case of “so far, so good” for Antonio Conte as his Inter side knocked Juventus off the top spot in Serie A for the first time in 560 days. Anyone who knows the former Bianconeri man understands that winning is an obsession for him, and his attention will be firmly fixed on ending his former team’s run of eight consecutive Scudetto wins.
But have Inter really got what it takes to go all the way?
While nine points from nine is certainly nothing to be sniffed at, those wins have come against Lecce, Udinese, and Cagliari, all sides that are expected to finish mid-table or lower. A more stern test versus Slavia Prague in the Champions League on Wednesday evening saw Conte’s men struggle to a 1-1 draw, thanks only to a last-minute equalizer, leaving many unconvinced that the team is the finished article.
This weekend sees the coach face the most poignant of fixtures vs city rivals AC Milan, one that he will see as a must-win after the midweek disappointment. If that wasn’t enough, there is the prospect of a Derby d’Italia clash with Juventus looming on October 6, a win for either side throwing down the gauntlet for this year’s title.
A look at Inter’s squad shows a great deal of improvement compared to recent times, as CEO for sport Beppe Marotta worked tirelessly to weed out players such as Radja Nainggolan, Ivan Perisic, and Mauro Icardi who were causing off-field issues within the squad. The addition of Diego Godin makes a superb back three alongside Milan Skriniar and Stefan De Vrij, while talented young Italian midfielders Stefano Sensi and Nicolo Barella have made a seamless step up from Sassuolo and Cagliari, respectively.
The Nerazzurri made a huge statement with the signings of Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku from Manchester United in the summer, while Matteo Politano continues to improve as an attacker. Added with experienced goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, this really is a top-quality squad that Conte has to work with, one second only to Juve at the very least.
Yet as we know, having the best squad is not the only thing that is needed. History tells us that Conte will undoubtedly squeeze every last drop of work ethic from his players, but sometimes this is not enough by itself to win games. What happens when the opposition matches you for tempo and effort?
This was demonstrated in the Champions League when Wednesday’s opponent matched Inter for every last bit of endeavor, leaving a frustrated Nerazzurri side fortunate to have even come away with a point.
“Slavia Prague certainly played in a very European way, aggressive and with intensity,” Conte told Sky Sport Italia. “We didn’t do well to find solutions and get around that. In other games, we were up against sides who sat back and waited for us, whereas Slavia attacked us. We struggled and to be honest, I am not satisfied with the performance.
“I must be the first to take responsibility, because evidently I didn’t have the effect I wanted in my initial choices or in explaining the kind of match we were going into.”
The problem for Conte is that he may find his usual 3-5-2 formation coming up short in games against top sides in both domestic and European competition. His tendency to play Antonio Candreva and Kwadwo Asamoah as wing-backs will be effective versus smaller teams in Serie A, but they will likely leave the back three exposed versus a higher-quality opponent.
The squad is certainly there for Conte, but the coach must now prove that he can display tactical prowess in addition to sheer force of will if Inter are to succeed this season. Saturday’s Milan derby will show just how well he is likely to fare once the stakes get higher.