Antonio Conte’s teams are often assessed by two opposite ends of the pitch. Three centre-backs, mixing excellent positioning and distribution, are at one end. At the other, a larger centre-forward to link play and hold the ball, and either a second striker or two wingers to run beyond and stretch defences.
Whilst his best sides have shown excellent quality in these departments, the make-up of his midfield changes regularly. At Juventus he utilised Andrea Pirlo as the deepest playmaker, with the more athletic Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio to provide running and energy around him.
At Chelsea he mostly used a two-man central pivot of Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante. This defensive pairing protected the back three as the wing-backs bombed forward and allowed the creative forwards the luxury of shunning defensive work.
At Inter, Conte’s midfield has adapted again. He has fielded a three-man midfield that excels both in possession, and defends brilliantly from the front, which is arguably their greatest asset. Despite adding the creativeness of Christian Eriksen in January, and the brilliant Sandro Tonali rumoured as a target this summer, Conte’s midfield is already blessed with talent due to three names in particular.
He Who Does Everything
Any discussion of Inter’s midfield must first begin with Marcelo Brozovic. Any discussion of the best midfielders in Europe frankly must include the Croat in the conversation, yet very few do.
Brozovic sits the deepest of the three central players. Still, unlike the likes of Pirlo and Matic in Conte’s previous midfields, he is incredibly mobile and athletic in covering the ground.
The wing-backs, mostly Antonio Candreva and Ashley Young, push so high to provide width that they leave expanses of open space behind them. Ball possession nor retention are the strong points of a Conte team, so this invariably leads to sides countering these channels. Brozovic is alive to these situations and covers these wide areas exceptionally.
Throughout the 19/20 season, Brozovic completed 56 of his 72 attempted tackles. This is incredibly high for a central midfielder facing high traffic and is 25 higher than Inter’s next highest in this metric. This propensity for covering the wide channels is shown in him tackling 29 dribblers: again the highest in the squad by almost double.
From watching Brozovic, it is apparent that he rarely seems to overcompensate in the tackle, nor in pressing. A common movement is for a centre-back to rise high to meet a header, and for Brozovic to be immediately in a 50-50 contest for this second ball. Frequently he uses the ball’s bounce to touch the ball onto a teammate, or even allow the opposition player to win the ball before breaking the play up in the tackle.
He takes the measured and sensible option, in many cases counter pressing the opposition winning the ball to gather possession. The opposition is likely out of its possessional shape anyway, so allowing them to retain the ball for a split second to tackle in a more measured fashion is brilliantly effective.
This also applies at the other end of the pitch. Whilst Brozovic isn’t tasked with creating nor finishing chances, he will often push ahead of the other midfielders to press the ball player. This allows the strikers Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez to stay centrally and close to the goal should the ball be won. This counter-pressing efficiency and energy makes Brozovic an ideal Jurgen Klopp midfielder, especially from his Borussia Dortmund days.
The image below shows this pressing movement. Juventus are in possession deep in their half having just won the ball. The Inter right wing-back is high but not engaging the ball, nor is either Martinez or Lukaku centrally. Both the forwards pin the centre-backs and cut off these as passing options for Blaise Matuidi on the ball. Brozovic then hones in on the ball player to dispossess, and immediately the ball is back with Inter in a dangerous attacking position.
The Croat’s 639 pressures are 120 actions higher than the next highest, Martinez, and Inter use this as Klopp did at Dortmund; as a playmaker to open chances.
These defensive metrics are hugely impressive, but this still does not reflect Brozovic’s brilliant distribution. 65 passes per game at just under 90% completion reflect his role as a pivoting midfielder, available to the ballplayers in possession and recycling play. In Inter’s system, the centre backs are as integral to ball progression as the central midfielders, and Brozovic often occupies a central defensive positioning in possession to benefit this deep passing route.
Both Lukaku and Martinez are good link players and look to control long passes before feeding either the strike partner or one of the advancing midfielders or wing-backs. Brozovic targets this with long direct passes into their feet or through the air. 5.7 long balls per game show this straightforward pass strategy, and an 84.9% pass completion on passes over 25 yards shows the Croat’s brilliance in deploying this tactic. Six league assists is also a healthy return for a deep-lying midfielder.
Marcelo Brozovic is a brilliant all-round midfielder. Very few match such a range of defensive output with threatening ball progression, and a ferocious will to press. Without him, Conte’s midfield would look vastly different, and would require spending an enormous sum to buy a player of his skillset. A rare yet understated talent.
Suppose Brozovic enables others around him to play their roles by offering a reliable and steady head at the base of midfield. In that case, Nicolo Barella is the type of player who enables his teammates to play his way. The 23-year-old is everything you would expect in a young, modern Italian midfielder; aggressive and feisty, yet excellent on the ball in tight spaces and rarely takes the safest option.
Barella is what you could call a ‘halfway midfielder’. He is not a defensive midfielder; he gives away far too many fouls to play there. Yet he is also not an attacking midfielder, as his output in the final third requires improvement. Instead, the former Cagliari player contributes in both aspects without specialising in either; he is the modern box-to-box midfielder.
The most eye-catching part of his game is his dribbling. In comparison to Brozovic, he is far more of a carrier than a distributor. Barella plays around two-thirds of the passes per game of Brozovic, and instead uses his agile frame to shimmy away from pressure and advance the ball upfield. He is excellent at winning fouls in this manner, breaking up play and allowing the team to organise in their possession shape; essential to a counter-attacking side if they are to play with structure rather than vertical chaos.
In Inter’s disappointing Champions League run, Barella was fouled 3.3 times per game. Only fourteen players had been fouled more in the group stages of the competition, despite Barella only starting three games. This willingness to look forward with the ball and act proactively put his team in good stead to counter. In receiving loose balls and aiming to identify running channels to propel into, Barella carries the rest of the team forward.
In the image below, you can see Inter are pushed forward for a set-piece with Barella the last man back. The ball was cleared in his direction, and the opposition are pressing him to win the ball and counter. Most players would take the option of relaying the ball back to the goalkeeper, letting the ball run across the body and play the way they are facing.
Barella, however, waits for the presser to commit before taking a touch wide and past the player, taking him out the game and putting Inter back on the front foot. In one quick movement, Inter have gone from being under pressure and vulnerable, to in a position to exploit the opposition’s transitional shape. This is down to the carrying of Barella.
This all-action persona comes at a cost, in that he concedes a lot of fouls. His 11 bookings are the highest in the squad and reflect his use of the dark defensive arts to halt opposition play and keep Inter’s defensive blocks in position. For 5 “7, he is impressively brave and willing to put his body on the line, and one can imagine both he and the equally diminutive Marco Verratti will prove to be a fearsome pivot for Italy for years to come.
Barella is the perfect foil for Brozovic. He buzzes around tirelessly, presses almost chaotically in that he is sucked in by the ball, and has boundless energy reserves to harry and harass those in possession. As an opposition dribbler, if Brozovic doesn’t get you, then Barella almost certainly will. Both possess around a 75% tackle success rate in the league, incredibly high for two players in the same midfield. These two are arguably the perfect Conte midfielders.
Barella is already a tantalising prospect, and he will only refine and improve under a manager who played the same role himself twenty years ago. Like Conte, Barella matches bark with bite, and brilliantly too.
The Missing Piece
Whilst Barella and Brozovic have occupied two of the midfield slots for much of the season, the third slot was rotated between numerous options. Matias Vecino, Roberto Gagliardini, Borja Valero, and Christian Eriksen, have all played here with varying effectiveness. However, if it wasn’t for injury, Stefano Sensi could likely have made the position his own after an impressive start to the season.
Five separate injuries restricted Sensi to just nine league starts in 2019/20. Given his signing was a loan move from Sassuolo, it seemed a waste of a season for the player, and a disappointment for the club not to have got him on the pitch more regularly. It seems Inter will be making his move permanent, however, with a figure of €25 million touted to sign the 25-year-old. His early-season performances more than justify this fee.
Inter mostly line up with Brozovic sitting behind two central midfielders, with Barella’s energy taking him across the whole pitch and often collecting the ball alongside Brozovic rather than ahead of him. The shape, therefore, resembles a 3-2-3-2, with the pivot sitting behind the wing-backs and one more advanced midfielder. Sensi has utilised this advanced role better than anyone in the squad.
Like Barella, Sensi is slight in stature but possesses brilliant tight control. It is hard to lay a hand on a midfielder who can spin pressure so easily and evade challenges. However, where Barella carries in the deeper midfield zones, Sensi largely picks the ball up in the upper-middle and final third, carving out openings for the forwards. He is incredibly graceful on the ball, and in many ways resembles Atalanta’s Papu Gomez in gliding across the pitch in long arced lines with numerous small touches of the ball.
Sensi takes 2.4 shots per game, higher than either of the other two midfielders discussed, and in the Champions League was making 2.3 key passes per game albeit in limited minutes. Sensi is the cultured final tier to the Inter engine, providing the delicate weight of pass to involve their brilliant strike partnership.
It is difficult to assess Sensi’s whole season given the interruptions through injury. Still, during his most consistent run of games between August and November, his statistical output was exceptional as shown in the Stats Bomb graphic below from November 2019. High volume of interceptions when adjusted for possession without pressuring the opposition much, shows his positioning and spatial locations are perfect for a creative midfielder looking to nip the ball away from the opposition.
His 0.9 xG build-up is high, meaning that he was contributing 0.9 goals per game purely from his work in building an attack. With two all-action players behind him, the more creative midfielder must act as a conduit to create more intricate chances to the forwards, aside from counter-attacks. This involvement in the build-up play, plus three goals and two assists in just twelve league appearances, show Sensi’s importance to Conte’s midfield-forward chain.
Christian Eriksen may have been drafted in to add this creativity, although, given his form and inconsistency since arriving in January, it is arguable that Sensi is the more suitable player for this role. It is even debatable that had Sensi stayed fit beyond Christmas Inter may never have needed to sign Eriksen. This is a glowing endorsement of how good Sensi is, and that a player of Eriksen’s ilk must now work to earn his place over this brilliant Italian.
The Starting Three
With talk circulating of Inter wanting to add the ‘baby Pirlo’ Sandro Tonali to their ranks, plus the arrival of Eriksen and the depth provided by Matias Vecino and Roberto Gagliardini, Inter Milan boast a midfield of great quality.
One imagines that Eriksen will improve in 2020/21 on his patchy first season in Milan, and that Tonali will undoubtedly develop into a majestic deep creator akin to his idol. However, the three best proponents of the midfield births are still Brozovic, Barella and Sensi. Each offer varying levels of defensive work, pressing and attacking strength, and provide the side with outstanding balance.
The layering provided by their respective positions in relation to the wing-backs and the defence make counter-attacking brutally effective, offering the option to pass or carry through the almost vertical midfield chain, or for each individual to target a direct pass to the forwards. Providing they sign Sensi permanently, and Conte calms the tension between he and the club’s hierarchy, Inter are once again in a position to target a haemorrhaging Juventus.
This time, they will back themselves to overthrow their great foe, thanks to the ability and spirit of their unique midfield three.
Words by Tom Underhill – @TomD_Underhill
Graphics by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_