After all the conflict and noise - the demanding nature of the club, the financial fallout from this past year, AC Milan’s lead early in the domestic season - Inter officially clinched the Serie A title on an anti-climactic whimper with four matches left in the season. The lack of drama signaled their dominance, up double-digits on second place Atalanta. With the club’s infamous (and romanticized) traits skewing towards the dramatics, it was said that only a manager with a strong personality could tame the theatrics. Hence their last league title in 2010 under Jose Mourinho, whose gravitational pull made the pieces fall in line. Armed with his singular method that invites as much conflict as it does support, the 51-year-old Antonio Conte has now won league titles with three different clubs.
Inter took over the top position on Matchday 22 following a 3-1 win over Lazio and never let go of the lead. The two goalscorers in that match were appropriately Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku, whose impact we analyzed last season in the early days of their strike partnership in Conte’s 352 shape. In one sense, the foundation of their interplay has remained consistent over the past two years: Lukaku’s hold-up play and gravity gives space for the dribbling Martinez, as demonstrated in the third goal against Lazio. Or Lukaku, second in goals for Serie A, does it all himself.
The duo were effective, sure, but relying on two players to carry the load of an entire season plus the Champions League is a race between burning out and opponents figuring out the riddle (Inter were eliminated in the group stages of Europe).
But Conte has developed the roster to add nuance to empower the simplicity of that foundation. In addition to his pace and width, summer transfer Achraf Hakimi gives the duo service as the right wingback. Nicolo Barella, turning into one of the top box-to-box midfielders in Europe, offers another goal threat with his late runs inside the penalty area. Even the squad players enhance the original characteristics. Christian Eriksen takes the creative burden off the strikers when coming off the bench. A true wingback, Darmian adds running and quality service to draw out defenses and open up space on the backline.
When all else fails, there is the individual dominance. Martinez and Lukaku have combined for 36 out of Inter’s 74 league goals. Yet beyond just a duo, Inter are a complete, balanced side.
Inter’s managerial search throughout the years uncovers its own narrative arc. First, there was a turn towards past glory with Roberto Mancini. Then, an attempt to go with youth and ride the wave of possession with Frank de Boer, who was sacked after 85 days. That in turn led the club to go back to the past again with Luciano Spalletti. Somewhere in between, perhaps there was a realization that there are no shortcuts to managerial quality, no Moneyball-type of value when it comes to leadership at the club. Likewise, Conte earns $14 million per season, more than four times the second highest earner in the league. Winning is expensive.
But even with a rumored loss of over $120 million last season, and a reported search for a $300 million investment, a title is a title, right?
As for Conte, we’ve previously written about his style built upon functional players with Chelsea. If top managers are associated with short, branded philosophies, Conte is known for his “automatisms,” rehearsed patterns in possession centered on width and switching play to create numerical overloads. You could argue that the rehearsals take away a player’s spontaneity while allowing opponents to prepare for the movements. After all, if analysts from home can pinpoint the identical patterns of playing through wingbacks or other crossing patterns, shouldn’t their opponents be able to stifle the movements?
Conte insists that Inter play a modern style focused on “building out from the back to a high press.” He highlighted the fluidity of his side’s opening goal against Crotone, saying how “it’s important to know without even looking that Lukaku is there and Eriksen will run into that space.”
There are detractors who accuse Conte of negativity and boredom. Antonio Cassano said that Conte’s seemingly defensive setup “gives me the creeps and he’d “go to the president and get him to sack him.” But Conte-ball has produced its own viral, one-touch-play-out-the-back moments, even as we know the movements. The play out of the back may be predictable, but it still uses the fundamentals that define the top possession-based managers of spreading out defenses and getting speed behind opposition backlines.
Beyond formations, Conte has also displayed a comprehensive Serie A IQ in his ability to control the atmosphere and feeling surrounding the club. He hit out against Inter executives for not protecting his side from media criticism last season, explaining how “a big club should protect its players more.” The complaints displayed a big picture understanding of the totality of success in the modern game. Equally as important as managers controlling play during matches is the boardroom shaping stories and putting out narrative fires off the field. There is no sitting back. From that perspective, management is much more emotion than science.
But even the warmth from definitive trophies are short-lived under Conte. His contract expires at the end of next season, which was sprinkled throughout the championship tributes. We can see the rumors of him leaving being used as leverage in the upcoming transfer market. It will be just another standoff between manager and ownership. These are the table stakes of Conte. There is always something around the corner. And still knowing this, Conte is worth it. He not only wins leagues, but his titles may go on to signal something larger.
There was a beginning to Juventus’ dominant run of nine consecutive Serie A titles. As insurmountable as it seems now, it wasn’t always like this. The club were coming off two consecutive seventh place finishes when Conte took over in 2011. And as he has done twice in his career, Conte won the league in the first season with his new club. The rest is branding and Super League history. Current Inter CEO and then-Juventus chairman Beppe Marotta (who hired Conte at Juventus) also noted the similarities in situation. Inter even followed Juventus’ lead by rebranding their club badge this season.
We may look back years from now at Andrea Pirlo’s appointment, a frugal measure, as costing Juventus more than just the league this season. Conte has already been the harbinger of a paradigm shift before in Serie A. As inconsistent as Inter have been over this last decade, a league’s hierarchy is not as entrenched as it may seem from the outside. At the very least, Inter’s title showed an infallibility within the system and an opportunity to overturn the league order. There are openings for challengers to become the incumbent, however scarce. All you need is Conte to transform a vulnerable moment into its own dominant era.