Inter Milan stumble out the blocks in Serie A but squad has strength in depth to challenge Juventus
Conte's side visit Benevento on Wednesday after showing uncharacteristic defensive frailties against Fiorentina in their opening game
The season has barely begun, and reputations are being shattered.
The best defence in the last Premier League, Liverpool’s, conceded three goals within the first 66 minutes of their title defence.
Bayern Munich, with the meanest rearguard in Germany, shed four in their first Bundesliga away game.
The hermetic back-line that made Real Madrid Spanish champions let in two in just over half an hour of their first trip outside the Spanish capital.
These habits cannot all be blamed on oversensitive interpretations of handball laws, or a shortened pre-season, or the lapses in defenders’ concentration that matches without the noise of a crowd are said to provoke.
But there is clearly a trend, and one that Inter Milan, proud owners of the tightest defence in Serie A last season and Europa League finalists followed in spectacular fashion, on Matchday 1 of their new campaign.
Inter shared seven goals with Fiorentina on Saturday, equalising twice, and leading for only six minutes of the 90. Seven-goal see-saws are not an Antonio Conte trademark.
This is a manager whose three Serie A titles managing Juventus, were achieved by building a fortress at the back, and who won the Premier League with Chelsea, at his first attempt, by reducing his club’s Goals Against column from 53 in one season to 33 the next.
Conte’s Inter, meanwhile, kept 17 clean sheets, more than anybody else, in their 2019-20 Serie A campaign, in finishing second in the table to Juventus; they conceded their first goal at home only in October.
But to kick off 2020-21, at San Siro, they had let in three by the 63rd minute, none of them likely to allow Conte to lean back in his desk chair as he reviewed the video footage and sigh to himself that there was nothing his players could have done better.
Fiorentina’s first, within three minutes of kick-off, was pure slapstick, saw Christian Kouame and Giacomo Bonaventura allowed time to exchange passes on the edge of the Inter six yard box before the Ivorian scored after a simple high ball had confused both their markers.
Granted, Conte had fielded a rather experimental back three. The holes in it had been instantly exposed and would be again by Fiorentina’s counter-attacking, the ageless Franck Ribery setting up Gaetano Castrovilli and Federico Chiesa for two goals in a six-minute, second-half burst.
Yet, after the final whistle, Conte sounded unusually philosophical. “We had some issues with the balance of our defence,” he said. “But there were many positives. Perhaps I have things to learn. When the right result doesn’t come to me, I get angry, and forget to enjoy the journey.”
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More easily said when the rollercoaster journey finishes in a 4-3 win – thank to strikes from each of his trusted front pair Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku, an own goal, and a last-gasp matchwinner from defender Danilo D'Ambrosio – but still an out-of-character remark from a coach who has spent much of his first year-and-a-bit at Inter grumbling about his circumstances.
Some of Conte’s irritation has been to do with perceived restrictions in the transfer market, although it would be hard to argue that he has been prevented from transforming the look of Inter since arriving.
Of the 15 outfield players he used to swing the helter-skelter contest with Fiorentina, there were 12 who have come into the club since he took over in July 2019, including most of the cadre of players signed from English clubs, such as Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Ashley Young and Christian Eriksen.
Some are experienced returnees from loan spells, notably Ivan Perisic, back from his Champions League-winning season at Bayern Munich, and Radja Nainggolan, back from Cagliari.
If Nainggolan stays beyond next week’s close of the current window, Conte can hardly cite a lack of aggression in midfield.
He brought on the pugnacious Belgian along with that fierce old warrior Arturo Vidal, signed this month from Barcelona, for the last 15 minutes.
If they were designed to scare Fiorentina into submission, others off the bench served to pass Inter to victory: Achraf Hakimi, freshly signed from Borussia Dortmund, set up Lukaku’s equaliser for 3-3; within two minutes Sanchez provided the service for the winning goal.
That’s a quartet of substitutes any manager would envy. “All quality footballers,” beamed Conte of his supersubs.
As Inter head to Pippo Inzaghi’s newly-promoted Benevento on Wednesday and the chance to move ahead of Juventus, who have dropped two points already, they are entitled to believe that, in terms of strength in depth, they are a match for the defending champions.
With five substitutions per match now a fact of life in Serie A, Conte should be well armed in his principal mission – to break Juve’s nine-year monopoly on the Italian title.
Updated: September 30, 2020 06:57 AM