By Edoardo Stella
Assertive wins against Lazio and AC Milan have lifted Inter to the top of the Serie A with 53 points. Whilst Inter have incredibly still a point less than 2019/20, they appear a lot stronger than they were at this point last season.
Juventus’s disappointing start and Milan’s recent result crisis is helping Antonio Conte’s side get a small safety cushion at the top. Inter were given as favourites joint with Juventus at the start of the season but started off poorly. Now the trend changed and Inter are slowly regaining the title of “Serie A favourites”, ahead of a team that won the last nine titles.
Their run since matchday eight appears convincing and leads many to believe that there is a real chance to end Juventus’s title domination.
Inter started slowly, with just 12 points in the first seven games, for an average of 1.71 points-per-game.
Ever since matchday eight, Inter have won all but three matches, that being in January all in the space of 17 days. A shocking 2-1 defeat at Sampdoria, after missing a penalty in the 0-0; an 86th-minute equalizer conceded to Roma in a 2-2 and a 0-0 at Udinese. All games in which Inter still appeared convincing and weren’t dominated by their opponents.
The form table of the last 16 games is as such:
Whilst the other top teams seem to follow a similar points trend, Inter have improved, with an astonishing 2.56 points-per-game. How did this improvement happen?
At the start of the season, they conceded too many spaces at the back, with Antonio Conte advocating an offensive style of play and being open to conceding counter-attacks. This resulted in a high defensive line that was easy to perforate with long balls.Embed from Getty Images
This didn’t pay off, as whilst Inter scored 16 goals in the first seven games, they also conceded 11. This was an average that would have projected them to 60 goals conceded in a full season.
In the 21st century only Juventus in 2019/20 have won the league after conceding more than 34 goals (43), but it can be argued that lockdown and the suspension of games affected the course of the season in an unprecedent manner, as all teams but one conceded more than 40 goals.
Inter got five clean sheets in the last six games and appear willing to let the opponents play more, given an improved solidity at the back that allows them to rebound off the attacks (they had only got three in the previous 17). The only goal conceded in the last six games was a deflected free-kick from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic that was impossible to save for Samir Handanovic.Embed from Getty Images
Great responsibility is attributed to Milan Skriniar, who finally returned to his best after appearing to suffer in a three-man defence and being unused for large parts of last season.
The Slovakian had played a central role under Luciano Spalletti and his recovery is like a new defensive signing. In the first eight games, Skriniar, Stefan De Vrij and Alessandro Bastoni had only played together twice, with Conte opting for seven different defensive trios.Embed from Getty Images
Whilst that was due to Covid-19 and injuries, it can be evident to see why Inter have now found more stability. There is more continuity, plus the three best defensive players are playing together. This failed to happen only against Benevento, where Andrea Ranocchia stepped in.
Danilo D’Ambrosio scored some important goals and Aleksandar Kolarov’s technical abilities contributed to offensive play, but they didn’t guarantee enough safety.
With Inter appearing willing to concede offensive play to their opponents but limiting their threat, it’s becoming clear that they appear stronger. After all, defence is key to winning a league.
However, it’s not all down to defence. In Europe, only Bayern Munich have scored more goals than Inter in the top five leagues. Inter are able to create many chances, even if they were often guilty of not converting them, particularly against opponents playing with a tight defence.
In fact, with players like Achraf Hakimi, Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, Inter are more dangerous when they can attack spaces thanks to a strength and speed advantage.
Of the 57 goals scored, 30 of them came from Lukaku and Martinez.
The Belgian had been criticised for failing to score against the top teams, but his recent three goals in the mentioned games with Lazio and Milan suggest that he may just have fixed that. If Inter can rely on Lukaku in the head-to-head games, then it’s a big advantage.
In 19/20, Lukaku’s record against the top five teams was one goal in eight games, plus two in the Milan derbies. This season he is already on four goals in seven games and is offering contribution outside of goals as well.
Five assists make him the player with the most goal contributions in Serie A and that’s also three more assists than last season already.
Martinez, instead, is finding that consistency he always lacked. Only Ronaldo has scored more non-penalty goals in the Serie A, which suggests he is ever-more entering in the core of Inter’s attacking play.
The Argentinian has great class in playing outside the box and should he improve his cynicism, Inter would rely on a complete striking-duo.Embed from Getty Images
The last time Inter had won the first four games of the second half of the season was 2006-07. Typically, Inter are famous to drop at this time of the year.
The fact that they are looking as convincing as ever, not just in terms of results, but also in terms of dominating a game, suggests their challenge may continue for long.
|Points on matchday 16||36||40||32||39||36|
|Position on matchday 16||1st||1st||3rd||1st||2nd|
|Points between matchday 17 and 23||8||5||11||15||17|
Finally, there is the Conte factor. The Italian coach has won titles with both Juventus and Chelsea and came very close last season, reaching a Europa League final and getting one point shy of Juventus in the league.
It’s likely that he and Inter will part ways at the end of the season and he will surely want to finish on a high.
Can Inter end the Juventus domination? Should they continue on this impressive run, there is a good chance. As stated, Inter are in tremendous form and appear hard to beat at the back.
There has been an important change of direction in recent months, with the team playing in a compact manner that also allows to counter-attack and make great use of the Lukaku-Martinez partnership.
Can we see another Serie A winner? Inter must not get on top of their heads now and as Conte said, the following games against Genoa and Parma will reveal if Inter has reached maturity to keep winning even when the pressure mounts on them.
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