In his five years at Lazio, Simone Inzaghi has proven to be a modern and flexible manager, capable of getting the best out of his players. Will he succeed at Inter as well?

Last May, when Inter made the separation with Antonio Conte official, many people recalled that other night of May, 11 years earlier, when Jose Mourinho – after an extended hug with Marco Materazzi in the Santiago Bernabeu parking lot, took the car sent by Florentino Perez to sign his contract as Real Madrid manager. It looks like Inter’s triumphal celebrations are destined to last shortly.

And as strange as it may sound, 2021 could hold even more regret than 2010. That year, Inter were the top dogs in Europe and the departure of the Portuguese manager seemed inevitable. Last May’s Scudetto, on the other hand, was seen by many as merely the beginning of a new winning cycle, abruptly finished with Conte’s dismissal.

And yet, the Italian manager’s departure was sudden, but not surprising: the first signals of underlying problems appeared last summer, and they only became more obvious during the season, as the manager often highlighted how distant his mid to long-term vision for the club was when compared to the club board and management. And as the manager’s complaints became louder and louder, the Inter board became quieter and quieter.

Conte’s dismissal put the club in a rather unpleasant situation, as the choice of the new manager would’ve influenced the delicate transition of the club’s sports project but also its public image.

Initially, the first choice seemed to be Massimiliano Allegri – the club already approached him one year before – but he was just about to sign with Juventus. Eventually, Inter went all-in on Simone Inzaghi, who signed his new contract with the Nerazzurri despite having a verbal agreement to renew his deal with Lazio.

At the new manager presentation, Sports CEO Giuseppe Marotta said that Inzaghi was always going to be their first choice, presenting him as one of the “most winning managers in Italian football.” Inzaghi hasn’t won much silverware but in his five seasons as Lazio’s manager, he won a Coppa Italia and two Supercoppas, in a moment when Lazio was the only team in Italy to win any trophy, besides the all-conquering Juventus.

Regardless, Inter’s choice was greatly influenced by their will to give continuity to the project, not much from a tactical standpoint – Inzaghi and Conte share the same 3-5-2 system but with a largely different interpretation, but more in Inzaghi’s human and professional profile.

At 45-years-old, Inzaghi is a young coach, who has already proven to be able to get the best out of his players. During his presentation, Inzaghi himself said he wants to give Conte’s work continuity and he’s likely to start off from the principles that the team has already familiar with.

Inter and Lazio most used formations in their last 5 matches - via Wyscout Team Reports.

In fact, Inzaghi’s Lazio and Conte’s Inter have similar principles of play: besides the system itself, the two teams share the propensity to defend with a short and compact team with a medium-low barycenter, to then attack using the full pitch and taking advantage of the spaces created by building up from the back or with quick transitions.

Another common trait is flexibility when not in possession. During the season – and sometimes even during the same match, they switched to higher defensive lines, using pressure to stop the opposing build-up and win the ball back.

In the 20-21 season, Inter and Lazio had a reasonably high PPDA index (Passes allowed Per Defensive Action, Inter had 14,92 while Lazio had 12,85) but they were fourth (2,29) and sixth (2,13) respectively for the number of tackles in the opposing third.

When in possession, the two teams are less similar to one another. Even if they start with the same objectives – build up the play from the back to attract the pressure, so to open and attack spaces – the ‘tools’ that they use are quite different.

Conte’s Inter used to play extremely codified plays: during the build-up, the wingers attacked the spaces on the flanks, while the inside-forwards took an intermediate position, on the center-backs side, to receive away from pressure.

After emptying the center of the pitch, the team tried to get the ball to the two strikers, who had to move coherently by alternating runs towards the ball and runs to attack space vertically, keeping the ball to give the team time to run forward, or switching play to the wingers.

Sometimes the players could change but the principles of play were always the same. In some situations, Eriksen played beside Brozović to help with ball possession, and in other cases, Barella played higher on the offensive line. But the goal was always the same: free space in the center, looking for offensive lines.

Against more defensive teams, possession became more elaborate: often, wide defenders were part of the build-up and acted as wingers or inside forwards, but always trying to attack wide, bringing at least 5 men on the offensive line. Inter’s strength was in a sometimes predictable and yet very effective mechanism, not only thanks to the quality of every player but also automatisms that, at times, got very close to perfection.

Inzaghi’s Lazio, on the other hand, distinguished themselves with a less dogmatic and more flexible style, perfect to put their best players in the best conditions to thrive. A necessity that often forced Inzaghi to change things.

In his first full season with Lazio, the Italian manager played a reactive and vertical 4-3-3, to give wingers Felipe Anderson and Keita Balde freedom on the flanks. After Luis Alberto’s arrival, he gradually changed the system, moving to a 3-5-1-1 in which the Spaniard had the task to manage offensive transitions in the final third.

Two seasons ago, to integrate Correa, Inzaghi played Luis Alberto in a deeper position, on the midfield line, making him an inside forward capable of influencing every phase of the game.

Lazio’s final version was also the most complete one: a team that built up from the back – with the three CBs, plus Leiva and Luis Alberto – to attract the opposing pressure and find the players in the half-spaces vertically (mainly Milinković-Savić on the right and Correa on the left), this serving Immobile’s deep runs or switch play to the wingers, who were always occupying a wide position on the offensive line.

In this image, Lazio’s offensive structure: the two wingers high and wide, Correa and Milinković-Savić in the half-spaces - via Wyscout Playlist & Draw tool.
In this second pic, Lazio attract pressure, then play vertically to a free Correa.

In their best moments, Inzaghi’s Lazio were a brilliant and full of solutions team, which was able to build up from the back with Luis Alberto and Leiva, play wide for Lazzari’s runs, find the numerical superiority with Correa or play high balls to Milinković-Savić, always having the menacing Immobile, ready to run behind the defensive line.

In their worst moments, Lazio were too fragile and ineffective, too subject to their players’ form. But Inzaghi never lacked the courage to change. Last season, when the other teams started to effectively block Luis Alberto, Inzaghi started to play Acerbi as a left center back, asking him to run forward to create another channel to help with the build-up.

Acerbi’s support allows Fares to stay high, and this forces Juventus to keep their defensive line wide: as a result, Correa frees himself in the left half-space.

A solution that Inzaghi already used in his first official match as Inter coach, the friendly match against Lugano, using Dimarco as a left center back. The full-back, even by starting from the back, helped during possession by running up the flank, trying to overlap to take full advantage of his left foot. From one of his internal overlaps, well served by Dalbert, came the first offensive chance of the match.

Dalbert (left winger) receives wide, Dimarco (left center back) overlaps internally and crosses from the goal line.

Even if he had only a few days with the team, and with a lot of players still to return from their break, Inzaghi’s footprint was clear. Differently from last year, the team tried to pass from the center of the pitch more often, with two supporting midfielders and a third one higher in the final third, while the two strikers mainly took care of putting pressure on the opposing defensive line.

Inter starts from the back with Ranocchia, who takes advantage of Agoume and Gagliardini’s pressure to serve Nainggolan between the lines; the midfielder turns and plays wide on the left-winger.

Once Inzaghi’s team is eventually completed, it will get easier to have a better idea and see what the result of Inzaghi’s ideas will be when applied to the available players. After Hakimi’s departure (a tough one, but one the manager was aware of), Inter should confirm the rest of the starting XI.

Once again, the defense will be the stronghold of the team and it shouldn’t struggle to handle the change of manager, while it’s not clear yet how the midfield and the attack will change. When building up, Lautaro could play between the lines, like Correa used to do, to receive the ball and attack the defense. But his skills would make him far more effective as a go-to player for the team to play behind the defensive line. In that case, Lukaku would be the man linking with the midfield.

In the midfield, Inzaghi will be able to count on Brozović and Barella, two players with a great sense of verticality, who seem perfect for a team that will try to attack with a lot of space in front. In the last Serie A campaign, Barella had an average of 6,46 progressive runs per 90, for a total of 150,5 meters gained, he produced 1,46 key passes and 1,12 shots per game.

Brozović is a high-quality center midfielder, capable of covering a lot of space and making a difference in the opposing third. But he will have to work more on his defensive phase, as Inzaghi is a very demanding manager with his central midfielders. To replace Eriksen, Inter decided to sign Hakan Çalhanoğlu, a player that, in Inzaghi’s mind, will have to fill the same role that Luis Alberto had at Lazio.

Çalhanoğlu is a highly skilled trequartista, but he’s very different from the Spaniard, both for his style of play and main traits. He plays at his best when he faces the goal and a disorganized defense, while he struggles when he must manipulate the opposing pressure or carry the ball up the pitch. So, Çalhanoğlu’s deployment could probably have two different scenarios: one as an inside forward in a team looking to play even more directly, with him having the task to play vertical passes at once. The other in a more advanced role, maybe in the left half-space, where he can receive after the first verticalization and link with the two strikers. Inter could already have a player with similar technical skills that could take Luis Alberto’s role, and he’s Sensi, providing he will be able to overcome his physical problems.

Waiting to see Çalhanoğlu, it’s still to be determined how Inter will try to fix the flanks, having lost both Young and Hakimi. The Englishman’s departure was balanced by Dimarco’s return, offering both an extra option as a center back and a great back-up as a left-winger. To replace Hakimi, Marotta said that the clubs must have the “patience in taking the opportunity, with creativity and imagination.”

In the last weeks, Inter were linked with many players, from Bellerin to Zappacosta, Dumfries and even Sergiño Dest. But the most credited name seems to be Cagliari’s Nández, as the club is already negotiating Dalbert and Nainggolan with the Sardinians. The Uruguayan is a player with great tempo, great ductility and is technically clean. He can play either as a winger and as an inside forward: he wouldn’t be ‘enough’ to replace Hakimi, but he seems to be the most logical replacement for Inter.

Hakimi’s departure was a tough hit for the team, but if he will be the last important player to leave the club, Inzaghi will likely be satisfied. At his first experience away from what has been his home for more than 20 years, the manager found a team suited for his idea of football, that will be able to give him a better and larger squad than he used to have, regardless of its reshaping.

At Inter, he will have to face a challenging transition but he seems ready for the task. In his five years at Lazio, Inzaghi proved to be a modern and flexible manager, capable of getting the best out of the resources at his disposal. And he’s not afraid to make changes. On paper, he seems to be the right man for the job but – as always – only the results will tell.

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