In many ways, Inter Milan’s Europa League defeat to Sevilla last month felt like the end of something. Antonio Conte was certainly keen to perpetuate this notion, hinting that he could be on his way out of the San Siro club after just one season. “It has been wonderful for me to be the coach of Inter, I thank the owners who allowed me to go through this great experience,” Conte said, notably in the past tense, in what many at the time saw as a farewell.
Conte and the Inter hierarchy ultimately worked things out, at least to the extent that the 51-year-old has been persuaded to stay at least another season at the club. The impact he made at the San Siro last season was instant, with Inter finishing second in Serie A, mounting their first title challenge since the days of Jose Mourinho.
This is, of course, a trademark of the Italian coach. Conte won the Premier League title in his first season at Chelsea and turned the Italian national team around in a very short space of time, taking the Azzurri to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals. For much of the 2019/20 season, it appeared Inter were set to dethrone Juventus as Italian champions.
Ultimately, this failed to materialise, but Inter have given themselves a platform to build on. Juventus are at their weakest for a number of years, with new manager Andrea Pirlo a rookie following the sacking of Maurizio Sarri over the summer, and the Nerazzurri look to be best-placed to take advantage of that.
Their title chances are almost completely dependent on Conte’s mindset, though. The 51-year-old is renowned for being a volatile figure and that started to bubble to the surface towards the end of last season, with Conte publicly criticising the Inter hierarchy for what he perceived to be a lack of action in the transfer market.
On the face of things, this criticism seems somewhat unfair given how Inter’s Chinese owners have tailored the squad at the San Siro to Conte’s specifications, even when they seem to go against the grain of conventional wisdom. Conte knows what he needs and isn’t afraid to apply the pressure to get it.
This summer, for instance, Inter have moved for Arturo Vidal, a 33-year-old veteran, over Sandro Tonali, the 20-year-old widely seen as Italian’s next great midfielder. The club did manage to win the sweepstakes for Real Madrid (and Dortmund loanee) Achraf Hakimi, widely considered one of the world's best wingbacks at the age of 21–and perfect for Conte's 3-5-2 system. And last summer, Conte was delivered Romelu Lukaku from Manchester United for a club record fee of €80 million, with the Belgian striker someone he wanted to work with going back to his time at Chelsea.
Inter’s team isn’t one for the future. It’s a team for right now. Conte has favoured the wisdom of experience over the exuberance of youth. Many have accused the 51-year-old of mortgaging Inter’s future in the pursuit of short-term results, but few will complain if those short-term results carry the Nerazzurri to their first Scudetto for over a decade.
Whether or not Inter can keep hold of Lautaro Martinez will also go a long way to determining their success or failure this season. The Argentine has forged an inherent understanding with Lukaku at the head of Inter’s attack, with both forwards bringing the best out of each other. It’s therefore unsurprising that Martinez has drawn attention from other clubs. Indeed, a potential transfer to Barcelona has been spoken about all summer long.
The loss of Martinez would force Inter back into the transfer market to find a replacement to sustain their 3-5-2 system and finding someone of the 23-year-old’s calibre will be difficult, if not impossible. If Inter are all about immediate action in the pursuit of short term results, refusing a mega-money offer for Martinez might be the most effective thing they could do.
Over the summer, it was reported that Inter had lined up Max Allegri as a replacement for Conte had the current coach decided to leave at the end of last season. It was Allegri who succeeded Conte at Juventus, taking the Old Lady further. One wonders if Inter’s hierarchy secretly wish they’d been given the chance to follow Juve’s precedent. Allegri, in a number of ways, would have been a safer pair of hands.
But in Conte, Inter have a coach who exudes energy and passion. After so long out of the Scudetto picture, this is what the Nerazzurri need to shake them into life again. Rather than being the end of something, Conte and Inter’s relationship could still take them to even higher places than second place and the Europa League final.