Antonio Conte uses pain of English experience to bolster his Inter Milan squad
Former Chelsea manager now has Moses, Eriksen, Young, Lukaku, and Sanchez – with Giroud another possible signing – on his books in Italy
Sometimes, a player makes his strongest impression on a manager by leaving a bruise. Evidently, Antonio Conte, a man with a long memory, has been recalling the setbacks opponents caused as much as his own successes during his two years in English football as he builds an Inter Milan capable of closing in on a Serie A title.
Christian Eriksen on Tuesday became the fifth Inter signing that Conte has directly petitioned direct from the Premier League since he took over as Inter head coach last summer.
Eriksen, whose contract with Tottenham Hotspur was due to expire in June, joins Romelu Lukaku and Ashley Young, summer and winter recruits respectively from Manchester United, who also loaned Alexis Sanchez to Inter in August.
• Antonio Conte set for Victor Moses reunion after Inter Milan 'reach agreement' with Chelsea, Olivier Giroud also a 'possibility'
There’s more. Victor Moses, who played under Conte at Chelsea, has just joined, on loan from Stamford Bridge. Lines remain open between Inter and Chelsea about the immediate future of Olivier Giroud.
All this might suggest Conte, whose Inter are second in the table, three points shy of champions Juventus but with three draws from their last three, is in thrall to Premier League pedigree, convinced that a footballer with a good record in England must export good habits. But it goes deeper: Conte knows first hand the damage his newer recruits can do.
Rewind to the 2016-17 season, when Conte joined Chelsea, for his first managerial adventure abroad.
It started shakily, and a gloomy Conte was surveying the wreckage of a second defeat on the trot in his sixth game in charge. At Arsenal, his Chelsea trailed 3-0 at half-time. An electric Sanchez, then Arsenal's superstar, had dismantled them.
Ten minutes into the second half, Conte made one of the wisest decisions of his career. He reassembled his team’s structure, to a back-three with wing-backs. The Arsenal game was unsalvageable; the season was not.
The 3-4-3 formation worked like a magic potion, and key to its functioning was Moses, a marginal figure through much of his long period as a Chelsea employee, forever loaned out, but suddenly reinvigorated as a wing-back, not a winger, under Conte’s fresh plan.
With Moses redeployed, the new formation established, Chelsea soared. By late February they stood were top of the table, on run of a 13 league victories.
Then they ran into Eriksen, whose brilliance for Spurs on a January night inspired a 2-0 win, shaping what would become an all-London title duel. Chelsea emerged the victors.
They might have won the Double, too, but for Sanchez, whose early goal swung the FA Cup final, Giroud setting up the Arsenal winner at Wembley.
As for Lukaku, Conte admired him throughout the manager’s time in England. He tried to sign him from Everton in 2017, with United capturing the striker, and six months later, Lukaku inflicted serious damage on Conte’s defence of Chelsea’s title, with a well-taken goal and a cross for the winner in a 2-1 home victory at Old Trafford, where Young also advertised his versatility.
He played at left-back for United that day, though Conte had seen him at right-back, and at both extremes of midfield, noting that, like Moses, this was a footballer of great versatility and stamina.
Young, 34, made his Inter debut at the weekend, on the right midfield, and, after half an hour, via a neat feint and a measured, looping cross, set up the opening goal against Cagliari.
From Eriksen, similar poise and impact will be anticipated. After all, Lukaku immediately made himself at home at Inter – he has 14 Serie goals already – although Conte still awaits the apparition of an Arsenal-era Sanchez, and may not be disconsolate to hear of United’s enthusiasm for returning the Chilean enigma to Old Trafford when his Inter loan ends in June.
This season, Conte has repeatedly complained about his "limited" Inter squad. The busy winter widow is the club’s response. That it has focussed on players with Premier League pasts is more than coincidence.
Conte explained the gap he was trying to fill as a question of knowhow: “The team lacks experience overall and we are trying to strengthen specific areas.”
For the newcomers, there is a tantalising target, a prospect of instant upgrade. Eriksen has been a runner-up in the Premier League, the League Cup and the Champions League over his last four seasons with Spurs, and never lifted a trophy there.
Young’s last three United medals, in the Premier League, FA Cup and Uefa Super Cup were all silver medals. At Inter, a scudetto, the Serie A title, feels graspable, if only they can show their new team-mates how to hold their nerve.
Updated: January 29, 2020 08:03 AM