How can Juventus slow down Antonio Conte’s Inter?

Inter, Antonio Conte (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)
Inter, Antonio Conte (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images) /
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When the 2020/21 Serie A fixtures were released, Inter’s visit of Juventus on Matchday 37 had the potential to be a Scudetto-decider. However, the form of the respective clubs since the turn of the new year has prevented such a fantasy from becoming reality.

The Nerazzurri’s ruthlessness combined with Bianconeri indifference means the two sides enter Saturday’s fixture 16 points apart. Inter have already secured the title, while Juventus are fighting for a Champions League spot.

It’s been quite the fall from grace from the once Calcio monopolisers under Andrea Pirlo. Nevertheless, Juve’s desperate situation means that the upcoming Derby d’Italia is a matter of life or death – the Champions League or Europa League.

Antonio Conte‘s side have been far and away Italy’s supreme outfit this term, but they’re not invincible. They can be got at and can be beaten. So, how does Pirlo go about conjuring up a game plan to outwit his former boss? Here are three keys to victory.

Ditch the midblock

Pressing was such a key principle in Pirlo’s Juventus throughout the first half of the season. The Bianconeri boasted a distinct intensity without possession, with their counter-press particularly fierce.

January’s defeat in the Derby d’Italia proved a turning point from a pressing perspective. In Inter’s 2-0 victory that night, Conte’s meticulous automatisms spooked Pirlo. The Nerazzurri outfoxed a naive, reckless Bianconeri through their efficient build-up and capacity to transition with remarkable speed.

Thus, a key for the hosts on Saturday is how they deal with the visitors’ build-up play. Inter’s work in the first phase is perhaps only bested by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in Europe: everybody’s aware of their roles, the players are so technically secure, superiorities and angles are created at a canter, while the autonomous nature of their patterns ensures opponents are constantly in a state of reaction.

Conte’s build-up has altered since his arrival, but it remains proficient no matter the structure. This season we’ve seen the creation of a back four to create a four-vs-three numerical superiority against the opponents’ first pressing line. Typically, Milan Skriniar and Alessandro Bastoni function as full-backs, with a midfielder – either Marcelo Brozovic or Christian Eriksen – dropping alongside Stefan de Vrij at centre-back. A variation of this structure sees Achraf Hakimi drop deeper, allowing Skriniar to slide alongside de Vrij with a double pivot functioning ahead of them.

The number of bodies they commit to their build-up entices opposition into a higher press and a false belief that they can win back possession in Inter’s third. It’s press-baiting, and Conte’s side perform the art masterfully. Once the opposition commit, their vertical compactness is compromised and Inter can transition rapidly via more automatisms and the overload they love to create down the right-hand side where the marauding Nicolo Barella, electric Hakimi and man-mountain Romelu Lukaku are protagonists.

In the January fixture, Inter sought to overload the left flank in a bid to isolate Hakimi against Gianluca Frabotta. Conte’s ploy worked a treat, with Barella’s goal a manifestation of the tactic.

In that 2-0 defeat, Juventus appeared ill-prepared for the proficiency of Inter’s build-up. However, Pirlo did learn his lesson for the Coppa Italia semi-final first leg to secure a 2-1 triumph. The Bianconeri once again pressed high, but more astutely with Dejan Kulusevski marking metronome Brozovic out of the contest. Although, the absence of Hakimi and Lukaku certainly inhibited Inter.

So, Pirlo has to make a decision. He can’t stick with the tame, penetrable 4-4-2 mid-block of recent weeks. Inter will pick them apart with ease. He has to commit to one extreme: either press high, shut out Brozovic and hope Inter have an off night or restore the low block.

Juve’s success in the second leg stalemate of the Coppa Italia semi-final may tempt Pirlo. However, despite the importance of the fixture, does the Juventus defence have the mental capacity to perform such a demanding and mentally draining tactic effectively. Sassuolo somewhat forced them to do so on Wednesday and were mightily unfortunate not to get more from the fixture.

However, if the hosts can diligently park the bus, there will be avenues to exploit the Nerazzurri where they’re most vulnerable: in transition.

It’s a decision Pirlo has to get right.