How Antonio Conte and Romelu Lukaku Toppled Juventus
On Sunday, Inter Milan clinched their first Serie A title since 2010 and ended Juve's nine-year run atop the Italian table
You can’t separate Antonio Conte and Romelu Lukaku. You just can’t.
Inter Milan announced the hiring of Conte on May 31, 2019. Two months later, on August 8, the club signed Lukaku from Manchester United. Conte’s salary is reported to be equal to the pay for the Juventus, Atalanta, AC Milan, Lazio, and Roma managers -- combined. Lukaku, meanwhile, arrived for a then-and-still-club record transfer fee of €80 million.
The first season went pretty well. Inter finished second in the Serie A table and lost the Europa League final to Sevilla because everyone loses the Europa League final to Sevilla. Lukaku was who we thought he was: a very-good-not-great striker. In his two years at United, he averaged 0.63 non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes. In his first year at Inter, he pretty much maintained that rate, finishing with 17 non-pen goals and two assists at a rate of 0.58 per 90.
Conte did his thing, too: He improved the team dramatically and then lost his shit over the lack of transfer support and nearly quit the job during the offseason. Although Inter finished second, they improved by 13 points from the previous season. In fact, they won as many points as the last Inter team to win the Scudetto -- Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning 2010 side. But after the arrival of superstar wingback Achraf Hakimi from Real Madrid last summer, Conte claimed the club’s “project stopped”. Much like he did at his last stop, Chelsea, he considered walking away, but so-called “crisis talks” with team owner, 29-year-old Chinese businessman Steven Zhang, in August convinced him to stay.
Seven months later, Conte has solidified his status as a modern-day legend, and so too Lukaku. Together, they ended Juventus’s 3,283-day reign as champions of Italy, and their own club’s decade-long trophy drought. A season ago, Conte was calling Lukaku “trash” and threatening to sub him off after five minutes. That’s the way it works.
Most managers don’t matter; you’ve heard me say it so many times now. Give any two random coaches the same financial resources, and over time, they’ll achieve the same level of results. But Antonio Conte is clearly one of the managers who actually does matter.
In a nice bit of narrative symmetry, Conte is the one who started Juventus’s decade of dominance. Before he arrived in Turin, the club had finished seventh, two years in a row. They’d been demoted down to Serie B as punishment for their role in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, but they’d bounced right back up, and then finished third and second in Serie A before the steam started to run out.
In his autobiography, Andrea Pirlo recounted Conte’s first meeting with the Juve squad:
He needed only one speech, with many simple words, to conquer both me and Juventus. He had fire running through his veins and he moved like a viper. “This squad, dear boys, is coming off two consecutive seventh-place finishes. It's crazy. It's shocking. I am not here for this, so it's time to stop being so crap”.
Conte once called Gianluigi Buffon “a disappointment, a defeat from the moment [he opens his] mouth.” In his book, Pirlo also wrote: “When Conte speaks, his words assault you. They crash through the doors of your mind. I've lost count of the number of times I've said: 'Hell, Conte said something really spot-on again today’.” You get the deal. Conte’s getting sick of the reputation, too. “I don’t like people having this idea that I’m a ‘warmonger’ who causes tension”, he said recently.
In addition to his, uh, brusque man-management style, Conte’s sometimes described as a defensive coach, likely in part because it’s a stereotype every Italian manager has to disprove, and because in his first season with Chelsea he switched to a 3-4-3 and the team immediately won 11 games in a row. But I don’t think that’s quite fair; he seems to opt for whatever formation best fits his talent. Hell, he’s the one who turned Andrea Pirlo, the least defensive midfielder in the world, into a defensive midfielder.
The main word I think of when I think of Conte’s tactical style is “control”. The team’s movements both with and without the ball have clearly been practiced over and over again on the training ground, systematized to the soundtrack of Conte insulting your most beloved family member. There’s repetition behind everything that happens on the field. “If my players don't understand something, I force the player to ask me why we are doing such movement or working on certain tactics in training both offensively or defensively,” Conte has said. “I always want my players to be fully understanding of the problem. I want them to understand why we are doing certain things and why those things are useful”.
At Juventus, the team won the title in Conte’s first season; oh, and they didn’t lose a single game. They won the title again the next year, and in his third-and-final season they set a Serie A record, winning 102 points. Then came a two-year stint with the Italian national team. At Euro 2016, they beat defending champs Spain, 2-0, in the Round of 16 and then took defending World Cup champs, Germany, to penalties in a quarterfinal loss. (This was a similar -- and potentially less talented -- group of players to the ones who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup). And then it was Chelsea, where he took the team that finished 10th the season before to the title. They won 93 points, the second-most in league history at the time, and improved their goal differential from plus-six to plus-52.
And now, Inter, where the improvement has been rapid:
-2018-19: 1.82 points per game, plus-0.63 goal differential, plus-0.68 expected-goal differential (via FBref)
-2019-20: 2.16 PPG, plus-1.18 GD, plus-0.83 xGD
-2020-21: 2.41 PPG, plus-1.32 GD, plus-1.00 xGD
The story of Inter’s title-winning season is that they came out hot, lacking Conte’s trademark control and instead doing things like playing Aleksandar Kolarov at center back. They pressed widly, and they looked like maybe the best attacking team in the world, but just couldn’t hold up on the defensive end. It might’ve worked but variance worked against them. Conte had surprisingly dropped center back Milan Skriniar, one of the club’s most consistent players over the past four years and one of its few young stars, for more attacking players like Kolarov, but he eventually relented and re-installed Skriniar as part of a back three. The attack took hit a hit, but the defensive improvement exceeded the offensive decline:
A big reason why the attack survived the switch to more defensive personnel: Lukaku became the best player in Serie A. He’s scored 16 non-penalty goals (third in Serie A) and added 10 assists (tied for first). Taken together, he’s contributed to 26 non-penalty goals; no one else has been involved in more than 23. Same goes for the underlying quality: He’s created 23.9 non-penalty goals and assists so far; Cristiano Ronaldo is the only other player above 20.
If you watched the 2018 World Cup, you know that’s not all Lukaku does. His movement for the winning goal against Japan was a masterpiece:
Not only is Lukaku getting the goals and playing the final passes; he’s the one who’s keeping Inter’s attacks alive. Only Atalanta’s Duvan Zapata has more touches in the penalty area than Lukaku’s 225, and no one in the league has received more progressive passes.1 He’s also 10th in Serie A in pressures applied in the final third, with 172. (For reference, Ronaldo has 98.) In terms of ideal center-forward play, there’s not really anything else Lukaku could realistically do; he scores, he creates, he’s an outlet, he’s a target, and he tries to win the ball back as soon he loses it. For all that, Lukaku is beloved in Milan, and rightfully so; there’s now a painting of him staring down Zlatan Ibrahimovic outside the San Siro.
Way more went into Inter’s incredible season than just these two. Lautaro Martinez was the ideal strike partner for Lukaku -- taking the shots the Belgian wouldn’t, leading the league in attacking-third pressures -- while 24-year-old Nicolo Barrella turned into one of the best midfielders in the world. Hakimi was as good at Inter as he was with Dortmund. Real heads know that Marcelo Brozovic is the best Croatian midfielder --and has been for a couple years now. Even the likes of Matteo Darmian, Alexis Sanchez, and Christian Eriksen played key roles and played super-productive minutes at various points across the season. But none of this happens without Conte, and Conte wouldn’t have been able to do it without Lukaku.
The pandemic has hit Inter, like most other clubs, hard. On top of that, Zhang and his father’s company, Suning, appear to be in a ton of debt. The future of the club is murky; there are rumors of a €250 million loan from Bain Capital, which is not a name you get associated with when you’re in good financial shape. We’ll see what happens, but regardless of what comes next, Conte and Lukaku were absolutely worth it.
FBref defines “progressive passes” as: “Completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent's goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area. Excludes passes from the defending 40% of the pitch”.