It will come as no surprise to fans of Chelsea and Juventus that Antonio Conte has spent much of the current season complaining about Inter’s transfer policy.
The fact that the Nerazzurri were Europe’s fifth-highest spenders last summer, twice breaking their transfer record to sign first Nicolo Barella for €50 million and then Romelu Lukaku for €80m, seems a convenient blindspot to Conte.
More so considering they have also been Italy’s most active club in January – bringing in both Ashley Young and Victor Moses earlier in the window. Yet last week Conte laboured the point once more, claiming that the media “make it seem like we are buying half of Real Madrid.”
Inter (@Inter_en) January 28, 2020
But despite his protestations the fiery Italian can surely have no complaints over the €20m arrival of Christian Eriksen, a player who, ironically, has long been associated with a move to Madrid.
The midfielder was one of the Premier League’s best performers during his seven seasons at Tottenham. He was the creative force of the Mauricio Pochettino side that reached the Champions League final and finished in the top four for the last four seasons.
Only Manchester City legend David Silva boasted more Premier League assists than the Dane’s 62 in the decade just ended. He has made more goals than Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Mesut Ozil and Wayne Rooney and anly Silva and Hazard created more chances than Eriksen’s 565.
CREATIVE SPARK REQUIRED
This creativity has been sorely lacking from Conte’s Inter over the past month or so. Since the turn of the year they have had an Expected Goals (xG) average of just 1.33 in Serie A -their xG average for the season had been 1.95 until that point.
The Nerazzurri have thus seen their Scudetto challenge falter, with five draws in their last seven Serie A matches. This has allowed serial champions Juventus to open up a three point lead at the top of the table, while Lazio will leapfrog Inter into second place should they win their game in hand.
Conte's side once again struggled to create clear-cut chances in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Cagliari, with the visitors enjoying 60 per cent of the ball, while In the draw with Atalanta two weeks ago, they achieved a paltry 34% possession.
While Conte is renowned for his counterattacking and dislikes slow, sterile passing, the inability of Inter’s midfield to keep the ball and dictate games has been a recurring problem this season. In their fruitless Champions League campaign, they enjoyed more possession in just one of their six matches – at home to Sparta Prague.
Eriksen will certainly help remedy this issue and he will offer the kind of unpredictable, top-quality service for Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez that has been sorely lacking of late.
Inter WITH ERIKSEN
As for where the former Ajax starlet will play, it seems improbable that Conte will veer far from his 3-5-2 formation. The most likely scenario is that Eriksen will take Stefano Sensi’s mezzala role on the left of Inter’s three-man centre midfield, with Barella on the right and either Marcelo Brozovic or Sensi anchoring the team in the regista position.
Whether Eriksen is a natural fit for such a system is up for debate. The Dane is an attacking midfielder who has spent much of his career either as the number 10 or floating from the left of a three-man attacking midfield line. He was at his best at Spurs when he was protected by holding midfielders Victor Wanyama and Moussa Dembele, who provided him the licence to roam without offering much defensively.
Ideally, Barella and either Brozovic or Sensi will allow Eriksen the same freedom to express himself. But starting in a deeper midfield line is very different to an attacking midfield role. Conte demands intensity and defensive output from all his players, attributes that are not among the Dane’s most obvious qualities. It will be Interesting to see whether the Italian taskmaster is prepared to be more accommodating with Eriksen and unleash a formation that is more akin to a 3-4-1-2.
Mezzala - a developing term in Italian football referring to a ball-playing midfielder positioned centrally who when in possession will move wider to stretch the defence and attempt to deliver into the area.FootballCritic Definitions
ERIKSEN OUT, LAUTARO OUT?
Another mooted scenario is that by signing Eriksen, Inter are preparing for the summer departure of Lautaro. The Argentine’s future is far from certain after starring in the Champions League group stages. Barcelona are self-confessed admirers of the 22-year-old and see the attacker as a possible successor to the ageing Luis Suarez.
By selling Lautaro and Mauro Icardi at the end of the season, Inter would raise over €200m to strengthen other areas of the team. The theory is that Conte would switch to a 3-5-1-1 formation, with Eriksen in a more natural role supporting lone striker Lukaku.
What is not in doubt is that the capture of Eriksen is another big sign of intent for a club that - under their ambitious Chinese owners Suning - are certainly on a path to re-joining the European elite.
It is true that Eriksen has endured a poor 2019-20 season, registering just two goals and two assists in the Premier League. He has a Premier League FC player rating of 6.5, a somewhat disappointing score for someone of his ability.
However, as most Tottenham fans will agree, Eriksen’s heart and head are elsewhere. Though Jose Mourinho recently praised his professionalism, the midfielder has been desperate to leave the club since last summer.
He finally has his move. If he is used correctly, his transfer should boost Inter’s Scudetto challenge and further rebuild the club’s reputation in Europe.
Just don’t expect Antonio Conte to stop complaining!