Let’s try an exercise together. Close your eyes, clear your mind. Now, I want you to imagine an Antonio Conte side. What do you see? It’s attritional, blood and thunder, bodies on the line stuff isn’t it? Oh, and with a back three.
Conte has never been known for his free-flowing, fluid football during any spell in his managerial career, and his style strikes more resemblance to that of Diego Simeone rather than Pep Guardiola.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking that the former Chelsea boss is following his usual blueprint at Inter, replicating his fool-proof system at the top-end of Serie A once again.
Inter brought in warrior Diego Godin on a free transfer from Atletico Madrid over the summer and bolstered their midfield with the combative Nicolo Barella, and Conte appeared to be up to his old tricks again, to the surprise of no one.
And as the curtain rose on the new Serie A campaign, Conte’s debut provided no shocks when his side lined up with a three-man defence, wing-backs and the vim and vigour of a group of men who had shared an intense dressing room with the fiery Italian for the past few months.
But this team is no ordinary Conte side.
I Nerazzurri ended Sunday second place in the league, one point behind Maurizio Sarri’s Juventus, but the table only tells half of the story thus far.
Inter have won eight of their opening nine matches, and bar a late fightback from Sassuolo this weekend, Conte’s men have rarely looked troubled during any fixture this season. The Milan club have swaggered and swashbuckled their way through the opening two months of the season, and were favourites in some pundits’ eyes going into their recent clash with Juventus.
I Bianconeri came out on top in a tight affair, and it’s the former Italy manager’s only blot on the Inter copybook after nine games. Whilst the Italian giants will not want to get carried away, something substantial is bubbling away under the surface of San Siro.
Much was made of Conte’s ruthless approach towards their summer transfer policy, particularly the Mauro Icardi dilemma, whom he froze out of the side without a second thought, and replaced with the confidence-sapped Romelu Lukaku. Another masterstroke from the ex-Juve coach.
Icardi possesses endless talent but his ability is outweighed by the abundance of controversies that follow him, and Conte had no doubts over selling last season’s talisman for the good of team morale.
Ivan Perisic and Radja Nainggolan were also casualties of Conte’s cleansing, as the new boss sniffed out the bad eggs and assembled a group of players who shared his driven, no surrender mentality.
Lukaku’s arrival, along with the signing of Alexis Sanchez soon after, was met with mockery in some sections of the media and the footballing world, unable to comprehend the vision which Conte was instilling at Inter.
The Belgian forward has been partnered with Argentine youngster Lautaro Martinez, whose sensational start to the new season has forced the Icardi saga to the back of I Nerazzurri supporters’ minds, like an unpleasant but distant dream.
Martinez and Lukaku have struck up a sensational partnership, and their combination of strength, pace, power and clinical finishing is proving too hot to handle for most Italian defences. The pair compliment each other wonderfully, and their desire to work for the team embodies everything that a Conte team stands for.
Even Sanchez looked in inspired form until suffering an unfortunate injury on international duty with Chile, which has halted his undoubted progress.
Conte has also re-invigorated the career of Antonio Candreva, who cut a figure of derision for Inter supporters last season, but is thriving in his new-found right wing-back role in their 3-5-2 formation.
New signing Stefano Sensi has arguably been the best player in Serie A this season, taking his box-to-box style to another level, adding goals to his already well-rounded game. And it goes without saying, that defensively Inter have looked very resolute this season, their 4-3 victory over Sassuolo an anomaly over the course of this campaign.
Conte has never struggled to organise a team, and has an extreme affection for hard-working, down-to-earth players who will run through walls for their cause. But it seems that the task-master has adapted his style to accommodate stars with the X-factor, and is looking to take his system to a new, attractive level, which guarantees entertainment as well as his usual success.
Juve are still in pole position to regain the Serie A title, but you can count on Conte to push them all the way this season.