Like Arrigo Sacchi and the offside trap, Jurgen Klopp and gegenpressing and Pep Guardiola overthinking Champions League knockout ties, Antonio Conte’s fetish for wing-backs is a love story that dates back to the start of the fiery Italian’s coaching tenure at Juventus in 2011.
And along the way, Conte’s never been blessed with the most naturally gifted of flankers; from workhorses Stephan Liechtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah at the Bianconeri to misfits Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses at Chelsea.
He has, however, had the knack of turning them into world-beaters – most notably Alonso during the Blues’ title-winning campaign in 2016/17.
During his first year at Inter, meanwhile, it’s been no different. Antonio Candreva has enjoyed a resurgent campaign as a right wing-back under Conte’s tutelage while Ashley Young has settled in nicely down the left since his January move – recent Sassuolo horror show aside.
But finally, after coaching masterclass after masterclass to squeeze every ounce out of sub-par wing-back talent, it appears Conte’s been rewarded with a top-level prospect this summer.
That’s right, Achraf Hakimi’s on his way.
With a whole host of clubs chasing the Moroccan’s signature this summer and a permanent return to Real Madrid also on the table, Hakimi’s future was set to be a major talking point throughout the upcoming makeshift transfer window.
But just like that, Conte and Inter swooped. Fabrizio Romano confirmed on Saturday a ‘total agreement’ has been reached between the Nerazzurri and Los Blancos in what’s believed to be a €45m deal. An official announcement is expected following medicals next week.
The imminent signing of Hakimi is a serious coup for Inter, who endured another setback in their current Scudetto charge following their 3-3 draw against Sassuolo last week. The Moroccan has emerged as a bonafide superstar during his two-year loan spell at Borussia Dortmund, contributing to 29 goals in 72 BVB appearances in all competitions.
For his first season and a half in Dortmund, he continued to show off his versatility as Lucien Favre utilised him in several roles. But after the Swiss coach switched to a 3-4-2-1 following a 3-1 defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League last November, Hakimi has been a mainstay down the Dortmund right flank.
The 21-year-old started 25 games on the spin – during which he scored three times and assisted a further ten – before he missed his side’s 2-0 victory at RB Leipzig last weekend.
Nevertheless, his deployment as a wing-back got the very best out of him; his capacity to combine, smart but destructive exploitation of space and astute final-third decision-making all came to the fore, while any defensive shortcomings were minimised.
And it’s for that reason as to why Inter is the perfect destination for Hakimi. As opposed to being utilised in a back four which other potential suitors favour, namely Real, Manchester City, Bayern and Chelsea, Hakimi will slide in perfectly as a wing-back in Conte’s 3-5-2.
Wing-backs play such an imperative role in ‘The Godfather’s’ system at San Siro. Not only are they expected to add another attacking outlet in the final third and create a five-man backline in their settled defensive shape, but they’re also tasked with using their opposite foot to combine infield and search for the likes of Lautaro Martinez with lofted passes into the channels.
And since calcio returned from a three-month hiatus earlier this month, we’ve seen some fresh tactical nuances included into Conte’s automatisms involving the right wing-back – most notably a rotation between Nicolo Barella, Milan Skriniar and Candreva which sees the latter drift into the half-space to aid ball progression down that flank.
Overall, there’s little doubting Hakimi’s function under Conte will certainly be more demanding and complex compared to Favre’s, but the Moroccan certainly has the engine, nous and technique to cope. If Candreva can, I’m sure he’ll be okay too.
Nevertheless, the move is a clear sign of intent from the Inter hierarchy who are desperate to make the Antonio Conte era a memorable one.
With three superb centre-halves, a dynamic but tremendously balanced midfield which could further be bolstered by the arrival of Sandro Tonali and the ‘Lula’ partnership wreaking havoc up top, it’s obvious wing-back was a priority area to strengthen this summer.
While Candreva and Young – the favoured left wing-back since his January move – have been sound and useful against inferior opposition, they’ve also been a source of Inter’s problems this term.
Their lack of dynamism means the Nerazzurri typically struggle to exploit the space down the flanks against better sides who press Inter higher up the pitch. Thus, they can’t capitalise on the often tremendous work by the back three to bypass pressure in the first phase.
Their lack of athleticism, meanwhile, means they can’t contribute effectively in all phases and in some of Inter’s ‘bigger’ games, Conte has opted to rein in the offensive responsibilities of his wing-backs in order to bolster Inter’s defensive coverage. This, however, has created new problems, with the Nerazzurri occasionally looking pretty toothless in attack due to Lukaku and Lautaro becoming isolated without a constant source of width.
Nevertheless, the incredibly dynamic and athletic Hakimi solves both these issues, and overall, it seems like they’ve absolutely nailed the first-half of their wing-back overhaul.
If they’re able to secure a player akin to Atalanta’s Robin Gosens down the left – if not Gosens himself – then we’re talking about one of the most complete outfits in Europe.
Adding Hakimi alone, however, arguably already thrusts the Nerazzurri as Scudetto favourites for next term. The match between club, player and manager, is one sent from the heavens. Majestic success is inevitable.