Football Features

Ranked: Every wing-back since Inter switched to 3-5-2

By Ben Green

Published: 16:28, 15 February 2022

Football clubs remain the same, but managers, well managers change, and with any shift in the dugout comes new tactical ideas and at times, a cultural recalibration.

Manchester United famously compromised their ‘identity’ when they hired Jose Mourinho in a desperate attempt to rediscover their reputation as a magnet for silverware, while Liverpool’s two Champions League wins this century have come under managers of vastly contrasting styles.

Likewise, Inter Milan have experienced a tactical shift in recent years, but one that perhaps traces back to their most successful manager ever. Helenio Herrera brought a fluid brand of football to the San Siro when he moved from Barcelona in 1960, playing a wing-back system that revolutionised the Nerazzurri.

Antonio Conte reverted to a similar system back in 2019 and secured Inter’s first Scudetto in just over a decade and nearly 60 years on from Herrera’s first in the San Siro hotseat. It’s a system that has become almost synonymous with Conte in the modern era, and a blueprint Inter now seem determined to uphold.

Simone Inzaghi was drafted in from Lazio following Conte’s departure in the summer, having adopted an identical formation at the Stadio Olimpico, and Inter have continued to enjoy success with their now seemingly patented 3-5-2. With that, we’ve decided to rate their wing-backs since their 3-5-2 shift in 2019…

The wing-backs

Looking at each of Inter’s three average positions visualisations across Serie A and European competitions since they made the switch (2019/20), they have used a different wing-back pairing in each of those campaigns: Antonio Candreva and Cristiano Biraghi under Conte in 2019/20; Achraf Hakimi and Ashley Young under Conte in 2020/21; Denzel Dumfries and Ivan Perisic under Inzaghi in 2021/22.

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Others have been used in those three years, including Danilo D’Ambrosio, Victor Moses, Valentino Lazaro, Kwadwo Asamoah, Aleksandar Kolarov and Matteo Darmian, but each have had varying degrees of importance at the club.

12. Valentino Lazaro

Brought in for a hefty fee in the summer of 2019, Lazaro scarcely featured for Conte’s men in the first half of the 2019/20 season and was subsequently sent out on loan to Newcastle for the remainder of the campaign. With Hakimi coming in that summer, Lazaro once again found himself on the fringes and joined Borussia Monchengladbach for a temporary stint across 2020/21. Still technically at Inter, Lazaro is once again out on loan, this time to Benfica.

11. Aleksandar Kolarov

The veteran defender is very much a peripheral figure at Inter, and when he does get rare minutes on the pitch, it’s usually as a left-sided centre-back. But, he has occasionally featured at wing-back, just 60 minutes in total since moving to Inter in fact. The only reason he comes in ahead of Lazaro is purely price tag related. Kolarov was a relatively inexpensive acquisition while, given the outlay required to bring Lazaro to the club, you’d certainly expect more bang for your buck.

10. Kwadwo Asamoah

Kwadwo Asamoah reunited with the man who initially signed him for Juventus in 2012, and their relationship looked set to continue blossoming at the start of 2019/20, as the Ghanian played the full 90 minutes in six of Inter’s opening seven Serie A matches. However, a spate of injuries and problems with consistency saw Asamoah almost completely frozen out at the club, and from the start of December in 2019 he didn’t feature for the rest of the campaign, at one time being an unused substitute for nine successive Serie A games before being dropped from the matchday squad altogether.

“At the start of my third Inter season I saw things were gradually getting worse and the best thing for me to do was to redraw and focus on continuing my career,” Asamoah explained in December 2020 after mutually agreeing to terminate his Inter contract two months prior.

“I still had a contract and I absolutely wanted to be fair to them. I explained to them my situation, and they understood me. We got to an agreement and they let me go without any problem.”

A fine asset for Inter in his maiden campaign (2018/19), but from 2019/20, he was very much a bit-part player.

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9. Victor Moses

Signed as a bit of a stop-gap to bulk up Conte’s flanks, Moses reunited with the manager who repurposed him as a wing-back at Chelsea. At Stamford Bridge the duo worked exceptionally well in tandem to bring home the Premier League in 2016/17, but at Inter, their relationship was ephemeral, with Moses starting just four Serie A games in total and subsequently moving to Spartak Moscow from Chelsea shortly after.

8. Danilo D’Ambrosio

A fantastic Inter servant, racking up just shy of 250 appearances for the club, but since switching to a 3-5-2 in 2019, D’Ambrosio’s impact has very much been on the wane. The versatile defender has been — and continues to be — a bit of a utility man for Inter, slotting in where necessity dictates, even featuring up front for the club on one occasion.

7. Cristiano Biraghi

An Inter academy graduate, Cristiano Biraghi left the San Siro before breaking into the first team, dropping down and learning his craft in Serie B. He returned briefly to Inter in 2014 but again left without making a top-flight appearance for the team. Finally, he would get his chance to represent his boyhood club in Serie A when Conte signed him on loan for the 2019/20 campaign from Fiorentina. He featured extensively in the first half of that season, but was eventually displaced by winter arrival Ashley Young, and the club subsequently opted against making him a permanent fixture, returning to Fiorentina in the summer.

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6. Matteo Darmian

Matteo Darmian is perhaps still carrying a bit of stigma from his very underwhelming Manchester United stint, but for Inter he has completely transformed his reputation. Not always a guaranteed starter, the 32-year-old scored two vital goals last term en route to Serie A glory. In the dying embers against Cagliari on matchday 30, he struck to seal a 1-0 win, and followed up shortly after with the match-winner in an identical victory over Verona.

5. Antonio Candreva

One of Conte’s many wing-back experiments, Antonio Candreva has cultivated a reputation as a direct, skilful winger, but was utilised as an attacking No. 2 in Inter’s 3-5-2 switch in 2019/20. He was directly involved in 12 Serie A goals in that season, which turned out to be his last in the famous black and blue.

4. Ashley Young

Ashley Young joined Inter in the second half of the 2019/20 season and took to Italian football like a duck to water, scoring four Serie A goals and assisting a further four in just 13 starts. Impressive numbers for a player deemed surplus to requirements at Man Utd. Then, last season, the Stevenage-born midfielder-cum-defender became only the third Englishman to win the league title in Italy, following in the footsteps of Jimmy Greaves in 1962 and Gerry Hitchens in 1963.

3. Denzel Dumfries

After a tentative start to his Inter career, Denzel Dumfries has now emerged as the ultimate heir to Hakimi’s throne, while some Italian outlets have even been liking his recent showings to that of Maicon. The all-action No. 2 impressed in the summer at Euro 2020, and Inter seemed to have got their hands on a player who could seamlessly succeed Hakimi. After a few rocky, almost unsure performances at the start of 2021/22, the Dutchman now looks destined to fulfil his potential. He is an indispensable part of Inzaghi’s system and has been on fire of late.

2. Ivan Perisic

To describe Ivan Perisic as a bit of a Swiss army knife would be a gross understatement. The versatile Croat has featured just about everywhere for Inter since joining in 2015. Loaned out to Bayern for the 2019/20 campaign, when Perisic returned with a Champions League winner’s medal around his neck he was immediately repurposed as a left wing-back. Integral to Inter’s Serie A win last season, the 33-year-old continues to be a vital part of Inzaghi current title-chasers, adding bundles of pace, energy and a goalscoring presence to the flanks.

1. Achraf Hakimi

Unquestionably Inter’s best wing-back since the days of Maicon. Hakimi finished last season as Inter’s second-top assist provider and the joint-third top scorer, with his goalscoring contributions key to the club’s Scudetto-winning campaign. There is a reason PSG splashed so much on the Madrid-born defender and that’s because he was Conte’s most important player in 2020/21. Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez were scoring fiends, Nicolo Barella was the midfield orchestrator and Milan Skriniar was the defensive wall, but Hakimi was the linchpin, a player who brought the whole equation together, providing unparalleled levels of fitness to the flanks, a laser-guided end product and a willingness to track back. Conte loves fit players, and none encapsulated his relentless pursuit of athletic perfection more than Hakimi.