It wasn’t the wide attacker’s brightest performance, but it was arguably the Nerazzurri’s most important victory in the context of their season
Antonio Conte’s substitutions with five minutes remaining against Atalanta on Monday night were striking: with Inter Milan 1-0 up and pinned down by La Dea, the 51-year-old boss opted to substitute Achraf Hakimi and Ivan Perisic for Danilo D’Ambrosio and Matteo Darmian respectively.
The Italians were effectively replacing the attacking pair in a move that signalled Conte’s approach in trying to see out the hugely needed three points against Gian Piero Gasperini’s troops. They’d been forced deeper and deeper for an extended period before the ex-Italy boss made his final substitutions on the night.
It wasn’t Hakimi’s best showing in an attacking sense, although Inter’s style for the majority of the game meant there was little chance of that happening. Overall, he’s been an overwhelming success in Italian football.
“I have had the opportunity to watch all Inter home games live in recent years and I must tell you that a winger like Hakimi is what was missing,” said Goal‘s Renato Maisani. “Apart from [Ivan] Perisic’s return to Milan, [Hakimi] was Inter’s only signing, but compared to last year, he offered a vital game option to Conte, who loves to take advantage of wide players.
“He has played many brilliant matches but, above all, in the challenges against the ‘small’ teams, he’s been an added value, helping Inter not to make them tricky matches.”
However, agaisnt Atalanta, Hakimi wasn’t necessarily at his best.
The Morocco wing-back had only 48 touches — his second-lowest in games he’s played 80 minutes or higher this season — was involved in a solitary shot-creating action — joint-lowest in games where he got significant minutes — and barely crossed the halfway line until his substitution.
Hakimi’s first year in Serie A has probably surprised even the man himself due to the different side to his game that’s been sharpened and improved upon at Inter. Initially, Conte had issues with the wide defender’s tactical naivete which led to a momentary role as Darmian’s understudy at right wing-back.
His opening months were characterised by lapses in concentration in his defensive third, as witnessed in Inter’s 2-2 draw with Parma in October, and mistakes, like the error against old side Real Madrid in early November.
“This is a lad that is just over 20 years old and who played for just two seasons in Dortmund and the Bundesliga, a league which is much less tactical,” the Inter boss interestingly stated after beating Bologna in December. “Here, there’s less space and there’s greater preparation for matches, with opponents studying his characteristics more.”
While there’s an inclination to blindly laud the North African’s improvement in the defensive phase, the appropriate context ought to be established as well. The early rounds of this season were characterised by Conte’s side uncharacteristically allowing several preventable goals.
The concession of 1.62 goals per game in November put them on pace to let in around 62 goals after 38 fixtures. For a defence that conceded 36 goals last term — the only side in Serie A to concede less than a goal a game — the projected numbers at the time were alarming.
Even though their backline didn’t particularly tighten up for another two months, the recent run of seven clean sheets from their last nine league games since mid-January has been remarkable. Hakimi has featured in six of those matches, in which Conte’s side have largely sat deeper than they did in the opening months of the campaign.
Currently, only Juventus (21) have allowed more goals than Inter’s 25 after 26 games, with the significant reduction from 1.62 goals let in p/g to 1.04 p/g a welcome sight to their insatiable manager.
“We have learned how to choose when to wait and when to push,” Conte asserted after Monday’s 1-0 win. “We did well to find the right mix and it was the step we needed to take this season because we needed to be more consistent in both phases.”
There was increased pressure before facing Atalanta on Monday owing to the fact both AC Milan and Juventus closed the gap to three and seven respectively after wins over Hellas Verona and Lazio before the leaders kicked a ball.
Gasperini’s side have the second-best attack (statistically at least) in Serie A behind the hosts, were on a four-match winning run and had already thrashed Milan at San Siro in January, a game that finished 3-0 to the club from Bergamo.
Inter still needed a brilliant Samir Handanovic save and Marcelo Brozovic clearance off the line to prevent them from falling behind, but they largely limited the visitors and took their chance when it arrived.
There are still 12 games to play but beating Atalanta was not only a relief but equally colossal if the champions-elect are to supplant the Old Lady, who no longer have European distractions after Tuesday’s Champions League elimination by Porto.
Despite having a six-point gap, the ex-Chelsea boss understands what’s at stake and reckons his side have a dozen finals to play before securing the Scudetto.
“We’ll need everybody to make sacrifices if we’re to reach our goal,” the Inter boss continued. “This is a group that has grown a lot along the way, especially in terms of desire, hunger and attention to detail.
“There are certainly 12 finals from here to the end of the season. Now the boys will rest in the face of many continuous matches, and then resume at their best.”
Conte has thrown down the gauntlet, and it’s up to Hakimi and his colleagues to accept the challenge of winning the Nerazzurri its first Serie A title in 11 years.