Stefano Sensi rising above doubt at Internazionale
Background Image: Oscar Federico Bodini, CC-BY-2.0
In a busy summer, Internazionale's best signing was Stefano Sensi. While Diego Godin, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku's arrivals caused a stir, a little scepticism accompanied the Italian. Unheralded, the on-loan midfielder from Sassuolo is already proving his doubters wrong.
Antonio Conte is ushering a new era at the Giuseppe Meazza. Known as pragmatic, no-nonsense, the ex-Chelsea boss stamped his foot, overhauling Inter's squad. Radja Nainggolan, Ivan Perisic and Mauro Icardi were the biggest casualties. The opposite way opened for 11 others.
Lukaku’s signing is the most astute in every sense. The Belgian's €78-million switch broke the Nerazzurri’s transfer record. He's the messiah to chase Icardi's ghost. Almost €70 million was splashed on further signings, chiefly among them Valentino Lazaro and Matteo Politano, from Hertha Berlin and Sassuolo respectively.
Sensi raised eyebrows. Conte put faith in a player who rivals AC Milan turned down. The Rossoneri instead opted for a younger Ismael Bennacer from Empoli. After all, Sensi isn't the glamour, frightening addition expected. His stats in the final third are too pale – two goals and four assists in 28 Serie A matches last season.
Although still early days, AC Milan may rue missing out. After two rounds of matches, Sensi is Inter's best player. Alongside Marcelo Brozovic and Matías Vecino in central midfield, his calmness, creativity and work rate is making the difference.
Lukaku and Sensi have been the only changes to Luciano Spalletti's last Nerazzurri lineup. While the former has slotted alongside Lautaro Martinez in the attack, his fellow newcomer is deployed as the left-sided interior midfielder in a much-changed 3-5-2 formation.
Sensi's role is similar to Xavi's in Barcelona of old: dictate play from deep with incisive passes and brave movement.
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Sensi showcased those traits and more against Lecce. He was a constant threat from set-pieces, something Inter have lacked for a long time. The Italy international's dribbling and anticipation were both on point. His performance was rounded off with a fine solo effort himself, showing great composure, skipping past two challenges before rolling into the bottom corner from just outside the penalty box.
Sensi carried that fine form to Cagliari. In a game Conte's side lacked direction for large spells, he shouldered the responsibility to come out tops in midfield against ex-Nerrazurri Nainggolan. His bursting drive and swift turn won the penalty which Lukaku duly converted to maintain their 100% start.
Diminutive, equipped with impressive passing range and balance, Sensi is yet to fully display his low centre of gravity. When he does, he's a spitting image of Xavi. The Urbino-born's aptness for conducting operations is crucial to Inter. He can play short passes to lull the opposition then launch a counter-attack with a long ball over the top.
At Sassuolo, Sensi was utilised in defensive midfield pivot. This gives Conte options aplenty, including playing him in the holding role or from the right. The 24-year-old has a multi-faceted mastery in press resistance, managing to constantly find pockets of space under pressure. His calmness and efficiency in possession allow the Nerazzurri access through the centre.
Conte is on track to dismantle Juventus' dynasty he helped build. After two matches, Inter top Serie A on six points, with superior goal difference to the Old Lady and Torino. Sensi is crucial to sustaining this momentum. There's more to come from him.