Inter Milan: Rebuilding an Italian legend.

Only a few seasons ago Internazionale were the beacon of Italian football, straddling Europe and the globe after winning the UEFA Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia in the same season. As the other teams on the peninsula languished in the repercussions of scandals and corruption, Inter held the torch, pulling the rest of Italian football along behind it. A mere three seasons later their team lies battered and worn on the sidelines, roughed up in Europe’s second competition, the Europa League and slipping down the Serie A table at an alarming pace, perhaps most worryingly their team is a mere shadow of its former selves, stripped of its stars and filled with cannon fodder and coached by a man whose credentials as a young savior are looking more and more thin. What went wrong? How did this giant of Italian and world football slip so far so fast? And what needs to be done to restore it to its peak, despite the hammer blows of financial fair play,  a poor Italian economy and a league that is so poorly run that it is surprising they manage to put together a fixture list that works.

Stramaccioni struggles to find much to smile about nowadays and unless there is a dramatic turnaround he will no longer be in the Inter hot seat next season. 

The decisions and actions that have caused such a rapid decline at Internazionale are many and diverse and I will therefore look at them one by one. These are the things that I think are the main problems that have affected the club but are far from being the only problems. PLease note that I have not put these in any particularly order

The joy of Inter’s Champions League win seems an eternity ago.

Poor transfer policy: It is something of a cop-out to point the finger first at transfer policy but at Inter this has been the source of all evil. A quick look at the team of a few years ago that won the Champions League and this one paints a picture of failure, lack of vision and mismanagement. World Class players from this great squad including Julio Cesar, Maicon, Lucio, Sneijder, Eto’o and Thiago Motta have been sold along with young stars Balotelli and Santon. In reality it is hard to argue with this as the introduction of Financial Fair Play meant that Inter could no longer afford to pay the massive salaries these players enjoyed and many of these players had already peaked and were becoming expensive albatross’ hanging around the neck of the Nerazzurri. With most in agreement that many of these players had to be moved on, the problems arose in both the incredibly poor way this was handled and the efforts that were made to replace them. Under severe financial constraints no one expected world-class players to arrive but there were more than a few eyebrows raised when a mass of cheap, average players started arriving at the club such as Silvestre, Periera, Jonathan, Schelotto, Mudingayi, Kuzmanovic and Rocchi. None of these players are particularly bad but none would get a look in at most top four club in the major leagues. They were all between 24 and 35 so not particularly young; none were the stars of their team and none has really showed anything more than what you would expect, solid but unspectacular.

The signing of Rocchi perhaps symbolizes the inadequacy of Inter’s transfer policy 

The squad quickly became bloated by players who were not of the quality required and who could not provide anything extra to the team. Others transfers were more successful such as Cassano, Palacio and Guarin but in the case of the first two they are both on the wrong side of thirty and are surely only a short-term solution while the third is about as consistent as England’s summer weather, mixing matches where he is a force of nature with ones where he seems unable to understand the basic concepts of what is supposed to be happening.

Another one that got away: Philippe Coutinho has been lighting up Anfield with some excellent performances. 

Only the addition of Mateo Kovacic shows signs of a team looking to the future for players with potential to be world-class, he is only a young man but show signs of developing into something special if Inter manage to nurture him properly, something they have so far failed to do with young players; unfortunately even in his case, one must remember that Inter’s finest young player, Phillipe Coutinho was sacrificed to bring him in. Coutinho is now setting Anfield alight with his pace, trickery and excellent passing. Something could have done with. Most Inter fans would agree that the prospect of Kovacic and Coutinho in the same team would have been a great prospect for the club. Sadly it is not to be.

Despite the poor way his transfer was handled, Wesley Sneijder will always be remembered as a legend to the club’s fans. 

Another major disaster in the area of transfers was the handling of Wesley Sneijder. Once the clubs golden boy, Sneijder had struggled to recreate the form that saw him voted one of the top three players in the world in 2010, losing out to Lionel Messi in what was widely considered a controversial decision. Injuries, motivational problems and the clubs need to reduce its wage bill took its toll and by 2012 it became inevitable that Sneijder would be sold or forced to take a pay cut. Instead however, of putting Sneijder in the shop window by playing him when he was fit, the club took the bizarre decision of forcing him to sit on the sidelines until he agreed to either sign a new reduced contract or to be sold. Not only did this make Inter appear unprofessional, and fire warning shots to any top player looking to more there, it devalued perhaps the clubs most valuable asset. Across Europe it was know that Inter would basically accept anything for their player just to get him off their books. Had they played him it would have provided the opportunity for clubs to remember how good he actually was and encourage them to open their wallet a little more.

Future Star?: Kovacic will need to buck the trend in regards to youth success at Inter if he is to make it at the club. 

Lack of faith in youth: When Stramaccioni was signed up there was a lot of hoopla about how he would usher in a new wave of Inter youth. He would be the man who would finally integrate the young talent in the academy into the first team, something that had not happened previously. Inter were notorious for letting go of young talent only to see them blossom elsewhere. Prime examples are Andrea Pirlo, Leonardo Bonucci, Mattias Destro, Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon amongst others. With Inter investing more in the academy and with the success of the club in the inaugural NextGen series hopes were high that Inter fans would finally see the young stars graduate to the first team. Unfortunately this has not been the case. After an excellent start where many younger players got game time and matches were won, Stramaccioni seemed to choke. He reverted to type, putting all his faith in experience and leaving the youth players to rot on the bench. The players who won him the NextGen series were consigned to play only in the UEFA cup as Stramaccioni refused to risk matches on their raw talent. Things became worse in January when the clubs best young player, Phillipe Coutinho was sold to Liverpool for around 10 million Euros and a number of other top talent such as Lavaja, Bessa, Duncan, Bianchetti and Romano were all loaned out in favour of older players who were not particularly good. This mistrust in youth is nothing new under the Moratti regime. There has been a chronic lack of faith for years and despite quotes stating a new Inter it is clear by the signings being made and the substitutes made by the coach that there is no real intention to use the youth available. Only Juan Jesus and perhaps Kovacic have seen any consistent action, with Benassi only occasionally getting a run.

After an excellent start to his career at Inter, Stramaccioni is struggling to implement a consistent system and identity to the team.

Coaching: When Andrea Stramaccioni was named new Inter coach there was a renewed sense of hope amongst Interisti. Since the Champions League win the club had gone into a free fall, coaches sacked and replaced, player discontent and a surprising lack of structure within the team. Stramaccioni offered a sense of renewal, of hope, of a new way. At the start of the 2012/2013 season this hope appeared well founded as the young coach turned back the clock and took Inter rapidly up the Serie A table. Youngsters were getting a chance and there was a promise that this was the start of something special. Inter’s three-man defence was working well and the team appeared to be ready to make a Scudetto challenge. Following the win over Juventus however the wheels have completely fallen off. Stramaccioni appears to have lost faith in his own plans and ability, constantly changing tactics, formations and players. Confidence has plummeted as the results worsened and the teams now resembles a relegation struggler. The last few games have seen Inter completely dominated in the first half, seemingly sent out to play with no coherent tactics or plan. The second halves have been an improvement but still lack the fluency of a team sure of their ability. This suggests that Stramaccioni has no idea what his best formation or tactics are. Players are sent out unsure of what they are doing and are swiftly overrun by well organised and structured opposition. Stramaccioni seems able to adjust his play to counter opponents play in the second half, bringing better security but a team of Inter’s size should be dictating play, not countering what opponents are doing. It is clear that the coach is doubting himself and the players are sensing this uncertainty.

Bologna’s players celebrate the winning goal, giving them a rare win over a lacklustre and disorganised Inter at the San Siro

The lack of positive results has also had a detrimental effect on the young players in the club as Stramaccioni turns to the veterans to help get him out of the quagmire. He has turned his back on the very thing that got him the job and this is perhaps his most fatal flaw. Many of the senior players, and new signings for that matter, are either past their best and unable to influence matches as they once did, or are simply not good enough to make an impact. They also do not offer the enthusiasm and determination that younger players looking to make their mark do.

This combination of no clear strategic identity leaving players confused and unsure of their roles, lack of faith in the youth available and complete failure in confidence has left Inter looking and playing like a team struggling to remain in the first division. They are all things that are directly related to the coach and his staff and therefore he must be held responsible for them.

Marco Branca, Inter Milan’s technical director has been the focal point of fan dissatisfaction for some time. 

No club strategy: Since Jose Mourinho left Inter Milan to join Barcelona in 2010, Inter Milan has had five different managers; Rafa Benetiz, Leonardo, Gian Piero Gasperini, Claudio Ranieri and Stramaccioni. None has been able to show that they are capable of handling a club like Inter Milan and all have fallen by the wayside (Stramaccioni will need a miracle to survive.). The result of this is a new coach arriving bringing new ideas, new strategies and new demands to the club. Some will want to play defensively, others aggressively, some with a short passing possession game while others a counter attacking style reliant on speed and accuracy. Whatever the tactics and ideas of the new coach this all means change both in the way the club thinks and the players that will be required. A star player under one coach may be marginalised and released under another. This perennial lack of a club strategy has been the bane of Inter for decades, perhaps since they were renowned for their ultra defensive Catenaccio style football under Herrera in the 60’s. The club have failed to find a style of football that suits the clubs ‘personality’ and needs and this has resulted in tens of millions of Euros being wasted and a severe lack of silverware. A quick look around Europe will show that clubs with stability of playing style generally have more success. The most obvious is Barcelona with their possession football, but Man United have been playing quick, wing based counter attacking football for a long time, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid play in a similar way, even smaller clubs such as Swansea in England have benefited from this stability in style.  They decided that they would play a certain way, searched for coaches with a similar attitude, bought players suited to it and have only seen success since then. Even city rivals Milan have their attack based style that they use as a platform to base their recruitment strategies on. It is no coincidence that Inter saw such magnificent success under Mancini and Mourinho, two coaches who both favoured building from the back with a strong defence, who both favoured quick counter attacking and both of whom demanded a lot of control over how things were done. After Mourinho left Rafa Benetiz tried to reinvent the wheel and they soon fell off completely. At the moment Inter Milan resembles an orphan child who has been passed from family to family. Lacking stability he has lost his confidence and is languishing. He needs someone to take him in, give him structure and patterns and guide him toward a successful future.

‘Rafa’ Benetiz was the first of five managers to manage Inter after Mourinho. His reign was short-lived after his attempts to reinvent the wheel failed dramatically. 

A poor playing roster: This is indeed related to the disastrous transfer policy but it deserves its own section. Put simply Inter do not have the playing roster to compete with top clubs anymore. Unfortunately however, not only is the roster bad but the potential of the roster is even worse suggesting that things will not get any better with the players we have. Perhaps this is best highlighted by the fact that we have some eight Argentinian players, none of which are deemed good enough for the national team! For a team the size of Inter that is astounding! The roster is now filled with players with playing careers which are marked only by how average they are or players who were great but are on the wrong side of their peak. Players such as Silvestre, Jonathan, Schelotto, Alvarez, Mudingayi, Kuzmanovic and Gargano will never reach the upper echelons of the football world, they are good players in their own right but are not of Inter quality now and probably never will be; while Zanetti, Samuel, Chivu, Stankovic, Cambiasso, Palacio, Cassano and Milito have all fingertips edging toward the promise of retirement and putting their feet up at their Lake Como mansions.  That doesn’t leave much in between. I would rate only Handanovic, Nagatomo and Guarin as Inter, or potentially Inter quality while Rannocchia and Pereira are on the fence. Juan Jesus, Kovacic and Joel Obi, represent players with the potential to be great, if they managed to avoid getting dragged down into the mire of instability that is rampant in the club.

Christian Chivu: Something of a club legend but one that most fans were surprised to see retained, given his propensity for random acts of madness.

The squad has been weakened year on year by poor decisions, the sale of Coutinho perhaps the most obvious of these, and unless some stability and structure arrives then it will not be long before the club returns to the dark days of the 80’s and 90’s but with the added inconvenience of FFP preventing Moratti from splashing his cash on marquis signings.

Although things are far from rosy at the moment and even a run of victories at the moment would only paper over the gaping holes at the club, there are several things that can be done to redeem the situation and set the club back on track to rejoin Europe’s elite. Read these in the my next blog!