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Can the Tinkerman tinker the problems away: Analyzing What’s Wrong at Inter Milan

December 16, 2011 2 comments

It was May 22, 2010. Santiago Bernebau. Howard Webb puts the whistle to his lips a little before midnight local time. Massimo Moratti goes ecstatic in the stands. It had cost him almost €600 million and 15 years to finally get his hands on the Champions League. But the wait was over. Jose Mourinho had delivered on what he had promised. All was rosy in Milan, at least at the blue and black end. But that final whistle also heralded the beginning of the end of Mourinho’s tenure. For weeks it had been speculated that Mourinho’s visit to the Bernebau that night would be the first of many from then on. Moratti didnt really stand in his way and Inter had to begin a new era, post-Mourinho. How hard could it be for the treble winners, riding the wave of their most successful era in Italian football since Helenio Herrera’s reign?

Beginning of the End at Inter

Cue forward 19 months. December 3, 2011. The final whistle blows at the San Siro as surprise package Udinese win 1-0 against a glum looking Claudio Ranieri’s Inter side. Inter find themselves a couple of points outside the relegation zone in what has turned into a disastrous season which had already seen them change managers. Ranieri was now the fourth manager hired during the 19 months since Mourinho had left. The post-Mourinho curse had hit again. Just ask Chelsea. But this time it was even more severe than at Stamford Bridge. Let’s look at some of the factors that have put Inter where they’re at.

Mourinho’s Transfer Dealings

A Winning Mentality - But for whom?

Whilst Inter fans still hold Mourinho in legendary status and would have him back in a heartbeat, the Portuguese manager’s tenure at whatever club he has been usually leaves a difficult set of circumstances (not for him) for the succeeding manager. No one can accuse Mourinho of not delivering on the promised glories he speaks of at every club he’s been till date. But at what price? His short-term thinking, especially in transfer dealings means that he is dead-set on creating a team that hits its peak immediately rather than building a project that may take 4-5 years to come to fruition. He is also an expert at walking away before the stormy clouds gather.

In his first transfer window, Mourinho signed Sulley Muntari, Ricardo Quaresma, Roma’s highly-rated Brazilian winger Mancini and an unknown young Portuguese midfielder whose success at the club matched the prediction skills of his namesake, Pele. None of those players figure at the club anymore and none really did by the start of Mourinho’s second season, except for Muntari who played a bit part role. By the summer of 2009, having won the league title, but coming short on Moratti’s ultimate dream of European success, Inter forayed into the transfer market and signed Genoa’s Diego Milito, 30, and Thiago Motta, 27, Real Madrid’s Wesley Sneijder, and also, arguably, took part in one of the greatest daylight robberies in modern football when they somehow convinced Barcelona to part with Samuel Eto’o, 28, and 35 million pounds for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibra had been part of multiple league titles with the Nerazzurri but the feeling had always been that he had held back the team, especially when it came to the Champions League. Mourinho rounded up his transfer dealings by signing Brazilian center back Lucio, 30, for a bargain reported fee of €5 million. Goran Pandev and Mcdonald Mariga also joined the club in January. Pandev played a crucial role in the last 6 months of the season but neither player remains at the club today.

Since the Champion’s League success, Samuel Eto’o has joined Oil-rich Anzhi in Russia, Milito who scored 30 goals that season has managed only 12 in one and a half seasons since. Lucio, now almost 33, still forms a key part of the Inter starting line-up and Motta,now 29, still figures too.

An Aging Squad

Having already discussed Jose Mourinho’s signings during his two year reign, its clear that most of them were geared towards delivering immediate success, especially during his last summer transfer window activity.

In short, Mourinho’s last Inter Milan line-up had 5 players who were at least 30 and only 2 players under 28 when they lined up with Julio Cesar 30, Maicon 28, Lucio 31, Samuel 32, Chivu 29, Zanetti 36, Cambiasso 29, Sneijder 25, Eto’o 29, Pandev 27, and Milito 30. A number of the players had their birthdays coming up within 2 months of the Champions League Final. Marco Materazzi 36, Stankovic 31 and Muntari 26 came on as subs.

Interestingly, most of those players who played that night still figure centrally for Inter Milan this season. Julio Cesar, now 32 and criticized in recent months for mixed form but not under much pressure from reserve keeper Castelazzi, who is 36, is still the starting keeper. Maicon, 30, still starts if fit but has fallen from the height of the best season of his career and lost his starting berth with the national side. Lucio and Samuel, both 33, still form the first choice central defence partnership. Andrea Ranocchia, who joined under Leonardo, is 23 and offers cover in that area but has yet to convince. Chivu, 31, still starts when fit but has been experiencing poor form in recent times. Yuto Nagatomo, 25, is a Japan international who has been one of Inter’s better signings in the post-Mourinho era and is a regular and can play in either full back position or on either wing in midfield if asked to. Zanetti, 38, Cambiasso, 31, have started more games than anyone else for Inter in the Serie A this season. Sneijder, 27, is an important player for Inter more in reputation than performance now due to a cluster of injuries that have hampered the last year or so of his career. He continues to be linked to a move to England, which may still materialize either in January or next summer. Milito, 32, has regained his starting place this season after an ineffective and injury prone season last year, but has only scored twice in the Serie A this season. Giampaulo Pazzini, 27, partners the Argentine international, having joined the club under Leonardo. Stankovic, 33 and Motta, 29, still figure for Inter. At the same time, Diego Forlan, 32, joined this summer and plays when not injured.

Other than Ranocchia and Nagatomo, only Zarate, 24, on loan from Lazio, Alvarez, 23, Obi, 20, Jonathan, 25 and Coutinho, 19, figure in Inter’s usual squad lists. However, none of them come close to being regulars and Zarate’s 6 starts is the highest between them this season.

To top it all off, Inter became the oldest side to line-up in Champions League history against Lille this season in a match they won 2-1. They averaged 31 years and 317 days old.

How Come They’re Still There?

Who is to blame for Inter’s aging squad? Mourinho has certainly played a role but 3 managers have come in since. Only two players, Castelazzi and Forlan, over-30 years of age, have signed in the post-Mourinho era when the focus has often been on youth.

The reality is, however, that most of the younger players have not lit the San Siro largely due to one of three reasons. Either they have been unable to prove to have the necessary quality to succeed at Inter (Mariga, and Kharja come to mind), or be able to displace the influential strong-knit starters (only Nagatomo has really broken into the starting line-up post Mourinho), or be given the time to gel themselves into starters at the club (Obi, Coutinho, Castaignos, and Ranocchia). At the same time, as Benitez, Leonardo and Gasperini can testify, the President, Massimo Moratti and the supporters continue to demand a title challenge on the domestic front and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League too. That left all 3 managers with a huge burden in terms of getting instant results. That makes it all the more difficult to take the risk of introducing younger players when results are paramount. The Champions League winning side have largely seen their best days behind them, other than Sneijder arguably, and may also be suffering with a lack of motivation be it intentional or unintentional in the wake of a treble winning season of which dreams were made of.

Why me, asks Rafa

All three managers arguably harshly suffered due to those unrealistic expectations, with none more so than Rafa Benitez who joined at a time when the dust had yet to settle from the Champions League success to realize the cracks that clearly existed. Benitez wanted time and money to bring in his own players but probably chose the wrong Italian to play Russian Roulette with after the Club World Cup in the UAE in December 2010. Had he kept quiet he may have had both. His record as Inter manager saw his side win 48% of their matches, losing 7 times in 25 games. Mourinho had won 63% of his matches and Inter only lost 8 more games under him but during 83 more matches.

Leonardo came in and had an instant impact, even as Inter continued to be linked with other long-term appointments on a regular basis. His signing of Pazzini proved to be a masterstroke. Inter won 70% of their matches under him (14 in 20), finishing in the Champions League spots and lifting the Coppa Italia. He left to become PSG Director of Football in the summer. Gianpiero Gasperini joined from Genoa and immediately instilled a fresh approach. Gasperini has for long been known as a tactician who favors the 3-4-3 formation, with a fast-break being a key component. He brought a growing reputation to Inter, having had a winning record at both Crotone and more impressively at Genoa, even though he was sacked there in November 2010. It was clear that a lot would change at Inter under Gasperini. A number of the players wouldnt fit the system and one was going to be Sneijder, unless he was moved to a position as an inside forward. Samuel Eto’o on the other other hand was a player perfectly suited to a front 3 until an unexpected bid from Anzhi forced Moratti’s hand and left Gasperini without a player he wanted and with a player he probably did not. The high defensive line needed pace to succeed and Ranocchia was drafted in under Gasperini, who had managed him at Genoa previously. Motta and Milito also received new leases of life under their former coach. Moratti must have known that it would take time for Gasperini’s principles to succeed. However, 5 games into the season, on the back of a 3-1 loss to Novara forced Moratti to sack the winless manager and hire the “tinkerman” Claudio Ranieri.

The Role of Massimo Moratti

No one can doubt the love and devotion of Morrati to the Inter cause. He has put his money where his mouth is but sometimes he may be too much of a supporter rather than owner for his own good. Had he had a closer look at the squad and on-goings after Mourinho left he would have known that Inter are bound to hit a transitional period sooner rather than later. With that in mind, time, money and patience would have been necessary for the next manager or 3 in Inter’s case.
Moratti has only now since the summer began to come to the realization that Inter are going through a transitional period, both on the pitch and off it, in terms of Financial Fair Play. He seems to be putting a lot of eggs in that basket and feels that if Inter curb their spending and work within their resources, they will be favorably placed when UEFA enforces FFF in the near future and clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and others suffer.

Since sacking Gasperini he has put the club in the trusted hands of Ranieri. Ranieri has no doubt stabilized the ship, playing the role of a band-aid perfectly. He has a 53% winning record, but the side have lost 5 times in his 15 games in charge. Only 2 losses fewer than Benitez but with 10 games fewer games played. Not much has changed under Ranieri, other than reverting to a 4-man defence. He continues to largely favor the same veteran stalwarts who have regularly featured for the club in recent times. Younger players such as Alvarez, Obi and Zarate figure here and there. But does Ranieri have the ruthlessness to overhaul an aging squad, stand tall to Moratti and quell pressure from the stands all the while remaining competitive on the field?

Is this the man to fix things at Inter?

It’s unlikely that those targets are attainable simultaneously. Ranieri is more a pharmacist than a surgeon. He is perfect for prescribing the medication that will hold things together until long-term solutions are found. He did it at Chelsea where he is still most fondly remembered. He kept Parma up winning 7 of the last 16 games of the season, having joined with 3 and a half months of the season remaining. At Juventus he stabilized a ship and probably helped it punch above its weight finishing 3rd and 2nd but never looked like really pushing on for the title. He then joined Roma and in fact led the Serie A until surrendering the lead to Inter and also losing the Coppa Italia Final to Mourinho’s side. He resigned at the half-way mark of the next season after poor results. During most of his career Ranieri has injected an immediate spark into the side that he joins, but finds it difficult to build on early promise and push on from there. What you get instantly is usually the best that you will get with the Tinkerman. Fans of Juventus and Roma are happy to see the back of him, despite having led those clubs to their best results in recent years. One of the subtle introductions he has made at Inter has been that of Marco Faraoni who has started Inter’s last three matches and has been quietly getting good reviews on the right side of the team.

Moratti must take a lot of the responsibility for not seeing what was going on under his nose in terms of the make-up of the squad, for not accepting that change was/is needed and for hiring a man he would not keep any faith in Gasperini.

What Happens Next?

Inter, Moratti and their supporters probably still hold hopes that the club will somehow turn around the season and finish at least 3rd and qualify for the Champions League. Whilst it is possible, they would need to have consistency till the end of a season where Udinese, Milan and Juventus have been impressive. They are currently 7th, 8 points off Lazio who are in 4th place, outside the Champions League spots. Inter have yet to record 3 wins in a row all season. No one has scored more than 3 goals for them this season. Their defence is suspect through the center with pacey players running in behind them. Chivu and Maicon have not been earning any rave reviews from defending in the full back positions either. It may be wishful thinking for them to end the season back in the Champions League. In fact, it may be the worst thing that can happen for the club. As long as they still harbor such hopes, however faint, it becomes difficult for the manager to make drastic changes to the side, bringing in younger players. A season outside the Champions League may be just what the doctor ordered for Inter, unless Moratti and the supporters begin to accept the transitional phase that is currently well and truly underway. Living in denial will only make the reality harsher when it does hit.

Whilst so much has changed at the club, so little has changed too in terms of the makeup of the side. Until that side of things is drastically effected, Inter will continue to underachieve. That is something that the club had been used to until the Calciopoli scandal lifted them to the summit of Italian football, as they had been effectively the only top Italian side not hampered by it.

Mourinho usually walks away at the right time, and he knew that he had probably squeezed the best out of that Inter squad and wanted a new challenge when he joined Real Madrid. He continues to refer to staying at Chelsea for the beginning of his last season in charge as his biggest regret in football. Chelsea were also arguably hitting the wall, so to speak, but to a lesser degree than Inter has. All subsequent managers that have joined the club have had to deliver instant results with largely the same aging squad that had been assembled under Mourinho. Benitez probably knew what had to be done, but his ego and contempt for Mourinho as well as the squad’s hangover from its previous season went against him from day one. Importantly, Moratti was not ready to accept that anything major had to be changed within a winning formula. Leonardo never looked like being a long-term choice and Gasperini probably tried to change too much too quickly. Ranieri will probably not change enough to be at the forefront of a revolution at Inter either.

If you were a betting man, you’d put your money where it says the worst is yet to come for Internazionale. Missing out on the Champions League this season may be the beginning of major changes at the club, and it may yet be a couple of seasons, considering UEFA’s FFF before the side begin challenging on the domestic front again. You can be sure that no one at Juventus or Milan will be shedding a tear for a side who they believe has had it coming since Calciopoli.