The sands of time seem to move faster in football, something that has been showcased, rather painfully, over the last eight years at Inter Milan. In 2010 they became kings of Europe, beating Bayern Munich in the Champions League final under the guidance of Jose Mourinho. Since then, however, they have gone through 10 different managers, failed to consistently challenge for the title and made little to no impact on the continent.
Luciano Spalletti, one of the finest tacticians in a country filled with exceptional coaches, was brought in to end the malaise. Appointed in 2017, his first campaign began with a 16-match unbeaten streak and ended with a sensational 3-2 victory away to Lazio, overtaking their defeated opposition, sealing fourth place and Champions League qualification.
Returning to the top tier of European football was Spalletti’s first objective, and the mission was accomplished in the most dramatic way possible. Finally, the San Siro would host regular Champions League games once again. But, despite the anticipation regarding clashes with Barcelona and Tottenham, Inter’s start to the domestic season was equal parts frustrating and worrying.
The squad was substantially improved over the summer transfer window, with a focus on adding proven Serie A talent. Relentless midfield runner Radja Nainggolan came in from Roma, classy centre-back Stefan de Vrij joined from Lazio, the versatile Kwadwo Asamoah arrived from Juventus, while tricky winger Matteo Politano was signed from Sassuolo.
Sime Vrsaljko and Keita Balde Diao, who joined from Atletico Madrid and Monaco respectively, both thrived in Serie A previously with Sassuolo and Lazio. And then there was Lautaro Martinez, the only major addition without experience of the Italian game, who was signed as a back-up or potential strike partner for fellow Argentine Mauro Icardi.
Spalletti was bullish about the prospects of his bolstered squad. “We’re emerging out of the factory without the need for any more road tests, as we are ready to take on anyone,” he told the press ahead of a league opener against Sassuolo. “I have a stronger side this season not just because of the new arrivals, but also as we know each other better and have a clearer idea of our objectives. We’ve got to improve last term’s fourth place…We are one of the five sides who could challenge Juventus for the title.”
The next day, Inter lost 1-0 to Sassuolo. Then, the following weekend, they drew 2-2 at home to Torino, throwing away a two-goal lead in a manner that reminded many of the club’s past jitters. When asked to break down yet another surprising loss of points, Spalletti was without answers. “It’s not easy to explain why we lost our way in the second half,” he told Sky Sport Italia. “It’s difficult to explain how we conceded those goals, but clearly the reality is that the team is struggling with pressure.”
Inter’s inability to handle pressure was nothing new – this very issue has been attributed to failures for decades. Fortunately, the quality Spalletti’s squad undoubtedly possesses has started to shine through after a turbulent beginning. After one victory in their opening four league games, they have won four straight in Serie A and six on the spin overall. The turnaround began, ironically, against Tottenham, another team that has been accused of fragility under pressure.
So often it’s the scruffy goals that turn negativity to positivity, and Matias Vecino’s late headed winner against Spurs in front of a raucous San Siro crowd was a perfect example of this. That strike, and the win it secured, bought Spalletti and his team that scarcest of footballing commodities: time. And while momentum and results have picked up since, performances suggest there is more to come.
Inter dominate possession; indeed the only Serie A side to average more of the ball so far this term is Juventus. But they do struggle to turn this control into serious chances. Their goals tally of 12 from eight league games is decent, but not necessarily sustainable according to their xG (expected goals) of 10.89. These statistics highlight issues visible to most – that they miss Rafinha, a creative No.10 who was brilliant while on loan from Barcelona last term, and that the new signings, most of whom are attackers, are still settling into the system.
Spalletti has persisted with his fluid 4-2-3-1 and his attacking focus down the wings is still in place. However, there has been a greater intensity to his team’s transition game this season. Immediately after losing or regaining the ball, Inter are quick to press or attack. For all Rafinha’s presence is missed in build-up, his replacement by Nainggolan has brought more energy to the team’s work without the ball.
Ahead of the Milan derby on Sunday, it’s clear that this Inter team is still in its formative stages. The tactics are similar to 2017/18, but the players executing them are different. Their recent run of form may be related to luck, or confidence, or some other abstraction, but the reality is they haven’t even clicked yet. Once they do, Spalletti’s men can become serious contenders to Juventus’ Serie A throne.
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