If one thing contributed more than anything else to the demise of Inter Milan during the debacle that was their 2011-12 season, it was most certainly their defense.
Only four teams scored more goals than Inter did in Serie A last year. Unfortunately, only five conceded more. Indeed, the next nine teams that followed sixth-place Inter in the standings last season all gave up fewer goals than the nerazzuri. Even more damning: Lecce—relegated over the summer after finishing six points adrift of safety in 18th—gave up just one more goal than Inter. Their total of 55 goals allowed was only the second time Inter had given up 50 or more goals since 1998-99, when Inter finished eighth in what was then an 18 team league.
Inter only qualified for the Europa League this year by virtue of fifth-place Napoli's victory in the Coppa Italia, which opened up an extra slot for European qualification. But the fact that they even garnered enough points to attain sixth place is remarkable, considering the fact that their horrid defensive play resulted in a goal difference of +3. It spoke to their potential—fix the defense and who knows where Inter's explosive attack could bring them?
The answer, at the moment, is second place. The Inter attack remains impressive (their 24 goals scored are bested only by seventh-place Roma and league leaders Juventus), but now it is coupled to a very good defense. Inter's 13 goals allowed this season is second best in the Serie A (Juve, Napoli, and Fiorentina share the top spot, each having given up nine).
The biggest reason for this defensive renaissance? The emergence of young center-back Andrea Ranocchia.
A year ago Ranocchia struggled. He played in only 12 games (11 starts) and was continuously victimized in the back. The coaching turnover at Inter last year (the nerazzuri had three of them after Leonardo left the team to become PSG's sporting director at the end of the 2010-11 season) likely hampered his development, but excuses shouldn't be made. He was bad. Really, really bad. So bad that when Cesare Prandelli included the youngster on his provisional roster for Euro 2012, I was quite surprised.
This year, however, has been a full 180 degree turn. According to WhoScored, Ranocchia has made averaged four tackles a game this season, three interceptions, 1.1 blocks, and 8.7 clearances, and 3.8 aerial wins—all while averaging only 1.2 fouls and garnering only 3 yellow cards. He has been a rock in the back along with fellow youngster Juan Jesus.
He doesn't neglect his duties in possession either. He has completed 88.5 percent of his passes this year so far, and averages 4.1 successful long balls out of the back—a slightly higher completion percentage than Juve's Leonardo Bonucci, who may be the best passing defender in the Serie A right now. To go along with that was an assist in Inter's 2-1 victory over Fiorentina and a goal in their 3-1 victory against Bologna.
The improvement of their defense has been critical to the reversal of fortune Inter has experienced from last year to this, and the team's improvement has been keyed by the critical development of Ranocchia. Massimo Moratti, who has often wasted large sums of transfer money on expensive veterans that don't pan out at the San Siro, certainly found a gem when he plucked Ranocchia from Genoa for €12.5 million—€19 million factoring in loans and co-ownerships made before the full purchase. He now has a young, solid rock in defense on which he can build around—and ensure that the defensive nightmare that was last season never happens to the nerazurri again.
Some may look at the flash and call Diego Milito or new arrival Antonio Cassano the main catalyst for Inter's return from their brief trip to the weeds, but they would be missing the crucial statistics. Ranocchia's improvement, and therefore the defense's, is what has given those in Milan who wear blue reason to smile.