Serie A: Walter Mazzarri's 6 Best Moves for Inter Milan So Far
The nadir to which Inter Milan slumped to last season has been well-documented.
The facts were ominously bleak for Nerazzurri fans: a ninth-place finish, 57 goals conceded, with the number of games won being tantamount to games lost (16). This all conspired to an eventual chasm of a colossal 33 points behind champions Juventus, and 18 points adrift of despised rivals AC Milan.
Inconceivable to think that just a mere three years before this implosion, Inter Milan had reigned over Europe as Champions League winners.
With this fall from grace in mind, it is little surprise that the services of rookie coach Andrea Stramaccioni were not retained. Massimo Moratti, Inter Milan president, disposed of a man who, at the tail end of the previous season, had shown signs of being another Andre Villas-Boas or Jurgen Klopp: young, dynamic, ambitious and intelligent.
Too often last season, though, his team was stymied by a lack of tactical imagination, hamstrung by the lack of real quality in the side, too dependent on the ageing players in the squad. Football being ferociously fickle, however, the buck was always going to stop with Stramaccioni.
And so in a move which had all the hallmarks of a long-established contingency plan, Moratti pulled of a coup by installing Walter Mazzarri as manager on the same day Stramaccioni's exit was confirmed. Seamless.
Having been at the helm for four months now, Mazzarri has had ample time to begin moulding the club to his own vision. Let's now take a look at six of his best masterstrokes as Inter boss.
In no particular order, these have primarily been deduced by comparing Mazzarri's reign with that of Stramaccioni's.
What are your thoughts? How would you rate Mazzarri's opening few months as Inter Milan boss? Will they be able to challenge for the Scudetto this season? Or is European qualification a more realisitic aim? Let me know either in the comments section below or via Twitter: @LeRowley
Investing in Youth
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Massimo Moratti is experienced at recruiting colonels to lead his team of charges. Since assuming control of the club in 1995, he has overseen the hiring and firing of 18 different managers. At a ratio of less than one per season, this is often an issue of exasperation for Inter fans as they seek long-term stability.
However, he cannot be faulted for bequeathing funds on any new head honcho. One thing Stramaccioni is not able to say is that he was not backed in the transfer market: He acquired a number of players for over €10 million, including Alvaro Pereira, Rodrigo Palacio, Fredy Guarin and Mateo Kovacic.
Despite only being manager for just over a year, he managed to make a dent of over €60 million in Moratti's coffers.
Walter Mazzarri has, whilst being trusted with a similar amount of money, been a lot more prudent. Yet to exceed the €10 million mark for one individual player, he has instead acquired a phalanx of young and prodigious talents.
Whilst Stramaccioni spent €5 million on the now-departed 30-year-old Antonio Cassano, Mazzarri invested the same amount on Bologna's 21-year-old midfielder Saphir Taider.
Having appeared in all four of Inter's league games—two of which he started—he notched his maiden goal in the 7-0 demolition of Sassuolo on Sunday and looks to be a smart, long-term signing.
Within his strikers department, Mazzarri has added the former Barcelona trainee 20-year-old Mauro Icardi from Sampdoria as well as Taider's Algerian compatriot, the 21-year-old Ishak Belfodil from Parma.
Whilst the latter has only been restricted to a 22-minute appearance, the former has twice come off the bench to aid his new team. One of these appearances yielded the opening goal in their 1-1 draw with Juventus in this month's Derby d'Italia.
The loan signing of Chelsea's 19-year-old defender Wallace looks shrewd: A player who clearly exudes potential, the Brazilian is keen to showcase his credentials as to eventually force his way into the Stamford Bridge team.
Mazzarri has also placed his confidence in his predecessor's young recruits: Kovacic has featured in all four league games, whilst 22-year-old Brazilian defender Juan has also been a mainstay.
Retaining the Services of Andrea Ranocchia
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When Mazzarri arrived at the San Siro, his inbox would have been populated with various issues regarding his attention. High on that list would have been fighting off the suitors for Inter's Italian international defender, Andrea Ranocchia.
One of the few to emerge last season with any credibility, the 25-year-old was the subject of attention from a host of clubs both in Italy and abroad. As Charles Perrin of the Express decrees, Manchester United and Tottenham wanted to import him to the English Premier League, whilst Mazzarri's former club Napoli fluttered their eyelashes as they sought him to jump ship.
Massimo Moratti was effusive with his praise for the former Genoa player, with the semantics being that he was going nowhere: "Ranocchia is one of the best in the country in that position, and he plays for the national team" (as reported in the above article).
Ultimately, a rumoured bid of £8.6 million from Napoli was not enough to prise the defender away. Clearly buoyed by Mazzarri's arrival, the defender has started all four league games, thus far, and has looked imperious as the Nerazzurri have conceded just one goal.
With his current deal due to expire in June 2015, he recently told QS (per Football Italia) that he never wanted to leave the club and, consequently, now wishes to extend his contract. "I want to stay at Inter but my renewal depends on my club," he declared.
Keeping Faith with the Old Guard
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Whilst Mazzarri has clearly invested heavily in youthful, useful talent, he has also been sure to utilise the experienced heads he has within his ranks.
When Inter Milan secured the first treble in the history of Italian football in the 2009/10 season, there was a core of players synonymous with that success.
Swathes of that hallowed squad have since departed the club: Julio Cesar, Maicon, Ivan Cordoba, Lucio, Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto'o, Goran Pandev, Mario Balotelli, Sulley Muntari and Dejan Stankovic have all sought pastures new, whilst Marco Materazzi has retired.
A selection does remain, however, and Walter Mazzarri looks to be fully utilising their expertise, as he hones his predominantly youthful squad.
Esteban Cambiasso, at 33, is not the oldest of this exclusive veteran guild, but he has been deployed most often by Mazzarri. Since his arrival from Real Madrid in 2004, the Argentinean enforcer has consistently featured in over 30 games for the Nerazzurri: This season he has started all four league games, being substituted off only once.
If Stramaccioni was to pedantically dwell on aspects which contributed to his ultimate downfall, the fact the former boss only started Cambiasso in 26 games last season may be a contributing factor.
A smart passer of the ball and also someone who can expertly sit in front of his defence and break down the opposition attack, he is a forging a meticulous partnership with new boy Saphir Taider.
For the pivotal part he played in that fateful treble-winning season, Diego Milito is a player who will already have his name immortalised in the club’s history: Having scored the solitary, decisive goal in the Coppa Italia final against Roma, he also scored the brace which defeated Bayern Munich. Now 34, he is slowing down, but still has a crucial role to play.
Plagued by injuries last season, the striker was restricted to just 20 appearances. Now fit and ready for selection, he heralded his start to life under Mazzarri with two goals from the bench in Sunday’s frenzied 7-0 win over Sassuolo.
Having made over 600 appearances for his beloved club, Javier Zanetti has played under many Inter managers and will be gunning to join the Mazzarri revolution. Struck down by a season-ending Achilles injury in April, Nadia Carminati of Sky Sports reports that the magisterial Zanetti, with hair as immaculate as his passing, has pencilled November in for a return.
It wasn’t only Mazzarri who joined from Napoli this summer: This aforementioned trio of Argentineans have also been buoyed by the arrival of their compatriot, the 33-year-old Hugo Campagnaro.
A trusted on-field lieutenant for Mazzarri, the tough-tackling tenacious Campagnaro—who endeared himself to Inter fans in preseason with a crunching tackle on John Terry—has started every game, in the heart of defence alongside 27-year-old Jonathan.
Walter Samuel and Cristian Chivu are still at the club, but are sparingly used. The former has been named on the bench, but with the 35-year-old yet to appear, he looks to be a squad player. Chivu, meanwhile, has struggled with match fitness.
Like the other over-30s above, however, Mazzarri will be keen for this duo to impart their wisdom to the raw, young talents in his squad.
Ignoring off-Pitch Speculation
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Whilst foreign owners are a rampant part of the modern game in England and now France, Italian clubs have—except American-owned Roma—resisted this allure.
One reason for this has been national pride, but there is also a school of thought pertaining to clubs being held back commercially as they do not own their stadiums (of which Inter Milan are a prime example).
However, throughout the summer, there has been a saga rumbling on regarding a potential change of ownership for Inter Milan.
With Massimo Moratti as president since 1995, the Nerazzurri have consistently competed, having won the Scudetto five times—one of which was bequeathed to them in the wake of the match-fixing, Calciopoli scandal which engulfed Italian football in 2006—finishing second on two occasions and complementing this with four successes in the Coppa Italia.
As well as that Mourinho-inspired Champions League success in 2010, they also won the UEFA Cup in 1998—an ample amount of silverware, one could say.
And so, with that in mind, there was a sense of perplexion when Moratti entered into negotiations with Erick Thohir.
Wishing to purchase a 75 percent stake of the financially troubled Milan club in exchange for €350 million, the Indonesian businessman would add Inter to his existing portfolio of sports ventures which includes Major League Soccer's DC United and the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.
But with a new owner, whilst not guaranteed, they could attract the fresh talent which could see Inter Milan return to the top table and become a real threat on a domestic and continental scale, similar to the intent that cash-rich Paris Saint-Germain are displaying.
Whilst Moratti still negotiates a potential deal—Reuters reported last week that a "preliminary, non-legally binding agreement" had been agreed upon—Walter Mazzarri has not been drawn on speculation.
Clearly intent on guiding Inter back to their pomp of old, he has spent money and has delivered a fresh impetus around the club HQ in Appiano Gentile.
But he knows that boardroom issues do not concern him: Whilst he would be able to sign players of a higher calibre should a new cash-rich owner come in, Mazzarri has restricted his talk purely to footballing matters, something which will resonate with the players and fans alike.
Not Fearing Serie A's Top Teams
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After four rounds of games, five teams in Serie A are yet to taste defeat. Early trailblazers Napoli and Roma are the only teams to still boast a 100 percent record with both flourishing under new managers, whilst Inter Milan, Fiorentina and Juventus have all won three and drawn one.
The fact that Inter, who lest we forget finished a lowly ninth last season, can count themselves amongst this number—with three of these teams comprising last season's eventual top four—is to be applauded.
However, their three victories have come against opposition they would expect to beat: a Genoa team who survived relegation last season by a hair’s breadth, plucky Catania who exceeded expectations to finish eighth (one place above Inter) and then newly promoted Sassuolo, who soon got a reality check.
The game missing from this set, however, is the recent Derby d’Italia, when Inter welcomed the champions Juventus to the San Siro.
This was an early test of Mazzarri’s mettle, to see how he would fare when locking horns with the foe who pipped his Napoli side to last season’s title.
And, despite drawing 1-1, he resoundingly drew the plaudits. Through Mauro Icardi, they took the lead, but an Arturo Vidal equaliser levelled what was an even match.
But when comparing this game with the corresponding fixture last season, when in March they lost, 2-1, and the talismanic Esteban Cambiasso earned a rare red card for a petulant tackle borne out of frustration, this was a marked improvement.
In a more disciplined display, they committed less fouls (16 to last year’s 18), completed more dribbles (16 to 11), managed to trap Juve offside more (five to one) and tackled more.
It is the formation with which Mazzarri lined up with, though, which was the real talking point. Whereas Stramaccioni opted a 4-3-1-2 with Ricardo Alavarez playing behind the front two of Rodrigo Palacio and Antonio Cassano, Mazzarri plumped for the 3-5-1-1 setup which yielded so much success when at Napoli.
With Jonathan and Yuto Nagatamo impressing on the flanks, they constantly surged up and down the pitch, constantly pulling Juve’s Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah out of position
Alvarez resumed his place behind the lone front man Palacio, It was when Icardi was brought on that the South American trio could wreak havoc.
A draw was a fair result, but Inter looked impressive: Mazzarri made substitutions which forced his opposite number Antonio Conte to react as he withdrew the dangerous Mirko Vucinic for the more predictable Fabio Quagliarella.
On Thursday evening, Inter welcome Fiorentina to the San Siro, with a home game against Roma on the first weekend of October. We can expect to see Mazzarri continue this tactical acumen against fellow unbeaten teams, with favourable outcomes likely.
Instilling a Harmonious Team Spirit
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When Inter were unceremoniously dumped out of the Europa League last season—in their own stadium at the hands of Tottenham Hotspurs—there was a palpable lack of team cohesion.
After being 3-0 down from the first duel, Inter levelled the scores on aggregate during the second leg. But despite this comeback, celebrations were muted, restricted to the occasional high fives. This did not smack of a team that very easily could have beaten a team which, whilst out injured, had a player in their ranks that would go on to become the most expensive on the planet.
There was a brief show of emotion when a deflected Cassano free kick levelled the scores, at 3-3, but there was one noticeable omission: No player ever shared any celebration with then-coach Andrea Stramaccioni.
Even in extra time when Alvarez's header levelled the tie to 4-4—a score which would see Inter exit on away goals—Stramaccioni looked an outsider, akin to a gawky teenager peering through the window of the frat boys' party.
Fast forward to this month, however, and Mauro Icardi has just scored the opening goal of the Derby d'Italia, announcing himself to the Inter faithful with his maiden goal.
And they come from everywhere—black and blue shirts running from all over the pitch to congratulate him. Jumping on his back, saluting the fans, sharing his moment of euphoria.
It is on the sidelines, though, where Walter Mazzarri, who was presiding over only his third league game, was not, unlike Stramaccioni, awkwardly angling for an invitation to join the celebrations or was not looking surprised that his team was doing what he had asked.
Instead, he was spurring them on, encouraging them to, with 18 minutes of the game remaining, deliver the coup de grace and defeat the champions. His players, whilst jubilant, soon got the message and although Juve did equalise, Mazzarri's ethos was clear: Trust in each other and don't be surprised when it yields results.