Mazzarri's Missing Piece: the Man Inter's Manager Needs to Reel in in January

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2014

Chelsea's Juan Mata could be Walter Mazzarri's answer to Marek Hamsik at the San Siro.
Chelsea's Juan Mata could be Walter Mazzarri's answer to Marek Hamsik at the San Siro.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

A week ago, this writer put forward a list of potential transfer targets that Inter Milan could zero in on this January.

That piece focused mainly on new owner and president Erick Thohir and what his approach to the transfer window might be.  Today, the focus will be on another man:  manager Walter Mazzarri.

Mazzarri was viewed as a savior by Inter fans when he arrived this summer.  Last season had been a nightmare for the blue side of Milan, and Mazzarri—the man who had helmed Napoli's rise to the upper reaches of the table—was the man who would set things right.

For the most part, he has.  He has certainly solved the team's main weakness from last year—the utter lack of identity fostered by Andrea Stramaccioni's endless tactical and formational changes.  According to WhoScored, Mazzarri had employed a 3-5-1-1 formation in each of his first 18 matches going into Monday's clash with Chievo.  That stability has allowed players to know their roles and settle into them.  The difference has been stark.

Still, there is a bite that Mazzarri's Napoli had at its height that his current charges at Inter lack.  There is one particular type of player that seems to be missing.

Hamsik blossomed into a superstar under Mazzarri—and Mata can assume a very similar role.
Hamsik blossomed into a superstar under Mazzarri—and Mata can assume a very similar role.Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

There is no Marek Hamsik in this side.  No incisive attacking midfielder that can set up and score in equal measure.  Ricky Alvarez has made leaps and bounds as a playmaker this year but he's nothing compared to what the Slovakian turned into under Mazzarri.  Young No. 10 Mateo Kovacic is promising, though still a work in progress.  There is, however, a player that should be available on the transfer market that could be that piece for Mazzarri—Juan Mata.

The Spanish playmaker has been on the outside at Chelsea ever since the return of Jose Mourinho, who clearly favors Eden Hazard and Oscar above him as attacking midfielders.

His fall from favor is incredible when you consider how good he was a year ago.  In six competitions—including the Premier League, Champions and Europa Leagues, League and FA Cups and Club World Cup but excluding the Community Shield, UEFA Supercup and the various summer friendly "tournaments"—Mata scored 20 goals and notched an otherworldly 28 assists, according to ESPNFC.

His 12 assists in the Premier League last year were approached only by teammate Hazard and was close to the league-leading title Hamsik tallied in Mazzarri's final season with Napoli last year.

Mazzarri's tactics have constantly made stars out of strikers like Edinson Cavani and Antonio Cassano—indeed, they have often ended up making teams a bit over reliant on those players.  But star turns have also come for the attacking midfielder in Hamsik's vein.

The Slovakian international played a few different roles in Mazzarri's attack.  He often played as a winger before the sale of Ezequiel Lavezzi, after which he settled into the trequartista role that he served last year and continues under Rafael Benitez. Similarly, Mata has taken on several different roles in his attacking midfield position as the Chelsea managerial merry-go-round has spun—ESPN's Michael Cox ran them down brilliantly last week in this piece.

Mazzarri, for better or for worse, is so entrenched in a single tactical mindset that such versatility probably won't be a major factor should Mata make a move to the San Siro.  He would be a straight-up trequartista in the 3-5-1-1 scheme, playing in the hole behind Rodrigo Palacio.  A partnership between Palacio—who has scored at a career-best clip as the tip of Mazzarri's spear—and Mata would surely produce a plethora of goals.

Whether such a partnership will be formed is another question.  Mata is now a top-level player, and there is no guarantee that Inter will be playing in Europe next year.  Still, if Thohir is willing to flex some financial muscle and convince Mata to be the man who helps put the Nerazzurri back in Europe's elite, a move could materialize.

The Daily Mirror first made mention of Mata's presence on Inter's hit list right before the new year, and Chelsea will not be moving the player within the Premier League.  Selling him to Inter—a team that is likely still a few years away from a Champions League place—rather than a team like Atletico Madrid—who are on the ascendency in Spain and could be a potential European competitor in the near future—makes competitive sense if the money is right.

Inter has other moves it will need to make over the coming transfer cycles.  Defenders and holding midfielders, in particular, would make for good buys.  But Mata is immediately available and eager to leave Stamford Bridge. 

If it's a move they can swing, you can be certain Mazzarri is lobbying the team's top brass to make it.