Inter Milan: A Master Plan for the Nerazzurri to Be Serie A Contenders Again
Times have been hard on fans of Inter Milan. A mere four seasons removed from a glorious treble—a feat no other Italian club has ever achieved—the Nerazzurri are currently mired in the depths of the mid-table.
The last year-and-a-half has been particularly rough. Last season Andrea Stramaccioni led the team on a run of 10 straight victories in all competitions, culminating in a 3-1 come-from-behind triumph over Juventus in Turin that ended their rivals' 49-game unbeaten run. But that triumph was the high water mark of the season. Inter won only two of its next eight and spiraled out of control into ninth place.
This year brought a similar strong start under new manager Walter Mazzarri. The team lost only one game out of its first 15. Mazzarri brought a badly needed sense of tactical identity to the side—as opposed to Stramaccioni, who tinkered ceaselessly and rarely started the same formation in two straight games. The team settled into their roles and racked up points, keeping hold of a top five place and putting themselves in position to make a run at a Champions League place.
While the last few weeks have again brought disappointment—a 1-2-3 (W-D-L) record in their last six league games and an embarrassing crash-out of the Coppa Italia—the future can be a bright one for Inter if they build things the right way.
Can Inter become a contender in the Serie A again? Yes, and here's a look at how it can be done.
Make Some Sacrifices in the Transfer Market
The first thing the team will have to do is make a tough sacrifice—Samir Handanovic needs to be sold.
Handanovic has been absolutely brilliant since his arrival from Udinese two summers ago. He had to be to claim the No. 1 shirt from Julio Cesar—one of the best goalkeepers in club history and still Brazil's international starter despite being second choice at QPR in England's second tier.
Handanovic has been an absolute hero for Inter. If not for him they would have likely finished even farther down the table than ninth last season. But he is also going to be 30 years old by the time the season is over, and Inter has a ready replacement in Francesco Bardi.
The 22-year-old has impressed on loan at Livorno this year and fought off the competition of Nicola Leali and Mattia Perin to be the No. 1 for the Azzurrini at the U-21 European Championships this summer.
With a replacement of Bardi's level, Inter needs to capitalize on the last years of Handanovic's prime and sell him. Any deal for the Slovenian would be one of the most expensive for a keeper in history. A report from Sky Sports' Nadia Carminati in the summer linked Barcelona—who will be needing a keeper at the end of the season—with a €30 million move for the player.
Barca may now be focusing on other options but if Manchester City were to tire of Joe Hart this summer or Atletico Madrid finally lose hold of Thibaut Courtois, Handanovic would still command a hefty fee. That fee—plus the money from a potential Fredy Guarin sale, if it were to ever go down—would have to be used for one or two major purchases to improve the side.
Invest That Money in the Squad
The money gained from the sale of players like Handanovic and Guarin should be used to improve the squad. In particular, Mazzarri could use an attacking midfielder in the vein of his former Napoli charge Marek Hamsik.
Hamsik was an integral part of the Partenopei under Mazzarri. His play in the midfield went a long way towards securing Napoli their two Champions League berths under Mazzarri, particularly last season, when he racked up a league-leading 14 assists.
Ricky Alvarez has grown in a big way this season under Mazzarri, but he doesn't have the playmaking and scoring abilities Hamsik possesses.
Inter could wait and see if Alvarez has the potential to get to that level, or they can—as this writer proposed as little as two weeks ago—go for an instant upgrade at the position in the transfer window. Juan Mata may be off the market now, but there will be other options for Inter in the summer to play that pivotal role in Mazzarri's setup.
If Mazzarri's system is to run at full capacity, an upgrade in that space must be made.
Using transfer funds to upgrade is always important, but given the financial situation facing most Italian clubs the Serie A is going to have to rely on youth development to stay competitive.
Fortunately for Inter, they have a crop of very good young players. These players need to be given more game time over the aging core of the treble team.
Painful as it may be to drop club legends like Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso or heroes of the treble-winning side like Diego Milito, Inter needs to evaluate its future.
Cambiasso, for instance, has finally started looking his age on the field. Instead of the Argentine, Mazzarri should be funneling more playing time to Mateo Kovacic.
The young Croatian has begun emerging as a creative force in the team. When he came on at half-time for Zdravko Kuzmanovic it invigorated the team. When he's been on the field the Nerazzurri are a better team.
Likewise, Inter needs to start looking at its young strikers.
Rodrigo Palacio has scored 10 times this season and without European competition to worry about. Mazzarri had little incentive to displace him as the spearhead of his 3-5-1-1 formation. But with the coach starting to make a change or two in his starting formation—3-4-2-1 and 3-4-1-2 looks have been deployed in recent games—more forwards will have a chance to play.
Removing Palacio is probably too much to ask, but if Mazzarri starts using two up front more consistently, it should be Mauro Icardi, not Diego Milito, partnering him.
Icardi hasn't started a game all year and has only come off the bench eight times. He's scored two goals in those eight, including one in the Derby d'Italia against Juventus, but he needs to be on the field if Inter are to determine whether he is truly the future of their forward line.
A strike force of a fully realized Icardi and academy product Samuele Longo would be a scary prospect for opposing defenses.
Other young players like Ibrahima Mbaye and Cristiano Biraghi are also players that Inter should take a long look at when they return from loan spells.
Inter has been relying on the core players that won the treble two or three years longer than it should have. For Inter to start competing at the top again, they have to start transitioning to a new generation of talent.
Keep the Manager's Office Stable
Walter Mazzarri is the sixth manager Inter has had since Jose Mourinho left for Real Madrid in 2010. Only one—Andrea Stramaccioni—had a full season at the club. Gian Piero Gasperini, who was tapped to lead the team in the summer of 2011, lasted all of five games before he got the sack.
By contrast, Inter's glory years of the 2000s were presided over by two managers, Robert Mancini (four years at the helm) and Mourinho (three years).
That kind of instability is going to affect a team regardless of how well it's put together.
Not many people were expecting Palermo to end last season in the drop zone, but Maurizio Zamparini's pathological need to fire managers led to four in-season changes at the top, two of which lasted less than a month. Seen from that perspective, there's really no surprise that the Rosanero are playing in Serie B at the moment.
Walter Mazzarri is doing good things at Inter—but he needs time to get it done. If Erick Thohir has as quick a trigger finger as his predecessor, Massimo Moratti, did in his final years with the club, Inter will be hard-pressed to climb out of mid-table. Thohir must give Mazzarri time to implement his plan, and his successors to do so after him.
Build a Stadium
Italy has regained a bit of the ground it lost to the rest of Europe in the wake of Calciopoli, but the match-fixing scandal really hastened a fall that was likely already coming. One of the biggest reasons the Serie A has taken a step back—and where it still lags far, far behind the rest of the continent, is infrastructure and stadiums.
Take Inter and Milan's shared home, the San Siro. The venerated stadium is the largest venue in the country to put on a soccer match. It has hosted the 1965, 1970 and 2001 European Cup/Champions League finals. While unconfirmed by UEFA, FIGC maintains that the 2016 final will be played there, per Gazzetta dello Sport (via ESPN FC). The Italian federation frequently schedules its biggest games for the Milan venue.
But imposing an edifice as the San Siro is, it's almost 90 years old and has been extensively renovated twice, with more work on the way. More importantly, the stadium is owned by the city of Milan, denying both Inter and Milan valuable matchday revenue.
The evidence for the effects of a new, club-owned ground lies in Turin. Since Juventus moved into their palatial Juventus Stadium they have won two league titles, made the quarter-finals of the Champions League and been better equipped to handle the financial crunch that Italian clubs have felt since the world financial crisis began in 2008.
Roma is already working in earnest on their own stadium plans, and if more teams jump on the bandwagon Inter runs the risk of being left behind. The Italian government plans in 2014 to ease the bureaucratic impediments to clubs building new arenas, so the time is ripe to build.
Initial discussions with Milan mayor Giuliano Pisapia have already been had, according to Corriere dello Sport (h/t to Football Italia) and a new stadium looks to be one of Thohir's biggest goals. That is just as well for the club and its fans. More than anything that Thohir and Mazzarri can do on the field, having a ground of their own is probably the most important element of Inter returning to prominence.