Inter Milan: How the Nerazzurri Can Return to the Top of Serie A in 2014/15
The 2013-14 season has been a huge improvement over last season's enduring nightmare for Inter Milan.
After last year's ninth-place season, Inter took advantage of not having to worry about European competition to adapt to new coach Walter Mazzarri's tactics and posted a vast improvement over last year. With a game left, the Nerazzurri have accrued six points more than last season and will finish four places higher.
It isn't the phoenix-from-the-ashes season that Juventus had three years ago, but it is a palpable improvement. It is now on new president Erick Thohir and Mazzarri to develop it further.
If Inter wants to get closer to a second star for their crest, they won't do it as they are currently constituted. If they want to get back to their mid-2000s halcyon days, there are several steps they need to take.
What might those be? Let's look closely and find out.
Mateo Kovacic Must Play Significant Minutes
Mateo Kovacic was signed on the last day of the 2013 winter transfer window from Dinamo Zagreb. The young Croatian international was touted as a pass master who could anchor Inter's midfield and be the creative force behind their attack. He was even bestowed the No. 10 shirt straight away after signing.
For all his failings last season, one of the things that can be said of Andrea Stramaccioni is that he treated Kovacic as his touting deserved. He gave him the playing time—13 league games and 11 starts—that would begin his development into a top-line midfielder.
Walter Mazzarri has stalled that development. As per WhoScored.com, Kovacic has started more games on the bench (18) than on the field (13). When he has played his position and role have not been consistent. He has started both as a deep-lying playmaker and a more advanced trequartista.
This kind of uncertainty in role and playing time could torpedo the development of any young player. To jeopardize the development of a player earmarked to be the engine of the entire midfield is unforgivable.
Starting from the first kick next year Kovacic needs to be a key part of Inter's midfield. With Fredy Guarin and Hernanes around him, he could develop into the playmaker that he was always envisioned to be fairly quickly if he gets enough playing time.
He showed the team what he can do when he notched three assists in Saturday's 4-1 victory over Lazio. The first was an exquisite through ball that cut through three defenders to find Rodrigo Palacio. An equally delicious through ball turned Andre Dias completely around and saw Mauro Icardi through 25 minutes later. His simple pass to Hernanes in the second half saw the Brazilian score a brilliant effort against his former club.
If he gets more playing time, performances like that will likely become the norm. It's time for Kovacic to play starter's minutes every week. If he doesn't, it should be grounds for Mazzarri's dismissal.
Reinforce the Defense
Inter's most significant weakness is in defense.
Walter Samuel was a part of the team's greatest moments, but he is 36 years old and Football Italia cites a report from FcInterNews.it that Samuel has confirmed that he is unlikely to be on the Inter roster next year. Hugo Campagnaro was brought with Walter Mazzarri from Napoli but despite his familiarity with his boss's tactics he only played in 20 games.
Rolando is a steady but unspectacular defender, Juan Jesus is still developing and Andrea Ranocchia is sliding rapidly toward bust status as his favor with the club continues to erode.
Inter has already confirmed the signing of Nemanja Vidic on a Bosman this summer, but Vidic is 32 and on the downswing on his career. His presence could be good in the locker room but he's not exactly an upgrade.
Inter needs to find a defender that will be able to lock down the area in front of Samir Handanovic. They don't necessarily have to find a huge name—if they can find someone under the radar it would be just as good. This past year Roma lifted Mehdi Benatia from Udinese and he put in a Defender of the Year-type performance. A similar signing would be a godsend for the Nerazzurri.
One thing is certain—unless someone from the Primavera takes a huge jump this is a problem that won't be solved internally.
Let the Young Forwards Play
Rodrigo Palacio's excellent form this year made it difficult for Inter's other forwards to get a word in edgewise, especially at the beginning of the year when Walter Mazzarri preferred a 3-5-1-1 formation.
While Palacio's goalscoring exploits were integral in Inter's climb back up the table this year, it may also have been counterproductive. At 32 years old, the Argentinian is past his prime. Inter's attacking future is in Mauro Icardi and Ishak Belfodil.
Twenty-one and 22 respectively, the young duo has the talent to carry Inter's attack into the future. Unfortunately, Palacio has kept them off the field. Icardi has played only 22 matches (12 starts) and Belfodil only eight (one start) before being loaned out to Livorno.
Uncertainty surrounds both players. There are questions as to whether or not Icardi will be staying with the club for the long haul after his unseemly public feud with Sampdoria's Maxi Lopez brought questions about his character. Belfodil has done nothing this year with either of the teams he's played for.
If they play for Inter next year, Mazzarri has to adopt a formation that will incorporate both Palacio and one of his youngsters. Otherwise he risks foiling the development of the team's attacking future.
Walter Mazzarri has brought much-needed stability to Inter's hot seat. He is the sixth manager the team has had since Jose Mourinho left to coach Real Madrid after the 2010 treble. With turnover like that it is immensely difficult to compete.
He has given the team an identity that it has sorely lacked in recent years, but he is extraordinarily inflexible tactically. Only slight variations are ever made to his basic counterattacking 3-5-2. If his tactics ever fail him, he is more likely to blame the referee than admit he was out-coached.
As a counterpoint, consider Juve boss Antoino Conte. A devotee of the unorthodox 4-2-4 formation when he was hired to coach his old team, he quickly changed over to a 4-3-3 to better accommodate the acquisition of midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal.
Presented with an abundance of center-backs and no viable left-back, he changed that into a version of Mazzarri's 3-5-2 and has used it ever since. Confronted with that formation's apparent weaknesses in European competition, he seems poised to make another switch back to a 4-3-3.
Mazzarri needs to develop similar flexibility in order for him to thrive on all levels as Inter's manager. Two years ago at Napoli his tactics were novel in Europe, but Chelsea eventually figured him out and dramatically knocked the Partenopei out of the Champions League.
Mazzarri needs to acknowledge that his 3-5-2 may not work everywhere and work in some different wrinkles. If he remains a slave to what he always does, he could take Inter back to the Champions League, but he wasn't able to bring Napoli to a scudetto and may not be able to do it with Inter.
He needs to become more adaptable and more unpredictable. Otherwise Inter will always be a contender for the top five but never for the very top.