From Zeros to Heroes: How Inter Milan Turned Themselves into Title Contenders

Adam Digby@@Adz77Featured ColumnistDecember 15, 2017

Inter Milan's Ivan Perisic, covered by his teammates, celebrates after scoring during the Serie A soccer match between Inter Milan and Chievo Verona at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

Top of Serie A. Unbeaten. The best defensive record in the league. Boasting Serie A's leading goalscorer. The 2017/18 campaign has seen Inter Milan transform themselves from an incoherent side into Italy's most consistent team.

It has been a remarkable and dramatic shift after their seventh-placed finish last term, one that is even more eye-catching when recognising they have done it using mostly the same players they did a year ago.

Much of the credit must go to boss Luciano Spalletti, who arrived from AS Roma in June, an early appointment that allowed him to begin implementing his ideas long before their first competitive game. That, in itself, was a huge shift from the previous year, with Inter parting ways with Roberto Mancini two weeks before the season began.

Frank de Boer then arrived before he could speak Italian, and following some woeful results, his sacking in early November quickly became inevitable. His replacement, Stefano Pioli, got off to a great start, only to come crashing back to earth. Inter won just two of their last 10 league games, which saw him fired and left the club miserable after another mediocre campaign.

"I'm here to put this club back where it belongs, in line with its history," Spalletti told reporters at his inaugural press conference, going on to deliver his opinion on the talent he had at his disposal. 

"We have some fantastic players in this squad, but they need to fit within a team. I want all my players to put themselves at the service of the collective."

In the early rounds of the campaign, he tried to find space for Joao Mario but soon realised the Portuguese midfielder—who arrived in August 2016 for a fee in excess of €40 million (£35 million)—was disrupting the balance of his side.

Since opting to play a three-man combination of Borja Valero, Matias Vecino, Roberto Gagliardini or Marcelo Brozovic instead, the Nerazzurri have looked much more solid. And that pragmatic approach has surprised the fans who have followed the coach's career closely.

"I'm very surprised how organised and solid Inter are defensively," John Solano, editor of Roma Press, told Bleacher Report. "When Spalletti was at Roma, he left the team far too susceptible to the counter and left his defenders far too exposed. He really didn't have his players committing to proper off the ball movements, and they found themselves left in no man's land far too often."

That is simply not the case, with goalkeeper Samir Handanovic leading Serie A with eight clean sheets, including shutouts against Juventus, Fiorentina and Napoli. The latter clash finished 0-0, prompting an entertaining exchange between the two coaches.

Spalletti jokingly said opposite number Maurizio Sarri could be the "minister for the economy" given his background in banking, to which the Napoli boss responded by telling Mediaset Premium that Spalletti "must be the minister for the Defence" (h/t Football Italia).

The Inter boss has exclusively used his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation this term, demanding the wingers cover their full-backs and that the midfield ahead of them remains compact. His first choice back line contains three players who were at Inter last season, but it is unquestionably a new face who appears to have made things click for a previously porous unit.

Milan Skriniar's impact simply cannot be understated, with the 22-year-old impressing so quickly that he was linked to Barcelona as recently as November. He dismissed the speculation as if it were an opposition striker. "I am not interested in Barcelona," he told Mediaset Premium (h/t FourFourTwo). "I play for Inter, and my objective is to play for Inter. I want to get them to win."

His role in accomplishing just that has been nothing short of phenomenal, with Skriniar showing quality in almost every facet of play. Strong in the air, quick across the ground and diligent in his man-marking, he times his tackles well and has committed just 12 fouls in 16 appearances this term, according to WhoScored.com.

That has seen Skriniar collect just one yellow card, which is extremely impressive given he has already gone head-to-head with the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Dries Mertens and Andrea Belotti.

"I knew from the moment he arrived that he could offer some interesting characteristics and qualities," Inter legend Beppe Bergomi told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia). "Skriniar's playing style? He's a careful defender, he applies himself, he knows how to get the ball out of defence quickly and he also plays the ball forward."

He certainly does, as the goal in the video above showcases. Those who watched Skriniar from his time at former club Sampdoria have seen him raise his game repeatedly over the past two years.

"I thought that he performed well at Sampdoria despite making the occasional mistake," Blucerchiati supporter Vito Doria told Bleacher Report. "Regular playing time under Marco Giampaolo allowed him to settle into Italian football. Skriniar has made a quicker impact at Inter than I had initially anticipated. He is very composed and has shown more confidence on the ball since joining the Nerazzurri."

The league's most prolific strikers have found no way past the robust Slovakian, but even he might struggle to contain team-mate Mauro Icardi given the Argentinian's blistering form this season. The Inter captain has bagged 16 of his side's 33 league goals this term, with his haul making him Serie A's leading scorer.

That he has done so on limited chances is simply a continuation of his previous unerring ability to find the back of the net. He bagged 24 goals last term despite WhoScored.com showing that no fewer than 23 players took more shots. His form—as discussed in a previous post—has seen Icardi both linked with Real Madrid and recalled to the Argentina squad, with the 24-year-old undoubtedly set to be a star at next summer's FIFA World Cup.

Yet more than anything, he has been the focal point of an Inter team that look like title contenders. The test is likely to come when they finally taste defeat. Early favourites Napoli have stumbled after Juventus put them to the sword at the Stadio San Paolo on Dec. 2, losing to Feyenoord and drawing 0-0 with Fiorentina.

Inter and Spalletti both have a history of making excellent starts only to collapse when under pressure, so it will be intriguing to watch how they cope with a taxing run of upcoming fixtures.

Following matches against strugglers Udinese and Sassuolo, the Nerazzurri face neighbours AC Milan in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals and then league games with Lazio, Fiorentina and Roma before the end of January. If they emerge from that difficult period still undefeated, they will no longer be able to downplay the Scudetto talk or insist they are merely hoping to qualify for the UEFA Champions League.

That is a huge "if." Yet given what they have already accomplished, a place in the top four must surely be the minimum requirement. Spalletti, Icardi and Skriniar have helped make Inter relevant once again, but going on to be crowned Serie A champions would represent the complete transformation.

It will not be easy. However, it is an increasingly distinct possibility.

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