José Mourinho has not been entirely sympathetic to Rafael Benítez’s plight at Inter. “He lost again? Unbelievable,” exclaimed the Special One upon learning of the team’s 2-1 defeat to Chievo on Sunday, but Rafa did manage to find an ally in another of his predecessors. “Benítez is an expert coach,” insisted Roberto Mancini on hearing the same news. “I believe the problem is above all the many injured players they have at the moment.”
That Inter have a problem in that department is beyond debate. A study by Gazzetta dello Sport today shows the club have had more injuries this season than any other club – 37 – and that members of their first-team squad have missed a combined 68 games as a result. To put that into context, second-placed Lazio are at the far end of the scale with five injuries, and a total of 20 games missed.
Which is not to say they are the only ones having such difficulties. A study conducted by Roberto Sassi, the athletic trainer of Dynamo Moscow, shows that Serie A has seen its number of injuries per season increase by 32% between 2006-07 and 2009-10 (from 1,999 to 2,633).
Inter’s former team doctor Piero Volpi sought to explain the increase in an interview with Radio Anch’Io Lo Sport: “There has been an increase for many reasons,” he said. “The players are heavier because the physicality has increased; there are too many matches; preseason preparation is neglected and often disrupted; plus the average age of Italian teams is three years older than German, English and Spanish ones so players take longer to recover.”
The last point contains more than a hint of exaggeration: a study over the summer did show Serie A to be the second-oldest of all European football’s top divisions, but the average age of players (27.44) was still less than a year older than that in the Premier League (26.67). In broader terms, though, his arguments both make sense and have been backed up by plenty of others within the sporting community.
Such explanations do not clarify the specific situtation at Inter, however. Fixture congestion, for instance, is clearly an issue for Benítez’s side but while almost all of Serie A’s representatives in European competition feature in the top half of the injury table, the gap between Inter’s 37 injuries and the 26 of second-placed Milan is too significant to ignore.
An ageing squad is part of the problem for the Nerazzurri, yet while old-stagers such as Iván Cordóba, Esteban Cambiasso, Diego Milito, and Júlio Cesar have been regulars in the treatment room at Appiano Gentile over the past few weeks, so have many of the squad’s youngest members, including Joel Obi, Coutinho, Jonathan Biabiany and McDonald Mariga. Unlike many of the veterans, these players cannot point to exhaustion from the World Cup, or even excessive involvement in last year’s treble-winning campaign.
Inevitably, then, fingers are beginning to be pointed at Benítez. It has not escaped some supporters’ attention that his Liverpool team endured a similarly difficult spell at the beginning of last season, with Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Daniel Agger, Yossi Benayoun, Alberto Aquilani and Glen Johnson all ruled out for extended periods.
Whilst Benítez has only gently tweaked Inter’s tactical approach since replacing Mourinho, his changes to the team’s training methods have been drastic. Under Mourinho 90% of training sessions involved ball-work of some kind, with sessions alternated between drills in wide open spaces designed to build stamina, and drills in very tight spaces to build explosiveness. Under Benítez, however, there has been a significant increase on gym work and weights training.
“In our field there is not a right way or a wrong way,” insisted Romania’s fitness coach Diego Longo earlier this week after seeing Inter’s Cristian Chivu pick up an injury while on international duty. “There are different points of view, ways of working, but both can yield results. [But Inter] are certainly paying for the change in training methods: if you are used to one type of movement and you start to do another, on a physical level you can feel it.”
Benítez could point to alternative explanations, not least the state of the pitch at San Siro. Ever since the stadium’s third tier was added to increase capacity ahead of the 1990 World Cup, the playing surface has been problematic, with the stands so high as to block out the sunlight and prevent proper air circulation over the grass.
Solutions as drastic as installing artificial grass have been discussed but never acted on. Instead the pitch is relaid regularly at significant cost, but with the result that the grass rarely has time to properly bed in. Players from both Inter and and Milan have regularly complained about the turf at their shared home ground, with the Nerazzuri’s captain Javier Zanetti describing the loose turf last week as “very dangerous”.
This, though, is an old problem, and Benítez himself acknowledged before the weekend’s game that the team’s training methods were the more likely area to be addressed. “After many meetings we have reached a conclusion,” he said. “[We will] increase the work on prevention and to personalise each player’s work more.”
The question for the Spaniard is whether he will be around long enough to see such a change through.