Just when Inter fans thought their team might have turned a corner, they span out and hit another wall. Defeat at home to Udinese on Saturday ended a run of three wins and a draw in all competitions, which – allied to key contributions from young players such as Coutinho, Ricky Alvarez and Luc Castaignos – had prompted talk of a revival. Instead Claudio Ranieri finds himself surveying the club’s worst start to a domestic season since 1946.
Only twice in Inter’s history have they endured worse results through the opening 12 games of a campaign. Adjusting to three points for a win, Inter would have had nine points at the corresponding point in 1946-47; in 1930-31, they would have had 13. The reassuring news is that in neither of those seasons were they relegated: finishing 10th in the former and fifth in the latter. The bad news is that they need to finish in the top three if they are to play in next season’s Champions League.
It does not require great insight to know that is the minimum expectation of Massimo Moratti. The Inter owner has spoken repeatedly of the need to meet Uefa’s Financial Fair Play requirements as he has cut back on transfer spending in the last few years, but failing to reach the Champions League would leave a €30m plus hole in Inter’s finances. That would be a significant problem for a team who announced an €86.8m loss on their 2010-11 accounts, and whose total wage bill stands at over €200m per season.
But to move forward it is necessary to first understand what has gone wrong at Inter. How, after all, does a team go from winning the treble to producing its worst results in six and a half decades?
“I got the substitutions wrong, I take responsibility,” insisted Claudio Ranieri after the defeat to Udinese but while he has made more than one questionable tactical decision since his appointment in September, he could hardly be blamed for the club’s overall predicament. Although results under Ranierihave not been spectacular, he was at least able to secure passage to the knock-out stages of the Champions League with minimum fuss, while four wins and a draw from nine league games still represents an improvement on the start made under Gian Piero Gasperini.
The latter, indeed, had the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first manager in the club’s history to leave without winning a single game. Ridiculed over his preference for a three-man defence, Gasperini’s greatest failing was in fact not excessive tactical rigidity but rather the opposite. During just five games in charge the manager utilised at least four identifiable formations – creating such confusion that at one point Esteban Cambiasso was seen arguing with Andrea Ranocchiaduring a defeat to Novara over which system they were supposed to be playing in.
But given the brevity of his tenure it would be wrong, too, to assign excessive blame to Gasperini. Of the four managers employed by Inter in the last 18 months, only Leonardo has achieved the sorts of results expected at Inter – winning 20 and drawing four of his 31 games across all competitions – and even he was criticised for a heavy Milan derby defeat and meek Champions League exit against Schalke. Rafa Benítez won the Club World Cup, but when he left the club in December Inter were closer (in terms of points, at least) to the relegation zone than league leaders Milan.
Perhaps, in truth,the greatest failing of all four managers has been a shared one: not being José Mourinho. “I was prepared to kill and die for him,” said Wesley Sneijder at one point and Ibrahimovichas expressed the same sentiment in his autobiography, even if the Swede would not hang around for the Portuguese’s second season. None of the appointments since have commanded such loyalty from the dressing room.
On paper it might appear that Inter’s playing staff should not be in too bad a shape: they have retained nine of the 11 startersfrom their Champions League final win over Bayern Munich two seasons ago and have supplemented that group with a mix of younger players – including Coutinho, Alvarez, Castaignos and Ranocchia – plus proven stars such as Diego Forlán and Giampaolo Pazzini. And yet, the true picture is a little more nuanced.
The team that beat Bayern included five players over 30 and three more who would reach that landmark within a year (and that’s ignoring Marco Materazzi, who came on as a substitute). Furthermore, Inter’s second youngest starter that day – Goran Pandev, then 26 – was among the two players who have since been sold on. When the Professional Football Players’ Observatory published their demographic study of football 18 months later, they found Inter to have the oldest squad of any top-flight team in Europe, with an average age of 29.6.
Although attempts have since been made to bring in younger players, the focus has been on developmental prospects rather than ones who can be inserted straight into the starting line-up. For all that Ranieri has attempted to give them a chance, the team he fielded in the most important game of his tenure – against Lille earlier this month – was the oldest in Champions League history. While the formula worked that day, players such as Lúcio, Walter Samuel and even Javier Zanetti are no longer playing at their former levels.
Age, though, is not the only issue. Eyebrows were raised over Rafael Benítez’s training methods as Inter suffered a spate of injuries during his time in charge, yet the club has continued to lose players at an unnerving rate since his departure.
Two of the team’s most influential players—Maicon and Wesley Sneijder—have been absent more often than not this season, as has Thiago Motta. Forlán, the team’s most high-profile summer addition, has been out since October with a hamstring complaint while Andrea Poli – a midfielder of great promise, signed from Sampdoria in the summer – arrived injured but has since suffered two relapses just when he looked ready for a first appearance.
On top of all that, questions persist as to whether the squad is simply not as good as presumed. Inter believed that between Forlán, Giampaolo Pazzini, Diego Milito and Mauro Zárate they had sufficient firepower to make up for the departure of Samuel Eto’o, but their struggles in front of goal this season suggest otherwise. Pazzini has gone 70 days without scoring, while Zárate has found the net only once, in the Champions League. Three goals are enough to make Milito the team’s leading scorer.
Eto’o, by contrast, proved that he could succeed even in a struggling team last season, scoring 17 goals in all competitions before Benítez’s departure. It is not hard to imagine that his presence alone would render Inter a considerably more effective outfit.
In the end, however, all of Inter’s problems can be traced back to the same source. As the club’s president, Moratti must take ultimate responsibility for the decisions at board level which have contributed to the present mess. There have been plenty. If we are to accept, for starters, that the club’s managers have played a role in the downturn then an even greater focus should fall on the men who have been responsible for such turnover at the position.
Too often the thought processes behind appointments have been hard to discern.Benítezmay have been a strong candidate in theory, yet in practice his fraught relationship with Mourinho should surely have given some pause for thought. The club could hardly plead ignorance, subsequently removing pictures of the Portuguese from their training base so as to avoid causing offence to the new appointment. More curious still was the hiring of Gasperini, who arrivedafter Inter were rejected by Fabio Capello, André Villas-Boas and Marcelo Bielsa – a group with no common thread whatsoever in terms of coaching style or tactics.
When they did stumble across the right man, Leonardo – whose points-per-game return was not so far behind Mourinho’s – Inter promptly let him go, but only after wasting half of the summer suggesting they would do no such thing. That gave them even less time to get the subsequent appointment right; inevitably, they didn’t.
But if Gasperini was probably never the right man for the job, Inter certainly did not make his life any easier by pursuing a transfer policy that totally ignored his preferred tactics. Gasperini admitted after the window had shut that he was expecting Sneijder to be sold – and was OK with that possibility, as the Dutchman did not fit neatly into his preferred 3-4-3 – but instead lost Eto’o, a player he had been building his team around.
In the striker’s stead arrived Forlán, a totally different kind of forward and not one who suited the manager’s systems, though that was not the biggest oversight that had been made. The directors responsible for the transfer had failed to spot that the forward had already played for Atlético Madrid in Europa League qualifiers against Stromsgodset and would hence be cup-tied for the Champions League group stages.
Benítez had experienced similar frustration a year earlier, when his suggestion that a treble-winning squad might still require some reinforcing was roundly ignored. Once he had departed, of course, the club did make moves, signing such players as Pazzini, Ranocchia and Yuto Nagatomo, but with Leonardo viewed as an interim appointment there was once again little sense that the players being signed conformed to any long-term vision for how the team would work.
Furthermore the strategy for meeting Financial Fair Play seemed to extend little further than targeting players with lower price tags. As the wage bill continued to grow, the club’s commercial income did not – continuing to trail behind the sums raised by both Juventus and Milan by a considerable distance. With TV income also set to drop following the signing of Serie A’s collective agreement, the only significant step to redress the balance has been the sale of Eto’o.
And so it is that Inter find themselves, less than two years on from their greatest ever triumph, not only pitching towards the bottom of the table but also with mounting financial concern. “Criticising Inter today is a bit like shooting at the Red Cross, or rather just a corpse,” writes Tiziana Cairati in today’s edition of La Repubblica. It may take more than another ill-conceived splurge in the transfer window to resurrect them.