Inter Milan, a team in steady decline after the departure of Jose Mourinho and since their treble-winning season in 2010, has more than this season to salvage, writes Anthony Lopopolo.
On February 23, 2012
Dynasties unfold in short chapters of time. They do not last an inexplicably long time in sports, especially in as fickle a business as football, where players and managers shift between clubs and countries like sand. The hard part for those dynasties, those teams that seemingly appear invincible to everyone they meet, is not about retaining the numerous titles they won, but regenerating as a squad in the aftermath of it all. It is about trying to transition seamlessly from one era to the next, to hand the torch off as smoothly as possibly without stumbling from year to year.
Last year’s edition of Manchester United won the English Premier League and finished as a Champions League finalist last year, despite being referenced by many as the club’s worst squad. Going through growing and injury pains this year, calling aged legends like Paul Scholes out of retirement to try to solve an insatiable problem in midfield, suffering agonizing losses to Manchester City and Basel FC in different competitions, United have still managed to pose a challenge in at least one title race, perhaps the most important one, in the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson, who has lasted through decades of change in player personnel and withstood the seismic shifts of Malcolm Glazer’s majority, fan-opposed ownership — between the eras of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo — has overseen his side evolve, and yet still win. They have done at supposed times of turmoil what Inter Milan have not: remained relevant and in contention.
Since collecting every piece of hardware available to them and reaching the height of European football in 2010, Inter have stumbled, stuttered and stammered in Serie A and the Champions League. Their once spotless armour is now nothing but broken chainmail, full of holes and rust. Their decline in form has only been matched in pace by their growth in age, a slow and steady, not violently tragic, loss of shape that came about after unsuccessfully defending all but the Italian domestic cup, the Coppa Italia.
That Inter Milan are losing its grip as a legitimate contender in Italy is not surprising — Barcelona, hailed as arguably the best team ever assembled, have even lost their touch in La Liga, in which Real Madrid have asserted themselves 10 points above their three-time defending champion rivals. That they are not prepared for a new beginning, a renaissance, though, is very much concerning. Inter Milan and president Massimo Moratti, if they are not careful, could be heading toward a dark age in the club’s history.
Trumping the team’s descent in the standings, in which Inter sit seventh in Serie A, has been Moratti’s inability to manage his club’s finances and personnel prudently. He has shuffled coaches around mindlessly, with the impatience of a certain Roman Abramovich. Three coaches have come and gone since José Mourinho’s departure to Madrid in 2010, and one, Claudio Ranieri, could prove the fourth to be released in just two seasons. A spell of regained confidence for the Nerazzurri at the end of December and beginning of January could not overcome their poor start to the year. It also had little lasting power. They won seven Serie A games in a row under Ranieri, whose tinkering appeared to work. But, like the streaky team they are, they have not won since beating Lazio 2-1 a month ago. They have failed to score a single goal in the past six hours of play — one of their longest droughts in recent memory — and gone winless in seven games. There is not a coaching problem here; there is something fundamentally awry.
Against Marseille, who beat Inter 1-0 in France on Wednesday, the Nerazzurri fielded the oldest-ever unit in Champions League history. Their defence, a unit with an average age of more than 31 years between starters Walter Samuel, Lucio, the oft-injured Maicon and the incapable Cristian Chivu — all of whom played against Marseille — has allowed 13 goals in the past five games in all competitions. After keeping six clean sheets in eight games between December and January, Inter have bled goals. And when they have not defended well, they have not scored, either.
After Diego Milito sprang back into the form of his 22-goal campaign in 2009-10, scoring eight goals in 2012, he has fallen ill at times and out of Ranieri’s favour. Inter’s season goes as Milito’s does, a unilaterally umbilical attachment between player and club and a sign of the same kind of one-dimensional reliance on a single player in attack as they had on Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he served the Nerazzurri. Inter counted on Milito to score the bulk of goals during their minor winning streak. It is no coincidence, then, that they have not found the net as a team since he lost his scoring touch.
But Ranieri can’t escape blame. He has changed his tactics often, struggling to insert Wesley Sneijder in his appropriate spot behind two strikers.
And as a result of an ever-changing rotation of coaches, Inter have lacked an identity and a core sense of belief, that belief that Mourinho inspired in spades and Ranieri has not. Tactics aside, no coach since his two-year reign has been able to motivate, to arouse a sense of ardent faith.
Ranieri is a good coach who has witnessed the view from the perch of many top clubs, but he has been fired many times, too.
Coming off the wave of Mourinho’s success at Inter, these players, including one like Sneijder who has battled anemia and physical issues, seemed to lose not only a manager they loved, but an unmatchable source of pride, a feeling of togetherness one would get in a band of brothers.
“With José, success always follows him, but it’s not always because he has the best players; it’s because he make you believe you are the best players,” Sneijder told a gala at the 2010 Ballon D’Or ceremony. “The confidence and belief he gives you is amazing, and when he is at a club it is his players and staff against the rest of the world.”
Mourinho, so close to many of those Champions League-winning players, was the nucleus of Inter. Once removed, he left the team in Moratti’s incapable hands, vulnerable and exposed as an aging squad with few prospects. There is nothing concrete on the horizon to suggest an alternate reality next season. The president and his legion of coaches have spoiled the team’s future, with Rafa Benitez shunning young stars early in his weak tenure in 2010 and Moratti averse to keep them in-house. Moratti sold players without replacing them suitably.
He sold Mario Balotelli because the club could not contain him. He sold Davide Santon, who has represented Italy at many youth and senior levels, because the club underused him. He sold Samuel Eto’o in search of riches and in anticipation for the enforcement of the Financial Fair Play regulations, aimed to curb the overspending and debt of clubs. Moratti triggered a mass exodus, one so big that midfielder Thiago Motta, a reliable force in Inter’s midfield, felt its effects and left for Paris St-Germain. “The exit of Eto’o played a big role in my decision to leave,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “It felt as if my era at Inter had come to an end. I needed a new challenge.”
Moratti conceded that he was ultimately powerless in his attempt to keep both Eto’o and Motta and acknowledged, slightly, that he and his club have been their own worst enemy. “If some players left, it is because the conditions to keep them were no longer there,” Moratti told Corriere della Sera. “The problem is that we have become too accustomed to doing well. We have had the players with the ability to do extraordinary things. But I do not stop. I really want to start over. The real danger at this moment is that we become dominated by anxiety and rush to change everything.”
Diego Forlan, Angelo Palombo, Ricky Alvarez, Fredy Guarín and Mauro Zarate did not so much replace the departed in talent as they did in bodies, mostly on loan without any certainties. The switch in personnel was purely physical, no like-for-like swaps that would leave Inter in an unaffected position. Forlan, who called a hamstring tear he suffered early in the season “the worst injury of my career,” has scored only once. In games in which he started, Inter have only won two out of eight games. Palombo and Guarín, January acquisitions on loan, have failed to make any impression. Alvarez, the one prospect that actually looks promising in Inter’s stable of otherwise mismanaged colts, has shown flashes of brilliance, running with the bursting pace of another certain Ricky in Kaka.
Not only did Moratti allow Santon and Balotelli to leave, but so has gifted starlet Philippe Coutinho, on loan to Espanyol. Like a transferred student, he has never fit in, has not found his groove in Inter’s constitution. Here in Coutinho is a viable, while still young 19-year-old with a lot of similar qualities to Milan’s Alexandre Pato, neglected and tossed away to a lesser club in a lesser league. They sent Santon on loan to Cesena before selling him outright. Who is to stay they will not do the same with the Brazilian? The likes of Jonathan, Andrea Poli, Davide Faraoni and Luc Castaignos — players leading the charge of youth in Inter’s ranks — have potential, too, but offer more questions than answers. Considering the way Inter have produced young players, they may not even realize their potential at their current club, or at all.
Moratti, if he is to change his club’s fortunes, has many lessons to learn from his own history of management and transfers, a pedigree blotted with many errors in judgement. He shipped away Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf to Milan, and traded Fabio Cannavaro in 2004 to Juventus only to watch him lead the Azzurri to a World Cup and become World Player of the Year in 2006. Inter is a club whose owner has built success as much as he has gotten in the way of it. In 2009, before going on to win the Coppa Italia, Scudetto and Champions League, Inter spent over $53 million to reinforce their squad, including the shrewd acquisitions of Sneijder, Lucio, Milito and Eto’o — all of whom, at the time, were either already playing at or just reaching the peaks of their careers. Since then, Moratti has lost the plot, spending almost as much as he did in 2009 this season and yielding nothing but a fruitless squad in need of a further rejuvenation.
Unlike Udinese and Napoli, who have earned Champions League places despite comparatively smaller payrolls and remained competitive despite a vast flux of players, Inter have not recognized or replenished talent well. Udinese, as a consequence of their vast network of scouts around the world and the evergreen contributions of Antonio Di Natale, have been successful even without Gökhan Inler and Alexis Sanchez this year, a flawless, if unexpected changeover. That the Bianconeri and Partenopei, biding their time during Inter’s five-year reign atop Serie A and grooming precocious talent, are now ahead of the Nerazzurri in the standings is no coincidence.
Moratti lacked the foresight, not the funds, to prepare his team for life after Mourinho. The statistics show that Inter were never prepared: they have lost more games so far this season (10) than they ever did in two years under Mourinho. Two of relegation-bound Novara’s three wins all campaign came against Inter, a telling story of comprehensive defeat rather than pure misfortune. This season is the product of shoddy management, of wasteful spending and poor investments, of an owner whose job is now significantly tougher than it was two years ago.
Now, Inter have to evolve on the go, to aspire to do what Manchester United have done when confronted by the effects of an aging squad and a team in transition. The next few years, without the right fixes, could be even worse for Inter.
Anthony Lopopolo is an Italian-Canadian freelance sportswriter and an unabashed apologist for all things Serie A. He has written for such publications as The National newspaper and the National Post, and has also appeared on Canadian national radio to talk footy. You can follow him on Twitter or send him an email.