The return of Roberto Mancini as Internazionale coach last November was seen as the first step towards restoring the grand old club’s dignity as they, like city rivals AC Milan, struggled to break free of mid-table mediocrity in Serie A. Since Jose Mourinho’s departure, Inter have finished second, sixth, ninth, fifth and eighth, finding Champions League football elusive and a title challenge nigh on impossible to mount.
The Nerazurri failed to build on becoming European champions in 2010 under the guidance of ‘The Special One’ and have been paying the price since as a result. A string of managers came and went prior to Mancini, including Leonardo and Rafa Benitez, before Walter Mazzarri came in and established the 3-5-2 system that he had utilised so well with Napoli. It didn’t work for Inter, though, hence Mancini’s return towards the end of 2014.
Results continued to underwhelm despite Mancini’s presence, however, with the coach bemoaning a lack of width in the team. The subsequent January additions of Davide Santon, Xherdan Shaqiri and Lukas Podolski failed to solve that issue, and Inter ended up in a winger-less 4-3-1-2 formation come the end of last season. That has been the formation of choice throughout pre-season too, suggesting that instead of addressing the lack of attacking width, Inter will now seek to thrive in its absence.
The club has strengthened in other positions, predominantly in the central defensive area, by bringing in imposing midfield presence Geoffrey Kondogbia from Monaco, underrated Brazilian centre-back Miranda from Atletico Madrid and Colombian international defender Jeison Murillo from Granada for a combined total transfer fee of around €60 million.
Inter also brought in Manchester City forward Stevan Jovetic and Barcelona right-back Martin Montoya on loan. Both players have plenty to prove after finding themselves unable to break into their former teams’ starting line-ups on a frequent basis. To make all of these deals happen was in itself an achievement; the club was recently fined €6 million for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations. As such, the work of Sporting Director Piero Ausilio and General Director Marco Fassone in structuring the deals in a way that allows them to be paid over one to two year periods has been vital.
Despite all this, the most high-profile piece of Inter transfer activity could be a player sale, with Croat playmaker Mateo Kovacic set to join Real Madrid for a reported initial €32 million fee. Although Kovacic’s exit is a big loss, the sale does have an important purpose, with Mancini stating, “We need to sell Mateo because of Financial Fair Play.” Some of the money from the deal is likely to be re-invested, suggesting that Inter are far from finished in this summer’s transfer market. Ausilio and Fassone may well have work still to do.
Roberto Mancini is a revered figure in Inter circles for the club’s achievements during his first spell in charge. Inter won three consecutive Scudetti between 2006 and 2008, the first of which came in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal, while also winning two Coppa Italia and two Supercoppa.
Any idyllic notions of an immediate return to success with the club as he took the reigns again last November following time in charge of Manchester City and Galatasaray were shattered as Inter stumbled from week to week without any consistency. The club were ninth in the league table when he returned; they finished last season in eighth. The main factor behind this was the lack of a clear identity, as Mancini chopped and changed between formations with almost blurring frequency before settling on a 4-3-1-2 towards the end of the campaign.
Pre-season has allowed for further clarity, with Inter continuing on in this shape, though without much obvious success. The results have been poor; of their last eight friendlies, they have won just once while losing six times, scoring three goals and conceding nine. This form suggests that Mancini has a tough task on his hands as the new league season approaches.
The 2014/15 campaign could be classified as Mauro Icardi’s breakout season, as he hit 22 league goals to earn joint Capocannoniere status alongside Verona veteran Luca Toni. It was his most prolific season yet, and by some distance too.
Icardi joined Inter from Sampdoria in the summer of 2013 as a top class young talent though in his first year at San Siro he courted controversy for having an affair with Wanda Nara, who was then married to fellow player Maxi Lopez. He and Nara are now married and Icardi seems settled in his personal life, something which – at 22 years of age – could be integral to ensuring his career continues on its current upward trajectory.
The arrival of Stevan Jovetic could help in taking some of the weight off of Icardi’s young shoulders. With Rodrigo Palacio out of form last season, Icardi had to take on the burden of scoring goals almost single-handedly, but that should change with Jovetic around. The Montenegrin’s dribbling, passing and creativity could prove the perfect foil for Icardi’s clinical touch.
One to Watch
The sale of Mateo Kovacic was a slight surprise in spite of the almost constant speculation linking him with a move away. He was expected to play the role of regista and, as such, his departure will leave behind a vacancy at the base of Inter’s midfield diamond.
The most obvious candidate to fill the vacancy is Chilean warrior Gary Medel as, although not a brilliant passer, he handles the defensive midfield area with efficacy. Long-term, however, the position will be handed to 18-year-old Ivorian, Assane Gnoukouri.
Gnoukouri made his first start for the club in April’s Milan derby. The game finished 0-0 and the youngster received deserved praise for the assured manner with which he handled the occasion. His performance capped off a fast rise to prominence.
Gnoukouri was released by Marseille in late 2013 before spending six months with Italian fourth-tier side Altovicentino. From there he was spotted and recruited by Inter in the summer of 2014. Mancini believes in Gnoukouri, affirming: “He has the potential to become a great player. Despite his age, he has qualities that not many players have; he never gets anxious and rarely loses the ball.”
After adopting a variety of different systems since returning to Inter, Mancini appears most happy with a 4-3-1-2 formation, although he is still lacking in a few tools to make this setup work to its maximum capability.
Kondogbia’s arrival in central midfield provides the necessary physical and athletic qualities; the Frenchman played the ball-winner role well for Monaco during their Champions League run last season. Alongside him, Marcelo Brozovic is a neat and tidy passer. However, both in front of and behind this central midfield pair there is uncertainty.
The sale of Kovacic means that either Medel or Gnoukouri will assume the deep-lying midfield position. Medel is more experienced and is a strong yet understated performer, but lacks the passing range of Kovacic. Gnoukouri might just possess the qualities to undertake a regista role, but is still fairly inexperienced. Further forward, Hernanes looks likely to take on the role of trequartista, though he has been inconsistent since moving to Inter.
The team may also lack balance depending on who starts at left-back. On the right side of defence, Montoya will likely start, providing much-needed technical quality and an ability to drive forward. Inter lack a left-sided player of the same ilk, though. Yuto Nagatomo has been linked with a move away, while the likes of Davide Santon and Danilo D’Ambrosio have yet to fully convince. This means that Juan Jesus may be used, but the Brazilian is more suited to a central defensive role.
Without a genuine left-back to offer an outlet further up the pitch, Kondogbia may find himself drawn out of position, leading to the potential for overloads against Inter in the centre. An issue similar to this occurred in their pre-season loss to Bayern Munich.
Inter have augmented their squad with more depth and individual talent, but with just days to go until the start of the new league season, they still lack cohesion. The good news is that, with the strike partnership of Icardi and Jovetic up and running – each scored in the friendly win over Athletic Bilbao – and with possible further reinforcements to be made, Inter should still be a somewhat improved force over the course of the 2015/16 season.