Saturday, 10 January 2009
The fact that Inter are 6 points clear of second place Juventus at the winter break is as much a tribute to the hard work and endeavour of Roberto Mancini as it is to present coach Jose Mourinho who inherited a team that only needed fine tuning.
Years of underachieving, psychological hang-ups and revolving door transfers are now in the past with Mourinho carrying on from where his predecessor left off, accumulating 42 points out of a possible 51. But to say that Inter’s first half of the season was perfect or that there is no room for improvement would be to ignore the issues and difficulties the team faced in the first half of the season.
Amantino Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma
Despite the acquisition of Mancini and Quaresma, it was evident that Inter were always going to struggle to adapt to a 4-3-3 formation. Under Roberto Mancini the team played 4-4-2 and the squad was essentially built to play the latter formation or a variation thereof.
When combining the available playing personnel with the poor form of both Mancini and Quaresma, Mourinho realised that Inter struggled when playing 4-3-3 as both players were out of form and Ibrahimovic needed a strike partner up front.
Compliments must go to Mourinho for recognising the strengths and capabilities of the players at his disposal and quickly reverting to a 4-4-2 formation as opposed to persisting with his much loved 4-3-3 formation. But the important question is what lies in store for Mancini and Quaresma in the second half of the season?
In pre-season, Mancini was a major protagonist but once Serie A and the Champions League started in earnest, he suffered a dip in form and was relegated to the bench. It was almost as if he believed his pre-season form was enough to guarantee him a place in the starting line-up for the duration of the season. Alternatively, it may be that the player was encouraged by the fact that he was purchased as one of the main components of Mourinho’s 4-3-3 formation which gave him a false sense of security and gave rise to complacency.
Early in the season, Quaresma was given a number of chances to start and prove his worth but in those matches, he placed a greater emphasis on trying to play attractive football and was guilty of show boating his skills as opposed to trying to make a contribution by playing simple football. The most alarming aspect of Quarema’s lack of form was his inability to complete a successful pass, his tendency to overplay the ball and lose possession and his failure to pass to a teammate that was in a better position to have a strike on goal.
In defence of Quaresma, he did not have the benefit of pre-season training with his new teammates and simultaneously had to adapt to a new language and culture. The player also had to adapt to the high expectations that came with being the club’s most expensive summer transfer but no one expected him to struggle and underperform to the extent that by Christmas, he would be a player on the periphery of the squad.
The only positive for Quaresma is that in the few appearances he made from the bench in the run up to Christmas, he appeared to have simplified his game and was playing to contribute to the team as opposed to playing for the purpose of pleasing the crowd. Although it must be said that 15 minute appearances towards the end of a match is by no means enough time for a player to make a telling contribution and for football commentators to judge a player on his performances.
Neither Mancini or Quaresma would have foreseen having played so few minutes in the first half of the season or Mourinho’s decision to revert to a 4-4-2 formation. For both players, it is difficult to know when they will next get a chance to prove themselves.
At present, Inter are top of Serie A using a formation that does not accommodate either player. Unless Mancini and Quaresma benefit from a large upturn in form, it is highly unlikely Mourinho will revert to playing 4-3-3 and both players will be limited to very little playing time for the remainder of the season.
The future of Adriano
Inter’s troubles with Adriano have been well documented and date back to Roberto Mancini’s reign as coach. At the beginning of the season Adriano started with a clean slate and was given a chance to work his way into Mourinho’s plans and the starting eleven.
When Adriano was selected to play he worked hard and contributed to the team. His contribution may not have been as explosive and spectacular as the days when he was Inter’s lead striker but it was a telling contribution nevertheless.
In early December following the game against Bremen, Adriano arrived late to Appiano Gentile and in no condition to train, leaving Mourinho with no option than to send him home. The player was subsequently omitted from the squads to play against Chievo and Siena and returned early to Brazil for Christmas holidays as he was supposedly injured.
The latest in the ongoing saga is that the player returned from Brazil a day late and missed the first training session of the New Year claiming the club had failed to organise a return flight. After reporting to training on Saturday, 3 January 2009 Adriano trained separately from the squad and is not part of the squad to face Cagliari.
The only way for the club to effectively deal with Adriano is for the President to issue a final ultimatum or warning to the player with regards to his future at the club. At present, given Moratti’s respect and admiration for the player, no such warning will be forthcoming and the likelihood of Moratti taking such action remains remote. But herein lies the problem, as long as Adriano has Moratti’s support and protection, the cycle of the player working hard to make amends, being allowed to play, breaking Mourinho’s rules and subsequently being punished will continue.
It has been suggested that for the benefit of the club and player, Inter and Adriano should part company so as to allow Adriano to make a new start and relaunch his career with a new team. Given that the January transfer window has now reopened a permanent move away from the Nerazzurri should be considered by both parties.
For a young player at the start of his career there is nothing modest or humble about Mario Balotelli. At the beginning of the season he shamelessly threatened to find another club if he was not given a multi-million dollar contract and a short time later claimed that he deserved to be in the Inter’s starting eleven.
Contrary to popular belief and with the exception of Ibrahimovic, Balotelli has played 712’ minutes in 13 appearances. In comparison to his fellow strikers, Balotelli has played more minutes than Cruz (434’), Obinna (323’) and Crespo (224’) but his performances have yielded very little return.
Some commentators have defended the player by arguing that he has been played out of position but realistically, when Inter play 4-3-3 there is only one player that can lead the team and that is Ibrahimovic. Balotelli would be better suited to playing alongside Zlatan when Mourinho uses a 4-4-2 formation but his lack of effort in training and the quality of his contribution during matches has seen him relegated to Inter’s Primavera or omitted from the squad altogether.
Unfortunately, Balotelli has a very high opinion of himself and a change in attitude will be necessary for him to develop as a player. Rather than believe all the hype that is written by the media, he should look a little closer to home and follow the advice offered to him by Crespo in early December. Namely, that professional footballers cannot make it on talent alone and that a player also needs to be professional in their attitude towards the game.
He might also look to Obinna who in his three seasons at Chievo Verona made 86 appearances and scored 19 goals. On his record at Chievo alone, Obinna deserves to be playing more than Balotelli and is yet to complain at having made so few appearances for Inter this season.
As part of the January transfer speculation, the media speculated that Obinna might be used in a bid to try and bring Diego Milito from Genoa to Inter with Obinna going in the other direction. Overnight, Obinna’s agent confirmed the Nigerian had no intention of leaving and was ready to fight for a place in the starting eleven.
Given his attitude, it is unlikely that Balotelli will heed the advice of an experienced campaigner like Crespo or follow the example of a young teammate that is also trying to make his mark at the club. But what is blatantly obvious is that Balotelli is a boy that needs time away from Inter to mature and play on a weekly basis at a smaller club where there is less pressure and media attention. Surely, a January loan move away from Inter would be more useful than sitting on the bench or being omitted from the squad altogether
One of the main reasons Inter acquired Mourinho’s services as coach was so he could improve the club’s prospects in the Champions League. When one looks at Inter’s results in the Group Phase and compares them to past seasons, it appears the team has taken a retrograde step.
For all of the criticism of Roberto Mancini and his lack of Champions League pedigree, Inter rarely struggled in the Group Phase. More to the point, one would be hard pressed to find an occasion when Mancini qualified from the group stage with a mere 8 points.
After being drawn against Anorthosis, Bremen and Panathinaikos and before a ball had been kicked commentators assumed that Inter would automatically finish top of their group and turned their minds to the quarter-finals. It appears Inter’s players believed what they had been reading in the papers as the team’s performances were dogged by a lack of motivation and complacency, finishing an embarrassing second in the group and booking themselves a tie with defending champions, Manchester United.
On present form, Inter do not have what it takes to beat Manchester United and progress to the semi-finals. The Nerazzurri’s play is all too frequently littered with lapses in concentration or periods in a match when the team eases the pressure applied against opponents, allowing them to get back into the match.
Further, it remains to be seen where the goals are going to come from if Ibrahimovic has a quiet game as all of his strike partners struggled and underperformed in the first half of the season. Perhaps the only factor going in Inter’s favour is that the team has time to play themselves into the form required to play against Europe’s top clubs in the Continent’s most elite competition.
In comparison to their Champions League form, Inter have performed better in Serie A and Mourinho’s decision making has been second to none. When it was needed, he changed formation, when players struggled during games he did not shy from making substitutions and when players performed poorly in training they were dropped from the squad.
But once again, as the team’s performances against Siena and Chievo showed, Inter lack the ability and sharpness to kill off matches and all too frequently allowed their opponents back into the game. If Inter are to have any chance in the Champions League then Mourinho has to address the lapses that takle place when Inter are leading and in control of a match.
On a positive note, Mourinho’s high profile move to Italy has increased the profile of Serie A and his no nonsense straight forward approach to dealing with both his players and the Italian media has caused much interest and controversy.
Mourinho has left his mark on the players by instilling a strong sense of work ethic and uniting a squad that has many strong personalities. On the pitch, the changes are more subtle but in comparison to past seasons, the team has learnt to control the pace and tempo of matches for long periods and with the exception of Balotelli, each and every player in the starting eleven is willing to work and fight for his teammates.
It remains to be seen how the remainder of the season will go and where Inter will finish in the standings come the end of May. At the halfway mark of the season, Inter are 6 points clear of Juventus but the race for “lo Scudetto” in such a competitive league can change very quickly.
In Serie A, much of the same is needed with possibly a little less suffering for the Nerazzurri faithful whilst in the Champions League, the team needs to make a significant improvement if they hope to progress into the semi-finals.
Perhaps the most encouraging fact is that Inter are not yet at full strength. Mourinho is only 6 months into his project and still needs time to leave his mark on the team and the likes of Mancini, Quaresma, Adriano and Balotelli have the potential to make a significant impact and contribution on the remainder Inter’s season.
Serie A and Europe, do not say you have not been warned!