Tuesday, 14 December 2010
With Interís stinging loss to Bremen still fresh in my memory I find it difficult to provide a simple explanation on the team I have followed for close to two decades. From the outset of this article I have to admit that I stopped watching Interís matches approximately two months ago as I could no longer endure watching a spineless, unenthusiastic team blunder their way through 90 minutes of mindless football with little organisation, structure or idea on how to impact a game let alone obtain a win and three points.
Admittedly, I have been grappling with a conflict in the last months: supporting my team of the last nineteen years versus the sad state that I presently find the Nerazzurri. Despite this conflict, I still record Interís games hoping for a change in their performances and write this article hoping that it will be a mere snapshot in time but knowing that Inter are in a far more precarious state than simply suffering from an injury crisis.
Season 2009-2010: Treble Winners
The foundations for what has largely taken place this season were laid following the final whistle in Madrid against Bayern Munich.
Mourinhoís departure from Inter for Real Madrid was apparently common knowledge at Inter as early as January 2010. The fact that Mourinho was leaving and the difficulty in finding an appropriate replacement was exacerbated by the disrespectful and unpalatable manner in which he left the club, deciding to remain in Madrid and finalise his new contract as opposed to returning to Milan to celebrate with his players and the Nerazzurri faithful.
Victory in Madrid was the main reason Moratti was so frugal in the summer as he was of the view the squad did not need to be reinforced as Inter had just won the Italian Cup, the Scudetto and old Big Ears. The mistake made by Moratti and Interís management was to assume that the tactician Inter employed to replace Mourinho would be inheriting a treble winning side and there was little need to acquire new players and strengthen the squad.
Another erroneous assumption was that having won the treble the club only needed to appoint a competent tactician to carry on the work undertaken by Mourinho. In every respect, Moratti and Interís management placed too much emphasis on having won the treble that led to Interís players being overvalued and the assumption that Interís new coach would be able to manage and utilise the same players that so honourably and dutifully served Mourinho and the club last season.
Having conveniently overlooked the above, Moratti and the clubís management also failed to consider the age of some of our players, and the possibility they may struggle with motivation, suffer a drop in form or the toll that injuries may have on the side during the course of the season. It also appears management overestimated the respective abilities of Biabiany and Coutinho and what they would be able to contribute during the course of a season.
It could be argued that it is easy to make the above observations with hindsight and knowing the predicament in which the team now finds itself but over the course of the summer Moratti and Interís management proceeded to strip the squad back to the bare essentials and did not move on the market for replacements. The transfer of Mario Balotelli, a contributor of 10+ goals from the bench is a case on point.
Enfant Terrible: Mario Balotelli
The obvious question that you may be asking is why raise and discuss Balotelli now. Given that Inter have been plagued by poor finishing, a lack of goals and a lack of alternatives up front, not to mention the fact the team is presently thirteen points off the pace in Serie A with a game in hand, there is no better time to discuss Mario Balotelliís departure to Manchester City.
With all the column inches dedicated to Balotelli and his indiscretions of last season many Interisti would take the view that so much has been written about the player that nothing more needs to be said.
Others may simply shrug their shoulders as Balotelliís time at Inter has now passed with the player being judged as a volatile, temperamental and mainly being remembered for his poor attitude and courting of Milan.
The achievements of last season speak for themselves and many supporters take the view that the results obtained justify Mourinhoís actions during the course of the season. But when it comes to Balotelli, Mourinhoís actions and treatment of the player are questionable and the fortified siege mentality employed against those external to Inter provides an insight into the tactics employed within the squad to deal with Balotelli.
Just as Mourinho banded with his players against those external to the club, he did likewise with the majority of the squad against Balotelli. Many Interisti have commented upon and complimented the actions of Materazzi following the semi-final first leg match against Barcelona. There were mixed reports as to extent of the clash between Materazzi and Balotelli but the fact that there was a physical altercation between a senior squad member and a player who was essentially still a boy speaks volumes.
As a result of Mourinhoís confrontational management, Balotelli was frozen out of the squad in February 2010 and was only called upon as a last resort when injuries to Interís frontmen and tiredness were taking their toll towards the end of the season. As a result of his treatment of the player, Mourinho marginalised Balotelli from the squad and by the end of the season the player was left with few allies and no alternative other than to leave the club.
I have considered the other factors, namely the throwing of his jersey, openly stating that he was a Milan supporter, wearing a Milan jersey on a comedy show and encouraging a Milan transfer. I do not want to play down these incidents but in light of what has taken place this season, Mourinhoís treatment of the player ensured that Inter and the clubís new coach, would be denied the services of a talented young player that could impact games and make a real difference on the field.
The mere fact that Balotelli did not get along with Mourinho did not necessarily mean the player would clash with Interís new coach but by the end of the season the playerís relationship with the club and his fellow teammates had suffered irreparable damage and the player had no option than to leave, the ramifications of which will be discussed later in this article.
Rafael Benitez: The Spanish Waiter
It goes without saying that the coach that followed after Mourinho had the unenviable task of keeping Inter at the top of Serie A whilst remaining competitive in Europe. As Benitez won the Champions League with Liverpool in 2005 and was a beaten finalist in 2007, Interís management were of the view that he had the necessary pedigree to replace Mourinho.
On closer inspection it is questionable whether Benitez has the necessary credentials to lead Inter. With the exception of the 2005 Champions League victory, Benitez was unable to win a league championship and was better known for purchasing no name players and having extensive injury lists. In Interís defence, it must be stated that there were precious few alternatives on the coaching market and even fewer with Champions League credentials.
An early indication as to the direction of Interís season could be ascertained from Morattiís inactivity in the transfer market and the fact that players such as Rivas, Suazo, and Mancini had returned to the squad. In Benitezí defence he was hardly able to ensure these players left the club if he had no viable alternatives to play in their respective positions.
Under Benitez, Inter have regressed. There have been occasions when the team has shown signs of improvement but more often than not those occasions are limited to one off matches against lowly opposition and do not carry over to the next game. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Interís performances this season is the distinct lack of consistency in the sense that the team performs exceptionally well in some matches and does not show up for others.
In simple terms, Inter have become a chore to watch: their game is characterised by sluggish, laborious and unimaginative play comprised of misplaced passes, players hanging on to the ball for too long, overplaying the ball around the edge of opposition penalty boxes, spraying shots high and wide and kicking the ball into opponents that leads to frequent loss of possession.
Despite having largely the same starting eleven as last season, the attitude of Interís players and their brand of football under Benitez is unrecognisable. Sharp incisive counter attacks have been replaced with lumbering moves forward that more often than not break down in the final third of the pitch. A watertight and collective defence that started with Interís front men has been replaced with a defence that appears to be based on improvisation rather than organisation and concedes soft goals. A team that once had numerous goal scorers now struggles when Etoío fails to put the ball into the back of the net and in the absence of first team midfield Generals Esteban Cambiasso, Thiago Motta and Dejan Stankovic the team struggles.
When watching Benitezí Inter, one cannot help but feel that the squad has adopted the passive and mediocre character of its coach and it is hard to escape the feeling that Interís players are simply going through the motions or feel that they merely have to take to the pitch to win games. The competitive, hungry, determined, edgy, gritty and workmanlike character of the team has all but disappeared and it is difficult to feel happy or proud of a team of Passengers.
Many Interisti have commented on how under Benitez, Inter manage to create countless chances and that it is only a matter of time before the chances are converted into goals. Given Interís play and season so far, there is nothing to suggest that the team will become more clinical and start converting the chances they create which is the reason I went to great lengths to discuss Mario Balotelli earlier in this article.
At a time when Inter are struggling to score goals, suffering poor results, and essentially only have a single in form striker in Samuel Etoío, Balotelli would have been a luxury option upfront. With the exception of Etoío, Interís front men have been woeful and the teamís attack has lacked the joint work rate of when Milito and Etoío played together as well as the unpredictability and flair that Balotelli could add to our attack.
In relation to the latter, Inter have also missed his attitude and the way he challenged opponents and forced them into fouling him. At present, none of our front men play in a manner that taunts their opponents and opposition supporters and it feels as though our players have lost their edge and take to the field with little or no competitive spirit.
Balotelli, for all his indiscretions, represented something special: a young and talented Italian player that had been promoted from the youth team to play in Interís first team. He was a player that added flair and unpredictability to Interís attack and the feeling that when he had the ball at his feet in close proximity to goal, he would try something audacious that would inevitably leave an impression.
It may well be that Balotelliís absence is more sharply felt as Moratti failed to purchase a replacement, Milito is struggling with poor form and injuries and Sneijderís performances are nowhere near the level they were last season but what is obvious is that Inter lost a proven goal scorer and the likes of Coutinho and Biabiany combined are unable to fill the void left by Balotelli.
If you disagree with my assessment of Balotelli and maintain that his indiscretions of last season outweigh his 11+ goals, then you should consider the last Derby, Ibrahimovicís goal and the very real prospect that when Balotelli returns to Italy he will mostly likely team up with Ibrahimovic at Milan.
Interís management mistakenly adopted the view of a coach that had already decided he was leaving for Madrid and ensured Balotelli had no working relationship with the clubís management or his peers come the end of the season. Balotelliís departure from Inter will haunt the club for many years to come and Inter will only understand their mistake when he makes regular and valuable contributions to the black and red half of Milan.
Donít Believe the Hype: The World Club Cup, Injuries and the Future of Benitez
In 2007, to the amusement of many Interisti, Milan made the World Club Cup one of the primary goals of their season with many Interisti consoling themselves in relation to Milanís successful European exploits by claiming the competition was nothing but a glorified friendly tournament for which Milan had sacrificed their season.
As Inter languish thirteen points off the lead in Serie A, one cannot help but feel how the tables have now turned. Visit inter.it and read the interviews coming out of Abu Dahbi and you will get the feeling that the season is fast passing and the World Club Cup may be one of the only competitions in which Inter can justify and give meaning to season 2010-2011.
Following the loss against Bremen Benitez stated that Interís performance was played by a side that had already qualified for the second round of the Champions League. Benitez failed to acknowledge that victory against Bremen would have allowed Inter to qualify first in the group and perhaps be drawn against a slightly less stronger opponent. But it may well be that it hardly matters which team Inter is drawn against because on present form, if the Nerazzurri are struggling to get results against Leece and Brescia then the team will inevitably struggle against the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The post-match interviews following the match against Bremen also provided relevant insight into the teamís mindset. Benitez, Motta, Cordoba, Cambiasso and Orlandoni all commented on and placed great importance on the return of Interís injured players. From each interview it was evident that they expected a much improved Inter when the injured return to the starting eleven but what was lacking was any acknowledgment and explanation of the teamís poor performances. Most frustrating of all was the fact that our coach and players continue to provide alibis or excuses to explain their poor results.
Prior to the injury crisis, when Inter had a full roster of available players, the teamís performances were better but Inter hardly had the form that would allow them to lead Serie A or confidently advance to the latter stages of the Champions League. Interís form and performances on the pitch will not automatically improve once the injured players return to the starting eleven as it will take time to gain match fitness. I also take the view that our playerís struggles with injuries will continue for as long as Benitez remains coach.
In a season where Inter have been a pale shadow of the Treble winning team, the World Club Cup is only important for the opportunity it provides Interís players to finish the hard earned work of last season and bring a memorable end to a chapter in the clubís history. On present form, it remains to be seen whether Inter can actually win the tournament and looking beyond the World Club Cup it is difficult to predict how the team will perform for the remainder of the season and where they will finish in Serie A and the Champions League.
Inter have woefully underperformed for most of the season and the teamís play has been far from convincing and a chore to watch. The attitude of Interís players and their performances on the pitch point to there being a fundamental issue in the way Benitez relays his ideas to the players or the playerís interpretation of Benitezí instructions as the skill and ability of a Treble winning side does not simply evaporate over seven months. In a number of interviews coming out of Abu Dahbi, there has been reference to ďrediscovering the groupĒ and one has to question whether this is a veiled reference to an issue within the Inter dressing room or whether it simply relates to player numbers and availability in terms of injuries.
Regardless of the denials and all the positive talk relating to the security of his position as Inter coach, Benitez is in a precarious position and will be scrutinised until the end of the season. Cambiassoís endorsement of Benitez as coach over the weekend points to Benitezí future at the club being a live issue of which the coach and players are mindful while preparing for the World Club Cup.
From the bitter taste left after the loss to Bremen and even before a ball has been kicked in Abu Dahbi, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that if the team turns in similar lifeless performances to those witnessed throughout this season that Benitez may no longer be at the club come the end of the season. Of course, a great deal rests on how Inter progresses in the Champions League but one gets the feeling that if Benitez survives beyond the World Club Cup, his future will ultimately be decided on where Inter finish in Serie A. In recent years, winning the Scudetto has become a rite of passage for Inter and failure to do so will ensure Benitez returns to waiting tables on Merseyside.