Sunday, 9 January 2010
With the departure of Rafael Benitez, as a gesture of goodwill to my Nerazzurri and with a deep down hope that all was not yet lost, I set the alarm and woke early to watch Leonardo’s first game in charge of Inter against Napoli. I had mixed feelings about a former Milan player, Director and Coach leading Inter but nevertheless watched the match from beginning to end and have ever since been asking: “Is it the case that Inter’s performance against Napoli was a convincing display or did it appear convincing and compelling in light of the debacle of the last seven months that was Rafael Benitez?”
Some followers of football take the view that the role and difference a coach makes is negligible as a ninety minute match is down to the players who take to the field and how they play on a given day. Others believe that a charismatic, intelligent, articulate and experienced coach is the difference between almost rans and winning silverware.
An obvious example would be to compare the success of Mourinho against the stark and striking failure of Benitez. I acknowledge that the former was at the club for two years while the latter only lasted 7 months but his abject failure to utilise and mobilise a team that only months earlier had been crowned Champions of Europe left the club with little option than to agree to part with Benitez by mutual consent.
Moratti and Benitez: Coincidence or Masterstroke?
Is it possible that Moratti had doubts about Benitez at the time the Spaniard was appointed Inter coach? With hindsight, one cannot help but feel that Inter’s management adopted a “wait and see” approach that played itself out with Benitez’ inevitable departure from the club.
From the very beginning and in his early press conferences, in responses to the player market, Benitez pointedly stated that his role was limited to coaching of the players and did not extend into the acquisition of players. Such comments are common place in Italy where clubs usually have a Technical Director to manage transfers but Benitez’ statements eluded to there being a demarcation in his role as coach that did not extend into the area of player transfers.
It is common knowledge that Moratti has been attempting to implement UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations, where clubs are required to break-even and not spend more money than they generate. But to not make any summer transfer acquisitions, purchase a single impact player or secure any of the players requested by Benitez infers that Moratti possibly questioned Benitez’ judgment and assessment in relation to the players that were already at the coach’s disposal as well as those Benitez had requested the club to purchase.
It is here that Inter’s “Wait and see approach” was most telling as Moratti backed his Treble winners and seemed reluctant to spend money to reinforce the squad. As the season got underway, Benitez’s questionable training methods that resulted in a record amount of injuries and players being woefully out of form and playing as if they were not on the pitch merely reinforced Moratti’s cautious approach.
Whether it is a coincidence or by design, Moratti’s wait and see approach appears to be a masterstroke. Afterall, why should Inter have spent money on new players and build upon Benitez’ mediocrity. Committing to the acquisition of the players Benitez requested would have been a commitment to the coach and his supposed “project”, a project that Moratti and Inter’s management must have doubted at the start of the season and had confirmed as the season progressed.
After only a single match in charge of Inter, it is difficult to foretell how Leonardo will fare as Inter coach but the signs are positive and in his short time at the club he has made an impression.
Inter can thank Milan for allowing the Brazilian an opportunity to coach their first team. Although his season as Milan coach ended with his departure from the club, it nevertheless provided Leonardo with invaluable experience and in his brief time away from the sport allowed him to reflect on the type of working and club environment that would entice him to return to coaching in the future.
In relation to the legacy left by Mourinho, Leonardo acknowledged the influence of the Portuguese tactician and went as afar as consulting with and exchanging ideas in order to gain a greater understanding of Inter as a club.
Such a move reveals the intelligence and thoughtfulness of Leonardo as a coach and indicated that Leonardo did not harbour a Mourinho complex as was the case with Benitez where the club was required to remove a picture of Mourinho from the wall at Appiano Gentile. By contacting Mourinho, Leonardo embraced the latter tacticians place in Inter’s history and simultaneously showed that he intended to leave no stone unturned when it comes to learning about and understanding his new environment and coaching his new team.
Another significant difference has been Leonardo’s interviews with the press. His responses have been honest, spontaneous and insightful as opposed to the pointless drivel of Benitez that often followed a set script: “We are improving”, “We are working hard”, “We were unlucky”, “The players are tired”, “We are recovering some of our injured players”. Benitez’s interactions with the press provided little insight into his work with the squad. His interviews were pointless and an insult to Interisti and the Italian media who analyse and follow football with a discerning eye as opposed to simply accepting sound bytes from a press conference.
But perhaps the most telling improvement was on the pitch against Napoli. Traditionally, Inter struggle after the Christmas break and January is usually a difficult month for the Nerazzurri. Of course, a single win does not make a month or a season of football and there is still great scope for things to go awry but the team showed vital signs of life against third placed Napoli.
The opening exchanges against the Neapolitans were as intriguing as they were exciting. Inter’s players took to the field with a spring in their step, enthusiasm and most importantly, conviction and determination to right the record of their season to date.
The players ran and made space for each other, attacked with purpose and precision, worked for each other and attacked the ball from corner kicks. In the space of ninety minutes, the horrible memory of lifeless players, misplaced passes, and pointless attacking moves that inevitably broke down were erased with the team showing vital signs of life and inspiring the belief that Inter’s season was not yet lost.
Inter’s performance was by no means perfect. The defending from the corner kick that led to Napoli’s goal left a great deal to be desired but given the short amount of time Leonardo has been at the club one cannot expect all of the team’s ills from Benitez’ time in charge to be rectified within the space of a number of weeks.
Another point worth mentioning is the obvious rapport between Leonardo and Inter’s players. The goals were celebrated by players and coach alike and upon being substituted there was genuine acknowledgement and displays of appreciation exchanged between coach and player. It may well be that the players can readily identify with Leonardo who was only a short time ago a player himself as opposed to a tactician like Benitez who appeared to keep the players at a distance, had difficulties managing personalities within the squad and took a sterilised approach to coaching that was void of passion and feeling.
World Champions and Treble winning players do not forget how to play and turn into Sunday Leaguers overnight. Moratti and Inter’s management have held the view since the beginning of the season, that the essential elements of a championship side are still present at the club. The most striking aspect about Leonardo’s debut was the transformation of players that resembled bowling pins under Benitez to players who were free to express themselves and play with the self-belief with which the Nerazzurri have faithful have become accustomed over the years.
Sadly for Benitez, his time at Liverpool saw supporters on Merseyside treat him like the Second Coming for the club’s 2007 Champions League victory. According Benitez a great deal of leeway, patience and respect and the English emphasis of appreciating effort and hard work over positive results goes a long way in explaining Benitez’ reign at Liverpool. Not to mention the fact that the likes of Gillett and Hicks appear to have had precious little understanding of football. Quite simply, Benitez was ill suited to Inter and his “back me or sack me” comments following the World Club Cup placed a great emphasis on his “achievement” of winning the World Club Cup whilst simultaneously failing to acknowledge and respect for the legacy left by his predecessor. Moratti and Inter’s management did not have to blink.
When it comes to the remainder of the season, it is difficult to know how Inter will finish. It may be that the aberration that was Rafael Benitez has allowed Milan a too great a lead at the top of the league standings and that Inter should prepare to relinquish their stranglehold on the Scudetto. But if Leonardo’s first match is anything to go by, Inter are once again showing vital signs of life and the appointment of the Brazilian may at least allow the Nerazzurri to hold their heads high and make a fight of the 2011 Scudetto.