Sitting anxiously at Novara Calcio’s Stadio Silvio Piola, Inter owner Massimo Moratti looked every one of his 67 years and more. His grey, haggard appearance was slightly more poignant here, as well as the creases across his face.
As his side collapsed 3-1 to Serie A’s sprightly rookies Novara he watched with an alarmingly cold stare – completely devoid of any visible emotion, almost oblivious to the euphoric sky blue shirts surrounding him. Something had to change.
In the first five matches of manager Gian Piero Gasperini’s reign, Inter lurched from one setback to the next. A loss to bitter rivals Milan in the Supercoppa Italiana began the rot, acting as prelude to a calamitous 4-3 reverse at Palermo in their Serie A opener. Ultimately, frustration turned into tedium after a stale 0-0 with Roma and a shocking 1-0 defeat to Trabzonspor.
Before the Novara debacle, many had seen enough, stating that Gasperini was beyond the pale, that it couldn’t get any worse. As if Moratti’s senses had been battered by another managerial reign which left the club in turmoil – Rafael Benitez and Leonardo tried but failed – he trudged out of the Stadio Silvio Piola appearing unmoved. His words, however, spoke volumes.
“He seems to be in a very difficult situation, whichever way you look at it,” he sighed, echoing the views of most of Inter’s fans.
“Difficult” seems to be a key phrase at Inter right now, seeing as results on the pitch have deteriorated, with the club still haunted by the fact that they have never recovered from losing Jose Mourinho to Real Madrid. Of course, in true Inter style, Gasperini was never their first choice. Confirming the expectations of many, the morning after the Novara shambles the former Genoa man was banished.
On paper, Inter are blessed with a wealth of talent, players with experience at the highest level. The side that won the Champions League in 2010 has barely changed, only if you account for the loss of Samuel Eto’o. Influential though he was, but one player doesn’t make a team.
Lucio won the World Cup in 2002, whilst Wesley Sneijder was a losing finalist in 2010. Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso share almost 200 Argentina caps between them. This is a club overflowing with world class internationals and experience. Put them into a melting pot with a faltering manager, however, and performances can spill into disarray.
That’s exactly what happened. The football was tedious, tentative and nervy. Passes went astray, particularly between the likes of Lucio, Christian Chivu and Julio Cesar at the back. Diego Milito, usually ice-cool in front of goal, missed a sitter against Roma – a second-half header. His first touch deserted him against Novara, particularly on the rare occasions he found himself in space.
Diego Forlan – always a risky signing, he was previously linked with a move to the MLS – looked disinterested in his wide-forward position. Under Gasperini, the usually dependable Cambiasso was unreliable to say the least, as illustrated by his losing the ball shortly before Novara’s opener in their historic victory.
It’s fair to say Gasperini’s problems started from the back and spread forwards, quite literally. Playing in a 3-4-3 formation was a shambles, most notably due to a three-pronged defence. Chivu, Lucio and Andrea Ranocchia are all capable, but leaving them in this flimsy, hazardous formation left gaping holes in the Inter back-line. They always looked vulnerable to a counter, with Cambiasso burdened with shielding a creaking defence.
The yawning space in Inter’s defence was exploited by Palermo to a tee. A hoofed ball cut out every lackadaisical blue and black shirted player on the pitch, leaving Fabrizio Miccoli with the easiest chance to take. A similar theme ran its course against Novara.
Giuseppe Gemiti and Marco Rigoni sparked havoc down the flanks and were always free. After all, Gasperini’s decision to field two thirty-somethings in a three-man defence was always going to be risky, especially at a time where pace is such a prevalent trait in football.
The Italian’s vigorous stirring of his side during matches was destined to fail. Trying to be bold, Gasperini reverted to a 3-5-2 in the second half against Novara, with many players bemused as to what formation they were supposed to be playing.
As if condemned to defeat from the off, everything that could go wrong against Novara did go wrong. The decision to start Luc Castaignos, 18, and hand him a debut in such a crucial match was baffling. Seeing Giampaolo Pazzini sitting on the bench was a startling sight, more so when you consider that he, unlike so many others, has enjoyed such a smooth transition into the Inter side since joining from Sampdoria in January.
Transfer System In Tatters…
There’s no way to tell what went on behind closed doors at Inter during Gasperini’s doomed reign, but it was always clear that the 53-year-old wanted the talismanic Samuel Eto’o to stay. That was before the Cameroon international jetted off to Russia with rouble signs in place of his pupils.
This – coupled with the fact that Inter were pining for the likes of a Fabio Capello or an Andre Villas-Boas – shows a lack of identification with Gasperini from Moratti and the Inter hierarchy. When communication breaks down between staff at a club, you know there is a problem.
There was also a cloud of ambiguity hanging over the future of Sneijder. Because of his links to Manchester United, Gasperini, as rumour would have it, did not see the Dutch international staying at the club.
It showed. The talented playmaker was stricken of his creative duties and left in a deeper role, the 3-4-3 formation not suiting him at all. The Nerazzurri deeply missed his influence around the 18-yard-box and even at dead ball situations, where he is usually accurate, he still faltered and saw most of his set-pieces not clearing the first defender.
The Next Chapter…
Almost as soon as Gasperini was exiting through the revolving door at the San Siro, Claudio Ranieri was entering – hired less than 48 hours after the Novara humiliation. The 2010 Club World Cup champions have spiralled into disarray since the loss of Mourinho and need stability – fast.
Ranieri stemmed the flow of misery with a smash-and-grab 3-1 victory at Bologna, but the hard work still has to be done. The 4-4-2 is back, with Ranieri’s men now performing as a unit. Six shots on target was also an improvement – under Gasperini, Inter managed four against Roma and just the two against Novara.
Credit to the former Chelsea manager though, who will be looking to improve his swelling reputation as the go-to guy when a club is in crisis. That is exactly what Inter are involved in right now. They started with eight over-30s against Bologna and the spine of their side is wilting. Plagued with underperforming stars since last season, Inter must now evolve and catch the leading pack in Europe.
En route to their Champions League victory in 2010, Mourinho was cunning and tactically perfect, crafting a shrewd blueprint for success with a carefully assembled squad. His departure has left Inter in a state of flux, and Ranieri now has a difficult task as Moratti continues his reputation for juggling with managers. Over to you, Claudio.
By Alistair Hendrie
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona