Contemptuous of journalists at the best of times and never one to suffer fools gladly, Esteban Cambiasso shook his head on reading that Inter’s players were apparently telling each other they hadn’t worked this hard in pre-season since the days of Héctor Cúper.
“Only [Javier] Zanetti [among the current squad] was with Cúper [between 2001 and 2003] and he hasn’t been able to train with us yet [because he’s recovering from an Achilles injury],” Cambiasso bristled. “More than anything, I’d say we’re working differently, more on stamina, more off the pitch: the last time we did it was with [Roberto] Mancini.”
Standing corrected, the press corps still felt El Cuchu had to concede the broader point here, which is that from the outside looking in Inter appear to have sweat blood and tears over the summer under new coach Walter Mazzarri.
All the double training sessions, the gym work, the running through the woods. It’s been grueling. Inter’s players have put in the hard yards. Mazzarri has been at the training ground from dawn till dusk. This blue [and black] collar work ethic has soon made him a popular figure within the club and among the fans.
“He works as hard as any player out on the pitch,” Inter president Massimo Moratti said, “and he’s got talent to boot. In that sense he reminds me of Paul Ince. It doesn’t matter how long you stay, and Ince was only here for a year and a half, there are certain individuals who stick in your mind as great Interisti because they’re great people. The same goes for Mazzarri. He’s a hard worker who knows exactly what he’s doing and how to deal with the players and everyone else at the club.”
Mazzarri has sure had a lot to do. Last season Inter finished ninth in Serie A. It was their worst finish since 1994. They failed to qualify for Europe too for the first time since 1999. “I wouldn’t want to get too much into what happened last season,” Mazzarri said at his official unveiling, “I’d rather reset everything and start from zero.”
That’s what he has done. Inter have gone back to basics. “Let’s say that we’re working on things that in theory we should already know,” goalkeeper Samir Handanovic explained. “We’ve started again from the ABC of football and defensive organisation. That’s what we needed.” Remember Inter conceded 57 goals in Serie A last term. Their defence was as bad as Siena’s and only Pescara let in more. Incidentally, both those teams were relegated.
So making Inter solid again was one of Mazzarri’s main priorities. He is a great organiser. To help him get his ideas across, the club brought in Hugo Campagnaro, a lieutenant of his from Napoli. “For me it’s the seventh year with him [they were at Samp together too] and I understand all the movements well,” the centre-back said, “but the other lads are adapting very well too. In Mazzarri’s football if everyone does what they have to do you can put anyone in difficulty, Juventus included.”
We’ll find out just how true that assertion is in the Derby d’Italia on Saturday evening. But so far Inter have got results in line with their stature but above expectation. For the first time since Cúper’s ill-fated final season in 2003-04, they have started a campaign with back-to-back victories. Inter didn’t even manage that in their treble winning year.
What’s really caught the eye is that the team is more or less the same as last season’s. The only new signing to have started each of the opening games in Serie A is Campagnaro. It further underlines Mazzarri’s ability to work with what he’s got, a virtue for which he has been praised at a delicate moment for Inter as Moratti negotiates the sale of a majority stake in the club to the Indonesian media mogul Erik Thohir.
Mind you, don’t be fooled by the low profile nature of their transfer activity. According to Il Corriere della Sera, Inter had a net spend of minus €41.5m, a figure that was more in the red than anyone else’s in Serie A this summer. Depth has been added to a squad that, when everyone’s fit, is already supposedly competitive.
Should Inter suffer injuries at the back, they’ve got Rolando and Marco Andreolli to supplement Campagnaro, Andrea Ranocchia, Juan Jesus and Walter Samuel. In midfield, it’s hoped Saphir Taider will be their Paul Pogba, a player capable of freshening up and re-energising the centre of the pitch. Up front where they were caught short last season, they have further rejuvenated the team with Mauro Icardi and Ishak Belfodil providing a glimpse of the future beyond Rodrigo Palacio and the recovering Diego Milito.
So Inter are deceptively well stacked, even if their technical director Marco Branca and director of sport Piero Ausilio failed to deliver on Mazzarri’s specific request for a right-sided wide player. Their pursuits of Mauricio Isla and Juan Camilo Zuniga came to nothing, meaning he was left with Jonathan.
Another aspect of their market which got people talking was the sale of Antonio Cassano to Parma. After the exit of Wesley Sneijder six months earlier, Inter were now without an established No.10. On the one hand, it showed how serious they are about developing Mateo Kovacic, a player Mazzarri hopes to turn into Inter’s Marek Hamsik. On the other, with only six months experience in Serie A, he still might need time to learn the ropes, which leaves Ricky Álvarez.
Like Jonathan, he was once regarded as a flop at Inter. And yet remarkably both, along with Campagnaro, have been among Inter’s best performers so far this season.
Against Genoa at San Siro, Campagnaro in particular was impressive, recording a WhoScored rating of 8.3. He made 6 clearances, succeeded in 4 tackles, 2 interceptions and blocked a shot. Illustrative of how well Inter defended as a whole - they made 22 tackles - was the stat showing that Genoa didn’t manage a single shot on target all-game. Unable to register one themselves until the 52nd minute, Inter looked solid - they had 58% possession - and started to click following the introductions of their youngsters, first Icardi - to go from 3-5-1-1 to 3-5-2 - then Kovacic and Taider. The breakthrough came when a deflected cross from Jonathan found Yuto Nagatomo at the far post to nod in the opener, then Fredy Guarín played in Palacio to seal the win.
Away to Catania, who lest we forget finished above Inter last season, they repeated the feat with greater confidence. Once again, Inter limited their opponents to few opportunities. They had 56% of the ball on someone else’s home turf and when they didn’t have it, players in Nerazzurro acquitted themselves well in the defensive phase. They made 30 tackles, frustrating Catania who could only manage 3 shots on target, which Handanovic dealt with relatively comfortably.
Their reward was consecutive clean sheets for the first time in the league since October last year. Incidentally only Udinese have made more tackles per game than Inter this season [30 compared with 26], while Roma share the joint lowest number of shots conceded per game with them too .
Defensively Inter have been put right again by Mazzarri but don’t labour under the misapprehension that his coaching is limited to that. Remember his Napoli side were Serie A’s top scorers last season. His teams are balanced and a picture has begun to emerge of how he wants Inter to go forward.
It’s no coincidence Nagatomo and Jonathan both received WhoScored ratings of 8.4 and 8 respectively against Catania. Mazzarri wants his wide players to bomb on. Both made more passes in the final third than any other Inter player (14 and 12, respectively), including Álvarez, who was WhoScored’s Man of the Match. Two of Inter’s three goals came from Nagatomo and Jonathan assists. The other incidentally was scored by the Japan international, again appearing at the far post like he did against Genoa.
“I didn’t believe that my players would understand what I want from them so soon,” Mazzarri said. Everyone, not just them, seems to know what they have to do. Inter look like a team again. They have a clear identity to their play, Mazzarri’s identity. “We still need to improve a lot,” he said and maybe Saturday’s game against Juventus comes too soon, but for now the signs are encouraging.
A common refrain with regard to Inter this summer has been: they can’t do worse than they did last year but the competition for a Champions League place has got even harder in the meantime. With Mazzarri, though, maybe they’ve got a chance after all.
Where do you think Inter will finish this season? Let us know in the comments.