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Inter 3 - Chievo 1

Inter needed to get their head right after suffering a horrific stretch in a 3-1 home win against Chievo. The good guys in black and blue needed to fix a lot of their issues before the season ran away. The team still has roster issues. There are still injury issues. But after the winter market and after a different set of injuries than the ones that plagued the team in September, another change was needed. Insert the 433 formation.

Claudio Villa

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And change is what Strama did. But I would rather start with what didn’t change from the Siena game to today. New Inter team member Kuzmanovic started his second game after just joining the team a couple of weeks ago and (I think) playing in the midweek Internationals. He’s been put in the very center of the midfield as both defensive screen and first option as link between the defense and midfield. I think that the fandom is going to take some time to warm up to the way he plays, but in both games I have seen a marked difference in the way Inter plays the game out of defense. For one thing, there are significantly fewer long passes launched out of the back to The Mighty Mites up front. It was a more gradual advance and the way the defense was able to recover more often and for more minutes really helped them, I think. Plus, generally speaking, and with notable exception, turnovers are happening further up the field which is also a huge help to the bottom line.

Looking at the fandom’s pagelle on the players from, it’s obvious that he hasn’t made a great impression and I have some questions on his defensive ability, but I will be interested to see if he can make a subtle but important contribution to this team. Unfortunately all we have right now is just too small a sample size to really determine what if anything he brings to the team that is different than what we had. Here’s what I am taking out of this in the short term; Strama is willing to make adjustments without ego. He’s willing to see that something isn’t working and then make changes. I like that.

Gargano’s appearance is another element of this team that didn’t change from the Siena game, and I was questioning his constant inclusion in the first team before then. But, he played well today, and it’s my belief that playing next to 2 other players who are honest to goodness midfielders who know how to play that position in their bones, who can instinctively compliment his actions and who won’t have to rely on him to do things that aren’t his strength… like try to be a playmaker. With Cuchu and Kuz on the field, he can just do what he does and they can support his play. And he can support theirs. Looking at the comments to the game earlier today, I can see that I am not alone in this. I still won’t want the team to redeem his loan, but at least I won’t curse his name for the rest of the year – if this good play continues. I am sure that this will be a huge incentive for him.

Cassano is the third element that is a holdover from the Siena game that I want to talk about. And really, he looked pretty much the same. He scored in both games. But the real problem with Cassano is that as much as he can score, he’s better at the set up. Since Milito – or really any semblance of an honest to gosh prima punta – has been on "vacation" he hasn’t had anyone but Guarin to set up. And as good as Guarin is, he’s not a striker. Cassano, like Gargano didn’t have to put the world on their shoulders this game. There was Milito back from injury that posed enough of a threat to Chievo to take some heat off him. There was also Kuzmanovic who kept him from having to drop too deep to get the ball. Cassano was free to do what he was best at doing – be a huge pain in the butt of the opposition as both a scorer and a set up man.

The last guy I want to talk about is Andrea Ranocchia. I’ll get into the 343 to 433 switch later on, but I want to talk about the player first. Ranocchia has had to put up with a lot of crap since his switch to Inter and only a little of it had to do with his ability. Last season, partly due to a pair of weak willed coaches, his role was ill defined and he suffered as a part time player. This season has seen a completely different player. And this game was a good example. He played a confident game, was strong on the tackle he was dominating in the air and he made a single rash, hot-headed move that was immediately penalized with a caution despite it being his first really serious foul of the game – we won’t talk about the Chievo dive in the box that went without it’s just punishment. When the ball went out wide and Javier wasn’t there to clean it up, Ranocchia went wide, without issue to clean it up. This was a good game by a good defender. If there is anyone that personifies the new direction that the team is desperate to move into, it’s him. People are still not quite sure what Inter has with Juan Jesus. Especially after the game with Siena, and the apparent switch to 4 in the back, I think that people still have some questions about him. I think that Ranocchia has answered most of the questions people had about him from last season. Everyday hides a new test, but he has looked good a large portion of this season – to my eyes. And today wasn’t any different. Other than the not needed going to ground on a single challenge that looked about 25 meters off the goal line, I don’t think he put a foot, or head, wrong – keeping in mind that it was his headed ball off the corner that started the sequence of events that led to the first goal. He came up huge today, and I don’t think his effort should go unnoticed.

Okay, so that was a lot of stuff that we had seen before today; Cassano playing well, Ranocchia playing well… yaddayaddayadda amodestwinwithlotsofoverthetoppraise yaddayaddayadda. So what happened differently – other than the score, of course – from the nightmare run that occurred before?

And here, I am glad that I can’t use the "small competition" label. Siena was small competition, Torino was small competition and Inter had a hard time, to say the least, with both.

So it wasn’t the competition level, it had to be something within the team itself. Yes, there was an attitude adjustment. Strama himself said that that the team was angry with the previous run of poor results. That’s great. But more importantly I think that there was a lack of a significant crutch on the field. Guarin had come to be so important to the team – the team was willing to let him be so important I should say – that whether he had a good game or a bad game changed the fortunes of the entire group! This evening the team was forced to come to grips with a Guarin-less future. Does someone else step up, or does the team just stall waiting for the Savior to come back next week?

Does this sound too simplistic? I don’t think it is. This is a team that had a Savior in Ibra. It had a Savior in Eto’o. It had a Savior in Milito. So the vets on the team, even the fans, are used to letting someone else take care of the whole "attacking" schitck and drag the team forward. I think it’s an important mental block that got at least chipped away a bit. It wasn’t Guarin who had to drag the team forward. Yeah, Milito scored, but it was the last goal in a 3-1 game. I’m not saying it wasn’t important. Hell, it closed the contest, but it didn’t win the day. The team had to work together in a collective activity, like a pair of corners, and that’s really how the game was won – in a collective endeavor. I would like to look back at this review one day and say, "Yep, we sure turned it around just like that, together."

So being Guarin-less and discovering that the team was good enough to win without him could be an important psychological step. But being able to use both elements of the 433 could be an important tactical step. The formation is actually pretty important. It’s certainly not the personnel. The personnel from the last game to this one is almost the same, but still, the mirroring of events is pretty ironic. The team, using the 433, went 2-2 starting the season culminating in a poor showing against Siena, to be precise, and it was against Chievo that launched the "new" 343 formation that Inter has been using. Coincidently enough, after receiving inconsistent results using the 343 in the first 4 games of the winter half of the season, culminating in a poor showing against Siena, Inter have changed back to the 433.

I say that the personnel is almost the same… there are some changes. If you are curious: Pereira was in the original encounter and he wasn’t at the latest one. Walter Samuel was in the original but not the latest one. And Palacio didn’t feature in the original game.

Now obviously, as I said, this isn’t the first time that the team used the 433 successfully this season. But it could be that using Gargano from the beginning chasing people around with 2 other real midfielders to back him up and using Kuzmanovic as that link from the defense to the midfield might make the team more suited to play the 433 than it was in September.

Look I don’t think that Kuzmanovic is some World Class player that’s going to make everyone forget about Socrates, or Motta, or Pirlo or whomever. But he’s got a skill set that makes him useful… unique even… on this team. He can set his ass right in front of the defense and play the ball around the park to people so that the team can gradually, with more skill than before, with a higher chance of success than before, possess the ball up the field. Sometimes the ball goes up the right. Sometimes it goes up the left. Sometimes it goes in the air. But now, it has a chance to go up the middle with some success, hopefully making it harder to defend. And maybe it will be a little easier for the three forwards to stay forward and yet still hold out some small hope of seeing the ball come their way.

Deki, Kovacic and Kuzmanovic are all midfielders who are available now that weren’t before when Strama tried out the 433 and all actually have a shot at being that middle guy. Like I said, I don’t know if Kuz is great enough to be that pivot, but I know right now, he can do it adequately. And I know that for very short periods of time, Deki can do it as well. And that’s a lot more than we had in September when we played Chievo the first time and had to change formation to do it.

Taking a step back from the midfielders for a sec, it occurs to me that we also have the defenders to do it as well. Part of the problem that we had with the 433 is that Walter Samuel wasn’t getting around as much as he needed to, but that Ranocchia needed that experience to lean on. So Strama invented a weird Rock, Scissor, Paper phenomenon with the defenders. One was tall with very big all around talent, average range, limited experience but no attitude. One had experience and position but had gotten slow and a very reduced range. A third was found that had incredible range, not quite the innate talent, no experience but more attitude than the other two combined. After some crazy Roshambo Hoodoo was done, a composite defense that was much greater than the sum of its parts was formed.

After Walter went down, and likely never to return, Strama was desperate to hold onto the (clean) triumvirate in the back through the use of Chivu, but it really was destined to fail at some point. There was a strange magic in those three that Chivu doesn’t have. Have the youngsters gotten enough experience to be able to work with just two?

If this game is any indication than there is hope. The problem is that with such a small sample size, it’s hard to know what to expect. The games certainly don’t get any easier the further along we go, that’s for sure.

But the back 4 worked well. Javier as the right back kind of filled in for the grizzled Samuel as the backline mentor – and frankly if he belongs anywhere on this field at this time of his career it’s as a fullback for pity’s sake. Keep his thighs out of the midfield. Naga and Javier certainly are no strangers to the positions that they inhabited. And as the game went on Ranocchia and Juan looked like they gained more confidence the longer they were able to play. The goal was unfortunate, and there were no shortage of people to blame for it, but I choose to think of it as a solitary misstep, even though I seem to recall another header that missed by what looked like inches. I am not worried too much as I expect some rustiness in a formation that hasn’t been used lately. As long as it’s rustiness and not suckiness…

But the point is that the back four against Chievo looked much more solid than the back three, sans Samuel, against Siena. It’s my fervent hope that Strama is devoting a huge chunk of time on defense in practice is all. Like I said, the games don’t get easier from here.

Two more things and then I’ll end the boredom.

First, it made my heart glad to see that the changes Strama made morphed the team over to a 4231 almost seamlessly. Not just because I would like to judge the coach on his favored formation – I am actually more impressed that he was able to humbly and ably change the team over to a formation that he had very little apparent familiarity with – but because it tells me what they are doing in practice. What they are doing, my friends, is working hard to learn/re-learn 2 formations. Any doubt I had about Strama’s leadership is at rest at this point. What was it? The team was in a 9 game meh and he’s got their attention to start back at square one? And train it enough so that they can dust it off for today? Again, this is solely my opinion, but in my experience, that’s evidence of a lot of dressing room regard for him.

This is the last point I want to make for the night. I don’t remember off the top of my head, but I think that someone was wondering what formation change means for Guarin when he gets back from his ban. As far as I can tell, it means that you stick him just right of center in the midfield section of the formation – where we saw Cuchu today – and let the mother run box to box. If the team were to switch from a 433 to 4231 midgame, I would take him off the field, as I don’t think he’s a good fit for this – unless you want him behind the center – but I don’t necessarily agree that he’s a playmaker in that role. I think he’s better at running into space, using his incredible athleticism, rather than setting up killer passes from a perch behind the striker and wings. But I don’t really think he’d be horrible at it either.