The mid-spring agreement we reached on Hugo Campagnaro has a lot of positives. For one, he came on a free, and getting things for free is better than paying for them.* He is also objectively a better defender than any of the defenders we currently have on staff. And while this may not have been the idea at the time we signed him, he's turned out to be a perfectly appropriate transitional figure for our new managerial regime. The man has a decade of Serie A experience under his belt, and he spent the last four years playing under one Walter Mazzarri - he understands Mazzarri's system better than anyone on the team, and our defense is usually better when he's in it. These are all good things. Incredibly good things, actually.
And yet, there's no getting around the fact that Hugo is turning 34 this year. Until Zanetti made his comeback, Campagnaro was routinely our oldest player on the pitch. This club has had more than a few problems with holding onto older players well into their physical declines, and with a serious injury in the first half of the season already, there's really no telling how long Campagnaro's form will hold out. So I'm glad that he's here, and it was smart thinking to grab him when we did. I just hope we really understand how short-term his impact will be.
It made very few headlines when Inter picked up Porto defender Rolando on loan this summer. And why would it have? Though he's been playing on a top level team since 2008, Rolando has never done anything worthy of much note, and the move reeked of last minute panic on Mazzarri's part. Rolando had, of course, played for Mazzarri before as a sporadically-deployed loaner at Napoli, and the thinking here seemed to be: "Well, he is not great, but at least he knows the system, and maybe he can step up in a pinch if our over-30 defenders get hurt." Injuries happened in quick succession and Rolando stepped up.
Since his inauspicious entrance, Rolando has had a very quiet yet significant impact on our squad. He's played 12 matches for us to date, scoring one goal, and helping keep us from utter defensive collapse in Campagnaro's absence. (What's that you say about the Roma match? Funny, I don't even remember a Roma match...) For the derby he finally saw himself elevated to first-choice, and against Lazio he was clearly our most solid stopper. (We have the option to pick him up permanently next summer, and I'll be very surprised if we don't exercise it.) He might not be the long-term solution to our defensive issues, but he's certainly not the problem.
We took quite a chance in signing Mauro Icardi from Sampdoria. Despite his Barcelona academy-bred skills, imposing physique, and knack for smiting our most hated enemies, he hadn't really done all that much to fully justify his price tag, and Inter has a less than sterling reputation for developing young strikers. Yet there was a certain boldness in the move that I liked; it was a calculated risk that could pay off big if it worked. Since then, it's been a split decision. An injury has certainly slowed his development, and you can't blame anyone for that. Yet no one has been worse served by Mazzarri's ultra-conservative tactical approach than Icardi, and despite an epic goal against Juve, we're still no closer to figuring him out.
Side note: I'm no moralist, and I don't really care who anyone dates as long as it isn't my wife.** But Icardi's insistence on oversharing his soap-opera romantic life is really the last thing his public image needs right now. At this stage in his career, Icardi needs to be establishing his reputation among both fans and his peers in the football world. Obviously, he wants people to buy his jersey and help him get sponsorship deals, and it's unlikely his series of duck face selfies and lovey-dovey baby talk is going to endear him to the public. (Pro tip: do not look up Icardi's Twitter account if you want to keep your lunch down.) But more importantly, football can be a very small, insular world sometimes, and as a young player, it's crucial to develop a good profile among coaches and fellow players who'll believe in you and nurture you as your career goes through its peaks and valleys. Right now, Icardi looks ridiculous at best, and traitorous at worst. All of this will be forgotten if he turns it up on the pitch, but if he doesn't, there's a growing crowd of people who'll love kicking him when he's down. He's a young kid, and he needs to have people on his side (whether his agent or his club) to explain this to him.
You got to feel at least a little bit bad for Saphir Taider. He's certainly not the most inspiring player we've ever seen, but he's still a promising young talent. He runs himself ragged every match, scrambles to atone for his mistakes when he loses the ball, and has clearly won the trust of his coach in a very short period of time. And yet, he's had to endure more than his fair share of criticism and scrutiny simply because he's nowhere near as exciting as Mateo Kovacic, who he routinely keeps on the bench. But that's hardly his fault. What does excite me about Taider is that his playing style suggests the kind of no-frills box-to-box worker bee that this club hasn't really had since pre-injuries Thiago Motta or Sully Muntari. I'm not saying he's as good as either of those players, but think about our attempts to fill that role over the past few seasons: Gargano, Mudingayi, Kuzmanovic, Palombo, Kharja, Mariga... Taider is certainly no worse than any of these guys, and he's significantly younger. He's still got a decent number of kinks in his game to work out, and we probably paid a bit too much for him, but if we're actually serious about building a young spine for this team going forward, Taider is a decent start.
Like a lukewarm slab of tuna tartar atop a rice cracker passed around on an hors d'oeuvres platter, the main virtue of Marco Andreolli's signing is that it was free. That may seem like a cruel way to describe a player who's done nothing to deserve any hostility, but frankly, there just isn't much to go on. Despite the frequent absences of Campagnaro, Samuel and Chivu, and Ranocchia's inconsistent form, Andreolli has only been able to get a single appearance at this club so far, and in a Coppa match at that. I'd love to see him do well here, being a former youth teamer and all, but the man is 27 years old, and if he still isn't ready to step into a squad like ours now, then I wonder if he'll ever be.
If you've ever puzzled over why we have Wallace on our books this season, apparently you have British immigration services to thank. Chelsea only sent him our way because his U.K. work permit won't come through until next year, and rather than give him a yearlong vacation, they figured they might as well let him out on a season loan, with no option to buy. Getting a raw 19-year-old with zero European experience on a loan without the possibility of buying him only makes sense if you're a bottom-table team and/or desperate, and I don't think we're either just yet. I mean sure, we were rightly concerned about depth in the wing positions over the summer, and if Jonathan is struck by lightning on the way to training tomorrow, I'll be glad to have this guy around. But as its stands, we're basically just functioning as babysitters here, with Mourinho as the cool dad who told us to help ourselves to the leftovers in the fridge before speeding away to Monaco for the weekend in his Maserati.
Best case scenario: Wallace gets some real playing time here and starts working through some growing pains, and we hand him back to Chelsea this summer a slightly better player than before. More likely scenario: Wallace continues to sit on the bench (so far he's played a mere 43 minutes in Serie A, spread out over three appearances) and we hand him back to Chelsea a slightly older player than before, having left no mark on this club whatsoever.
My father used to love telling me stories about his tenure in the Naval Academy, particularly about the time he was forced to eat four tablespoons of butter. The Navy had a strict "don't take more than you can eat" policy for the mess hall, and required recruits to finish every scrap of food on their plates. My father made the mistake of taking five tablespoons of butter when he only needed one - he reasoned that condiments didn't count as "food" - and he was accosted by a sergeant on his way out. The whole company had to stand at attention while he choked all the butter down, and promptly vomited it all back up. (He claims this was the breaking point at which he decided to get himself intentionally discharged from the military, which he did rather ingeniously, but that's a story for a different time.)
My point being, if you stock your plate with garnishes you have no intention of eating, someone will eventually end up sick.*** We paid a rather hefty fee for Belfodil, and we still don't even own his whole card. While he has tons of promise, it was an inherently odd move to make for someone who was clearly going to be our fourth-choice striker. And even when two of our four strikers went on the DL, we still hardly used him. Belfodil is getting increasingly frustrated here - understandably so - and looks likely to go on loan in the spring. By the time he comes back, let's hope we've figured out what we actually intend to do with him.
Ezequiel Schelotto and Zdravko Kuzmanovic
Way back when I was but a wee fan poster and comments section gadfly on this site (before I graduated to the occasional guest-blogger and comments section gadfly that you all know and love today), I criticized what I referred to as Marco Branca's "shotgun approach" to transfers. A good transfer market operator is like a sharpshooter: He knows what he's looking for, he finds it in a crowd, and he waits until just the right moment to take his shot. Branca, however, is prone to spending huge amounts of time and resources chasing a possibly impossible high-value transfer target, failing to sign him, and instead hurriedly nabbing a bunch of cheaper players in the hope that at least one of them will come good. Last winter, Branca expended a massive effort to sign Paulinho, even though it seemed terribly obvious to even casual onlookers that the move was never going to happen. It didn't, and so on the very last day of the winter transfer window, he fired his transfer shotgun into the brush, and came back home with Mateo Kovacic, Schelotto and Kuzmanovic under his arm. Kovacic was a trophy buck - the other two were varmints caught in the crossfire. (Okay, this hunting metaphor is starting to creep me out now.)
Schelotto seems like a hard-working, good-natured kid desperate to prove himself, but he's simply nowhere near good enough to break into one of the weakest Inter squads in years - expect us to continue to loan him out to various newly-promoted teams until his contract ends. Kuzmanovic is by far the better of the two, though he's still a last-resort midfielder, and we have other last-resort midfielders who are either better or more promising - expect us to use him as a makeweight either this transfer window or next.
When it comes to Mateo Kovacic, I almost feel like a pessimist. To me, Kovacic is the most exciting young talent this club has signed in some time, a player who could easily become the next Stankovic, and maybe even the next Seedorf. You talk to some other people, however, and they'll tell you that Kovacic is destined to become some sort of awe-inspiring hybrid of Lothar Matthaus, Zinedine Zidane, Gianni Rivera, Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle, Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne and Vishnu, the all-pervading essence of all beings. Yet I think we can all agree that the kid is good - damn good - and ought to only get better. So it can be extraordinarily infuriating to watch him confined to an impact sub role in match after match. I know I feel a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I see a starting XI without his name on it.
Yet however good he is, and however closely he resembles certain supreme Hindu deities, it's important to remember that Kovacic is still 19 years old. He has yet to clock a full 12 months in a competitive league, and he plays in a role that requires incredible mental quickness and tactical maturity. In those football management video games we all spend way too much of our lives playing, developing a young prospect is all about giving them plenty of playing time, and watching as the experience points accrue. Reality is far more complicated. Throw a player into the deep end too quickly, and you can sap his confidence. Fail to provide him with consistency, and his progress could go all pear-shaped.
So if nothing else, Kovacic has had consistency under Mazzarri. His role in the team is not to lead the squad through a full 90 minutes, but rather to come on with half an hour remaining and pump some life into the match. In general, he's done very well at this, and his role is consistent with Mazzarri's general tactics, which involve wearing opponents down through very defensive football for the first half of the match, then increasing the pressure later on as they start to tire. Both this tactic and Kovacic's role in it make sense in the short-term, but just as we need to start playing with more attacking intent and swagger from the start, so too do we need to give Kovacic more of the responsibility he's been earning. I don't have any real complaints about the way Kovacic has been handled over the past three months, but I'm starting to get genuinely concerned. Starting Taider ahead of him against stiff competition is tactically understandable. Starting Kuzmanovic or Zanetti instead of him against weak competition is ridiculous. I don't think we've done any harm to him or hampered his future with the way we've deployed him so far, but look: This is a guy who's planning to go head-to-head with some of the best players on earth as a starter for Croatia in the World Cup this summer, and there's only so long he'll consent to sitting on the bench for us against opponents like Livorno or Bologna. I'd hate to see us miss the boat yet again.
Grade(s): A+ (for signing him)/B- (for our development of him thus far)
*I'm pretty sure this is true, but then again I did nearly fail Economics back in 12th grade.
**Seriously Maurito, you stay the hell away from her.
***There are far more references to vomiting in this post than I intended.