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Up Is Down, Down Is Up: Four Ways Inter Flipped the Script This Season

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These four things have given Inter Milan new life and a real shot at competing for the Scudetto and a spot in the Champions League.

Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Inter currently sits at the top of the Serie A table after 15 matchdays. That fact alone should be enough to justify the headline of this piece – at this point last year, we were 10 places lower – but I’ve been thinking a bit about just how fundamentally different this season’s campaign has been compared to previous years. It’s not just the new players or the winning mentality; we appear to be in the process of ditching so many of the recurring handicaps and mental blocks that helped drag us into mediocrity. Here are four changes that stand out to me.

1. Transfer flops? What transfer flops?

Aside from our carousel of coaches, it’s hard to look much further than the transfer market to explain Inter’s many failures in the post-Jose Mourinho era. Going through the list of players we brought in from winter of 2011 through winter of 2015, your stomach just drops: Belfodil, Rocchi, Forlan, Pazzini, Zarate, Taider,  Vidic, Shaqiri, Mudingayi,  Pereira, Kuzmanovic, Dodo, M’Vila, Wallace, Schelotto, Silvestre, Gargano, Alvarez, Palombo, Podolski, Osvaldo, and on and on. Some of these players were victims of circumstances, but most were outright disasters. Our poor judgment on the market got so bad that pretty much all new Inter players were assumed to be potential flops until proven otherwise.

Flash forward to last summer, and this team had made a number of very splashy signings. Geoffrey Kondogbia got the biggest headlines, as the third-most expensive player in club history. Our most difficult signing was Ivan Perisic, who we had to pursue to the bitter end. Stevan Jovetic got quite a lot of attention, and if you read the international press, a lot of journalists saw our loan move for Martin Montoya as an encouraging sign. (He’s a Barca youth product, after all – what could go wrong?)

Of these four bold-name signings, only Jovetic has been a success so far, and even then it’s hard not to notice that he hasn’t had a goal since August. Kondogbia has shown some quality, but he’s also been worryingly slow in adjusting to the Italian game; Perisic has been all over the place, at times displaying the decision-making abilities of a small child; worst of all, Montoya has yet to even play for us, and probably never will. So, yet another failed transfer window for Inter, right?

Not at all. As much as the football press loves to nitpick this club, I have yet to see a single opinion piece written about our unimpressive big new transfers, and there’s a very good reason for that. While all the headlines were focused on the big names, Inter had one of our best transfer windows in recent years while no one was looking. Few people noticed at all when we signed Jeison Murillo last spring, and Miranda’s arrival was relegated to the back pages of the sporting papers; yet they've quickly formed the best centerback pairing in the league. Felipe Melo was a highly unpopular signing among fans who remembered his Juve days, yet this €3.7 million transfer has had far more of an immediate impact on our midfield than €30-million-man Kondogbia. Jonathan Biabiany appeared to be all but retired when we picked him up for free, and he’s given our attack a vital new outlet. And Adem Ljajic arrived at the last minute of deadline day, his signature seen as a sort of bonus option in the wake of our long-awaited Perisic capture, yet it’s Ljajic who’s been our most indispensable creative player this past month.

In other words, it’s not just that we made the right moves this summer, it’s that we also considered the inevitability that some of our moves could be wrong, and planned for it well.

2. Preferred Formation: All of Them

Over the last half-decade, it’s been a challenge to make it through any conversation with an Inter fan without getting into a fierce argument over the team’s formation. This probably started in 2011, when Gasperini’s introduction of a 3-man backline so scandalized some interiste that you might have thought he suggested wearing black and white stripes – the wafer-thin 3-4-2-1 formation he used against Novara probably had just as much to do with his sacking as the loss. Ranieri mostly reverted back to type during his brief tenure, but his reputation as the Tinkerman didn’t come out of nowhere, and his Inter had no reliable shape. The next season, Stramaccioni’s strategic naiveté was exposed over and over again. And Mazzarri, demonstrating all the flexibility of an arthritic 90-year-old, persisted with the exact same tactics week after week, even when it became painfully obvious that the rest of the league had figured out exactly how to outmaneuver us.

So far this season, Mancini’s preferred formation appears to be: all of them. 4-3-1-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1…we’ve lined up with all of these so far, never once fielding the same staring XI, switching things up so often that it almost seemed random. I’ll admit I mistook this for uncertainty at the beginning, but it’s fast becoming clear that Mancini thinks long and hard about these things. At best, this season’s Inter are masters at shape-shifting to neutralize opponents’ strengths. Sometimes this means we play ugly and cautious, sometimes we’re launching attack after attack into the opponent’s third. But every game plan seems tailored specifically to the occasion, and this squad has done a pretty remarkable job at keeping their heads no matter what role they find themselves in.

One of my biggest pet peeves about modern coaching in general, and recent Inter coaches in particular, is how many of them are so unreasonably married to their own favorite formations and strategies, even when they don’t have the right squad to pull them off. Mancini has broken out of this trap quite audaciously, and deserves huge credit for it.

3. Not So Rough and Tumble

Back during the treble year, I seriously considered creating a drinking game based around the number of times a sniffy British commentator would use the phrase "dark arts" to describe Inter – I'm glad I didn't, as it probably would have put someone in the hospital. I sort of loved hearing it though, partially because it made me automatically imagine Mourinho as Severus Snape, and also because, champagne football be damned, Inter has a storied legacy of strong physical defensive play. It was precisely Helenio Herrera’s cynical ruthlessness that made him the greatest Inter manager ever, and this team’s history of steel-studded hardmen stretches from Tarcisio Burgnich to Riccardo Ferri to Marco Materazzi.

This year, you would think we’d be just as studied practitioners of these dark arts – I mean hell, we have not one but two players with the nickname "Pitbull." One would be Melo, whose colorful rap sheet includes a tackle so brutal that it literally sparked a Turkish riot. Gary Medel, his partner in midfield destruction, amassed an impressive 7 red cards in his two seasons at Sevilla, and responded to one of them like this. In defense, Murillo is a specialist of the last-ditch sliding tackle, and his summer tour of South America saw him mark Neymar and Messi so doggedly that they were probably worried they'd find him lurking in their shower at home.

And yet, do you know where this team ranks in fouls committed per match? 20th. Seriously, go check it on WhoScored – we are dead last in the league when it comes to fouls, and barely midtable when it comes to tackles per match. We’re 16th when it comes to yellow cards, too. (Yet somehow 3rd in reds, which is…curious).

In other words, our stellar defensive record isn’t down to ball-busting and brawling, but rather positional awareness, cohesiveness and anticipation. (It doesn’t hurt to have a pretty okay goalkeeper, either.)

4. Sharing the Wealth

Last year, an Inter player was named capocannoniere for the first time since the days of Ibrahimovic, as Mauro Icardi’s goalscoring tear accounted for 37% of the team’s total league goals. It made sense then, that in the lead-up to this season, so much talk about this club revolved around keeping this streak going: How to keep him away from interested clubs, whether making him captain would help his confidence, how to surround him with support to give him more scoring chances, etc.

Obviously, Icardi’s productivity has slowed down considerably, but the team as a whole has picked up the slack. Despite only having 18 team goals this season, Inter has 11 different players on the scoring sheet, the highest number in the league. (Last year, we had 8 goalscorers across the entire 38 matches.) What’s even more incredible, out of our 10 wins, we have had 8 different players score the winning goal.

Branching off of point No. 2, what this means is that not only do opposing teams have no idea how we’re going to line up or who we’re going the field, they also have no real idea where to expect the killer blow to come from. Melo header? Maybe. Murillo going rogue and sprinting up the entire pitch? It happened before. Medel doing a Stankovic impression from 30 yards out? Ask Roma if you don't believe it.