"Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire...field knows what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one." -- William Goldman
I've always hated the first international break. No sooner has football actually started to kick into gear than everyone goes their separate ways, playing matches that don't really matter, risking injury, and sapping momentum. But this year it couldn't have come at a better time - we all need a minute to gather our bearings here.
Inter signed ten new senior players this summer. We've signed more major first-team players in the last several days than we usually would in an entire transfer window. It's entirely possible that we'll soon field a lineup with only our No. 1 and our No. 9 having played for this team last season. The three players who seemed to be established as the creative engine of the team last spring are all gone. We will soon be playing with an entirely different formation and tactical attitude than the one we used for our first two league matches and all our pre-season friendlies. Our captain has been demoted to the bench, where he looks likely to stay barring some sort of unforeseen catastrophe. Mauro Icardi now counts as a grizzled old Inter veteran.
Among all the comings and goings, there were a few head-scratchers, and it'll take a while for fans to get over the loss of Mateo Kovacic, as well as the psychic whiplash of seeing Felipe Melo - the Butcher of Brazil, the Gollum of Galatasaray, the Jackal of Juventus - wearing black and blue stripes. Martin Montoya seems to have vanished into the abyss the instant he arrived, to the point where I'm not 100% sure he still actually exists. And selling any Inter player to Juve - unless it's Schelotto for 20 million and a lifetime of free beer - will always leave a bit of a bitter taste.
But for all the weird feelings of disorientation it might cause us as fans, for once the unknown factors here are actually exciting, rather than triggers for sudden feelings of depression and helplessness. This is the first time in a long time that this team seems to be serious. We're not nervously assembling a bunch of youngsters and bargain buys that we hope we can somehow hammer into a team good enough for European qualification. This is a team built to challenge for a title.
Whatever shortcomings he may have as a tactical manager, Mancini somehow convinced a half-dozen players to leave clubs with guaranteed Champions League football and come to a dysfunctional team that limped into 8th place last season. We have a solid-looking backline for the first time since the glory days of Lucio and Samuel. We signed one of the highest-rated young midfielders in Europe, even if it meant spending big. And good Lord, take a glance at that attack - Icardi, Perisic, Palacio, Ljajic and Jovetic all ready to create havoc, where recently we only had Icardi and a misfiring Palacio.
The greatest unknown, of course, is just what style of football all of these assorted talents will play. Someone is going to have to start playing second- and third-banana in that attacking formation. The midfield is going to have to rouse itself from the daydreamy performances we've seen so far. If anyone in that defense gets hurt, we'll get to relive the Ranocchia-Vidic nightmares of old. And how long it will take all these newbies to gel and start playing in a coherent fashion may indeed be the difference between a successful season and an unsuccessful one. We just managed to muddle through and win two matches we normally would have drawn with a sort of interim Inter squad, but the growing pains will surely come, and how we deal with them could make all the difference.
And make no mistake, there are big things at stake this season. Most importantly, the financial health of the club - should we have another disappointing mid-table finish, we can expect to see much of this squad quickly dismantled, and it'll take us years to get back on level fiscal footing.
This is also shaping up to be the biggest test of Mancini's managerial career. Ever since Mourinho, all of our coaches have complained about the same thing: a lack of support from the management. Benitez demanded we sign two or three of his old Liverpool players, and we fired him for his impudence. Gasperini wanted to build the team around Eto'o and Palacio; we sold Eto'o and bought Zarate instead. Mazzarri wanted to create a disciplined unit of hard-working, blue-collar players, and ended up grappling with the likes of M'Vila and Osvaldo.
Mancini, on the other hand, demanded eight or nine new players last spring. People naturally assumed he was joking, but we gave him exactly what he wanted. We may have had to mortgage the house and sell the family heirlooms to do it, but we did. He has no excuses now: turn this into a real team with real results, or watch his reputation as a manager spiral down the toilet.
But enough with the gloom-and-doom. For the first time in a long time, we're not starting the season as some sort of mythical Year Zero. We're not trying to build a foundation here, or crawl up into Europe, or develop the youth, or just "show improvement" over last year. We're trying to become Inter again. An Inter that wins matches both big and little, that strikes fear into the hearts of the peninsula, and soon after, the hearts of the continent. This is no longer an Inter that anyone should or could make excuses for. So for a few weeks at least, let's all put aside our well-earned cynicism and look forward to a real campaign. It's gonna be an interesting season.