The transfer window is now shut. Inter has sent off five first team players, either permanently or temporarily – Ranocchia, Dodo, Guarin, Vidic and Montoya – and brought in one player, Eder. I think Eder is a good signing, and I think we're only going to miss one of those departures. But despite what quite a lot of us, and perhaps all of us, were thinking, we did not bring in a creative midfielder, even as last Sunday’s derby loss demonstrated just how badly we’re in need of one.
So without holding out hope for a savior from outside – Soriano and Banega are evidently both arriving in the summer, at which point who knows how many players from our current squad will be around – what can Inter do to rescue our Champions League hopes?
1. Get Kondogbia going
At the risk of sounding like Soccer for Dummies, the midfield is the engine of a football team. Midfielders usually run the furthest, make the most important passes, and are instrumental in managing the most important transitions that take place in a match – the move from offense to defense, and vice-versa. At present, Inter has fewer players for this essential role than any other position: Brozovic, Medel, Melo, Gnoukouri, and Kondogbia.
Melo and Medel are designed to play limited, defensive roles. Brozovic has previously been useful as an attacking mid, but at the moment he’s having enough difficulty just tying his shoes. Gnoukouri is still a teenager, and hasn’t started a match in some time. That leaves Kondogbia.
Unlike our previous outright transfer flops, Kondogbia has never been bad, per se. His transition to Italy has been difficult, and he’s never looked remotely like the kind of player a rational club would spend 30 million on, but he’s hardly a write-off. Perhaps this club was so prepared for Kondogbia to come in and immediately start bossing the pitch that we never really looked all that closely at what kind of a player he is. Do we really know what sort of formation best suits him? Who would his ideal midfield partner be? I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, and based on the way he’s been played, I’m not sure Mancini does either.
At Monaco, what Kondogbia excelled in was precisely what we need. He was never a pure destroyer, nor was he a regista-style passer, but at his best he combined elements of both. Capable of winning possession in his own third, capable of thinking quickly, and capable of powering his way through the pitch with the ball. (Think of Thiago Motta, only more athletic and slightly less clever with his passing.) There’s a reason he had a bunch of top-tier clubs trying to sign him – he has enormous promise. But if we thought we could just plug him into any sort of lineup and let him go, we’ve been rather harshly corrected. We made the investment, and now it’s time to try to build the midfield around him. Maybe that means assigning an enforcer to shield him, like Milan did with Pirlo and Gattuso. Maybe it means pushing him further forward so his ball-winning can be put to more threatening use. I don’t know, but we gotta do something.
Clearly, this club decided it couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make its money back on Guarin, but by neglecting to replace him, we’ve definitely made our team weaker. He may have been wildly inconsistent, but his qualities when at his best were essential. Kondogbia’s the only other player who could fill that void, and leaving him on the bench because we’re not totally sure what to do with him is crazy.
2. Get realistic with the attack
If we wanted to, the readers of this blog could all probably pool together and write an anthology titled "Roberto Mancini’s Coaching Mistakes in the 2016 Milan Derby: A Semiotic Analysis." Reading Gab Marcotti’s column today, I happened upon another potential chapter. He wrote:
"Alongside Jovetic was Eder: a great player in his own right but a guy who had only joined the club 48 hours earlier and who, ironically, had forged a tremendous natural partnership with Icardi at Sampdoria a few years back."
That’s right – not only did Mancini play Eder in a huge derby while the ink was barely dry on his contract, he also played him without the only person on the team that he had any sort of pre-existing chemistry with. For those of us who wonder if Mancini doesn’t sometimes pick our attacking lineup with the aid of a lottery machine, this seemed like Exhibit Z.
With Eder arriving, I was positive we would see one of our attackers depart this window. Apparently I was wrong. We now have eight players classified as forwards, more than any other position of the team: Icardi, Eder, Ljajic, Perisic, Jovetic, Palacio, Biabiany, and Manaj. For a team that's only in one competition, this is quite frankly absurd. But even more absurd is Mancini’s recent strategy of playing four of them at a time, and rarely the same four, with players slotting back and forth between left winger, right winger, trequartista, false nine, striker, support striker, etc., seemingly at random. This needs to stop.
Simplify. Think about what makes the most sense. Icardi scores the most goals, so put him as prima punta. Jovetic doesn’t work well with Icardi, but Eder used to work with Icardi just fine. So try Eder as support striker with Icardi. Beyond that, our forwards have a tough time getting the ball, and our crossing has been absolutely miserable. So maybe de-emphasize wing play and crossing, and position someone as treq – Ljajic plays the best balls into the box, so put him there. Boom: Ljajic behind Eder-Icardi. Will that work? I don’t know, maybe. But it seems to make the most sense. If it doesn’t, try Jovetic in Ljajic’s place – he wears the No. 10 after all.
There can be a trial-and-error process, and obviously Mancini knows 1000x more about these players’ idiosyncrasies than I do. But let’s try a little Occam’s Razor here – no more crazy Playstation formations where you throw a bunch of attackers all onto the pitch and hope one of them scores. Try what seems the most logical, and then adjust and tinker from there.
(And frankly, I would be fine not seeing Perisic on the field for a while. Kondogbia hasn’t lived up to his hype, but Perisic has been actively bad.)
3. Stop being cute, Mancio
This springs off of the previous point, but I think it deserves some extra emphasis. In the early part of the season, it was often thrilling to watch Mancini troll the fans with a brand new starting XI for every match. Over the past two months, however, it’s started to look like anarchy.
There’s no better example of this than the case of Santon. In the first month of the season, Santon seemed to emerge as our first choice right-back. And he was fine – not great, but fine. Then he unexpectedly disappeared for months, only to emerge last weekend as a starter. Predictably, he was absolutely eaten alive. The man hadn’t played in an eternity! How do you expect him to pick right back up in a high-pressure situation? On the other side, you have just as weird a situation with Telles, who was doing quite well, only to subsequently start losing his spot to Nagatomo and Juan Jesus with no rhyme or reason. And what the hell was the deal with Montoya? No minutes whatsoever for the first few months, then he starts for a few matches in a row, and now he’s off in Spain.
Look, you can experiment and try different tactics that are tailored for your opposition, but the danger in this is that when things fall apart with an experimental lineup, they fall apart dramatically. Players can no longer rely on instinct, they’re no longer completely sure where their backup is, and so they panic. That’s what happened on Sunday. Jovetic kept trying fancy passes in the box, only to look up and realize he had no teammates anywhere around him. Kucka just bulldozed through our midfield because no one was sure who was supposed to pick him up. You need to have a default setting for the team, a SOP that works well enough for a standard midseason match. When you’re facing Juve or Napoli, maybe you try something different. But there needs to be that base to build on, or, in last weekend’s case, fall back on. Otherwise I foresee a long couple of months for this team, and an even longer summer after that.