I blame it all on Jonathan. I mean, not really. But ever since this lovably ill-fated lug came to the San Siro, his position seems to have been cursed.
Way back when we first got a good gander at this Oliver Warbucks-lookalike Brazilian, the most obvious reaction was one of disbelief. Remember those heady days of summer 2011? Inter was still one of the dominant forces in Italy. And the position for which we’d signed Jonathan, full back, was one where we’d clearly need to make some like-for-like upgrades, with the once-rock-solid trio of Maicon, Zanetti and Chivu starting to show their age, and the "next Maldini" Davide Santon starting to look like a bust. Yet from the first moments we saw him kick a ball, Jonathan didn’t seem to be anywhere near the standard that playing for Inter required.
Over time, however, I came to genuinely like him on a personal level. He belatedly showed glimpses of the decent player he might have become in some alternate universe, and he was just a standup guy, never letting the fact that he was the butt of so many calcio jokes get him down. It wasn’t his fault that Inter scouts saw a talent in him that wasn’t actually there. And it isn’t his fault that his signing marked a pivotal moment for this club: After Jonathan, Inter has been the club where full backs go to die.
This club has suffered some horrendous failures in the last half-decade, but it’s not for lack of signing some good players here and there. We’ve managed to sign forwards like Icardi, Palacio, Perisic and Coutinho; midfielders like Kovacic, Hernanes, Kondogbia and Medel; defenders like Murillo and Miranda; a goalkeeper like Handanovic. We haven’t been able to fit those pieces together in satisfactory ways, but it’s not like we’ve just been signing flops after flops. Except, of course, in the full back position.
Here, to refresh your memories, are all the senior squad full backs we’ve signed since the treble year:
Jonathan (2011-15; 43 appearances; loaned to Parma, then left for Fluminese on a free)
Yuto Nagatomo (2011-present; 143 appearances)
Marco Faraoni (2011-12; 14 appearances; youth team graduate transferred to Udinese as make-weight, currently playing in Serie B)
Alvaro Pereira (2012-14; 33 appearances; loaned to Sao Paolo, then sold to Estudiantes for 2 million)
Ibrahima Mbaye (2012-15; 4 appearances; youth team graduate loaned out, then sold to Bologna for 3 million)
Wallace (2013-14; 3 appearances (all as a sub); returned to Chelsea from loan and then promptly re-loaned three times)
Ezequiel Schelotto (2013-15; 12 appearances; loaned out three times, terminated contract)
Dodo (2014-16; 20 appearances; loaned to Sampdoria, then sold for 5 million)
Danilo D’Ambrosio (2014-present; 51 appearances)
Martin Montoya (2015-16; 3 appearances; returned to Barcelona (early) from loan and then promptly re-loaned twice)
David Santon (2015-present; 21 appearances; failed a medical that would have seen him sold this summer)
Alex Telles (2015-16; 20 appearances; returned to Galatasaray from loan and then promptly sold to Porto)
Caner Erkin (2016-present; 0 appearances so far)
Cristian Ansaldi (2016-present; 0 appearances so far)
We still haven’t gotten a real look at Ansaldi in nerazzurri (and if the papers are to be believed, we might never get that look at Erkin), but it’s not much of a leap to say that the most consistent players among all those names above are Yuto Nagatomo and Danilo D’Ambrosio. Neither of these men are fan-favorites, nor should they be. Neither of them played well at all last week, and while both have their qualities (Nagatomo did pretty well as a primarily attack-minded wingback in Mazzarri’s system, and D’Ambrosio would be a solid rotation player), neither of them ought to be first choice players on a squad aiming for the Champions League. And yet they’re not only the best full backs we have right now, they’re the best full backs we’ve had for the last several seasons.
How can this be? How can a club that employs a world-class former full back in Javier Zanetti fail to spot a single noteworthy talent in the position for nearly a decade? The defensive wing is one of the most delicate, demanding roles in modern football, and yet we’ve been satisfied fielding players of obviously inferior quality, or else throwing up our hands and just fielding center backs (hello, Cordoba, Juan Jesus, Campagnaro) for years.
This is all the more baffling because it isn’t like promising players aren’t there, and it isn’t like they’re all prohibitively expensive.
1. Just a week ago, Roma signed Bruno Peres from Torino for somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 million. He had an amazing last season with Torino, and he’s already had a positive impact at Roma. He was thoroughly attainable for most of the summer, and sitting right there in front of our eyes.
2. Despite early reported interest, Inter never seemed ready to seriously invest in Sime Vrsaljko from Sassuolo, who went to Atletico Madrid earlier this summer for around 15 million.
These are two players who could have easily knocked any of our existing full backs down to the bench, both with Serie A experience, both young, and neither with huge price tags. And yet we apparently weren’t interested. Instead we went for a decent 29-year-old journeyman from Genoa, and a player from Turkey who we seem to already acknowledge was a mistake, much as we did this time last season with invisible man Martin Montoya.
No one gets transfers right all the time (or even most of the time) but this is starting to look a little ridiculous. It was one thing when we were operating on austerity measures, but we recently paid 40 million for Geoffrey Kondogbia, and may soon pay 45 million for Joao Mario. Yet when it comes to full backs, we practically spend like we’re a relegation side, trolling for free transfers and budget deals, and then inevitably stringing underperforming players along with loan after loan until they leave.
A lot of things went wrong with Inter’s season opener to Chievo, from lack of physical preparation to the impossible position De Boer has been put in as coach. But the lack of quality on the defensive wings was glaringly obvious for all to see, and even the players in question seem to recognize it. In a pretty remarkable post-match press conference, Danilo D’Ambrosio gave a self-lacerating mea culpa:
"We have to stop thinking of the Inter of the treble," he said. "That team isn’t around anymore. And I can’t be Maicon or Zanetti."
We know it. He knows it. The team’s management knows it. So the question now is what we’re going to do about it.