There are many factors that have combined to enable Inter to win their last eight games in all competitions. Our physical condition has improved, our mentality has improved, our attack has become more unpredictable, the team is more balanced than it ever used to be and perhaps we're getting a bit more luck than we were at the beginning of the season, but along with those things there is also the small matter of substitutions. Stefano Pioli has had many merits in his first three months as Inter Head Coach and most of them correspond to the improvements cited above, but our current winning streak would have ended a long time ago were it not for his ability to change the course of games with his changes from the touchline. And it's worth underlining, because he's our first coach since 2013 who's had that ability.
Not since the days of Andrea Stramaccioni, the undisputed master of messing up his starting XI and then correcting it just before it's too late, have we been blessed with a good in-game tactician. I've always felt that the ability to read games as they are happening in front of you, and then work out in the heat of battle what correctives your team needs, is the acid test of a great manager, and it's fair to say that Walter Mazzarri, Roberto Mancini and Frank de Boer all failed said test; be it through their substitutions' failure to make an impact on the match or their perennial dithering that compelled them to change things too late. Thankfully, it doesn't look as if Pioli has been taking lessons from any of them.
The start of 2017 is indicative of the new mister's acumen in this regard. In every one of the four games we have played since the start of the New Year, there has been a degree to which Pioli's changes have influenced the game in a positive manner for us and thus allowed us to claim the win. Against Udinese the winning goal came courtesy of a splendid assist from Joao Mario, who had replaced a disappointing Ever Banega ten minutes into the second half; against Chievo we were able to overturn the scoreline after our formation switch to a 3-4-3 on the hour mark, with Palacio and Eder combining to score the third goal after starting on the bench; against Bologna it was Icardi and Candreva, both substitutes, who linked up to score the decisive goal at the start of extra-time; and against Palermo last weekend it was Joao Mario who came on for Banega again and popped up to grab the victory for us. Four games, four wins and four directly decisive interventions from the man in the technical area. Chapeau, Stefano.
The effect Pioli's changes are having only becomes more glaring when you compare them to those of his predecessor. Frank de Boer stood pretty much no chance of succeeding at Inter for a myriad of factors that were beyond his control, as we've already discussed to death over the last few months, but that doesn't make him an entirely innocent victim as even he contributed to his own downfall. One of the most concerning things I read from Dutch football experts after his appointments was how much he struggled to read matches and adjust his team accordingly, and unfortunately this did not turn out to be an empty threat.
There were many occasions during his time in charge when we were clearly in trouble and he was incapable of solving the problem. Our defeats against Chievo, Cagliari and Sampdoria stick out in particular in this respect while Palermo and Bologna were not made to work hard enough for the draws they took away from San Siro, with De Boer failing to inject enough new life into the team from the sidelines. Only against Juventus, when Ivan Perisic came off the bench to score the winner, and possibly against Pescara, when he made all three substitutions simultaneously in an attempt to jolt the team into life at 1-1, did he make any tangible difference, and for the amount of times we found ourselves trailing under his guidance I don't think that's enough.
On a similar note, there’s an interesting statistic I've worked out which demonstrates how much more proactive Pioli has been than De Boer this season. Taking Serie A games into account only, the average time in the match at which Pioli has made his first substitution so far at Inter is the 53rd minute, while the average time of De Boer's first change during his tenure was the 64th minute. I'm aware that kind of sounds clumsy, and it's not absolute proof given how many variables there are with substitutions, but essentially it means that Pioli reacts to problems we're experiencing ten minutes earlier than De Boer did, and those ten minutes can sometimes make all the difference when you're running out of time. Not once did De Boer make a substitution at half-time in the league games he oversaw, whereas Pioli has already done it three times, with the Eder-Felipe Melo change against Genoa sticking out in my mind as being fundamental to our success that evening, while the latter has also made a lot more changes before the 60th minute (such as Banega for Joao Mario last Sunday, to name one). Tactically speaking therefore, there seems to be a clear difference.
But there's also one more factor to consider, which is the team spirit. The feeling you get now is that everybody on the bench is ready to give his contribution when he is called upon, whereas before that wasn't particularly evident. Stevan Jovetic's disastrous impact against Roma seems to be a good example of how this wasn't always the case beforehand, when he came on and conceded the stupid free-kick that cost us the match, and he probably wasn't the only guy who came on and failed to sacrifice himself for the cause. It was something that struck me when I saw Kondogbia come on against Palermo and do everything right in the fifteen minutes he was in action for; we have a more concentrated and harmonious squad under Pioli and the result is an improved mentality.
To be clear, Pioli has made and will make more bad substitutions since he turned up at Inter, while De Boer didn't always damage the team with his changes. There's no absolute conclusion to be drawn here - not least because you often need good luck when it comes to in-game subs - but it's difficult to deny the improvement that has taken place since the Milan derby onwards. Let's hope we can win a lot more games with our 13th and 14th men between now and the end of the season.