Despite producing another unconvincing performance, Inter made it 6 wins from 7 in Serie A this season by beating Benevento 2-1 at the Stadio Ciro Vigorito on Sunday. Marcelo Brozovic’s first-half brace was enough to secure all three points on a nervy afternoon for the Nerazzurri, which saw them draw level on points with Juventus heading into the October international break thanks to the Bianconeri’s draw against Atalanta later in the day.
1. Inter started the game strongly and scored some early goals
During these first few weeks of the season Inter have gained a reputation for being the kings of late goals; a reputation that is emphatically vindicated by the graphic on the right, which breaks down exactly when each of Inter’s 12 goals scored before this weekend had arrived.
In 4 of our 6 games before Benevento (Roma, Crotone, Bologna and Genoa) we had managed to gain a whopping seven points from goals scored in that final time bracket (from the 75th minute onwards), demonstrating our newfound ability under Spalletti to withstand pressure thrown at us by our opponents, remain mentally attached to the game throughout and then strike with the force of a thousand suns at the death.
But while it’s great that we can do that, it’s also great to be able to impose yourself on a game immediately and ‘oblige the match to take a certain direction’, as Spalletti put it in his post-match interview. It makes things significantly easier - both for the players out on the pitch and for all of us watching on TV.
For that reason we should be encouraged by how well Inter started this match, pinning Benevento back in their own half with high intensity and quick possession until we found the opening goal. Unlike against Bologna and Genoa, where the majority of the chances we created in the second half came as a result of our opponents tiring and losing their discipline, on Sunday we decided not to wait an hour before accelerating and took the bull by the horns, and were rewarded with a 2-0 lead after 22 minutes.
Given that Inter’s tendency to start games sluggishly is a problem that both Sanat and Nick have discussed in our last two ‘Five Takeaways’ articles, I’d like to think we at Serpents of Madonnina played an integral part in yesterday’s impressive opening half-hour. But Spalletti probably doesn’t have the time to browse our website at the moment, so it’s unlikely.
2. Inter still have a lot of maturing to do
Despite such a positive start, however, Sunday’s match turned out to be anything but straightforward for Inter. Despite securing a two-goal cushion midway through the first half we were made to suffer through the remainder of the match, and that’s because this team has still yet to complete the process of maturation that will make it a bona fide Top Team. We’re not close to completing it on Sunday’s evidence, either.
Sebastiano Vernazza summed it up perfectly with the opening line of his match report in Monday’s Gazzetta dello Sport. “Inter have reopened UCAS,” he wrote - a satirical acronym that in Italy stands for Ufficio Complicazioni Affari Semplici - The Office for the Complication of Simple Things. Except we didn’t reopen it yesterday; that is an office that this team built and have paid the rent for every month since May 2010.
In the fortnight leading up to this match Benevento played two games away to Napoli and at home to Roma, and lost both with an aggregate score of 10-0. At the same time as this match around 100 miles to the north, Lazio were demolishing Sassuolo on the way to a 6-1 success.
What Benevento-Inter told us - not to mention Inter-SPAL, Crotone-Inter and Inter-Genoa - was that we are incapable of swatting Serie A’s also-rans aside like the rest of the division’s big hitters do. Like the others we do tend to beat the smaller teams, but unlike the others it requires a monumental effort to do so.
The moment Brozovic’s free-kick hit the back of the net to make it 2-0, the team’s levels of concentration and intensity nosedived. Instead of stamping down on the accelerator pedal even harder and finishing the game off with a third goal, we eased off, allowing Benevento back into a match that had already been 95% won. Inexplicable mistakes were made and a truck load of stupid counter-attacks were conceded, one of which led to their goal.
If this team wishes to finish in the top four this season then they must acquire the determination to kill games off, as well as the ability to manage them what that isn’t possible. Better teams will make us pay for the slackness we showed on Sunday.
3. Marcelo Brozovic is Inter’s most suited player to the trequartista position
You would have been hard pressed during the summer to find an Interista who didn’t despise Marcelo Brozovic and want him out of the door as quickly as possible.
In his first two-and-a-half seasons at Inter the Croatian midfielder had proved himself to be talented, versatile and decisive but also inconsistent and awfully unprofessional, and virtually everyone had had enough. And so had the club; ultimately Brozovic only stayed at Inter this summer because there were no serious takers for him.
But his match-winning performance on Sunday provided a very strong argument that, in purely footballing terms (if not moral or psychological terms), the man we used to call ‘Epic’ currently represents Inter’s best option in the no. 10 position behind Mauro Icardi.
If Inter were so creative and efficient in the first 25 minutes, before giving themselves a pat on the back at 2-0 up and taking the rest of the match off, Brozovic was a very significant part of that. Spalletti has tried both Borja Valero and Joao Mario in the ‘trequartista’ position during Inter’s first 7 games of the season, but neither of them have been anywhere near as decisive as Marcelo was yesterday (and few people love Joao Mario more than I do, let’s be clear).
During yesterday’s match Brozovic scored two goals - the second of which was Inter’s first goal scored from a direct free-kick since Ever Banega on 12 March (Inter 7-1 Atalanta) - and created eight further goal-scoring opportunities on top of that, according to Gazzetta dello Sport, as well as completing 59 ‘positive passes’ in comparison to just 3 ‘negative passes’. In other words he was incredibly incisive. The touch map to the right, meanwhile, shows how he successfully swapped positions with Antonio Candreva and in particular Ivan Perisic to avoid giving Benevento defensive reference points, just as Spalletti was asking his attacking midfielders to do from the touchline.
The key thing which makes Brozovic preferable to Joao and Borja in that role is his goal-scoring record, because Inter cannot rely on Icardi and Perisic to do the goods for us all season.
The numbers show that the Croatian is a far greater threat in front of goal than every other central midfielder we have in the team, which I would personally put down to three things - his ability to time his forward runs into the box to perfection (see the first goal yesterday); his prowess from free-kicks* (see the second goal yesterday); and his willingness to shoot when he gets a sight of goal (see the images below).
For visual proof of the latter, compare the different ways in which Brozovic and Joao Mario reacted yesterday when receiving the ball inside the D on the edge of the box.
I accept that they’re not exactly identical situations, but nevertheless: these freeze-frames illustrate the difference between players who first think to shoot and then to pass and players who first think to pass and then to shoot.
While Brozovic unleashes a first-time shot without any hesitation, despite being charged down by three Benevento players, Joao inexplicably hesitates - despite having all space in the world to go for goal - and ends up setting up Perisic instead, who then has his effort saved from a much less favourable position. It’s no wonder he scores so much more regularly than the other midfielders.
From a technical and tactical standpoint, there’s absolutely no question that Marcelo is the most suited player in the squad to play behind Icardi (at least not in my mind). The question is whether he’s the most suited player in the squad from a temperamental standpoint. If Brozovic can ditch his tendency to be inconsistent - and I appreciate that that’s like asking Spalletti to ditch his tendency to be bald - then he could end up being an important weapon for us this season after all.
4. Mauro Icardi is showing signs of improving his all-round game
The debate surrounding Mauro Icardi and his perceived lack of team play is destined to carry on until the end of time; we will never reach an agreement on it.
Personally I stand roughly where Spalletti does on what is a complex and multilayered issue: he completely disagrees with those who say Icardi is a ‘problem’ for Inter, but he does still want Maurito to come short and link up with his team-mates a bit more than he traditionally has in the past, because he himself will be the first man to benefit from it.
Spalletti also said in his pre-match press conference though that Icardi is taking those directives on board and doing his best to put them into practice - and Sunday’s match appeared to back up that claim.
According to WhoScored.com, Icardi had 38 touches of the ball against Benevento - which, as if by magic, happens to be the exact number of touches he had in Inter’s two matches against Crotone (20) and Bologna (18) put together. [For the record, against Genoa last weekend he had 24].
Sheer coincidence or a conscience change in Icardi’s style of play? Only time will tell, but it strikes me as slightly too significant and sudden an increase to be pure chance. Watching the match I got the feeling that he was moving into wide areas far more than he had in recent weeks - and again, that feeling is backed up to an extent by his heat map (again courtesy of WhoScored).
Icardi was far more active outside the box than he had been against Crotone, Bologna or Genoa, and it seemed to make our forward play far more fluid in that opening 25 minutes when the team was properly switched on. As well as Brozovic, credit needs to go to him too.
Sunday’s was in fact an extremely un-Icardi like performance: he moved around and combined with his team-mates, but he missed a couple of good chances.
If Maurito can find a happy medium in the coming weeks between what he does best (penalty box prowess) and what Spalletti would like him to do (all-round play), then Inter’s ‘gioco’ will benefit greatly from it.
5. We have 19 points from a possible 21 and are second in the table
This last takeaway feels like stating the bleeding obvious, but it’s worth reiterating and how.
Considering the foul mood amongst Interisti on Twitter at the full-time whistle, one would be forgiven for thinking that Inter were marooned in mid-table as we head into the international break.
As it is, the Nerazzurri have dropped just two points from their opening seven games and have their highest points total at this stage of the season since the 2002-03 campaign, when Hector Cuper was still at the helm.
Sure, our calendar has been favourable since the opening two matches against Fiorentina and Roma - and sure, we’ve not completely convinced yet - but the bottom line is that we’ve collected 4 wins and a draw from that run of games, like a serious team does. Do you remember when we took one point from two games against Chievo and Palermo at the start of last season?
When asked what he made of Inter’s lofty position in the league table, Spalletti said yesterday: “the team must be proud of what they’re doing because nobody has given us anything; if we’re where we are now then it’s fully deserved. I applaud them.”
And just look exactly where we are now, heading into the derby. How many of us would honestly have predicted this two months ago?
We cannot ignore the fact that we have various problems to resolve, but neither can we ignore the fact that Inter are winning and have done virtually nothing but win since the defeat to Nuremberg back in mid-July.
The next month of matches will be far more challenging for Inter in terms of opponents (Milan, Napoli, Sampdoria, Verona and Torino before the next international break), and they will give us a better idea of where we stand and what ambitions this team can have for this season.
But until then, let’s not go overboard with the criticism. We’re not doing that badly you know...