Inter continued their exceptional start to the season on Tuesday as they defeated Sampdoria 3-2 at San Siro. The Nerazzurri are momentarily top of the Serie A table as we await the remainder of matchday 10’s fixtures, but it’s the team’s gradual progress, along with the improvement of certain individuals, that gives us such cause for optimism heading into the middle part of the season. Here are five takeaways from last night’s match.
1. Inter are improving with each game that passes
Inter returned from the October international break looking for answers.
Despite picking up six wins from their first seven games, the majority of supporters were not impressed by what they’d seen from the Nerazzurri in the opening weeks of the season and were reluctant to shower the team with praise.
Some felt our second place in the table was thanks to a generous run of fixtures more than it was to anything special that the team itself were doing, and that Inter risked having their flaws ruthlessly exposed once they came up against sturdier opposition.
For that reason, the four week period that followed was billed as an important and indicative period of our season, as we were due to come up against much sturdier opposition in the run-up to the next international break: Milan, Napoli, Sampdoria and Torino (and Verona).
These matches, it was said, would tell us how much of our success up until the Benevento game had been down to chance, and whether or not we had a serious chance of staying at the top of the table until May. It was a month that would tell us what this team were truly made of - ’the month of truth’, as I called it on Twitter.
Having since taken 7 points from the derby, Napoli away and Sampdoria at home, it’s time to start taking Inter pretty damn seriously. Each of those games represented a very tough test in their own way, yet Spalletti and co. have cleared all three hurdles with room to spare, and in doing so have underlined their strong credentials for a Champions League spot this season (if not a Scudetto challenge).
As far as Inter’s performance on Tuesday night is concerned, there were two things in particular that struck me positively: our mentality and our ‘gioco’, or rather our collective play.
The fact that we dominated a strong opponent like Samp for an entire hour is symptomatic of the maturity and hunger Spalletti is instilling into these players, who didn’t ease off the gas after Saturday night’s impressive draw in Naples, but also of the increasingly fluid team football we’re playing. For 60 minutes it was the best Inter performance we’d seen all season - perhaps even for a good few years. This lot mean business.
2. Inter do not have the squad to compete for the Scudetto
After the good of Inter’s opening hour, however, came the bad and the ugly of their final half-hour.
Having scored three goals, hit the post three times and given Sampdoria an all-round footballing lesson for the best part of 60 minutes, Inter suffered what looked like a severe physical dip midway through the second half and allowed the visitors back into a game that they should have been well and truly out of.
Goals from David Kownacki and Fabio Quagliarella left Spalletti and Co. sweating a little as the minutes ticked down towards the end of the game, with the team seemingly unable to maintain the same intensity or discipline that they’d shown up until Mauro Icardi made it 3-0.
Less pressure was applied to the ball and nobody had the legs to carry it back up the pitch on the counterattack, leaving the majority of our players parked on the edge of our own box as Marco Giampaolo’s side hunted down what would have been an astonishingly unexpected comeback. Antonio Candreva’s failed auto-dribble that led to Samp’s second goal was the perfect representation of a side that was completely and utterly out of puff, no matter how much they wanted to keep going at full pelt.
This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen Inter struggle physically towards the end of a match this season and unfortunately it won’t be the last time we see it either, because our squad is thin and doesn’t allow Spalletti to rotate his men like he’d probably want to. Luciano named an unchanged XI for the third game in a row on Tuesday night and ultimately we suffered for it; but at the moment he clearly doesn’t trust what he has on the bench to come in and do a solid job for him from the start (rightly or wrongly), so in a game as difficult as this one he probably felt he didn’t have much choice.
While Inter’s first hour on Tuesday suggested we are capable of remaining in the top four until the end of the season, the unnecessary sufferance we were put through at the end served as a reminder that this team doesn’t quite have the resources challenge Juventus and Napoli for the Scudetto. We cannot play with the same 11 men from now until May because these players are men, not machines.
3. Mauro Icardi has reached another milestone
Tuesday night saw Mauro Icardi reach yet another milestone in his magnificent Inter career.
Following his brace against Sampdoria at San Siro - the fourth time he’s scored more than once in a game this season - Maurito is now on 11 goals for the season (already!), which means that he has made it into double figures for the fourth time in five seasons since joining Inter in 2013.
With that record Icardi has now joined a very exclusive club of Inter players, as only seven men in the Nerazzurri’s entire history (listed in the graphic) have hit 10 or more goals in 4 different seasons. And he’s only 24 years old.
What’s curious about Icardi’s goals is that they tend to come in blocks: he’s only scored in 20 of the 44 league games he’s played since the start of last season, but he scored more than once in 12 of those 20 games (9 braces and 3 hat-tricks). Is that a good thing, a bad thing or both? Probably both, I’m not really sure.
Away from his goal-scoring, another thing Icardi deserves praise for from last night is his angry pitch-side interview at the end of the game. Despite winning the game he didn’t seem at all pleased with how Inter had made things difficult for themselves in the final half-hour: “I’m not satisfied,” he told Premium Sport, “because a game that we’d absolutely dominated cannot end with all of us asking how long there is left. We can’t let this happen, we have to finish games off earlier.” He spoke like a true captain.
4. Yuto Nagatomo received a standing ovation and he deserved it
While it was Icardi who stole the headlines and claimed the highest ratings in Wednesday morning’s papers, the real story on Tuesday night was surely the standing ovation that San Siro reserved for Yuto Nagatomo as he was substituted late on.
Let’s be honest: nobody was expecting (or hoping) to see Yuto get this much game-time for Inter following the arrival of Dalbert in the summer, and in all likelihood he will still end up making way for the Brazilian in the long run, because Dalbert’s ceiling is infinitely higher than his ceiling. Tim discussed our left-back issue in his five takeaways after the Napoli game, while Nick dedicated a full article to it during the recent international break.
My view on the matter is as follows. As much as we hate him, as much as we distrust him and as much as we would prefer him not to be our longest-serving player, credit must be given where credit is due: so far this season our favourite verbal punchbag has hardly put a foot wrong, and on Tuesday he was excellent.
Having had a decisive impact off the bench against Crotone, been one of the few to do himself justice against Bologna and single-handedly neutered Jose Callejon against Napoli, Yuto went one better against Sampdoria and produced one of the best performances we’ve seen from him in seven years at Inter - not that that’s saying much, admittedly.
OK, we could have done without the heart attack he gave us late on when he headed the ball back towards Handanovic from inside the six-yard box - those kinds of moments are in his DNA - but that aside he was practically faultless. The applause he received as he was replaced by Davide Santon was fully deserved.
They weren’t the only ones to be impressed by his performance either, as Spalletti also thought he’d played well. “Inter supporters know a thing or two about football,” he told Sky Sport after the game, “and they can tell when things are being done seriously. Nagatomo is an exceptional player. He has his limitations but he also has lots of qualities; he’s quick, he’s positionally sound and he’s always determined not to let anyone get past on his side of the defence. Tonight he produced some great passes as well, he came up with some nice changes of play as well as serving Perisic well on the wing.”
Will it last? Almost certainly not. Will we be relaxed the next time we see his name on the team-sheet? Absolutely not. But at the moment he’s playing well and deserves his place in the team, no matter how good Dalbert will become under Spalletti’s guidance over the next few months. Inter’s second place in the table is also his second place in the table.
5. Inter have never begun a Serie A campaign better than they have this season
Finally, some numbers.
As well as the fact that it sent us the top of the table (if only for 24 hours), there was another reason Inter’s victory on Tuesday was significant - the three points Luciano Spalletti’s side picked up against Sampdoria mean that they have now taken 26 in total from their opening 10 games of the season, which equals the club’s all-time record for points after 10 games in a Serie A campaign.
Only once in 109 years of history have the Nerazzurri taken as many as 26 points from their first 10 games, and that was back in the infamous 1997-98 season under Gigi Simone, when the likes of Ronaldo, Djorkaeff, Simeone and Recoba were on the scene. That year we finished second in the league to Juventus, with all the unsavoury controversies that surrounded it, which is a final position I imagine all of us would settle for this time around.
Obviously it’s only been possible to collect 26 points from 10 games since the mid-1990s when three points for a win were introduced, but even if you replace ‘26 points’ with ‘8 wins and 2 draws’ you only find two other seasons in which Inter have done as well as in 2017-18: the 1988-89 season, when Giovanni Trapattoni was in charge, and the 1952-53 season, when Alfredo Foni was at the helm. On both of those occasions, Inter then went on to win the Scudetto. I’m saying nothing...
For a more recent (and perhaps relevant) comparison, Inter’s 26 points after 10 games are more than they had at this stage in either of their triumphant campaigns under Jose Mourinho - that side amassed 21 points in 2008-09 and 25 in 2009-10 - and it’s also more than any of Roberto Mancini’s title-winning sides managed (24 in 2006-07, 24 in 2007-08 and 19 in 2005-06).
The glaring caveat that needs to be raised at this point is that there are so many goddamn awful teams in the league this season, and that therefore it’s easier for Spalletti’s men to pick up points than it was for Mourinho or Mancini’s men. For instance, 2017-18 is the first season during the three-points-for-a-win era in which there have been as many as 7 teams with 6 points or less after 9 matches, while it’s also the first season in which as many as 4 teams have collected 20 points or more.
In short, there is reason to believe we won’t end up doing quite as well this season as we did in those other seasons, but we’re still doing pretty darn well. Good job, guys.