At last, the start of the 2017-18 Serie A season is upon us.
In less than 24 hours’ time a brand new campaign will officially begin for Luciano Spalletti’s Inter as the Nerazzurri take on Fiorentina at San Siro, and for us Interisti this is quite wonderful news.
Almost three months have passed since we concluded one of the most embarrassing seasons in the club’s entire history, in which we failed everything there was to fail and embarrassed everyone there was to embarrass. Only now can we put it definitively behind us with the long-awaited return of competitive football. 2016-17 can finally be considered A Thing of the Past.
But if last season was so disastrous, and if most of its main protagonists are still here, how can we be sure that 2017-18 won’t simply become a tragicomic sequel? Is there any reason to believe things will really be different this time around?
I say yes. And I’ll now put the case forward for why: here are five reasons to be confident that this season will be different to last season.
1. We’ve had a normal pre-season
Finding the right words to describe the state Inter were in this time twelve months ago is a task that would stump even Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames. We were in an unspeakable mess.
To recap briefly: we had just been taken over by an overseas group with no experience in running a football club, our coach was fighting with everyone and putting no effort whatsoever into training his squad, we were suffering humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat and our star striker and captain’s wife was doing everything in her power to sell him to a direct rival.
And then we changed coach less than a fortnight before the start of the season.
In Italy there is the phrase ‘il buon giorno si vede dal mattino’, essentially meaning that you can tell how something will end by how it starts, and nowhere has it been more applicable than with Inter’s pre-season last summer. You could tell from minute one that our season was heading for unmitigated disaster.
this season is going to be a complete and utter disaster. there's no way it'll be positive from this point onwards. can't wait— SerpentsofMadonnina (@SerpentsOfInter) July 13, 2016
But that is absolutely not the case this time round. The premises upon which we are building our season this time around are far more encouraging. Nobody has argued, nobody has been sacked, nobody has hammered us in a friendly match and nobody has given a live one-hour interview over the phone to Telelombardia to explain why their client will leave if he isn’t offered an improved contract.
This year’s pre-season has been completely and utterly... normal. We hired a coach in June and have left him to get to work since then, and so far he appears to have been working very well indeed.
The players are infinitely fitter than they were this time twelve months ago and they have a much clearer idea of what they’re supposed to be doing on the pitch, so much so that they’ve racked up a series of highly impressive (if ultimately meaningless) wins both in Italy and in Asia.
They’re being coached, essentially. It’s not rocket science, this sport.
2. Our summer signings have been sensible and functional
Friday 26 August 2016: Interisti line the streets of Milan in a tidal wave of excitement as Joao Mario and Gabigol arrive simultaneously to begin their new adventures with the Nerazzurri. Together they would cost in excess of €70m.
Saturday 27 May 2017: Interim coach Stefano Vecchi leaves both Joao Mario and Gabigol out of his match-day squad for Inter’s final match of the season on disciplinary grounds. The former has shown flashes of brilliance but failed to justify the lofty price tag of the previous summer, while the latter is now regarded as one of the greatest mysteries the world of football has seen in recent years. The game in question is meaningless as Europa League qualification is already mathematically out of reach.
Gabigol and Joao Mario both left out of tomorrow's match-day squad. https://t.co/piUNXQnJSG— SerpentsofMadonnina (@SerpentsOfInter) May 27, 2017
The moral of the story? That Inter paid a very heavy price last season for the chaotic and nonsensical manner in which the club conducted its summer transfer business.
Broadly speaking there were two problems with last summer’s mercato: firstly, that our signings were determined more by agents than they were by actual football; and secondly, that those signings which were determined by actual football were express requests made by Mancini. Who then left before a ball was kicked.
But neither of those problems have reared their ugly heads this time round. On the most part, this summer’s mercato has been about doing what Luciano Spalletti wants and what the team needs. Which is how it always should be.
Spalletti wants Borja Valero, because he needs him to implement the style of play he wants? Let’s sign Borja Valero. Spalletti wants Matias Vecino, because he’d been an admirer of his for over a year and provides excellent balance in the centre of the park? Let’s sign Matias Vecino.
We need Milan Skriniar, because we don’t have any centre-backs who are good on the ball? Let’s sign Milan Skriniar. We need Dalbert, because we don’t have a proper left-back? Let’s sign Dalbert.
This isn’t an attempt to prove that our squad is perfect and we don’t need to make any more moves before 31 August, because it isn’t and we do. But at least everything we have done up to now has been done with the right intentions. We’ve signed players based on how good they are at football, and not who negotiates their wage package.
3. We have a coach we can rely on for results
Leaving the extremely questionable timing of his appointment to one side for a moment, Frank de Boer was stepping into a completely new world when he turned up in Milan to replace Roberto Mancini last August.
He had never coached in Italy before receiving Erick Thohir’s offer to take over as Inter Head Coach - he had never even coached outside of his native Netherlands - and he had never even experienced Serie A as a player; throw in the fact that Inter is about the craziest club you could wish to find and the odds were not exactly stacked in his favour.
Frank had only achieved success as a manager at Ajax, the club he’d known since his teenage years, and even there his tenure had ended in severe disappointment by losing the Eredivisie title on the final day of the 2015-16 season. He gave us no guarantee of success whatsoever, and by the time he’d inevitably been fired it was too late to salvage our season.
Luciano Spalletti is a different story.
Personally, he is my greatest source of optimism heading into the new season. The list below explains precisely why.
It goes without saying that there’s one rather important thing missing from all of those Serie A campaigns cited above. Add 0 Serie A titles to his modest record in cup competitions and you don’t exactly have a born winner alla Mourinho.
But even if he hasn’t ever got his hands on the Scudetto, I certainly don’t think that’s a track record to be sniffed at. Not considering where we’ve been since 2010.
The important thing as far as we’re concerned for this season is this: in 6 of the last 7 seasons in which Spalletti has coached in Serie A (excluding 2009-10, when he resigned after two matches), his team have finished in a position that would be good enough for Champions League qualification this season.
Ergo - with Spalletti at the helm we’re in much safer hands than we ever were with De Boer (or Stefano Pioli, for that matter), as genuine and as well-intentioned a man as he definitely was.
He wasn’t many people’s first choice for the job but Luciano deserves respect. If even he fails to get us back into the Champions League, with that consistent a record in this league, the club really will have zero alibis.
4. We only have the league to concentrate on
It goes without saying that there’s not a single Inter fan who prefers us being out of Europe than in it.
Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that being able to focus on your energies on fewer competitions brings certain advantages.
Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment: would Frank de Boer have sunk as dramatically as he did at Inter if he hadn’t had to juggle our Europa League commitments alongside our matches in Serie A?
Personally, I think it would have changed little in the grand scheme of things, but having said that it would surely have made things at least slightly simpler for him.
In the months of September and October last season, Inter played a midweek game in every single week that wasn’t covered by international breaks. Instead of having time to train, drill and instruct his new players on the footballing ‘philosophy’ he wanted to instil, De Boer was being thrown from match to match without any time to work in depth on anything.
Getting your footballing ideas across to an evidently sceptical group of players would have been a tough task at the best of times, but without any time to explain and correct mistakes on the training ground things surely became even trickier.
And then, on top of the problem of physical fatigue, there’s the extra problem Inter had last season - the more games we played the more games we lost, which had a devastating effect on morale, without wanting to make Inter sound like a World War I pals battalion. Had we not had those six group games we’d have had less football to get annoyed about...
On the flip-side of the coin, not having Thursday night football to worry about could be a big advantage this season. All of our rivals for those four Champions League spots will be involved in continental action (and again, we’d of course like to be in action with them), and it could help. Milan and Lazio in particular could suffer from always having to play after their opponents in Serie A, having to forever play catch up in the table.
Giving Spalletti time to work on the training ground every week will be of enormous help to him and the team, especially given how much of a tactics fanatic he is.
5. There’s an extra Champions League place to aim at
The last reason why this season will be better than last season is also the simplest.
Last season, fourth place represented failure for Inter; this season it represents (qualified) success. We have an extra shot at entering the Champions League, which realistically is all we’ll be asking for over the next nine months.
In March, Inter went to the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino and drew 2-2 with the Granata in what turned out to be a watershed moment for our season.
Despite having won 11 of our last 13 games in the league heading into this game, we had been unable to recover much of the deficit that separated us from Roma and Napoli ahead, and dropping points here was a psychological hammer blow for the players. The Partenopei’s victory over Empoli the following day stretched the gap between us and the Champions League places to eight points, and that was that.
As Danilo D’Ambrosio so controversially explained in an interview with Sky Sport in May, the team ‘gave up’ after that weekend as they knew that their one and only goal for the season was now out of reach. When club football resumed after the international break, Inter lost 6 of their next 7 matches and everything went up in flames.
But if there had been four Champions League spots up for grabs last season, things could have been different. I’m not trying to excuse what happened in April and May in any way, shape or form, but had 4th place meant something to us I’m pretty confident that the team wouldn’t have fallen apart in the appalling manner that it did.
If Napoli were eight points away, there were just two points separating us and Lazio. And the final two months the season may have been a bit less humiliating than it ultimately was.
With an extra place to fight for, we stand a better chance of making it to April with something still to play for, and thus there’s a better chance the players won’t collapse like they did. (In an ideal world an Inter player would be able to motivate himself for every match regardless of the league table, but we haven’t lived in an ideal world for almost a decade here.)
This year have a smidgen more room for error.
So there you have it: five reasons why I’m hopeful that the 2017-18 season will represent a clean break from the 2016-17 season. Have I convinced anyone? Probably not. But the poll that we took on Twitter last week does suggest that most of us are optimistic ahead of Sunday’s big kick-off.
With exactly a week until Inter's Serie A campaign kicks off, how would you describe your current mood heading into the new season? ⚫️— SerpentsofMadonnina (@SerpentsOfInter) August 13, 2017
Let’s try and be as optimistic as possible; positive thinking is always a good thing. As 17th century French author François de La Rochefoucauld once said: ‘hope is the last thing that dies in man; and though it be exceedingly deceitful, it is of good use to us, as while we are travelling through life it conducts us in an easier and more pleasant way to our journey’s end.’