Guys that watch the NBA knows that it’s more than basketball: It’s a media circus, a beautiful mess of athletic brilliance, pettiness, grown men acting like teenagers, smart people acting smart, dumb people acting dumb, the occasional in-between, and perfect systemic money-making that runs everyday, even in the offseason. You might not like the extra-court stuff that much, but it’s something special.
One of the thing I really like about the NBA is the quotes, whether it’s from coaches, players, or reporters. One that often comes to my mind (and has gotten extremely famous over the years) even when I’m watching football is ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla describing Bruno Caboclo as being two years from being two years away in the 2014 Draft Night. Over the years, the term has become somewhat of a cult phrase, used to describe raw prospects in sports, young players who are not ready *yet* or are flat-out bad. Or, you know, bad players, whatever their age.
Well, let me tell you something: Fran Fraschilla would’ve described Joao Mario and Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa as being 20 years from being 20 years if he watched football and observed them at Inter Milan.
Joao Mario became a Nerrazzuro in August 2016 for a total fee of €45 million, fresh off a Euro 2016 victory with Portugal. Twenty-three years old at the time, brillant with the ball, bursting with pace and skill, relentless in defense, precise in his passing: Mario had all of the qualities of the modern all-around midfielder, and his versatility on the pitch that he could be played at more than one position.
Mario had a decent first season at the Giuseppe Meazza, finishing with three goals and five assists in 22 appearances. However, in those 22 games, Mario started only eight times, which led to his frustration about his playing time. The next year, Mario took part in only nine games for Inter (and played like butt whenever he had the chance), constantly complained about his playing time, got loaned to West Ham in January, failed to make an impact there also, openly refused to come back to the club, criticized the team, came back anyway, got benched, continued to complain and was finally seen on the pitch on Monday against Lazio (3-0 victory) for 57 minutes.
Gabigol’s story was even more tragic. At 20 years old, he already had 56 goals in 154 matches in the Brazilian league with Santos, and was hailed as the next Ronaldo, which convinced some guys in charge of a certain Blue and Black Milanese club to drop 30 million Euros on him. Who would have thought?
Except that Gabigol scored only one goal in 10 Serie A appearances and when he was later loaned to Benfica, he didn’t get any better: he played only five games, and scored a single, lonely goal. But things seem to be working out for him, now that he’s back in Brazil after another 1-year loan deal at Santos. 17 goals in 37 matches, and now he’s got us thinking.
It’s no secret that those two coulda/shoulda’ve been better for Inter. The fact that neither one played meaningful minutes for the Nerrazzuri or contributed valuable goals or assists that helped the team’s goals is hurting. They are flops, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. But they could still be useful flops, a la Victor Moses for Chelsea. And maybe we shouldn’t leave the Gabigol bandwagon that early, considering he’s only 22 years old and could improve. Still not convinced about these two? Let me explain.
Against Lazio on Monday, Mario didn’t light the stadium on fire with his performance, but he wasn’t a waste either. This gets interesting, considering that this game was his first since May. Mario had a pretty unimpressive 79.5 percent passing, no interceptions, no key passes, didn’t win any aerial duels, and had 3 bad touches on the ball. But his energy and focus were a welcome sight, and it was good to see him fighting through his rustiness.
He had two tackles, a blocked pass, one clearance, and pressed hard while keeping possession. Sure those are little things, and they are average at this level, but it’s the little things that add up. Somewhere inside the player we saw yesterday, there must be some traces of that gem we saw at Euro 2016.
Just two years ago, Mario played in every Portugal game at the Euros, with cool numbers: 85.7 percent passing accuracy, 1.6 key passes. 1.4 dribbles, 1.3 shots. Whether he was aligned on the right-hand side of a 4-4-2, or flanked William Carvalho in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, Mario looked good. I mean, really good, like he never looked for Inter. And even now, after everything, we can still remember why Inter wanted him: In his last season with Sporting CP, Mario had 6 goals and 11 assists in 33 league appearances, really balling out.
If somehow Luciano Spalletti finds a way to bring those stats again out of Mario, there may be a spot for him in our rotation: he can take care of the ball, as his passing accuracy of 83.3 percent in his first year with us showed, making him an asset in the No. 8 role, and his energy, ability to defend and also attack would represent the best of both worlds between Roberto Gagliardini and Mattia Vecino.
Radja Nainggolan plays an attacking midfielder these days (and that may be his best spot on the pitch), Borja Valero, while being more experienced and a better passer than Mario, lacks the explosiveness of the Portuguese midfielder and workhorse mentality that might be needed as a central midfielder. So basically, he would be fighting with Gagliardini for minutes alongside Brozovic and Vecino and would be that extra midfielder that Spalletti was fighting so much to get, last summer. I might be overselling Mario here, but there may be a place for him on the team if he gets back to even a fraction of his old level, and if he quits his whining about playing time.
Fitting Gabigol in this squad is harder to picture. Last summer, Inter invested in Lautaro Martinez, which at this point is Mauro Icardi’s backup. So far the Argentinian hasn’t produced elite numbers (only one goal in two appearances) but this might be due to a certain lack of opportunities. Being Icardi’s backup does that to you. And overall, the skill sets of both young strikers might be overlapping, as their abilities to play as a lone striker, behind Icardi, or on a wing.
But Gabigol’s success in Brazil means either one of these two things: he’s only successful in his home country and can’t fit the European physical brand of football (bad), or he lacked the opportunities and the stable environment and presence of a good coach that would’ve put him in the ultimate position to succeed. While we can’t put all the blame of his bad performances on our situation back then (After all, he was insignificant at Benfica), having a coaching carousel and ownership change in his first steps didn’t help boost his performances one bit.
As a teenager from Brazil who had no prior experience a in a notoriously harsh league, this was one of the worst situations he could’ve been in and I kinda feel like we own him a second chance. Anyhow, if the Keita loan doesn’t work out or if Antonio Candreva isn’t there next year, or * starts putting on protective gear to duck thrown chairs * even Mauro Icardi, he could be useful. His goal-scoring ability could work wonders coming off the bench or he could be the much-needed 2nd goalscoring option behind the Captain, considering that Martinez isn’t contributing right away.
Improvement is the key to success, and necessary to attain one’s objectives. Inter is surging right now, but there are some spots on the squad that need fixing, and help in these departments may come from players on the squad itself, even if these guys didn’t have the best experiences with us so far. Even if it’s no secret that Mario and Gabigol have disappointed, it must not be a foregone conclusion that they can’t still contribute.
What do you think? Post your comments below!