This year, Inter Milan is heading for the Champion’s League, ending a seven-year drought of first division European football.
By finishing fourth in the league standings, Inter had it's most successful season since the days of Jose Mourinho, ranking high in both offensive and defensive metrics. Mauro Icardi gained his second Capocannoniere title in 4 years, finishing with 29 Serie A goals.
Heading into the new season, the squad added new names as Radja Nainggolan, Kwadwo Asamoah, Lautaro Martinez, Sime Vrsaljko, Stefan de Vrij, and Keita Balde Diao joined the ranks of the Nerazzurri. The team now faces multiple challenges, including surpassing last year’s results, and contending for the Scudetto, although that might be a little far-fetched. Here’s a few tweaks they could make to improve the team, mainly on offense:
Find a third goalscoring option
Mauro Icardi has scored 91 Serie A goals these last four years, an incredible feat for a 25 year old. His impressive goal tally from last season represented 44% of Inter’s total goals; In Europe’s Top 5 Leagues, only Freiburg Striker Nils Petersen (47%, 15 goals) had a higher contribution, and Angers’s Karl-Toko Ekambi (40%, 14 goals), Tottenham’s Harry Kane (41%, 30 goals), Girona’s Christian Stuani(42%, 21 goals), Espanyol’s Gerard Moreno(44%, 16 goals) were the only other players to crack the 40 percent mark, according to WhoScored.com. Except Kane, none of these players scored as much as Icardi last season.
While this serves to illustrate the tremendous value of the Nerazzurro captain, it also shows the lack of a consistent goal threat outside of the striker position. Ivan Perisic was the exception last year, contributing 11 goals and 9 assists, 7 of which were for Icardi(league-best number).
Outside of these two, the top goalscorer (Marcelo Brozovic) had 4 strikes.
This is the main reason why Inter scored only 66 goals, last year, more than 20 goals less than Lazio, who had 89. There is no reliable player, whether it be a forward or a midfielder that can crack the 10-goal mark in a full Serie A season, whereas every other “contender” has a valid third goal scoring threat(Napoli with Jose Callejon, Juventus with Mario Mandzukic, Lazio with Sergej Milinkovic-Savic) or a bunch of players than can give at least 5 goals, boosting the squad total.
Antonio Candreva, Borja Valero, Marcelo Brozovic are all selfless players that rely on assisting others, not scoring goals. If the Nerazzurri intend to make some noise in the league this year, finding that third option on the roster must be a priority. Some of the new additions have a history of scoring: Nainggolan and Keita had their best season two years ago when they peaked with 10 and 16 goals, respectively; just last year, Martinez bagged 13 Primera Division goals in 21 appearances. Heck, even de Vrij, a Centre Back, had more goals (6) than backup striker Eder(3). One of these guys has to become a reliable threat off the bench or in the starting lineup for the team to continue on it's success.
Play More Efficiently
Last year was a transition. Two years ago, while Napoli and Roma were peaking, Inter was lagging behind. After a weird phase of coaching changes, the squad has found stability under Luciano Spaletti. The new boss has bought a return to Europe in his first year. And now that he's had the time build a squad more to his liking and tactical ideas, we can only hope for the best.
But while Inter had correct results last year, even starting the season with a 16 games unbeaten streak, the style of play didn't always seem to fit or get the best out of everyone on the pitch.
At times, the Nerazzurri would look like an extremely defensive side, staying in their own third, leaving only Icardi in front, expecting a chance instead of working to create one. Per understat.com , Inter had an xG of 60, which means that based on the quality of chances and shots, they overperformed slightly. But squads like Juventus and Lazio passed their xG by an overwhelming 20+ goals and others like Atalanta and Roma, while scoring less than the Milan side, actually under performed.
Watching an Inter game, you'd see so many crosses, you'd think you were looking at a cemetery. The Nerazzurri had 28 crosses per game, a number that topped the Serie A. Fittingly, Lazio, Juventus, and Napoli ranked 10th, 14th, and 15th, respectively, in that category. Of the 66 Inter goals from last season, 19 came from Set Pieces. This has become a strength over the years for Inter, and as France as shown us this year in the World Cup, it is a real advantage. But struggling to create chances from open play is a real problem.
Percentages of goals that came from open plan show that Juventus had a rate of 66%, Lazio 61%, and Napoli 62%. Inter ranked 14th out of 20, with 57%. And despite crossing so heavily, the Nerazzurri didn't even make the top 10 in aerials won in the league. At this point, it's safe to say that this style of play didn’t bring out the best results, or maybe the right players weren’t playing it. Maybe the new signings (especially Keita), will shift the style of play in another direction because it seems like we should try something else. The reinforcements in the midfield should help: the three teams with the most goals in the league last year, were actually ranked in the top 4 of possession percentage in the middle third of the pitch, a stat in which we ranked 13th. If we have a more efficient style of play and improve our midfield, better results may come.
Bringing back the old mojo
Historically, Spalletti’s teams have played a fast brand of football, based on hard pressing and fluid passing. His first stint at Roma involved a famous 4-6-0 tactical scheme, years before that famous Barcelona trio of 2011; his Zenith Saint-Petersburg team won back-to-back Russian Premier League trophies, and his second stint with Roma produced beautiful football, among other things: Mohammed Salah went from a player unwanted by Mourinho to the goalscoring machine we know (although on a lesser level); Nainggolan turned into an attacking midfielder; Edin Dzeko was the Capocannoniere; Francesco Totti was benched; Roma produced the 2nd best attack of Italy with 90 goals, and the team was runner-up behind Juventus, by only 4 points.
The main problem with Spalletti’s squads havs always been defense: While the 2016-2017 Roma side had the 2nd best Serie A defense with 38 goals conceded, that's still a goal per game. Considering the amount of possession of the romans(55%), and the shots allowed(12.7/game), it amounts to a staggering number of shots conceded per possession, placing Roma as the 13th best defenses of the league at that time. But with Inter, such problems were put to rest. The Nerazzuri had the 4th best defense of the league, and it was the offense that was lacking.
It’s not that Spalletti has lost his touch, or that he's not the tactical wizard that he was 2 years ago. He's still efficient with Inter, converting Brozovic to a full time central midfielder, and looking like he knows what he's doing. His tactics are still working:
My problem is that Inter didnt Actually look like Spalletti’s usual teams last year; we lacked the magic that Roma had two years ago, and the results weren't impressive if you look further than that 4th place. All the stats mentioned above prove that. After the 16-game unbeaten run, the team struggled to win a single game for 7 fixtures, essentially dying in the Scudetto race. Whatever wizardry the boss used in Roma would work wonders over here, and more consistency would help too. So here's to hoping he hasn't lost his mojo.
Figuring out Icardi
We're going to do a little experiment. I'm gonna give you two different quotes from two different coaches about two different players. See if they remind you of anyone.
He was one of the most selfish finishers I ever saw. His personal goal tally was his guiding obsession. That single-mindedness gave him the edge of a great assassin. He had no interest in build-up play or how many yards he had run in a game, how many sprints he had made. The only aspect he was ever interested in was: how many goals did [A] score. He was superb at the ‘early hit’. He would dart to the side of the defender and deliver that quick, lethal strike.
If you put my great goal-scorers together (...), [A] was the most prolific.
Sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it?
If I think of the perfect striker, he’s certainly not the first one to come to mind. He’s an incomplete player. Still, inside the penalty area, no player on earth can compete with him. He woos and seduces the soccer ball. Inside that limited area, he scores in every way imaginable: striking with his right foot, his left foot, with cannon shots, ricochets, shots off the thigh, the shin, back heels, with eyes shut tight, shots off his a** (often off his a**), with his fingertip, goals off of penalty kicks gone astray, off his ear, his big toe, through mind control, and even with his shoelace.
Definitely familiar.Player A is Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and Coach A is Sir Alex Ferguson. Player B is Filippo Inzaghi, and the coach is Carlo Ancelotti. These two strikers have been immensely successful: Nistelrooy scored 62 goals in 67 caps for PSV Eindhoven, 95 goals in 150 appearances for Manchester United and another 46 in 68 appearances for Real Madrid; Inzaghi scored 156 goals in 370 Serie A appearances. No one would question the quality of these two players, ever.
Which brings us to Icardi. I wanted to show you these quotes, just to illustrate what kind of player he is, and what kind of strikers you should compare him to. He's not extremely fast like new teammate Keita, nor he's he a hulking presence like Dzeko. He's not interested in build up play, or dropping to the middle third to create chances. He's not gonna run a lot, have a lot of touches: 1 or 2 are more than enough for him to score. And that's actually what he does best. Score on a consistent basis. He has been the best Inter player since the treble-winning Mourinho side. But a portion of the fans feel like he's not good enough, or that we could be better without him. I call that a mistake.
Last season, amongst forwards with at least 10 Serie A appearances, Icardi ranked only 6th in total shots. He was outside the Top 10 in aerials despite all the crosses Inter did last year. He had an xG of 23; that he still managed to bag 29 goals in 34 matches is remarkable.
But sometimes, I understand the criticism of his game. If you go to Icardi’s WhoScored page, his first mentioned weakness is his passing. The lack of interest of Icardi in that department is surprising sometimes. Icardi had 446 passes last season, far less than Andrea Belotti (570), Gonzalo Higuain (667), Dzeko (747), Immobile (769), and Dries Mertens (932). While everyone is unique and each player has it's own efficient style of play, those numbers are concerning: Spalletti’s strikers have always been great passers, able to hold the ball, either in a false 9 role (Totti), or play with their back to the goal(Dzeko) combining with fast wingers, creating spaces, addressing passes to teammates for deadly runs. Most of the time, when Icardi isn't fed the ball constantly, he sticks close to the last defender’s pocket, hoping for a through ball. That doesn't cut it. He has to be more involved in the offense, create more chances for his teammates in order for Inter to get better at scoring. Maybe the team should get better at providing the Nerazzurro captain with quality chances, or maybe he should change a little bit to accommodate the team, but it's hard not to feel like we could do better with Icardi. Figuring out a way to play a more efficient offense around him might be the solution, enabling the squad to contend for the Scudetto in the next years.
What do you think? Post your comments below!