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The dream pairing for Inter Milan’s defense

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Yeah, we think we have a pretty good defense too.

FC Internazionale v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Back in 2010, when Inter was winning the treble, José Mourinho taunting the entire Camp Nou, and Esteban Cambiasso shutting down Lionel Messi, the entire world was in awe. The Nerazzurri run was a shock to most, as the final victory wasn't one that was predicted.

That squad was old(a starting XI with an average age of 30.9) but experienced, full of world class performers at every position. One of those spots where the Nerazzurri were blessed with high-level performers was the Centre Back pair of Lúcio and Walter Samuel.

They were something to see, these two. Rough looking, tough in their style of play, but capable of finesse. As in most centre back duo, there was the Tank (Samuel), a great defender, strong in the air and on the ground, intercepting and doing the dirty work; and there was Lúcio, good with the ball at his feet, capable of dribbling and accurately passing from the back, and doing most of the job that Samuel could do also.

These two were one of the main reasons why Inter finished th Serie A season with the least goals conceded (34) and the most clean sheets(17), providing efficient coverage for the extraordinary Júlio César.

The last few years haven't been kind on the Nerazzurri: after that 2009-2010 season, the team quickly declined, including Lucio and Samuel. There were fond memories of them left, but it wasn't enough: since then, Inter fans have dreamed in their sleep of dashing CB's, tackling efficiently, winning aerial duels, passing magically from the back only to wake up to Marco Andreolli and Andrea Ranocchia. For a few years, there wasn't any long term, viable solution to that pairing in the defense. Until last season.

The past year saw the rise of Milan Škriniar. The young Slovak international (23 years old, 18 caps) was a true revelation for the Nerazurri, dazzling the Giuseppe Meazza with flawless passing, hard tackling and forming a strong line of defense with João Miranda, leading the team to the fourth-best defense in the league (30 goals conceded) and the joint(with AS Roma) second-most clean sheets (17). The centre back pair fitted seamlessly, with Škriniar being the dribbler and marvelous passer and Miranda, the Tank.

By all accounts, the defense wasn't perfect, but it was nice to see some great play in that department after the horrors of the past. This summer, with the addition of Stefan de Vrij on a free transfer from Lazio and the everlasting presence of good old Ranocchia (ever struggled to remember the time when this dude wasn't a part of the team? Yeah, me too), this season is gonna be interesting to watch.

The main question about all this obviously concerns which guys Luciano Spaletti will choose to start VS Sassuolo on Aug. 19. Inter now has an embarrassment of riches at the position; this is a good problem to have, actually.

But which combination would be the best option going forward? The chosen duo would not play every game, obviously: Injuries, form, and the squad (hopefully) playing 50+ games this year between the Champion’s League, Serie A, and Coppa Italia, this seems highly unlikely. And so far, in preseason games, coach Luciano Spalletti has never swayed from his beloved 4-man defense, which has produced mixed results(only one win in 5 games, with Inter conceding at least a goal in all but one game). So the scenario in which Miranda, de Vrij, and Skriniar all play might not be realistic.

Looking at stats, we find ourselves in an interesting case of study figuring which guys will play. Under the risk of looking like a showboater, let me remind you that Škriniar had one hell of a season last year: he was the seventh-best passer in Serie A last year with an accuracy of 91.2%, which was topped by De Vrij (91.4%) although on 300 fewer passes, according to WhoScored.com. He tackled more (2.3/ game) than Miranda (1.5) and de Vrij (0.9), played more minutes (38 games vs 31 and 36 for the other guys), was less booked (only twice; Miranda had 8), was a better dribbler, made more key passes and shot more with splits of 0.5/0.2/0.6.

It is becoming increasingly hard in football to live without the type of footballer that Milan is becoming: players like John Stones for Manchester City, Jérôme Boateng in Bayern Munich, and Gérard Piqué in FC Barcelona are crucial elements to their squad. Škriniar is the favorite to start. But then, who's the other guy that'll play alongside him?Miranda is a better tackler, stronger aerial presence and conceded the least dribbles of all three Inter CBs (1.5 vs 0.9/ 1.9 vs 1.5 / 0.1 vs 0.3) but fouls more(one of Škriniar’s weaknesses), is a less talented passer, goalscorer, and intercepts less.

Requiring a defender to be great at all these tasks may be a bit exaggerated but then again, that's the way football is trending now. Miranda is 33: That means a lot of experience, but he's not in his prime years with Atlético Madrid anymore and the fact that he got outpaced, overpowered and nutmegged by Romelu Lukaku in the World Cup worries me:

Big Rom does that to everybody. But then again, Miranda isn't getting better. He's still a stud defensively, arguably better than de Vrij(who looks more like the kind of player Škriniar already is), but decline will eventually come. Is Inter going the same Artist-Tank route with Škriniar and Miranda or doubling on the sweet passing with Škriniar and de Vrij? Thats an interesting dilemma.

Having a more experienced player next to Škriniar (assuming Spaletti has him as a must-play guy) would help bring the young Slovak pretty well, but de Vrij has a lot of experience also, with 95 Serie A games under his belt. Which means that either one would be a great option going forward. Making the right choice will enable the team to play it's best football and hopefully bring home some titles.


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