Ahead of Inter’s sixth pre-season friendly of the summer against Lyon on Saturday, centre-back Milan Skriniar sat down with Gazzetta dello Sport to discuss the Nerazzurri’s hopes and aims for the coming campaign.
How will Skriniar and his teammates deal with the enhanced expectations people have of them for this season? How much is he looking forward to making his debut in the UEFA Champions League? And what does he make of Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival in Serie A?
All those topics and many more besides - with plenty of space dedicated to his life away from football - are covered in this exclusive two-page interview.
As a young lad, when he received his first salary he immediately bought himself a watch. Since then he’s learned to be trusting of time, while as it’s passed he’s also learned how to play football: clean tackles, his timing on the ball, are his strongest suit.
And it’s not just on the pitch he has good timing. Inter told us to meet him at 13:30 and when we arrived Skriniar was already there waiting for us, more or less like he waits for opposition centre-forwards to approach him. “Pleased to meet you, I’m Milan.”
We’re talking here with the defender that played every single minute of Inter’s matches in Serie A last season. Did you know that not even Javier Zanetti ever managed that?
“I didn’t expect that to happen. My fortune was to never get injured: I don’t have a secret here but I know how to manage my body.
“I understand the signals it gives me and so I know how to decide when I need to stop and have a few massages, or when I need to add a bit of gym work to go alongside my work out on the pitch.”
You only committed 40 fouls in the whole of last season, practically one per game. And you only received two bookings. Explain your style of play to us.
“I didn’t know about that statistic. It’s very simple though: not committing fouls is a way of helping my team, it means they can turn defence into attack quickly. I’m hard but fair in the tackle.
“If I kept committing fouls I wouldn’t be doing my job well, and I’d be slowing down my team’s play.”
Are you aware that the fans now want more from you? Are you aware that some people expect Inter to compete for the Scudetto this season?
“We’re Inter, a club that for definition always has to be at the top. We’re already a stronger side than we were last season like we are now. Our aim is to stay at the top and have a good Champions League campaign.”
You’ve mentioned the Champions League: is it better or worse to come up against the big teams straightaway?
“This will be my first time playing in the competition, so I have no doubts about this: it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, even against Real Madrid and Barcelona we can achieve great things. Inter are a top club, we want to get out of our group.”
Jose Mourinho wanted you at Manchester United, while your agent has said that there were five of Europe’s biggest clubs on your tracks this summer. Did you ever think you’d be leaving?
“It’s not bad reading or hearing that the top clubs like the way you play, but I’ve never thought about leaving this summer. I’ve always said I would be fine with whatever Inter decided.”
Where are we at the moment with your contract extension?
“It’s not done yet, my agent and the club are talking. Let’s see what happens.”
Do you feel like promising that you’ll never play for Juventus or Milan?
“[Laughs] Alright then: I will only play for Inter in Italy.”
What’s different about Spalletti compared to other coaches you’ve had?
“With Giampaolo I was learning the fundamentals of defending, whereas with Spalletti I’m working more on the finer details.
“He dedicates a lot of time to my body posture, for instance. And when I pass the ball I have to think about what my teammate’s stronger foot is: I can’t pass to their right foot if they’re left-footed, otherwise the coach…”
You used to play as a midfielder. Did you enjoy that more?
“Let’s just say that it was more… relaxing.
“Before I knew that when I made a mistake I had four defenders behind that could bail me out; now I have more responsibility, there’s only the goalkeeper behind me.
“But my past helps me because it means that as a defender I know how to take risks, it’s not a problem for me. Sometimes instead of playing sideways I prefer trying a more difficult pass that can bring benefits to my team.”
You had an eye operation back in June. The Inter fans are wondering how well you’ll play this season now you can see properly…
“I can see even more clearly now. I struggled to read things at a distance before whereas now it’s much better, it’s all sorted. Although it never caused me too much trouble on the pitch.”
Do you like reading?
“I don’t have much free time, and the little time that I do have I use for sight-seeing.
“I love travelling around with my girlfriend: we often go to Switzerland, although the place I’ve liked the most so far is Venice. I went there five months ago and as soon as I can go back there I will.”
What kind of relationship do you have with social media?
“I have an Instagram account, but I’m not like some of my teammates who are posting things on there all day. I post things occasionally, in particular after matches, but that’s it.”
Do you think about football much outside of training?
“Yes, I always keep myself up to date.
“But I’m not one of those guys who spends all his time at home playing football on the X-Box, I watch other stuff too. Not least because otherwise my girlfriend gets annoyed…
“When Zilina [his former club] are playing or when the Champions League is on, though, there’s no discussion to be had: we watch the football.”
Have you ever been annoyed about a player rating someone has given you in the papers?
“We talk about them quite a lot here, often when we’re having breakfast the day after a game. But then I just think: someone liked me, others didn’t, what can I do about that?
“Ultimately I prefer to concentrate on what my teammates and my coach have to say about me, it’s their opinions that interest me.”
What do you think of VAR? Do you like it or does it disrupt the play too much like many say?
“I’m in favour of it. As a supporter it’s not nice to be waiting there on a decision for five minutes, but it makes things clearer, like we saw at the World Cup.”
If you hadn’t become a professional footballer what would you have liked to do?
“I don’t know how to answer that, because I’ve always dreamed about having this career ever since I was a child.
“I used to watch my father and my brother play, I love football. And I’ll tell you more: when I retire I want to become a manager, either at youth level or higher up.”
Do you remember the day you got your first professional contract?
“I was 16 and was earning €100 per month. I bought myself a watch… no, not a Rolex. I don’t remember what it was but it was worth €300.”
Is it true that we get a bit carried away with football here in Italy?
“Well, you are a bit mad, yes. But I already knew that before I started playing in Serie A, and in any case I like it: it’s fantastic walking into San Siro and seeing 70,000 fans enjoying themselves.”
Who’s the hardest striker you’ve had to mark?
“I’ll give you two: Higuain and Simeone.
“Higuain doesn’t press and doesn’t run much, but he’s dangerous whenever he’s close to goal, you can’t switch off. Simeone on the other hand is one of those players who’s on top of you the entire game, he’s hard work.”
Do you study your opponents much?
“I used to, I used to clue up on them before matches. Nowadays though I prefer to concentrate on myself and on my own mistakes. I watch my games back and I correct myself.”
What kind of captain is Mauro Icardi?
“Before each of our friendlies this summer he’s spoken to the team and asked everyone to give their all as if it were a league match. It’s not just an expression: he’s a true captain.”
If I say Cristiano Ronaldo, what do you say back?
“One of the best in the world, perhaps a bit faster than me… but we’re Inter, one player on his own is nothing up against a team.
“Besides, I’m happy he’s here: I want to test myself against the best.”
And now Modric might be coming as well…
“[Laughs again] That I don’t know.”