Our European guru educates and enlightens
The Italian media usually answer such questions with scientific precision. In Gazzetta Dello Sport, Valerio Clari was clear: the Nerazzurri’s point at Brescia had “prevented the half-crisis from becoming a huge crisis”.
There were only two things wrong with Inter against Brescia. Their defence and their midfield. Brescia’s goal was almost comically simple: a long ball to Andrea Caracciolo who outfoxed three Inter defenders and the keeper with mysterious ease.
Watching the replay – and marvelling at the way one long lofted pass undid Inter – it was hard not to recall Rafael van der Vaart’s rumoured taunting tweet to Wesley Sneijder: “I met your defence in Milan. It didn’t look good, it was like cheese with holes in.”
Redesigning a football team is never easy. And the way Inter played in their treble-winning season gave the team its identity. Rafa Benitez is now trying to change that, as he urges Inter to play more attractive football, but his players could be forgiven if they started losing faith. Against Spurs, Lucio and Maicon looked especially disenchanted.
The major beneficiary of Benitez’s approach is Samuel Eto’o, who has already scored more goals this season than in the whole of 2009/10. But that gain is offset by the damage done to Inter’s rearguard.
They conceded six goals in two games against Spurs, five were created on the flanks. As long ago as the Super Cup, the chasms of space left out wide by Inter’s more attacking formation were as obvious as, well, a priest on a mountain of sugar.
Maicon should, as Benitez said, take his share of the blame but so should a coach who has proved himself one of the best tacticians in the UEFA Champions League and ought, after the first leg, have devised a cunning plan to deal with the force of nature known to the Italian press as “Incredi-Bale”.
Benitez probably felt he had to abandon the disciplined 4-2-3-1 with which Inter won everything. The margins of victory – against Barcelona in the semi-final – were too slender for comfort and rivals have had the summer to plot how to undo that system. But he has yet to find a formation that suits his players better. Sneijder says Inter need to rediscover their winning mentality. He’s half-right. What they also need to discover is a new way to win.
Against Brescia, Benitez plumped for a 4-4-2 which failed, as Gazzetta noted, “because the midfield line was formed by a former full-back like Zanetti, Sneijder, who hadn’t played in that position for a long time and two lads who are forwards, not outer midfielders”.
This wasn’t a game of two halves; it was a team of two halves. Five at the front and five further back and, after Maicon’s injury, only Christian Chivu striving to ensure the twain should meet.
For Moratti, Brescia probably wasn’t as wearying as the debacle at White Hart Lane. Yet the Inter owner has been reasonably restrained, saying: “It’s not that you have to react violently every time something like this happens but we have to appreciate that this is not the way to reach our goals”.
In his defence, Benitez points out that his side are only a few points shy of the summit of Serie A and just a win away from a place in the last 16 in the UEFA Champions League. He has been spectacularly unlucky with injuries, especially in the middle of the park with Esteban Cambiasso, Dejan Stankovic, Thiago Motta and McDonald Mariga sidelined. That misfortune, especially Cambiasso’s absence, did contribute to Inter’s discomfort against Spurs and probably explains the rumours of Rafa’s interest in Lucas.
This is still a half-crisis. Moratti is a seasoned owner who is not easy to panic. Benitez’s evolution of Inter may become clearer and more successful when half the squad returns from the treatment table. Till then, the coach must do his best to limit the damage. But the Milan derby, the fixture that defines the Interisti’s mood for much of the season, is only a week away.
When Europe’s national team coaches met in Madrid in September, there was much discussion about how reactive a coach should be and the importance of a team retaining its identity as it tries to outfox the opposition. One coach admitted that in the World Cup: “During the first half, I looked at my team and I thought ‘this is not us’. At half-time my priority was to persuade the team to be themselves.”
The question that hasn’t yet been answered, in Benitez’s reign at Inter, is: “What is ’us’?” At the moment, the Nerazzurri don’t play like Jose Mourinho’s Inter. But nor do they play like a team designed by Rafa Benitez.
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