Life after The Special One – Internazionale’s managerial instability

by Ciaran Kelly

Internazionale, from the end of Helanio Herrera’s reign in 1968 to José Mourinho’s arrival in the summer of 2008, won just eight league titles in 43 years and failed to replicate the ‘Golden Age’ under president Angelo Moratti from 1955-1968.

Herrera, with his confrontational style, revolutionary psychology, incredibly disciplined methods (bed checks), rapport with the club’s fans and deflection of media attention from his players to himself, was the key figure behind Inter’s three titles and two European Cups during his reign. The Argentine’s legacy lived on with much of the same squad and tactic under his replacement Giovanni Invernizzi, who won the Italian title in 1971 and made the European Cup Final in 1972.

43 years on, the parallels were stark. Mourinho had strikingly similar methods to Herrera, generating unprecedented controversy in Italian football for his brutal and unprecedented disrespect towards fellow Serie A managers, referees and journalists, while Angelo’s wealthy son Massimo had inspired an upturn in the club’s fortunes when he became president in 1995. Nonetheless, regardless of Inter’s five Serie A wins between 1995 and 2011, which edges Milan’s four titles and matches Juventus’ five, a lack of Champions League success, just one semi-final appearance (2003) before Mourinho’s arrival in comparison to Milan’s two tournament victories in 2003 and 2007, left Moratti restless. This lack of a meaningful impact on the Champions League led to record-breaking amounts of money being spent on the likes of Christian Vieri (£31 million in 1999), Ronaldo (£19 million in 1997), Francesco Toldo (£17 million in 2001) and Hernán Crespo (£17 million in 2002), and ultimately was one of the main reasons behind the rash and somewhat harsh sackings of managerial names such as Giampiero Marini, Luigi Simoni and Roberto Mancini.

Even though Mourinho had assembled a side centred on his multi-million pound signings of Lúcio, Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito, Inter’s psychological failure to ever consistently impose themselves on the Champions League made the Portuguese’s continental achievement all the more impressive – particularly when one considers Inter’s mentality, consistency and performances post-Mourinho. Mourinho’s style of football did not appear that different to Mancini’s pragmatic philosophy, but his man management and tactical organisation of Inter were of a different class. From this, a number of players who had seen their stock fall before Mourinho’s arrival had their careers revived and dramatically improved under ‘The Special One’s’ tutelage.

The likes of Maicon (overtook Javier Zanetti as Inter’s undisputed first-choice right back and his surge in performances saw him become one of the world’s best right backs), Javier Zanetti (re-energised and re-invented as a consistent central midfielder under Mourinho), Walter Samuel (had seen his career dogged by injury and poor form but revived the ‘brick-wall’ brilliance that he displayed at Roma between 2001 and 2004), Sneijder (while unquestionably talented, doubts remained about his temperament and mentality, and Madrid’s willingness to offload the Dutchman left him incredibly low in self-confidence), Eto’o (once a self-centred hothead, the Cameroonian showed remarkable maturity and tactical discipline on the right wing of Mourinho’s 4-3-3) and Milito (had proven his domestic credentials in his one season at Genoa and was under huge pressure with his hefty transfer fee, but proved himself as one of the world’s most potent, pivotal and consistent finishers in the 2009/2010 season) all had a world-class 2009/2010 seasons under Mourinho.

However, it must be noted that Mourinho did need a bedding-in season (a damp squib 2-0 second round defeat to Manchester United in 2008/2009 for example), much like his situation at Real Madrid today, before his philosophy and signings really took off. After all, the transition from Mancini’s methods of double training sessions and his 4-4-2/4-3-1-2, which was so unashamedly reliant on the mood and performances of talisman Zlatan Ibrahimović, the zonal defensive system, narrow width, counter-attacking and the long ball to achieve and maintain narrow advantages, naturally took time for the seemingly similar, yet largely different with regard to off the field methods, styled Mourinho to tweak and perfect.

By 2009/2010, the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, improved Mancini’s narrowness but admittedly also lacked wholly natural width due the unnatural (despite their disciplined Mourinho trait of tracking back) use of strikers Eto’o and Goran Pandev on the wings, saw a lot more ground ball, which may have owed much to Ibrahimovic’s move to Barcelona, and the defensive discipline and creative spark that Lucio, Samuel and Sneijder respectively provided were pivotal to Inter’s treble success. After all, only a Mourinho side could have 24% possession in the Camp Nou and have a man sent off, yet still come out 3-2 winners on aggregate or could withstand, and better, a heavy ‘kitchen sink’ barrage from Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the second round.

These examples of Mourinho’s managerial brilliance epitomise the fact that wherever he has gone, his ghost has lingerered: at Porto, Luigi Delneri (allbeit ludicrously sacked before his first competitive game), Víctor Fernández, José Couceiro and Co Adriaanse (was the only manager of the above mentioned to win the Portuguese League but could not replicate this achievement in 2006/2007) all failed to match Mourinho’s lofty standards and signified the instability and difficulty of life after José; and at Chelsea, only Guus Hiddink made a notable and unique impact pre-Carlo Ancelotti, with his discipline, three-dimensional (obviously limited with a lack of flair and time, but did not over rely on the full backs and a narrow diamond like Luiz Felipe Scolari) and revival of the playing careers of the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Florent Malouda and Didier Drogba. Before Hiddink, Avram Grant, while being the only manager to date to lead Chelsea to a Champions League Final, used an incredibly similar set-up and model to Mourinho with his use of the veteran Claude Makélelé, Michael Essien at right back and Joe Cole as an orthodox winger.

Rafael Benítez, a sworn adversary of Mourinho, took over from the Portuguese and with the pressure of “winning with my team” as Mourinho so infamously taunted, Benítez sought to purge Inter of all its Mourinho elements: from taking down pictures of ‘The Special One’ and his Champions League achievement to failing to acknowledge that Mourinho had left a legacy that, if carefully tweaked over the coming seasons, could lead to Inter remaining a consistent and dominant force in Europe. After all, when Mourinho took over in 2008, he recognised Mancini’s achievements and knew that it was a two-year project. When the wingers Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma dramatically failed to live up to their price-tags in Mourinho’s initial use of a wide 4-3-3 in 2008/2009, the Portuguese knew it would be to the detriment of the team in the short-term to continue with such an overhaul and reverted back to a similar narrow Mancini 4-4-2 tactic (Mourinho putting his own slant on the tactic with his use of Zanetti and Sulley Muntari in central midfield and Dejan Stanković as the undisputed creative fulcrum, having used the system intermittently at Chelsea in the 2006/2007 season).

Given Benítez’s direct and industrious playing style at Liverpool, that had worked to good effect in Europe in particular, his crusade to purge Italian football of the notion that all eighteen teams use a Catenaccio playing style was particularly bizarre. While the idea was admirable in theory, in practise, the 4-3 Group A win over ten-man Tottenham exposed its massive flaws – regardless of the result. While Inter cruised to a three goal advantage after just fourteen minutes, following a series of brilliantly woven team moves, a poor mentality and defensive lapses took the gloss off of an initial impressive performance. The idea of a Mourinho-managed outfit conceding three goals, regardless of having an initially hefty lead, would be ludicrous yet here was a side that, for the most part, was the exact same XI as Mourinho’s Champions League Final winning side. For all the flair and swagger that Inter displayed that night against Tottenham, the ‘newfound’ cluelessness, tactical ill-discipline and line breakage that Maicon, Lúcio, Samuel and Cristian Chivu (admittedly had occasional lapses under Mourinho too) all displayed was shocking.

Maicon, in particular, a specimen that epitomised the Mourinho regime with his towering physique, constant running and brilliant shot, looked unfit and out of sorts against a problem that would not have troubled him at his best: pace. Gareth Bale, while putting in a man of the match hat-trick performance, would never have gotten that kind of joy during Mourinho’s tenure. Whether it was down to Maicon’s defensive head not being in the game (having attacked the left flank impressively before Bale’s bursts), or that he was still feeling a hangover from Brazil’s World Cup or because Benítez failed to properly prepare the Brazilian for Bale, through a seriously in-depth dossier or deep-lying cover from Zanetti, Maicon looked ordinary and a shocking shadow of the devastating marauder of 2009/2010. Both of the Tottenham games in Group A were clear evidence that while Benítez was making the best natural use of his team, instead of bludgeoning strikers into the flanks a la Mourinho, there was a serious imbalance and instability to his defensive set-up.

Considering Mourinho’s Inter were notorious for their ability to soak up pressure, as was so clearly seen in both legs of the semi-final against Barcelona in 2010, Benítez’s aim of injecting a vibrancy and front foot mentality into the side was an alien concept. This vibrancy and Benítez’s regime were symbolised in the introduction of the wingers Philippe Coutinho and Jonathan Bianbiay into the first XI, two exciting prospects who would never have gotten a chance under Mourinho’s ‘over 27’ regime, but Inter were poor without their strong and pressing defensive foundations. Even Júlio César, who became one of the world’s top three goalkeepers under Mourinho, looked vulnerable and ordinary behind the exposed, ageing and leaky Inter defence. However, it is worth noting, regardless of whether Benítez was content and happy with his squad when he took over, that Moratti did not afford him a transfer budget – let alone the combined £82 million luxury that Mourinho, in tandem with technical director Marco Branca, spent in the summers of 2008 and 2009.

It was testament to Mourinho’s achievement that he got so much out of one of the oldest average aged winners of a club competition in history, with the Champions League Final XI at 30.36 years and the seven substitutes plus the suspended Thiago Motta averaging 29.875 years. So, while Biabiany and Coutinho were undoubtedly talented prospects, aged 22 and 18 respectively under Benítez, Inter badly lacked a middle 24-27 age group to inject proven quality, finesse and instant assimilation into the starting XI. Even though Benítez did manage a Club World Cup victory over TP Mazembe, his bizarre public ultimatum to Moratti after the match reflected his desperation – having struggled with injuries to key players, languished in seventh in Serie A by the time of the Club World Cup and having finished second to Champions League newcomers Tottenham in Group A. Moratti, a strong-willed and proud individual, had no other choice than to sack the Spaniard and ironically, handed his replacement Leonardo a £30 million warchest. Leonardo wasted no time in tying up deals for Andrea Ranocchia, Yuto Nagatomo, Houssine Kharja and Giampaolo Pazzini (Benitez’s favourite Bianbiay went in the opposite direction) who, apart from Pazzini, were all available for the Champions League – clearly indicating the competition where Moratti, Branca and Leonardo saw potential silverware.

Inter had badly stuttered in all competitions under Benítez: winning 11 (3 of which involved winning the ‘friendlies’ of the Supercoppa Italiana and the Club World Cup), drawing 6 and losing 8 matches but saw an upturn in fortunes under their unofficial Brazilian caretaker. Leonardo, regardless of his 18-month contract, was not expected to be anything other than a short-term gap, a la Avram Grant at Chelsea, until the heavyweight and experienced managerial names would be available in the summer (Luciano Spalletti, André Villas-Boas, Fabio Capello and Guus Hiddink were all optimistically touted). Leonardo’s start was impressive, 33 points from his first 13 Serie A games which was a new record and dwarfed Mourinho’s and Benítez’s most consistent league runs, and given the run’s longevity, which derided the honeymoon period theory, Leonardo was certainly proving himself as an adept coach.

His use of 4-3-1-2 was serving Inter well and although there were still obvious frailties at the back, with Inter keeping just seven clean sheets in 32 games under Leonardo, Inter still looked potent enough to make a late season assault on retaining their treble – particularly after their numerous late showings of character against the likes of Catania, Palermo, Bari, Sampdoria and Bayern Munich. However, the night of 5 April saw the the world champions crash back down to earth. Having secured the most favourable quarter-final of the draw, hopes were high that Inter would at least make the semi-finals – with Schalke struggling domestically and sacking their manager Felix Magath (replaced by Ralf Rangnick) only days before the first-leg at the San Siro. However, whether a dream first minute start from a magnificent halfway line volley from Stanković brought about a spirited fightback from Schalke or a now ‘traditional’ foot off the gas tendency from Inter, the 5-2 home defeat, with all of Schalke’s goals remarkably coming before Chivu’s 62’ sending off, saw I Nerazzurri’s hopes of becoming the first retainers of the Champions League trophy dashed.

Inter never fully recovered from the defeat, which incidentally came after a brutal 3-0 league loss to Milan, and a 3-1 Coppa Italy Final victory over Palermo was Leonardo’s only consolation. With PSG headhunting their former fans’ favourite as the man to lead their transfer revolution, which suited Leonardo’s preferred scouting/technical role, Moratti, admittedly not with the same despair from twelve months ago when Mourinho left, began to plan for life without the Brazilian. The candidates began to drop dramatically: Guus Hiddink seemed destined for Chelsea at the time and had a huge compensation fee from his role at Turkey; Luciano Spalletti was in the middle of the Russian season and content with his lucrative contract and transfer budget at Zenit; Fabio Capello had a year to run on his £6 million a year England contract and showed no willingness to terminate it, particularly if the destination was his beloved i Rossoneri ’s bitter rivals; and André Villas-Boas, who had a £13.3 release clause, snubbed a reported offer to meet Moratti and claimed that he wanted to lead Porto for another season – but joined Chelsea only days later.

A dark horse, considering he was out of work and had only notably managed Genoa, Gian Piero Gasperini was from a similar school to Massimiliano Allegri, Milan’s league winning manager who had an unspectacular playing career and had yet to manage a major club before taking the Milan job. Despite being unemployed and being synonymous for his stubborn and archaic 3-4-3 tactic, Gasperini was well-respected within the game – with Jose Mourinho paying tribute to the dynamic Gasperini in 2009 as “the coach who put me in most difficulty. I would change but he would adapt, time and again.”  Playing with wing backs and a reliance on hard-working, well-drilled and well-conditioned centre backs, Gasperini’s formation is not immediately suited to the still mature Inter.The system requires pacy and pressing centre backs who are comfortable with the ball, which Lucio (who has dramatically, albeit naturally, slowed down), Ranocchia and Samuel can be but they all lack the pace to play the offside trap effectively and as a cohesive unit – leading to Inter lacking defensive aggression, pressing and letting teams come at them again and again.

Nagatomo and Maicon/Jonathan, in particular, will thrive in the system since they are such attack-minded marauders but their lack of tactical discipline will see major holes behind their lines (as was seen against the pace of Palermo and Roma’s counter attacks), regardless of the opposition playing a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, and even if the centre backs cover, there will be gaping holes behind the likes of Esteban Cambiasso. Possession with ball-carriers like Cambiasso will become even more important but without Sneijder, or the Dutchman being played in his natural number ten position, the forwards have been left isolated – resulting in ambitious long shots. Creativity wise, the likes of Joel Obi (naturally a midfielder but has been used as a wing back by Gasperini) and Ricardo Álvarez do not supply anywhere near the same devastating game-changing effect and brilliance. From this, Gasperini’s use of Sneijder as a regista rather than a trequartista leaves Inter badly shorn of dynamism and creativity in the final third. Remarkably, this ‘unsolvable problem’ within the 3-4-3/3-5-2 comes in spite of Sneijder being Inter’s undisputed star.

The Dutchman is a square peg in Gasperini’s disjointed system and his unsuitability was not helped by the incessant speculation over the Dutchman’s future which left Gasperini with his hands tied, with regard to planning a system to accommodate Sneijder. Up front, Mauro Zárate, Diego Forlán, Diego Milito and Giampaolo Pazzini were the names, like the wing backs, who the system was touted to greatly benefit but deciding on a complementary two will be difficult for Gasperini. If he does go with four at the back again, which incidentally did not fare all that better against Trabzonzsor, a possible future lineup could be a 4-3-1-2 with Cesar; Nagatomo, Lucio, Samuel, Maicon; Zanetti, Thiago Motta, Cambiasso; Sneijder; Milito and Forlán.

Persevering with three at the back, like against Roma (Cesar; Ranocchica, Lucio, Samuel; Zanetti, Obi/Motta, Cambiasso, Sneijder, Nagatomo; Milito and Forlan), while admirable for sticking to his principles with a 3-5-2 variant, will only increase the pressure on Gasperini’s team in their alien-like tactical roles. In fairness to Gasperini, the short-sightedness, with regard to the arrogance of thinking Inter could appoint a vastly better candidate than Leonardo, of Moratti must be questioned  - even if Gasperini’s substitutes and lack of a defined game plan have been ominous warning signs of the Italian being out of his depth. From this, it seems incredibly unlikely that Moratti will give Gasperini the months he needs for the formation to stutter and eventually click into gear.

In tandem with his undoubted success at the San Siro, José Mourinho had a great personal friendship with Massimo Moratti that went deeper than tactics and transfer dealings. It was one of the rare cases in the continental system (president -> technical director -> coach) of the president and coach being on equal standing and treating each other with mutual respect and support. Gian Piero Gasperini’s start has been Inter’s worst since 1983 and having seen Rafael Benítez and Leonardo fail in their short reigns with their gung-ho, over-ambitious and poor defensive foundations, the Italian will need more time than his predecessors with his ambitious and unique tactic.

However, with Inter’s eternal rivals Milan beginning this decade as Italy’s undisputed top team, Moratti’s pride, which was at its peak with Mourinho and was the deciding factor in the Italian beginning his relentless investment and rejuvenation of the underachieving Inter from 1995, will ultimately decide Gasperini’s fate.

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