Five seasons ago, Internazionale won a historic treble under the management of Jose Mourinho. Today, the Nerazzurri sit eleventh in the Serie A table and are as far away from winning a major trophy as ever.
The season may be just seven games old, but Inter already trail leaders Juventus by 10 points. They have won only twice so far this campaign, both matches against teams in the lower half.
Only the bottom six sides have conceded more goals than Walter Mazzarri’s men, and the club from Milan have netted just once away from home. 2014-15 was supposed to be different, but it is instead looking like a continuation of the past few years.
Inter have been in steady decline since Mourinho’s exit. A second place finish and Coppa Italia victory in 2011 marked a moderately successful year, but the club ended subsequent seasons in sixth, ninth and fourth respectively.
A failure to adequately replace departing stars, too many managerial changes and underinvestment in young players are the principal reasons for the malaise. Unless Inter confront these issues, they will remain outside the elite.
The backbone of the treble-winning side is no more. A summer exodus which saw Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel, Diego Milito and Javier Zanetti leave marked the end; no players from 2010 remain today. The likes of Samuel Eto’o, Wesley Sneijder, Lucio and Thiago Motta had already fled, while Cristian Chivu and Marco Materazzi retired. Between them, these players hold 749 international caps. Inter sorely miss their experience and talent.
The failure to secure corresponding replacements is partly because of constant upheaval in the dugout. Six managers have taken charge of Inter in the past five seasons. Mazzarri, the current incumbent, is the longest-serving having being appointed in May 2013. Each coach has implemented his own system and style of play, meaning there has been little tactical cohesion from season to season.
The club’s transfer strategy has therefore been inharmonious. Gian Piero Gasperini began to build a team around his favoured 3-4-3 formation, while Andrea Stramaccioni targeted those who suited a 4-4-1-1. One manager would sign a player and his successor would sell him. Antonio Cassano, Matias Silvestre, Alvaro Pereira and Phillipe Coutinho averaged 24.5 games before being moved on, for example.
A change of ownership has compounded this lack of stability and consistency. Inter appointed Erick Thohir, an Indonesian businessman, as president last November after a lengthy negotiation period with predecessor Massimo Moratti. The uncertainty that surrounded the takeover prevented either man putting a long-term strategy in place.
Inter’s lack of commitment to developing young players, meanwhile, has been both disappointing and damaging. In the five years post-Mourinho, the only youth team products to play more than 10 Serie A games for the Nerazzurri are Marco Andreolli, Joel Obi and Marco Faraoni. None of the trio have ever been regular first-team starters. This has bred a culture of short-termism, forcing incoming managers to spend money on new additions rather than promote from the academy.
Inter are too big a club to not recover from recent setbacks. Looking forward though, it will take some time before they can challenge for the scudetto again.
The first target must be returning to the Champions League. Inter have not participated in Europe’s principal competition for three years. The associated loss of revenue and prestige has had an enormous effect, particularly with the recent introduction of Financial Fair Play.
Fellow contenders Milan, Fiorentina and Napoli all have their own problems, so a top three finish this season is not yet out of the question. However, Inter must first address numerous matters.
Fans of the Italian game largely considered Nemanja Vidic an astute pre-season signing, but his form is a real concern. Mazzarri must either drop the Serb or move to a back four, where Vidic is more comfortable. His decisive errors in games with Torino, Napoli and Palermo have not helped a team that is already struggling. The former Manchester United centre-back is costing Inter points that they cannot afford to drop.
There is also an overreliance on certain members of the squad. Mateo Kovacic is just 20 but is already the side’s principal creative force. The Croatian playmaker has five goals and an assist so far this term. Inter would be robbed of invention and incision in the centre of the park were he to get injured. Mazzarri has to find a way to get his other players comfortable with dictating the tempo of the team’s play.
Mauro Icardi, the 21 year-old attacker, has become similarly indispensable. The Argentine is one of just three strikers in the squad, a lack of depth that means it is almost impossible to rotate in this area. Icardi has six goals to his name but will likely hit a dry patch at some point. Inter will have to somehow find a way to compensate.
Mazzarri’s tactical rigidity is deserving of scrutiny, too. Inter have controlled the ball more in 2014-15, averaging 54 percent possession according to Whoscored.com. This indicates a slight move away from Mazzarri’s counter-attacking blueprint, but the former Napoli coach remains wedded to his 3-5-2 configuration.
All managers must be prepared to change things around occasionally. In Inter’s case, variation would be added with a switch to 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. The Nerazzurri have looked laboured this season: as Paolo Bandini wrote in the Guardian, they “never attack[ed] with any sense of urgency” in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Napoli. Periodic changes in shape would help make Mazzarri’s side more unpredictable.
Inter have clearly declined since the treble of 2010. A lack of managerial continuity, the gradual loss of key players and a failure to produce homegrown youngsters have combined to produce a period of stagnation. However, there is hope for the future.
Thohir appears willing to invest in the club, both on and off the field. He has begun discussions over a new stadium in the past few weeks. Such a move would be hugely significant in the long-term. The additional income garnered from a privately-owned ground would assist in closing the financial gap with Juventus.
In the short-term, Thohir recognises the value of stability and has backed Mazzarri whenever the manager has come under pressure. This is hugely important in terms of fostering the continuity that has been sorely missed. Excessive change in a short space of time has precluded sensible, long-term planning. Sticking with Mazzarri would bring vital constancy over the coming years.
If Inter can make some tweaks to the side, the top three is well within reach. A return to the Champions League is the first step towards challenging for major honours again. Achieving it this season would put Internazionale back on the path to the top.