The Gentleman Ultra's Richard Hall looks at a team in a rich vein of form after a bad start to the season
After the Coppa Italia defeat to Lazio in midweek, Inter Milan's boss Stefano Pioli stated, "A game can be lost."
But he had a little more to add: "I know how to bounce back though".
The calm nature of his post-match press conference was no different to all those after his recent victories, he was neither elated nor angry, he was simply measured. It is this approach that has lifted the current crop of Nerazzurri players from mid-table mediocrity to Champions League pretenders. His organisation and ability to make simplicity out of the complex, that sees his team enter the Derby D’Italia against leaders and great rivals Juventus this weekend with more than just a half chance of victory.
There is no doubt that Pioli inherited a mess at Internazionale. Roberto Mancini has departed well into pre-season and Frank De Boer was employed as the wrong man at the worst time. It is true that if Inter had decided to change the entire philosophy at the club, their playing style and been prepared for a long transition then the Dutchman’s appointment would have made sense. For him to be successful would have taken a development period that would have taken years but perhaps could have been successful. To sack him in the first half of the season wasn’t folly because of his results but it shamed the whole appointment as ridiculous in the first place.
Let’s be clear, the former Lazio ‘mister’ may have inherited a messy shop but when the shop is a jewellers, it’s not impossible to soon make a profit. Admittedly, Inter needed much more than just a tidy up but when your squad has Samir Handanovic, Joao Miranda, Ever Banega, Joao Mario, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Ivan Perisic, Antonio Candreva and Mauro Icardi in plus the rest, one cannot feel too sorry for the new boss.
Pioli is known the Italian media as "The Normaliser" and it would be under this banner that he would set to work. The depth of Inter’s squad has never been in question although there are certainly areas that can still be strengthened. The Sunning Group will certainly back a heavy spending spree in the summer but first the coach set to work finding a solid first eleven and a system to fit. It was his speed in doing this that eventually lead to Inter winning eight, losing once and drawing once after the 3-0 win against Crotone overseen by youth coach Stefano Vecchi. The 4-2-3-1 that he adopted paid dividends as he stuck to the same eleven taking the field as much as he could. This quickly gave stability and re-invigorated certain players like Marcelo Brozovic and Geoffrey Kondogbia as well as giving the team a more collective feel and enabled them not to be too reliant on Mauro Icardi.
Defensively they have improved dramatically also since the coach has taken charge, as after the 2-2 draw with Milan, the 4-2 win against Fiorentina and then the 3-0 defeat against Napoli everything started to click. The next seven games saw just two goals conceded and the Jeison Murillo combination with Miranda looked solid. Even more impressive has been his effect on the full backs as Danilo Ambrosio and Cristian Ansaldi have been transformed. Defensively they have been much more disciplined and looked capable and calm, almost mirroring their coaches approach on the field. Even the deliveries from wide positions, whilst not perfect are certainly improving.
Inter Milan coach Stefano Pioli, right, talks with Geoffrey Kondogbia prior to the start of a Serie A soccer match between AC Milan and Inter Milan, at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
How has Pioli done this? He has done what has been the staple of many great coaches over the decades and worked using the pillars of "Stable squad selection, simple yet solid tactical work and getting players to understand their roles". This may not be superlatively innovative but it is hideously effective. After De Boer tried to fiddle with various elaborate tactical systems and asked his players to work with a mindset more suited to a velvet revolution rather than a team born from Helenio Herrera and Jose Mourinho, Pioli made sure the players new simply what he wanted a full back to do, know what your job is and what your team mate is doing next to you. This work on ‘couples on the pitch’ and executing ‘your job’ in the way had an immediate effect and is why Inter are flowing as a team for the first time in many a year.
This effect on the collectively of the team has seen the goals start be shared out and has seen Mauro Icardi also turn provider or start moves off rather than simply being the circling eagle in the opponent’s box. The 51-year-old has also spent time working on the player’s mind-sets and it is this ability neither to get over excited nor too downcast that translates to his players on the field. They know how to bounce back and they know how to keep winning. The addition to the squad of Roberto Gagliardini was perhaps also a sign that the team is together and that Pioli has confidence in them. He did not overhaul the team in his own mage in January but instead loaned in a young Italian midfielder who immediately would start games. This young man improves the flow through the midfield and it is noticeable that he has a purpose and his inclusion will not upset the team.
The Derby Italia against Juve is next for Pioli and will be a huge test for his reinvigorated team. A defeat in the Coppa Italia was disappointing but now their entire focus is on Serie A. Champions League is the aim but a victory against Juventus may ask questions about how far this team can go. Whilst this may seem fanciful one only must look back to the day when Pioli took over and the media had written off Inter’s season. Look at them now, it seems "The Normaliser" may just be becoming title contender.