It may be hard to remember this now, considering what a catastrophe the season devolved into, but for a while Inter played some beautiful football under Andrea Stramaccioni. Just Google "Inter goals 2012-13," and you’ll see a wide range of brilliantly worked attacking plays, mostly from the first half of the season. Cassano getting the ball with acres of space to work his magic, lovely 1-2 combinations opening up defenses, and even that fantastically cheeky setpiece against Napoli where Guarin ran in, unmarked, from the center circle to volley in a cross while Napoli’s defense looked on in shock.
The biggest problem with Strama, however, was that he tried to run before he could walk. For all his individual moments of strategic trickery, Strama hardly had a clue how to arrange the more basic elements of teamplay, and once other clubs figured that out, we were punished time and time again. Defending against corners, defending against pacey players, defending against counterattacks -- hell, defending against anything really -- maintaining a coherent shape in transitions, organizing wing play, passing the ball through midfield, etc, etc... All of these basic strengths were totally missing from our repertoire, and we got hit hard for it.
When Walter Mazzarri came in, this was obviously something he recognized, and it has informed everything about his coaching strategy so far. His Inter were not going to run before they could walk. In fact, he made absolutely sure we could crawl before he even let us try to walk.
When Samir Handanovic sat for an interview during summer training, he confirmed this. He seemed almost stunned to describe how rudimentary Mazzarri's practice sessions were, as though the whole team was relearning its ABCs: Basic passing, basic crossing, basic defensive drills, formational exercises. And then when it came time to play our first match, we got a glimpse of the formation that we’d all eventually get used to seeing -- the 3-5-1-1, with a single striker up top.
A note about the 3-5-1-1.
I remember several years back, I was in Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival, and I happened to stop into a bar for lunch when Manchester United were playing. There was a very squirrely, nervous-looking guy next to me wearing a Rooney shirt, drinking an iced tea, eating the complimentary peanuts and staring hard at the mounted TV when they announced the starting lineup. As soon as Man U’s formation came onscreen, he let out a gut-wreching groan and said:
"God damn it! Not the 4-4-2! I hate the fucking 4-4-2!"
I remember staring at him, thinking this was the craziest statement I had ever heard. Really dude? You hate the 4-4-2? The 4-4-2? One of the most basic, versatile, reliable formations in modern football? You hate it? How could a football fan hate the 4-4-2? This is sort of like a rock music fan saying "I hate the I-IV-V chord progression!" Or a chef saying "I hate onions and garlic sauteed in olive oil!" How could you hate one of the most fundamental building blocks of the sport?
Of course, he didn’t hate the 4-4-2. He hated the way his team played the 4-4-2. There is no such thing as a bad formation. (Well, except for maybe a 1-1-1-7 formation with all 7 attackers sitting in an offside position, which I think is what Zeman was playing with last season.) You can have a fast, dynamic, attacking 4-4-2, and you can also have a stodgy, cautious, negative 4-4-2. Formations are all about getting the maximum value from any given player, and working to highlight your team’s strengths. If a formation does those things, then it’s a good formation.
My point being this: At the beginning of the season, Mazzarri’s use of the 3-5-1-1 was brilliant. Some people might have blanched, but he knew exactly what he was doing. It served as a message both to the team and to the teams facing us, saying: "Look, you might keep us from scoring, and you might get a goal or two yourselves, but you will not just run the ball through the midfield with ease like you did last season. We aren’t so naive anymore, and we know what we’re doing."
It was a perfect tactic to help this team regain its footing, to help us relearn how to be a coherent football team again. Looking at heat maps from the early season games, it was miraculous to see just how well the midfield and defense held its shape. Our passing was also much improved -- we might have been relying on more rudimentary passing moves, but we weren’t giving the ball away so cheaply. Our wing play opened things up well, and we weren’t getting killed on every counter anymore. The results were good. Mazzarri had a plan in place, even if it wasn’t the most exciting spectacle to watch.
So, under Mazzarri’s watchful eye, this team proved it could crawl. Now it’s time to start walking and running, but I’m not sure Walter is letting us.
Granted, we’re certainly lacking in attacking options, and I’m not suggesting we throw out the playbook, but this team needs to start evolving into a more confident, imperious unit. And our formation at the time of kick-off would be a good place to start. When we’re playing at home against a relegation team, we ought to be playing with some swagger, some edge, some attack-minded ruthlessness, like we know we’re better than the opposition and are ready to show it. Instead we’re still playing with this backs-to-the-wall, defensive conservatism, and smart coaches have started figuring out how to unlock us and frustrate us.
This is why I found the second half of today’s match so miserable. It wasn’t that any one player was playing badly, and I actually thought our defense looked great. We didn’t give away anything cheap, and Cambiasso did very well in his mop-up role. But we were playing full-on defense for long stretches of the match, so Samp knew they could just camp out in our half and take crack after crack at our box until eventually something went in. One move summed up our second half perfectly: We finally got to hit Samp on the counter, and Palacio took down a long ball all the way in Samp’s box. He’s experienced enough to know not to just blindly shoot at goal, so he held up the play brilliantly waiting for reinforcements. First a Samp defender came back. Then another. Then another. By the time any blue-and-black shirts started appearing in the area, we had completely squandered any numerical advantage we might have had, and the play ended with Ricky shooting over the bar from distance.
This told Sampdoria everything they needed to know about us: We no longer posed a serious threat on their goal, and they could dictate all their resources toward attacking us without fear of reprisal. They did, and they got the equalizer soon after.
So what’s the solution? It’s not nearly so simple as changing our mindset, and we may not even need to change our formation. (Though I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to seeing two front men from the first whistle.) I think Mazzarri just needs to trust the team a little bit more, and give them more room to take chances.
Kovacic failed to change the game when he was brought in today, but look at what he had to work with -- he hardly made it out of his own half. He had a couple sharp passing ideas and a few bright bursts on the ball, but almost all of them came while the team was camped out in defense, so they were pretty much useless. If he’d had the opportunity to do that nearer to their goal, for longer, his influence would have been most welcome.
And while I know Mazzarri’s attacking options are limited, we need to invest something up top. Palacio is a stud, but he’s also a relatively short second striker by nature. Ricky is also a stud, but he’s an attacking midfielder with pace issues. Give them another outlet in attack, and they will both be far more effective as playmakers. It’s great that Nagatomo and Jonathan have been so involved in the attack, but they’re basically playing as part-time attacking wingers, just as often pulled back into deep defense, which means it’s unfair to rely on them as first-choice outlets.
Since Thohir has arrived, most of the transfer market scuttlebutt has pointed toward attacking reinforcements in January, and if we can get someone to play in a more central role than Palacio, with Ricky moved either to the left wing or into a trequartista position, I think this would go a long way toward enlivening the team.
But there needs to be a slight philosophical shift from Mazzarri no matter what. This is not the same team he walked into in the summer. They know what they’re doing now, and they know what he wants. He just needs to take some of the shackles off and let them start running.