I am not going to talk about the penalty, much. I think that it’s going to be quite a bigger issue leading up to next weekend’s game against Cagliari which has its own bag of controversy. I expect Inter to be hit with bans and fines.
I am not going to talk about the tactics. Obviously the tactics were dominating for 65 minutes as Inter were in the lead 3-1 at that point.
I am going to spend my time right now talking about the 3rd goal. I’ll talk about why afterward, but I want to devote this time to that 3rd goal.
So, on to the show.
The problem starts with the ball in the upper right hand corner of the penalty area of Inter. Denis receives the ball with his back to goal and puts a heavy touch on it. Immediately behind him is Juan doing his job. To Denis’s right is Zanetti filling space between Denis and an Atalanta player on the sideline. Ranocchi is supporting Juan about 3 meters away and to the left on a diagonal. In front of Denis running towards him from right to left is Kovacic who was playing the space between Denis and the guy who passed him the ball. Everyone set the scene? Denis is in the middle of a diamond of Juan (behind), Zanetti (right), Kovacic (front) and Ranocchia (left).
Denis’s first touch is as described, heavy. It’s so heavy that Juan is able to make a play on it, stepping up. Juan’s step up carries him past Denis so that now he, the guy that Kovacic was marking and Kovacic are now basically occupying the same space – an impossibility that physics will shortly resolve.
Denis’s first touch is heavy to his left giving Juan a chance to make a touch of his own, but he has to step up to do it. The onrushing Kovacic also tries to get a touch on it as he sweeps across and Juan is forced to do a standing up straight on his tiptoes to try and avoid Kovacic.
It doesn’t work as Kovacic, trying to run from left to right trying to take the ball off Denis hits the ball into Juan’s left foot. Remember that Juan is not standing right in front of Denis instead of goal side of him, as a defender should be. Zanetti is also running left to right, but behind Denis’s back and he’ll make his appearance shortly.
Kovacic hits the ball into Juan’s left foot which hits the ball into Kovacic’s right foot. The two are now centimeters apart and Kovacic is desperate to avoid actually running into Juan. Keep in mind that all this is actually happening just blades of grass outside the Inter penalty area.
Kovacic hits Juan’s left foot, the ball hits Kovacics right foot as Kovacic is angling his body to avoid Juan and the ball hit’s Juan’s left for the second time. There are now 4 players around the ball so close to each other that everyone can tell what everyone else had for lunch – Juan, Kovacic, Denis and Kovacic’s dancing partner.
Kovacic has at this point angled his body so that it’s facing Atalanta’s goal in trying to avoid Juan. Juan is facing his own goal – and Denis - in an attempt to avoid hitting Kovacic. Juan facing Denis is noteworthy because when the ball comes off his foot, he was so intent on not hitting Kovacic with the ball he instead lays the ball between him and Denis.
Denis can’t believe his eyes and collects the ball and his position, essentially that of having beaten Juan, turns and sees Zanetti running at him from the left. And what of Juan, I hear you cry? He lunges towards Denis from behind but he doesn’t actually go in full stretch.
Now, I don’t have telepathy, nor am I psychic. I don’t know what Juan was thinking when he pulled up from lunging full out and I don’t know what would have happened if he did it. I can make a rational guess though. My guess is that he’s thinking he better not give up another penalty. My guess is that he’s more worried about what the ref is going to call and what kind of storm from the fans/embattled coach/media is going to hit him square in the face than whether or not he’s going to make that tackle clean. He wouldn’t be human if that stuff isn’t flashing in his head right then.
Anyway, Denis, with the ball at his left shields Zanetti on his right. Ranocchia steps up to block the forward and Samuel starts to move behind Ranocchia and to his right so that he can support the young Italian.
Zanetti loses out on his challenge and stumbles further to the right while Denis who is already moving to the left – towards the goal mouth - wrong foots Ranocchia with a quick side step, and he has to arrest his momentum so that he can orient his body to the left as well. Denis is still quite close to the edge of the box but is gaining a better angle to shoot from.
That quick step forcing Ranocchia to change direction is all the space that Denis needs to shoot. Walter Samuel had made his way in front of Denis but is meters away and can only throw his body in the way on a prayer. Denis pulls one last trick from his sleeve – despite working so hard to gain angle on the far post he shoots near post forcing an extra millisecond of adjustment from Handanovic who has no chance on the shot.
The web, print and I am going to guess TV has/will castigate Ranocchia for poor defending, which may or may not have happened. He was certainly beat for the goal, but I would argue that Denis appearing in the area with the ball and running at him as though by magic might be a mitigating factor. Ranocchia is probably too class to blame the other two players involved in this play and will probably shoulder the blame. But this was a team wide mistake starting from the get go.
This is why I am so focused on this play, and why that penalty mattered even though it wasn’t the “decisive” score in the game.
You can call this poor defending, team collapse and whatever you want. And you would be absolutely correct. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum with eggs that are perfect spheres.
It isn’t, at least it shouldn’t be, a surprise that the two players who cause the equalizer are the youngest players on the field. Nor is it particularly surprising that it’s two of the three players with the least time with the “regulars”. Juan and Kovacic are good players now. They will be good players in the future too. I am not going to say that they suck or that they need to go. Or that this goal was all their fault.
Here’s what they were trying to do – they were trying to do too much. They don’t have the experience playing together that would have helped them to avoid that particular problem they had. They don’t have the experience period, they are just kids. Juan followed his guy and lost him because he thought that he could be a hero. Kovacic saw the ball between two players and thought he could be a hero. Juan needs to learn that, for him, position is better than possession. This is his first full year playing as a center back (and playing in Italy) and he’s going to be fine if he builds on his experience from this season. Kovacic needs to learn that he doesn’t need to stick his nose into every situation – even if he had to at his old team because he was the best player there. This is a big jump up for him and it's obvious that he wants to do prove himself. He's going to be huge, but he's going to have to trust his teammates to pull their own weight. Juan was battling his guy and he had backup.
But this situation is an example of why that penalty is so important. This team has too many issues like this one so that just handing over a lifeline to the other team when the game was on life support is crucial. No, the penalty didn’t tie up the game. No the penalty didn’t give Atalanta the win. But it ate away at the cushion and security that this injury riddled, not great team needs to secure a win. And you can blame who you want for the state of the team; everyone, Moratti, Branca, Strama, or no one; but the fact is that's just the way it is.
No, this team isn’t mentally strong. But this shouldn’t be a shock, right? It’s been battered and bludgeoned at every turn. First, it’s Sneijder. Then it’s Strama’s job at the winter break. Then it’s Rocchi. Then it’s Kova-whoseits that was bought. Then it was Coutinho who was sold. Then it was Milito who went down. Then it was Livaja that was loaned. Now it’s going to be Strama’s job again.
No, this team isn’t mentally strong. It's not even strong! For most of the roster, this is the first time that they had to experience the Inter Media Crisis Schtick. The old guard waded through a lot of excrement before they got hardened to it and were able to laugh it off - or better yet, use it.
But this team isn’t there yet. It’s not there in talent, experience or battle/media tested. It will be, but it’s going to take some time. And while it’s learning, taking penalties like this will effect them. I don't mind the front office making it's displeasure known. If nothing else, it'll take the focus off the players like Juan and Kovacic who screwed up that decisive goal and allow them to learn from the mistake instead of being haunted from it.
For those who don’t remember, this is what happened the last time we played Atalanta some 20 games ago. Final score: 3-2 with another decisive penalty.