According to a Sky Sports report this morning, Inter has set out a plan for transfer expenditures as soon as Erick Thohir’s investment in the club is complete. The plan involves spending 30 million on new players, and it could go in one of three ways: 1. Splurge all the cash on a big player, most likely Alexis Sanchez; 2. Split the money between two moderate but significant signings, perhaps Radja Nainggolan and Pablo Osvaldo; or 3. Spread the wealth around, picking up Wallace, Wellington, Taider, Basta and who knows who else for small fees and loans.
Now, I’m not going to discuss the probability of any of these specific scenarios, as this is all idle speculation.* Nor am I going to debate the merits of any of these particular players. What struck me about this report was the immediate, instinctive reaction I had when reading it: We’re Inter in 2013, which means obviously we’d go for option No. 3.
If this were 2003, Inter would unquestionably lean toward option No. 1. At the time, Moratti was intent on making us a big club, and he wasn’t about to let money or calm rationality stand in the way. If there was a superstar player who caught his eye, he’d buy him no matter what the cost. This method lead us to sign some truly thrilling players, and it also resulted in a number of almost comically unbalanced teams and the long-term financial trouble that’s currently crippling us.
These days, Inter takes a shotgun approach to player signings, under the assumption that if we spray cheap buckshot into the woods, we’re bound to hit at least one trophy buck. Sometimes this works, and sometimes you end up with a haul of gophers and pigeons caught in the crossfire.** But whatever happens, it all amounts to a sort of anti-strategy, forgoing thoughtful investment and instead just saying, "well, all of these options are cheap, so let’s take 'em all and hope one works out."
In other words, we’ve forgotten how to work the middle. We increasingly lack the willingness to make a concerted effort to find those sorts of players who may require a significant (yet not huge) investment, yet where there's clear quality that we’re paying for. Nothing’s ever a sure thing in football, but there are some players you buy with the expectation that they’ll be good, while others you buy with the hope they may be good. And we’ve been relying on blind hope far too much.
Take a look at our midfield situation. Over the past few windows, we’ve tried bringing in the following midfielders: Gargano, Poli, Mudingayi, Kuzmanovic, Palombo, Kharja, Schelotto. What all of these players have in common is that they were all under 7 million (purchase or loan), and absolutely none of them managed to make any positive impact on our squad whatsoever. Now let’s look at players in the same position that we’ve paid between 10 and 12 million for: Guarin, Kovacic, Alvarez. That last one has had a particularly topsy-turvy time here, and none of the three are exactly superstars. But it’s hard not to argue that these three represent an obvious step-up in quality and value to the club, whereas the former group ultimately amounted to little more than warm bodies we threw on to fill up space.***
This club has a weakness for operating on the extreme ends of the spectrum. There are the expensive dream signings that we’re sure would solve all our problems, and then there are the "ah-what-the-hell" signings that we make for cheap and in bulk, like we’re shopping at a football Sam’s Club. And more and more, we seen unwilling to understand that the dream signings are out of our reach, and in a panic, we immediately revert to the shotgun approach when the dream signings fail. Lucas Moura was a dream signing, and we spent months pursuing him even though he was probably always going to be out of the range we were willing to spend. Paulinho was the next unavailable dream signing, and it looks like Isla will be this year’s version. Not only does this mean wasting time and precious human capital chasing the unattainable, it also leaves you with a crop of flops taking up salary and roster space, who you then have to waste even more time and money selling off for a loss after they’ve stunk up the joint for a season or two. If you add up all the cheap signings that didn't work out, the whole strategy stops being cheap very quickly.
When I look for a new car, I don’t waste my time test-driving Bugattis and Bentleys I know I can't afford, and I don’t go and buy three cheap, rusted clunkers in the hope that one of them will actually run. I try to find the best Volvo or Honda for my money. And sometimes Volvos and Hondas are wildly underrated.
Obviously, this club was operating under a wildly different financial policy during the summer before the Treble season, but it’s worth looking at some of those transfer moves and just how strategic they were.**** At the time, we were Serie A champions with good spending power and eyes on the Champions League, yet we didn’t just splash out for the sexiest signings on the market. We needed a regista; The fantacalcio player in this position would have been someone like Xabi Alonso, instead we got Thiago Motta. We needed a center-back; Lucio wasn't a dream signing, but he was both good and for sale, so we spent the money and went for it. We also needed an attacking mid; Guys like Ribery and Iniesta were unreasonable, so Mou decided to go for Aleksandr Hleb, and when even that didn’t work out, we went for Wesley Sneijder as second-choice instead. None of these were blockbuster first-choice signings, nor were they quickie budget signings – they were smart, thoughtful investments. We looked at our budget, then looked at our most pressing squad needs, and figured out how to make it work.
Even if our budgets are substantially lower these days, we desperately need more of this same type of clear-headed thinking process at work.
To be clear, I’m not shitting on our summer transfers. Some of these newbies could turn out to be great. I like Icardi, for example, and we clearly bought him because we wanted him, not because we were offered a deal and figured "sure, whatever." I think we paid too much for Belfodil, considering we only bought half of him, but at least it was a real investment – the same way Kovacic was an investment, and Ranocchia and Guarin were investments. But then there are the "ah-what-the-hell" signings that we’ve made seemingly just because they were available at a good price: Andreolli, Campagnaro, Wallace, Rolando, and probably more to come in the next few weeks. Any one of these players could surprise us and become a keystone for the club, but it would be exactly that – a surprise. And most of the surprises Inter has seen in these past few seasons have not been the pleasant kind.
*These are the kinds of silly season reports that we ought to treat with as much credence as a political diatribe delivered by a screaming transient at a bus station.
**My impetus for writing this was a list that Mr. Kev9Inter (if that is his real name) posted on an earlier page, listing our post-treble signings through to last winter’s window. According to his list, we signed 28 new players in that time. 14 of those players we’ve already gotten rid of. Of the 14 left, by my count, 8 of them have become actual regular contributing members to the team. Which gives us less than a 30% recent transfer success rate, keeping in mind that even these "successes" have been key players for one of the worst Inter sides in years. That’s a pretty unacceptable amount of turnover to create a 9th place team.
***Non-midfielders who also fit into the cheap-transfer/zero-value bracket: Castaignos, Biabiany, Silvestre, Jonathan, Zarate, Forlan, Rocchi.
****The Samuel Eto’o deal doesn’t count here – that was one of those outrageous, once-a-decade transfer market miracles that Branca dreams about while lying prostrate on a Persian rug after his third nightly dose of opium.