1. Jonathan. Here’s an intellectual exercise: Imagine it’s still late July. Inter seems to be in a state of uneasy flux, our signings so far have either been young players or free transfers, and we’re currently struggling to keep up with other European powers in U.S. friendlies. Names like Isla and Fernando have been thrown around as potential signings, while Samuel Eto’o and a few other available big players have been whispered about. With all this going on in the background, Marco Branca calls a press conference to discuss the team’s upcoming transfers. Wearing an immaculately fitted suit and a condescending smirk, he steps up to the podium and announces:
"As far as I’m concerned, our transfer window is closed," he says. "I am aware that the papers have been mentioning lots of names, but at the moment we look ready to compete as we are. And as far as new signings, just managing to hold onto Jonathan should be seen as our biggest new signing."
Could you imagine the uproar? I’d guess that most of us would give up on Inter fandom forever, and start following ice hockey like most people do when they’ve given up on life. The rest would quit their jobs, sell the kids, and head off to a rustic commune in the remotest mountains of Kashmir where even mentioning the word "football" is punishable by death. The ultras would start dropping Vespas by the dozens onto the pitch from helicopters.
And yet look at the match today. Jonathan ran everyone on the right flank ragged. Twice he won the ball back in Inter’s third and held onto it for an eternity in the corner until help could arrive, then passed his way out of danger. He created an unmissable Palacio tap-in out of nothing, set Palacio up to assist the second, and could have scored the opener if his finish had been slightly more clever. Even his long balls, one of this team’s greatest albatrosses, managed to find open men more often than not. It’s simply staggering how much better he’s been playing this season -- in previous ones, it wasn’t just that I rated him lowly, I hardly considered him a professional footballer at all. He was our team’s mascot, much like "Rudy" Ruettiger was for Notre Dame in the 1970s -- a lovably bumbling, chubby doofus with negligible skill and a lot of heart whose life story a smart screenwriter might one day turn into an inspiring film about always believing in your impossible dreams despite your obvious and immense limitations. And now he’s doing this. I can’t believe I’m about to write this, but Jonathan is my personal Man of the Match today. There, I’ve said it, and I stand by it. Remember the date, and feel free to remind me about this later on when I try to walk it back.
2. Ricky Alvarez. At a very, very close second for MOTM is Ricky Alvarez, with yet another assured, complete performance. Forgetting the goal for a moment, what’s impressed me most about Ricky so far this season has been his range. Unlike Jonathan, Ricky always managed to show his potential skill even in his most abject performances, yet if I saw him blossoming into a decent player -- which, to be honest, I didn’t -- I always figured it would be as a delicate sort of artiste, a dainty, wispy player who doesn’t run much, falls apart at a slight breeze, and provides enough smart key passes to make his presence on the pitch worthwhile. But damn it, the man is turning out to be a real midfielder. Like his MOTM performance last week, today we saw him winning balls, going full-on into tackles, running hard all match and fighting tooth-and-nail to keep the ball under defensive challenges. Maybe it’s my fault for dropping that mescaline before the match, but Ricky just looks several inches taller and significantly bulkier on the pitch than he used to -- he’s simply a presence in the game to a degree he never was before, you always notice him, and he’s stopped disappearing during down moments. He had our highest passing accuracy today (94%), and our second-highest number of touches (77). He still needs to work on his weak foot -- which prevented him from getting a brace today -- and his crossing is pretty mediocre, but he’s a guaranteed starter now, with good reason.
3. That goal. I would be remiss to mention this, of course. To be fair, you have to account for the absolutely hideous defending that allowed Ricky to burst through with minimal trickery. And it’s possible Catania had already more or less written the match off when he started running at them. But even if the defense has left the door wide open for you, it still takes a lot of confidence and foresight to run through it, and Ricky executed expertly.
Catania vs Inter 0-3 (Ricky Alvarez Goal) 01.09.2013 FULL HD (via FootballPlace)
4. Fitness. Today was the day that we started to see why Mazzarri was so ruthless in forcing our players through boot camp this summer. Even when our accuracy was letting us down, our hustle kept us in the game. When there were loose balls, all of our players ran straight for them, and even when we didn’t recover them in time, we would crowd out the opposing player or throw a slide tackle at them to prevent them from sparking a play. This is something we did very little last season. And while Catania’s motivation might have deserted them, it was still hard not to notice that they looked dead on their feet for the last 10 minutes, while we were still launching full-steam counterattacks.
5. The dreaded 3-5-1-1. Look, nothing about this formation inspires much excitement. If football formations were food, the 3-5-1-1 would be a plain roast beef sandwich with no cheese, or maybe a sugarless bowl of Wheaties. It’s perhaps more understandable that we used it today, away to a decent team, than it was last week, at home to a crappy one. But it worked out pretty well, didn’t it? I’m sure MAD and a quorum of commenters here can explain with greater technical clarity why this was the correct approach, but all I know is that I saw a team that always had one more player waiting to sweep up in place behind the player in the spotlight, and that applies to both offense and defense. (In this that mythical "compactness" of which MAD speaks so reverently at work? Indeed it is! See MAD, I do pay attention in class sometimes.) At least in the first half, Catania took the ball through the midfield with pace and purpose, and there were a few nearly successful counter attacks. But even when we were put on the back foot, we usually had cover in place, meaning there were very few last man situations on defense. (And to be fair, I thought Cambiasso did an admirable job being the quiet mop-up man today, certainly better than he’s done in previous weeks. Taider did well enough too, but Cuchu deserves a shout-out the most.)
6. Team togetherness. Here’s perhaps my biggest takeaway from today’s match: We made plenty of individual mistakes, but very few team mistakes. Meaning that there were plenty of missed passes, fouled-up counters and blown coverage incidents. But at no point today did I scream "what are you doing?!" at my screen as a our backline crashed into one another while an unmarked Catania player picked up the ball just outside of goal. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that our most disappointing (fit) player today was also the most individualistic -- Guarin seemed to be on an entirely different page as the rest of the team too often, and he got hooked as a result.
7. Kovacic. Heeding my repeated pleas, Mazzarri started Kovacic today, and clearly he shouldn’t have listened to me. Everyone’s favorite little Croatian munchkin was giving up balls left and right, one of which was nearly converted into a Catania scoring chance. We know enough about Kovacic to know he doesn’t play this badly when he’s fit, so let’s hope this is just a minor setback on his road to full fitness.
8. Defense. Speaking entirely non-tactically here, I like the way our three first-choice defenders are finding their personalities on the pitch. Campagnaro was once again the standout of the three, and might have even had a better game than last time, if more under the radar. Ranocchia is doing well enough as the calm safety valve at the back, and only once did he revert to the crazy Ranocchia of old (what on earth was he doing with that slide to keep the ball in play after Handanovic made that parry save in the second half? He prevented giving up a corner, but in doing so just gave Catania two more shots at goal before the ball went out...for a corner.) And Jesus continues to display a very un-Christlike degree of aggression. To be fair, we have yet to test this defense against a Balo, a Tevez, a Gomez, or anyone else who can rip apart centerbacks with a flick, but the improvement from last year in both competence and composure is vast and noticeable.
9. Forwards. Another solid goalscoring performance from Palacio today, and another decent if enigmatic showing from a new forward. Judging from very small sample sets on both accounts, I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Icardi more than Belfodil, but I certainly didn’t dislike him today. He had a pretty embarrassing miss, to be sure, but no one should hold that against him -- happens to the best of ‘em. I like his speed, his instincts and his movement, but it’s still all very much up in the air how this forward line shakes out.
10. Expectations. I’ve absolutely loved watching Inter under Mazzarri these past three weeks. Going undefeated and unscored upon in three consecutive competitive matches will do that to you. But let’s all take a minute to be realistic: Serie A is absolutely vicious this year. Napoli look terrifying, Juve are even better than last season, when they comfortably won the Scudetto, and I wouldn’t rule out Milan making a game-changing signing before the transfer window closes. Fiore and Roma both have the power to hurt us pretty badly, and I imagine Lazio will start to pick themselves up soon. It’s a long, incredible uphill climb we still have in front of us. If we blow this good start out of proportion, we’re only setting ourselves up for heartbreak.
The international break usually comes about at irritating times, and next week is no exception. With three clean-sheet wins of steadily increasing quality against steadily increasing competition, I would love to see us take this kind of form up against Juve straight away next week. Not saying I’d be predicting a win, but it would be a great reality check to help us learn how much further we really have to go while we’re still on the ascent. Instead, let’s all just pray for a break without injuries, and let’s hope Mazzarri knows what he has to do.