Reviving Inter: Italy’s lost icon

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The start of the new Serie A season is less than 3 weeks away, but yet again Italian clubs have flown under the radar in their summer preparations. All across the league, there is no denying that Serie A cannot command the same prestige as it did in the last decade. The highest-profile arrivals this year has been a returning Jeremy Menez to Milan and Alvaro Morata to Juventus – hardly signings which will inspire a revival in the league’s appeal. While Juve and Roma have steadily built upon last year’s success, the same cannot be said of Internazionale.
 
 
This will be Inter’s first full season since Massimo Moratti decided to divest part of his ownership in the club to Indonesian magnate Erick Thohir for the sum of €250 million. Moratti has not completely left the building – he still holds a 28.71% stake in the club – but Thohir, who made his fortune from the media industry, holds a 70% stake, with tyre maker Pirelli making up the remaining 1.83%.
 
 
After years of dominance in Italy since Juventus’ relegation to Serie B, culminating in the magnificent treble in 2010, Inter have found life to be less cosy below the mountaintop. Jose Mourinho’s team beat Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their way to becoming the first ever Italian team to complete a league, cup and Champions League treble in 2010, but since then they have finished second, sixth and ninth respectively. Walter Mazzarri arrived in 2013 to steady the ship, but last year’s fifth place finish was only slightly cushioned by the fact that bitter rivals Milan imploded completely and finished three places below in eighth. A more worrying statistic for Inter fans is that they have missed out on the Champions League altogether in the past two years since winning it in 2010.
 
 
The night Inter clinched the Champions League in Madrid, Mourinho was whisked away in an Audi on the way to becoming Real’s manager. He was replaced by Rafael Benitez, who quickly learned that following Mourinho was not an easy task. Benitez lasted all of six months before falling victim to Moratti’s famous impulsiveness. More coaches came and went: Leonardo, Gian Piero Gasperini, Claudio Ranieri, and Andrea Stramaccioni all had their chances and moments of madness, but none were able to reverse Inter’s inevitable spiral from the peak of their football cycle.
 
 
It was blindingly obvious to observers that the team was at the latter stages of their careers, but Moratti’s rejection of the idea that a treble-winning team needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up ultimately cost them dear. In fact, it set them back years, although one could argue that the rebuilding process itself would have achieved the same outcome.
 
 
The first sign of genuine change came with Moratti’s appointment of Mazzarri, who came on the back of several years of success at Napoli. However, the floodgates of change began to open wider when Moratti decided that Thohir’s offer for Inter was too good to refuse, and duly accepted the offer.
 
 
Changes in personnel were not confined to the boardroom, however. On the pitch, Javier Zanetti exchanged his legendary number 4 shirt for a suit in his new role as Inter’s vice president. Gone too, are the treble-winning backbone quartet of Julio Cesar, Samuel, Cambiasso and Diego Milito. Inter have desperately tried to replace Zanetti with a leader figure, most notably with the signing of Nemanja Vidic from Manchester United – but despite the undoubted caliber in Mazzarri, the squad looks painfully thin in depth and quality.
 
 
Andrea Ranocchia has taken over the captain’s armband from Zanetti, but even without his injuries the defender always looked vulnerable to pace and has a tendency to go on mental walkabouts during matches. Along with Handanovic, they are the ones who have been at the club the longest, but the rest of the squad are almost unrecognizable. The arrivals of Dani Osvaldo and Dodo will add some quality to the team, but midfield continues to suffer from a huge lack of creativity since the departure of Coutinho. This may not necessarily present a problem for Mazzarri, who prefers a five-man midfield, but Inter have struggled for goals in recent years and that looks unlikely to change this year. Meanwhile, the purported signing of Javier Hernandez promises to inject some much-needed pace to the Inter frontline, but the deal continues to be more rumour than fact.
 
 
Thohir, too, has not generated much confidence. Since becoming president in October 2013, he has managed to rile fans by attempting to swap Fredy Guarin for Mirko Vucinic, only to pull the plug at the death as Ultras raged about the impending transfer. Aside from the fact that offloading one of Inter’s few standout performers for an injury-prone, featherweight striker did not make much sense, Thohir failed to take into account the bigger picture – the club was in the process of losing the connection between fans and their heroes on the pitch and could ill-afford the loss of its few fan favourites.
 
 
Whether Inter can realistically challenge for anything this season remains to be seen. A club of their stature would accept no less than to challenge for the league, but in a year where even Juventus have appeared directionless, targeting a top three finish alone could be accepted as a bridge too far. Inter will participate in the Europa League should they get past Iceland’s Stjarnan F.C., but should they do so, the toll on their thin squad promises to be a heavy one.
 
 
Even traditional targets will not suffice. Juventus’ failure to beat Benfica in last year’s Europa League semi-finals meant that Italy fell one spot further in UEFA’s coefficient ranking system to fifth, behind Spain, England, Germany and Portugal. Where Italian teams once sat snugly with the other two big of Spain and Italy, they could now be facing the next plausible scenario like the one faced by Portugal in recent times – regular participation by only two clubs in the Champions League.
 
 
All is not bleak for Serie A, however. Inter’s rivalry with Juventus – the Derby d’Italia – remains the second most significant match in Italian football after the Rome derby, and will always generate bitter antagonism and passion. When Inter ruled Serie A unchallenged during the year Juve spent languishing in Serie B, all the talk focused on what would happen when (and not if) Juve eventually return to the top flight. The league can rest knowing that things will not change this time around, and it will likely remain the same forever.
 
 
However, if Italian football is to feature prominently on the European map again, it will need its biggest clubs. Despite cantering to the league, Juventus has found out that the latter stages of Champions League has been their glass ceiling. Milan are stuck, as they always seem to be, with one foot firmly in the past and the other trying desperately to move forward. Roma will find its limits severely tested in the Champions League this year, while Rafa Benitez will be consolidating his second year at Napoli. Make no mistake, Italy desperately needs Inter to be back competing again.
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Drogba vs Costa: the future of Chelsea’s attacking play

Drogba vs Costa, and what to expect from Chelsea next year

Drogba’s status as the deadliest striker in Chelsea’s recent history was already in no doubt even before he sealed Chelsea’s first European Cup win two years ago with the last kick of the final. The striker was arguably Mourinho’s best signing for Chelsea, but since Jose returned for his second term, much has been made of the relative lack of striking options upfront. Diego Costa is rumoured to be the Drogba of Jose’s second term, but how does he stack up against the original version and what can Chelsea fans hope to expect from him?

The similarities

Both Drogba and Costa are of the archetypal Mourinho forward – strong physical presence up front with aerial prowess. Both can lead the line on their own, both can strike dead balls with venom, and both do their share of defensive work. But their differences are more subtle.

Drogba

Drogba was the complete center-forward for Chelsea. The Ivorian could win games all on his own, simply because it was hard to deal with the sheer muscularity of his play. Drogba was also the occasional free-kick taker for Chelsea. More importantly, the standout aspect of Drogba’s game was centered on his presence in the box. Under Mourinho, Chelsea were usually 4-3-3, with Drogba the focal point for attacks, with Lampard arriving late as a runner and wide forwards driving directly towards goal.

Costa

What Costa brings to the table is different altogether. Costa is probably the second best “channel” striker in the game today, after Luis Suarez. The Brazilian does hold the ball when receiving it with his back to goal, but what he does best is pulling center-backs out wide with his runs to the channels. This brings the rest of his teammates into play, and makes it hard for the defending team to identify who to mark, especially when the center forward is languishing out on the wings. This has also to do with evolving trends in football, where it is not enough for a striker to camp in the opposition penalty area, but it is clear that Costa is part of the new breed of forward. Costa is also able to carry the ball on his own during counter-attacks, something which Chelsea desperately lacked this season.

Chelsea

The beauty of Atleti’s play this season has been the willingness of their midfield runners to surge forward when counter-attacking, but Chelsea lack the refinement and muscle in midfield to make it happen. Oscar has not featured regularly as Mourinho eschewed forwards for more defensive-minded players, but he is ideal for the type of football Mourinho hopes to play with Costa in the side. Ramires is rumoured to have fallen out of favour, while Mikel, Matic and Lampard are not the men for the job. Unless Chelsea splurges on more surging runners in midfield, it’s hard to see them reaping the full benefits of what Costa brings to the side.

Takeaways from the Clasico

1. Barca look to swing odds their way by ceding control

One of the first things Pep Guardiola did upon taking over the reins from Frank Rijkaard was to re-instill positional discipline, otherwise known as control in football lingo. In the last days under Rijkaard, Barcelona were random and unpredictable in attack and in defence. Great spectacle for the neutrals, but heart-stopping for Guardiola. Cue the almost psychotic emphasis on control via possession.

Yesterday saw somewhat of a turnaround from what we were used to under Guardiola: Pep wants his football played in the opponents half of the pitch and thus, it is not uncommon to see Barca’s backline stationed nearly at the halfway line, with Busquets dropping in between the two centre-backs to form a back three. Yesterday however, saw a clear 4-3-3, with both Alves and Adriano always available for an outside pass, even though typically one full back was stationed higher than the other when play was down their wing. The midfield trio of Busi, Iniesta and Xavi were also not too far off, ensuring that every time Real won possession, there were enough men to move up the field to close them down in tight spaces. This neutralised Real’s counterattacking threat, which prompted Ancelotti to reshuffle his pack by telling Ronaldo and di Maria to swap wings.

A 2 v 5 situation for Bale. When under attack, Barca compress space by narrowing their backline, and Bale blasted the ball over in his one and only significant chance.

A 2 v 5 situation for Bale. When under attack, Barca compressed space by narrowing their backline, and Bale blasted the ball over in his one and only significant chance.

Elsewhere, Messi spent significant amounts of time out on the right wing, again an artifact of the Rijkaard era (Pep was responsible for converting him into a false 9). With Neymar out wide and Cesc playing the false 9, Barca were unquestionably 4-3-3. But more importantly, what does this represent?

55% of possession against Real shows that the Rayo game was what it was: an outlier, but the stat itself is telling: under Guardiola they usually enjoy an average of at least 60%. However, while the emphasis on short passing is there, Barca are more willing than ever to bypass midfield via a long pass. Firstly, Messi was uncharacteristically on the end of a move rather than starting one when he ran onto a through pass only to finish wide off Diego Lopez’s post. Neymar also volleyed straight at the keeper when Iniesta’s pass from inside his own half found the forward racing through.

This means that the new Barca are more liberal with possession and thus, opponents may find themselves with more of the ball than they are prepared for. Having figured out the gameplan against Pep’s Barca, now they are more likely to be forced into unchartered territory when they are given the initiative to create out of possession they did not expect to receive.

In other words, the cycle has come full circle. Pep’s Barca started out with the intent for more control via more possession, which eventually led to less control as Barca were found out tactically. Thus, by ceding some emphasis on possession (and by extension, control), Martino may be looking to regain the odds on his side again.

2. Ancelotti

Carlo Ancelotti is as flexible a coach as any, but even he fell victim to the big game pressure. It is bizarre to understand Ramos’ role in midfield (one which “robbed Madrid of one man in defence and one man in attack”, according to one tweet) after he declared that the counter-attacking trio of Bale, Ronaldo and di Maria would start, given that Xabi Alonso was unavailable for selection. Having sold Ozil and allowed Sahin to return to Dortmund, Real were disjointed in both defence and attack.

Of course, Real were a penalty decision from drawing the game, but this bodes ill for the balance of the team as a whole, where they are so bereft of any creativity. Real were lucky to defeat Juventus, and unlucky to lose here, but as of current standing they sit 6 points behind Barca in La Liga. Fortunate scrapped wins against Elche will be more of a rarity, unless they get their game together and quick.

3. Messi

It is rare to find a Barca game where Messi was not involved in either goal apart from the celebrations, but it is beginning to look more common now. For many periods, Messi was uninvolved out on the wing as play rotated between the midfield trio, Cesc, and Neymar. Why Barca were quite more willing to go down that wing is up for debate, but the fact remains that Messi is not as central to Barca’s play as he was under Tito and Pep. There are rumours that he is unhappy with his new role, but what it does is it makes Barca less predictable. Having suffered accusations of Messidependencia last year, perhaps this is a welcome change.

Messi just before his 1 v 1 against Lopez. This was a staple of the Rijkaard era.

Messi just before his 1 v 1 against Lopez. This was a staple of the Rijkaard era.

Teams still expect Messi to come into the center from wide positions (there were sporadic times when he charged in yesterday), and Ancelotti perhaps expected so with the selection of Ramos, but with the cessation of possession and the pace of Neymar and Messi on the wings, Barca now have more variation.

Madrid v Dortmund: Preview

Last week’s 4-1 thumping confirmed what everyone knew: that Madrid, despite being a team who are hugely capable of playing high-intensity football, are by and large a counter-attacking side who can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. While Ronaldo’s away goal will be the straw that they will inevitably clutch on, it is worth remembering that that advantage can easily be wiped out and more if Dortmund score. On to the second leg, then…

I’m a genius you say?

1  Real need to find the bridge between defense and attack

Madrid are famous as a counter-attacking side for a very good reason: the ball travels from defense to attack in split seconds, sometimes in three to five passes. Against opponents who do not leave them that space, however, they struggle because of the lack of mobility in midfield needed to escape compact pressing. Largely, they are unable to even play the ball out past the midfield and then often resort bypass midfield entirely by lumping balls for Ronaldo to win in the air. Madrid need to be fluid and mobile.

The key men for this job then would be Modric and Ozil. Despite Modric’s presence on the field last week, Alonso was left isolated because he lacked short passing options and was closed down quickly, forcing him to face his own goal more. This greatly reduced his influence and the attack was separated from midfield by sheer number of bodies. Modric gives Madrid the outlet to beat a man and work his way out of tight corners, and this will be invaluable against Dortmund’s intensity.

If Modric is the man who links defense to midfield, Ozil links midfield to the attack. With Alonso incapacitated to deliver his diagonals, the forwards were left without service and Ozil was stranded out on the wing. Mourinho must move Ozil into the middle and hope that the German asserts his influence to prompt movement.

2  Energy or technique?

Real have to decide between matching Dortmund for their intensity or to play around them. If Ozil starts, he does not have the stamina required to last the 90 minutes of intensity and most likely Khedira will be omitted in his place. Real will be left with one man short in their defending and will lack physical presence in midfield. If Ozil doesn’t start, Real may be able to compete in terms of energy (perhaps even play Pepe in midfield), but will be severely lacking creativity upfront. The former option seems more likely given that Real desperately needs goals. Ozil will start.

3  Be proactive with possession

Jurgen Klopp mentioned that the key to victory is to find the balance between defense and attack, and he was more than right for the case of Real. According to reports, Essien and Arbeloa is injured, and hence the natural replacement for right-back would be Ramos. This is a double blow for Madrid, as not only will they lack the defensive solidity of Arbeloa, but also Ramos’ ability to carry the ball out from defense and relieve Alonso of the sole responsibility of distribution. This is surely motivation for Dortmund to press Real harder than ever. 

It is hard to see Real working out any clear cut chances if they fail to play the ball out from the back, which is essentially the story of the first leg.

4  Real left wing/Dortmund’s right

This is where the key battle will be fought. Marcelo’s ability to bring the ball out of tight corners will be missed, and so Coentrao will start in his place. The Portuguese is less reliably defensively, and hence Ronaldo will have to do his fair share of defensive work or risk being a passerby in the game, especially when Gotze, Blaszczykowski and Piszczek’s presence on the right will also overwhelm Alonso. 

5  Press high or sit back?

Madrid certainly have the personnel required to perform a pressing job themselves, but this leaves space at the back for Dortmund’s pacey forwards to chase balls over the top. They also have to be wary of conceding while needing to score three. If, as stated above, Ozil starts, Madrid will not be able to press with intensity for prolonged periods and this will play into Dortmund’s hands by the second half. Should Madrid tire, you can be sure Klopp will capitalize. 

If they sit back and invite Dortmund onto them, it may free up space at the back, but this is unlikely. Firstly, Madrid are 3 goals behind in the tie. Secondly, Dortmund also play their best football on the counter. Madrid will look to be proactive and play a high line, which suits Dortmund just nicely.

6  End the feud with Casillas 

It might just give them that extra 5% probability of winning. 

Bayern 4-0 Barcelona: The takeaway

Arjen Robben celebrates

An amazing result on a tectonic scale. Although much touted as a passing of the baton, it was not so much Bayern becoming Barca v2.0 as Bayern imposing what they’ve been threatening to do since 2009-2010: a team who are able to attack with a variety of options: possession football, set-pieces, counter-attacking, wing-play, and most importantly: understand the value of pressing. They are the master of all trades, while Barcelona, for all their accolades, remain only the master of one (albeit a very very good one).

At the risk of covering old ground, only the key points of the match will be covered. But the running theme behind Bayern’s thumping victory is zonal domination, both offensively and defensively. Continue reading

Barca v PSG, 2nd leg: Points to note

Barca vs PSG, Camp Nou

Firstly, PSG played extremely well for a team which were expected to take a tremendous beating. Much of the pre-match talk were, unsurprisingly, focused on PSG’s tactics to contain the Barca machine, and those who follow Ligue 1 regularly will note that the French league leaders’ exploits to date were born of individual flashes of brilliance rather than any collective build-up play. Of course, to expect a newly-assembled team to play with any sustained fluency is naive at best, but it is all the more imperative that against arguably the most collective of teams, PSG needed to perform as a unit.

For a team who’s not known for their defensive prowess and tactical maturity, many questioned the approach Ancelotti would take. Although their attack is an envy of many a club in Europe, Jeremy Menez, Javier Pastore, and Ezequiel Lavezzi are hardly household names to perform a shutout needed against Barcelona. Add in a 38-year-old David Beckham and you have a team ripe for a pounding.

Instead, Ancelotti turned the tables by playing to his team’s strengths, naming as bold as in-your-face team as he could. The picture below illustrates the effectiveness of how bold PSG were to face down Barca:

There was not a single open pass for Victor Valdes to make.

The back four was almost on par with the halfway line. When PSG won the ball, they worked it out of trouble with remarkable simplicity, suggesting two things: (i) Barca’s pressing are no longer of the intensity it used to be under Guardiola, and (ii) PSG looked to stretch the play quickly.

Firstly, it is remarkable how they always managed to find one spare man to leave with the ball. Barca, wary of the threat Ibrahimovic posed in the air, retreated quickly, and PSG further cemented this advantage by pushing bodies up. This left breathing space for Beckham, and he found the wide players with impressive consistency. The criticism of Beckham then was unfair; he was not there to press like Matuidi, although his role in the pressing was acceptable. He was there to prompt attacks, and in long delivery, no one does it better than Beckham. 

Barca tend to press much better at Camp Nou, and it is hard to imagine Beckham being given the same space to take control of proceedings there. Also, 2 away goals give them the upper hand. But PSG possess an absolute beast of a wide player in Lavezzi, and with Ibrahimovic occupying the weak backline high up, PSG just could manage to compete for the space up top.

As always, the battle for space will dominate the match. The team which finds the best balance to achieve this, will go through. Having said that, given the position Barca is in (they will progress if the score stays at 0-0), it is hard to look beyond them progressing,since no other team are better at being defensive in keeping the ball away from the opponent. Tiki-taka has now come full circle as a defensive tactic as much as an offensive one.