If someone deserves bagfuls of credit for Inter Milan’s incredible start to the campaign, it’s coach Luciano Spalletti. Yet many weren’t so sure about him only a few weeks ago, when the Tuscan was hired to replace Stefano Pioli. He was seen as a poor fit, as someone who hadn’t won a Scudetto at Roma, and who would struggle in a high-pressure environment.
Even this writer was critical of Spalletti at the beginning of the summer, when it looked like he was the third wheel in the new manager sweepstakes, a fall-back option in case Antonio Conte and Diego Simeone weren’t interested.
Ten Serie A games later, he’s led Inter to their best league start ever, his eight wins and two draws better than anything Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho have ever managed here.
While the papers have (rightly) been praising Spalletti over the last few weeks, though, it may be more appropriate to recognise how poorly many of us had read him, and to counter the changing narratives of those who have gone from calling Inter over-reliant on Mauro Icardi and Samir Handanovic, excessively defensive, dependent or simply downright lucky to praising them for being a cohesive unit against Napoli.
What if Inter’s slow start had all been part of the same plan and, even more crucially, something that Spalletti has already succeeded at in his career?
Remember the Roma team he inherited in 2005-06? Once he was successfully rid of Antonio Cassano, Spalletti recomposed the dressing room (just as he has now) and got the Giallorossi rowing in the same direction, winning 11 straight games to finish fifth. They played some of the best football we’ve seen in modern times the following seasons, using Francesco Totti as a false nine.
Many have been amazed at the work done to make both Danilo D’Ambrosio and especially Yuto Nagatomo look respectable, yet Spalletti had almost built a winner out of his first Roma side with full-backs like Antonio Cassetti and Max Tonetto.
Speaking of winners, Spalletti is so often judged negatively for a lack of silverware, but doesn’t that say more about the teams he had? When were any of his Roma sides ever considered to be favourites? The fact that Roma are chronic second-besters (they have finished in that position a stunning nine times since the turn of the millennium) should have drawn us to a different conclusion. And they never played better (or went further in Europe) than they did under Spalletti, despite that dreadful 7-1 thrashing at the Old Trafford in 2007.
While talk of winning a title may be premature, Inter fans can be grateful that Spalletti has built a team with an identity, with a well-oiled system – which may explain why the Nerazzurri started slowly. Lazy comparisons to Roberto Mancini hid the fact that the Tuscan has looked to instil a system, and decided to take the risk against relegation fodder like SPAL or Benevento in order to gain long-term benefits.
While Mancini kept chopping and changing, Spalletti has only picked 14 different starters since the beginning of the campaign, looking to make sure that they learned to play with one another, and in the way he wants them to play.
Among the players who have benefited the most from this trust is Antonio Candreva, who has gone from being much-criticised here to nailing four straight games in a row. Though initially unsuccessful, Spalletti’s insistence on the ex-Lazio man sending early crosses into Icardi eventually paid off in the derby, with Candreva proving to be a dynamo on the right.
Seen as a poor fit at Inter for being the umpteenth attacking coach to be given a below-par squad with average technique, Spalletti has proved to be more complete than anyone would have thought, rebuilding the defence by running painstakingly accurate drills. Inter looked lost at times under Pioli, even when they were on their winning streak. Under his successor, they are improving, and are being managed by a coach whose aims are so high he got up at the crack of dawn after the 0-0 draw in Naples to go over the mistakes Inter had made.
As the Gazzetta dello Sport put it, Spalletti has “taught this team footballing the footballing alphabet.” He has built a midfield partnership between Roberto Gagliardini and Matias Vecino, finally ridding us of the inconsistency of Marcelo Brozovic. Mauro Icardi actually looks sharper in the box and more willing to help out. The entire group fights until the bitter end, and seems to believe.
This Inter side is going somewhere. And, if any one is responsible for that, it’s Luciano Spalletti.
Edoardo Dalmonte covers Inter Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @EdoDalmonte.