Posted on November 14th, 2014
In Italy they say it rains on the wet and so it has been for Walter Mazzarri. Among the excuses he gave for Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Verona at San Siro was the heavens opening and a sudden downpour. It brought derision. He was a wally without a brolly. Today’s announcement of his dismissal doesn’t entirely come as a surprise at least apart from to Mazzarri who up until now has never been sacked in his career.
Inter have at times played unwatchable football under his tenure. Their 2-0 defeat away to then bottom of the table Parma, a team that had lost their last six games in a row, being a case in point. His tactics were unsuited to a big club.
Playing on the counter is all well and good when teams come onto you and leave space in behind for you to break into like they did when facing Mazzarri’s Livorno, Reggina, Samp and Napoli side. But the reality is opponents don’t do that when they come to a ground like San Siro. They stand off and sit back, relinquishing the initiative. If you can’t take it and vary your play, like Inter couldn’t under Mazzarri, then you’re in trouble.
His win percentage in Serie A since his appointment at the beginning of last season stands at 38%. Only once did he guide Inter to victory in back-to-back games in the league in front of their home fans, making the frustration shown by elements of the crowd understandable. Never, in nine such opportunities, did he win three in a row in all competitions. With Mazzarri at the wheel, the key was put into Inter’s ignition, the engine would splutter twice and then cut out. They never got out of first gear, never gathered any momentum and would come to a sudden halt after another stall.
The symbol of Mazzarri’s spell at the helm was undoubtedly of him biting into a plastic water bottle, displaying his exasperation as Inter drew [one of 15 games in Serie A] against Udinese last season. The atmosphere at San Siro had turned poisonous. Mauro Icardi has said it’s like playing away from home. What honeymoon there had been for Mazzarri ended when he didn’t hand captain Javier Zanetti a run-out in what would have been his final Derby della Madonnina, a 1-0 defeat to Milan last May.
Interisti were willing to give Mazzarri the benefit of the doubt. Ninth and out of Europe upon his appointment, they were aware he had a big job on his hands and that it would be a transition year. The takeover of the club last November only complicated things further. Mazzarri acknowledged that new owners like to bring in their own people and for a while didn’t seem to understand where he stood.
But results stabilised. He realised Inter’s objective of getting back into Europe, finishing fifth, and proved himself to Erick Thohir. Convinced by the coach, the Indonesian extended his contract until 2016. And so, with Mazzarri’s future no longer in doubt and his authority enhanced, the expectation was that we’d see an improvement this season.
Zanetti retired and moved upstairs. The contracts of Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso and Diego Milito weren’t renewed. There were no longer any members of the 2010 treble-winning team in the dressing room to compare Mazzarri unfavourably with Jose Mourinho. Again, his authority was boosted. He could shape this team in his image. Inter’s directors planned their recruitment with his 3-5-2 system in mind. He got the players he wanted – Inter were praised for doing more with less – and those who remained would, in theory, after a year of working under Mazzarri, be more familiar with his methods.
It seemed things could only get better, particularly because their opening fixtures looked so straightforward. Instead they got worse. Held by a Cerci and Immobile-less Torino on the opening day, that result indicated that perhaps nothing would change. It was still the same old Inter who drew far too many games. Sassuolo were then dispatched 7-0 but, after hammering them by the same scoreline last season, the novelty had worn off and fans knew better than to read too much into it.
Beaten by last place Cagliari in late September at San Siro for the first time since 1995, they blacked out and conceded four by the interval for only the fifth time in their history in front of their own fans.
Not for the first time, Mazzarri was caught on camera expressing his frustration with his players. During a 2-2 draw with Bologna last season lip readers had discerned him saying: “It’s like they’re doing the opposite of what I ask them.” This time around, it was “we have no balls.” His team were a soft touch. Mental fragility is apparent. If things go against them, they tend to fold all too easily. For instance, when Khouma Babacar and Juan Cuadrado scored a couple of goals out of nothing for Fiorentina the following week, the heads of the Inter players went down and they stopped playing even though they still had 69 minutes on the clock. They lost 3-0.
Twice behind against Napoli, they showed character to come back and draw but it wasn’t a turning point. Instead Inter’s internal politics brought more pressure. Asked if he would have wielded the axe by now, their honorary president, Massimo Moratti, the person who had appointed Mazzarri in the first place, replied: “I’m a bad example. I sacked someone two days after they won the Scudetto [Mancini in 2008].” It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Pressed for his reaction to Moratti’s comments, Mazzarri said: “I won’t respond to this or that person.”
But Moratti isn’t any old person. He is Inter. Days later, Moratti and his son resigned from their positions on the board, sending shockwaves through the club. It would emerge that their main difference wasn’t so much with Mazzarri but with Michael Bolingbroke Inter’s new chief executive officer who had spoken about correcting the mistakes made in the past in the club’s administration. But the mood change was significant. Inter were becoming unrecognisable. Consecutive wins against Cesena and in-form Samp might have appeased had they not been claimed only via the penalty spot. Then came that horror show in Parma.
Without a goal from open play in four games, is it any wonder that the enthusiasm felt at the start of the season had by now dissipated? What did surprise about Mazzarri’s sacking though was the timing. Why not immediately after Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Verona, which left Inter ninth and six points worse off than at this stage last year?
It’s a decision the ownership won’t have taken lightly. The contract extension the hierarchy awarded Mazzarri in the summer means they have to pay out close to €7m net in compensation. Then there’s his staff to consider. Inter can’t afford to throw away money at the moment. They borrowed €230m from a group of banks in the summer and recently posted a loss in excess of €100m. Warned by UEFA, Inter were in Nyon last Friday to explain how they seek to become Financial Fair-Play compliant.
Sacking Mazzarri however represents a less expensive option than missing out on the Champions League, which is essential to servicing that loan and growing Inter’s revenues. Inter also needed to have someone else lined up as a replacement. Former goalkeeper Walter Zenga tweeted this morning to say he had been “in the running”, but last night an agreement was reached with Roberto Mancini to return to the club for a second spell. He will sign a two and a half year contract. One report has claimed contact was first made during the game against Cesena.
The fans are happy. They have been calling for it.There are fond memories of Mancini’s time in charge between 2004 and 2008. He ended Inter’s agonising 17-year wait for a Scudetto. The Calciopoli scandal helped of course. Juventus were relegated. Inter signed some of their best players – Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Milan were docked points and would still eclipse them by winning the Champions League in 2007. But Mancini did open the most successful cycle in Inter’s history since the 60s. He transmitted a winning mentality to the players and laid the foundations for Jose Mourinho to be successful.
The circumstances at Inter have changed dramatically since then. So too has the club’s financial capability. The job facing Mancini and his staff which could well include David Platt and Lele Adani has more in comparison with the one he did at financially straitened Fiorentina and Lazio than at Inter first time around when Moratti was his patron and then at Man City under Sheikh Mansour when money was no object. His appointment in itself is quite the investment from Thohir. Mancini, as well all know, doesn’t come cheap.
Bringing him back does however excite and re-energise a fanbase that had grown apathetic and had started to abandon San Siro. Mancini’s first Inter team played good football at least in the beginning with Luis Figo, Seba Veron and Cambiasso in midfield. The names he inherits are less illustrious but the ingredients are there. Many wondered how it was possible Inter couldn’t entertain under Mazzarri when they had the likes of Mateo Kovacic and Hernanes on the field.
What will become apparent though is that Inter’s problems extend beyond Mazzarri. As discussed, the team lacks mental fortitude. It’s error-prone in defence and too often needs saving by Samir Handanovic. The midfield is too ponderous and attack exhausted, out of sorts and injured.
So far Nemanja Vidic’s time in Serie A has been disastrous. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he figured on the list for the Bidone d’Oro. Built to play 3-5-2, Inter lack orthodox full-backs, which would make an adjustment to a four-man defence difficult. Injuries to wing-backs like Jonathan, Yuto Nagatomo and Danilo d’Ambrosio, so vital to Mazzarri’s game plan, meant the team couldn’t express itself the way he would have wanted over the last month.
Kovacic and Gary Medel take too many touches in midfield, allowing opponents time to get organised and make it hard for Inter to break them down. Up front, Rodrigo Palacio is still yet to score and seems to see Manuel Neuer every time he closes his eyes. Curiously Inter’s problems started when Dani Osvaldo got hurt. As a consequence a lot of the goalscoring burden has fallen on young Icardi’s shoulders and he’s now fatigued.
Make no mistake there are a lot of issues to resolve for Mancini and his start is an uphill one. Many of his players are away on international duty and will only get a couple of training sessions with him before Serie A resumes. And lest we forget it restarts with the Derby della Madonnina against Milan and a trip to Roma. But this shock to the system could be exactly what Inter needs. Only four points adrift of third place, all is not lost. Mancini won’t only bring a lift in results. He’ll lift spirits. But just as important, at least for now, is the effect he will have on Inter fans. They had begun to fall out of love with their team under Mazzarri. An old flame like Mancini will rekindle it. Amala, as they say.