Inter’s transfer strategy risks adding Mateo Kovacic to the list of promising young players they failed, warns Jeremy Lim.
Inter can look back with satisfaction on their business in the transfer market. Only time can tell whether Hernanes and Danilo D’Ambrosio make their mark as intended, but the January reinforcements already lend testimony to the club’s ambitions. Though the fracas surrounding Fredy Guarin’s status as a Nerazzurri player leaves a black mark, Inter can now get down to focusing fully on finishing the campaign with a place in Europe.
It is a journey that looks increasingly likely to estrange the young and fledging players within their ranks, however. Semi-significant summer buy Ishak Belfodil departed for Livorno without a proper sniff at Walter Mazzarri’s first-team. Fellow Amaranto-loanee Ibrahima Mbaye, a champion in the NextGen Series with Inter’s Primavera, was nearly sacrificed in the deal bringing Hernanes to Milan. “Why are Inter not betting on Mbaye?” his agent blasted. “The Nerazzurri risk burning down much of the value of their youth academy. Erick Thohir arrived with different promises, but evidently they cannot be realised under the current Coach.”
The patron had vowed to refurbish the ailing outfit through a youth-centric focus, but the shortcomings of an inherited management that once released a budding Mario Balotelli have undermined plans. Meanwhile, there are growing factions that believe Mazzarri can make more enterprising use of his younger talent, even if Juan Jesus and Saphir Taider have earned regular minutes this term.
Mateo Kovacic’s lack of opportunity to nail down a starring role in the starting XI is the epitome of the crowd’s frustration. The 19-year-old moved to Appiano Gentile one year ago, where his reputation bloomed out of virtual obscurity under former boss Andrea Stramaccioni. Mature performances beyond his age, playing in front of the defence where he displayed an innate understanding of the tactics required, quickly earned him rave reviews.
Comparisons with compatriot Zvonimir Boban inevitably followed. Pre-season saw the Inter faithful enthuse about watching the starlet impact their campaign in his first full season as protagonist. Then things rapidly changed. An early injury and incoming Coach Mazzarri’s tinkering to revamp the prodigious playmaker’s position took their toll. “I think he can really make the difference in the final third,” the trainer said in September. “In the future I think he could play his best football in the hole or out wide in a front three.”
But Ricky Alvarez’s emergence there soon curtailed Mazzarri’s vision and restricted Kovacic to mere cameos from the bench, often while shunted deeper in midfield. Confusion over his role saw the teenager fall into the divide between function and flair, never able to rediscover the consistency from his early months that was once the hallmark of a star in the making.
Hernanes’ arrival as the regarded imagination of the team compounds Kovacic’s struggles. The ex-Lazio player joins at a time when his counterpart has fallen behind the inept Zdravko Kuzmanovic, a new low. Given the further acquisition of Ruben Botta coupled with failure to offload Guarin, space is fast running out for Kovacic to secure a decent shot at affecting Inter’s season in its closing months.
The Croatian’s circumstances are typical of this Inter administration's overall propensity for quick and easy fixes. Even desperate attempts to mine consolation from the club’s negligent regard for talent development would come up blank. It is a vicious cycle of not seeing promising youngsters given the right treatment, some of them with world-class potential, that Inter fans have reluctantly grown accustomed to. A greater rot could set in should Mbaye, Alfred Duncan, Joel Obi, Daniel Bessa or Samuele Longo be pushed out of the exit door next behind Philippe Coutinho and Davide Santon.
If Thohir truly intends to forge a sustainable future from the club’s nurseries, hence keeping in line with Uefa’s Financial Fair Play guidelines, then the plights of Kovacic and co. should shed ample light on what is yet to be addressed. Nurturing the young but talented individuals residing on Inter’s books will see them grow into key cornerstones of the Indonesian’s reign, not painful memories of what might have been.