Former Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta once said that a certain team “always play worse than the sum of their parts. They are paralysed by anxiety, it’s a question of balancing aggressiveness and tactical coherence”. He was talking about England rather than Inter, but the issues are the same. How can Coaches, players and regimes come and go, yet the mental deficiencies still resonate? This is the issue facing the Nerazzurri.
Surely this was different from when Roberto Mancini was in charge? It felt different, but strangely very similar. Inter were approaching Christmas in a better position than when ‘Mano’ had been at the helm in the not so distant past. They were undefeated, they had smashed Chievo, navigated past Juventus and the Luciano Spalletti era looked to be promising the Scudetto rather than simply the Champions League places.
First Sassuolo, then Udinese and all that followed made Inter’s December an absolute capitulation. A draw against Roma after the winter break still offered possibilities as fixtures against SPAL, Crotone, Bologna, Genoa and Benevento all looked winnable, but Inter’s misery was to continue.
In a what can only be called an insipid and lacklustre performance, Spalletti’s men drew with SPAL. It’s true they conceded late on, but the hosts thoroughly deserved the point. How can a team that has a new Coach, some new players and a new ownership make the same mistake that many an Inter team has for decades? How can history repeat itself and a team who has no resemblance to those of Mancini, Rafael Benitez or most of the 90s Coaches, from Giampiero Marini to Roy Hodgson or Mircea Lucescu to Corrado Verdelli, how can they have the same problems?
Inter have for a long time been known as the ‘Pazza’ (crazy) team. A potent mix of unbalance, diamonds and coal, an Alvaro Recoba for every Benoit Cauet, but surely this was only an epidemic under Massimo Moratti? Even that culminated in a Treble win when a Coach like Jose Mourinho managed to get the coal to camouflage the diamonds. Right? Wrong, this is much more damaging than that, this is a club that somehow at its core manages to take optimism and translate this into uncertainty and inevitably tragedy.
Forget personnel, forget Coaches and forget owners, as there has been an ever-flowing supply of these over the years. Sports psychologist Geir Jordet has worked with teams in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, England, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. He believes that certain teams are more at risk when the word ‘optimism’ starts to be used. Once the under-dog term is dispelled due to good performances, optimism takes over and here is where the danger lies.
What happens, according to Jordet, is this optimism that comes from favourable public appraisal towards the team could be linked to displays of ‘escapism self-regulation strategy’. This means that, from a phycological perspective, when a team is praised by its fan base in a sudden display of belief, this can bring about an escapist manner that mean the team starts to avoid reality and technically believes its own hype. This trigger blocks in the self-regulatory strategy, that monitors self-performance.
Whilst this may sound far-fetched, it does go some way to explaining why Inter keep failing just as they have built themselves a superb platform. Roma could do with analysing the same ingrained patterns.
Jordet’s theory that anxiety and public appraisal are linked does hold some weight and this in turn could be why Inter are afraid of bad decisions. This is why their chances since the start of December have been so limited and they have played a brand of football that is dull, cagey and unadventurous.
It must be remembered that Inter were not fancied this season and yet Spalletti was instrumental in getting the best out of players who had previously under-performed. Despite not playing a brand of football similar to that being seen in Naples, they kept winning games and seemed to have a deep-rooted will to win. This cannot disappear overnight and yet as December fell, it did.
The fans expected, what’s worst they started to believe, and the pressure fell on to the players, who did not want to make mistakes. Perhaps Spalletti should look to Jordet in the transfer window rather than looking for new midfielders? What could go wrong, after all? Well, this is Inter.