‘We are back,’ read a huge banner on Inter’s Curva Nord, encapsulating the feeling in the black and blue half of Milan. After such a long absence, Inter were finally were back amongst Europe’s elite. Fast forward to the final minutes and, like against Lazio in May, Matias Vecino was wheeling away in celebration as his late header sealed a 2-1 win, this time against Tottenham Hotspur.
Add to this a delectable strike from Mauro Icardi on his Champions League debut and the narrative is positive, right? Not particularly. The emotion, moments of quality and drama at the end masked the same issues that have been plaguing the Nerazzurri for months.
Fans of the Beneamata may tell you they don’t care how they won and for tonight, why should they? Their team didn’t play well but managed to dig deep and snatch the game at the death. The victory may act as a turning point and may give the team belief but when the dust settles, but there is no hiding from the fact that Inter still have many of the issues that commentators and fans alike thought had been eradicated after the last mercato. The midfield lacked creativity and were overran at times, the defence switched off at key moments and Icardi remained isolated.
Perhaps the biggest issue that remains unresolved is how Inter lack a collective responsibility. Luciano Spalletti spoke of his endless search during preseason for the ‘trequartista’ he still craves. Joao Mario was, of course, tried out in the role last season but failed. Now Radja Nainggolan, Lautaro Martinez and even Antonio Candreva have all been touted as Nerazzurri’s creative hub. It is this search that may be the problem itself as many of the elite teams in Europe - Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus to name a few – have a number of players who act as an attacking threat. These sides may well have a focal point up top, but they also have players who take responsibility for supplying goals and for scoring them.
Maurizio Sarri was perhaps the biggest advocate of this and proved it at Napoli. In his first season without Gonzalo Higuain and, in turn, his top goalscorer, he challenged the rest of his team. He asked for all of his men to take responsibility (especially when Arkadiusz Milik got injured) and what he saw was Marek Hamsik, Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens oblige. It’s arguable that Spalletti has a team of players, whether it be wide men, central midfielders or full-backs, who need to move the ball quickly and help Icardi shoulder the goalscoring burden. However, this is nothing new.
Inter will learn a lot from their encounter with Tottenham, who were in poor form themselves. Marcelo Brozovic was exemplary at times in the first half and plays much better when Vecino sits in. Matteo Politano had chances and perhaps needs to believe himself more as he was caught in two minds too often, but he does have the ability to cause problems. Keita Balde Diao is a huge threat who offers a physical presence, and he has a big part to play in Inter’s future. Indeed, Radja Nainggolan and Ivan Perisic need support and options so that they can move the ball much quicker when in possession.
Perhaps the most concerning point for fans who frequent San Siro has been the stagnation of Luciano Spalletti. The above issues and formations aside, there seems to be very little in terms of a fluid plan and player development. Games are being won by individual moments, mainly thanks to Icardi or Perisic, and there is a worrying lack of direction. The Beneamata boss has been backed in the transfer window and tied down to a lucrative extension, seemingly making for an ideal working environment.
Still, Inter fans can’t be too despondent on a night when their team returned to the Champions League with a game that will stay in the memory, thanks to its dramatic ending and the novelty of an early kick-off. In the context of the group, the result is huge for the Nerazzurri and they may well use this as a springboard in Serie A and Europe. They travel to Sampdoria on Saturday and their supporters will hope that they can start to gather momentum and start to play with an identity. It’s essential that they do as late Matias Vecino headers can’t save them every week.