Irrespective of the result, it seemed there would only ever be one headline after this game. The long, protracted and messy nature of what will surely be one of Inter’s lowest points in recent memory was now over. Their Argentine forward was back. He would start and, some way or somehow, the Italian media would be reporting about the man who sells papers. The Nerazzurri finished the game with such a story, but there was another. A man quite the opposite to the South American hitman, this was the tale of the ever-improving Roberto Gagliardini.
Icardi hadn’t played against Lazio and, if anyone didn’t know why, Luciano Spalletti quite unprofessionally let everybody know in the interviews after the 1-0 defeat. At this point it looked like there was no going back, but before Wednesday’s match against Genoa there was another twist to the tale. Beppe Marotta had intervened and quite simply taken the lead role, making sure the club were working towards the same end goal. “From a professional point of view, I think Icardi looked good. Now the time has come to put everything behind us and look to the future with optimism. We have to be a team and win, without creating a culture of excuses. This is the message that we want to give,” affirmed the general manager.
Icardi’s inclusion had an impact, even by him being on the pitch. The Genoese defence were tight to him, doubling up at times, and ultimately looked scared of him. This enabled the likes of Matteo Politano and Radja Nainggolan to operate in more space and they both looked in superlative form, offering Inter a tempo and creativity rarely seen this season. It was this movement by Icardi and the Genoa defence’s insistence in getting numbers around him that led to Gagliardini opening the scoring and then even rounding it off (four of his seven goals for the club have come against the Grifone). This was the midfielder’s fourth and fifth of the season, in only his 11th Serie A start. He may not get the praise that Ivan Perisic or Nainggolan do, but perhaps he should.
Gagliardini arrived at Inter in January 2017, the Beneamata agreeing an initial €2m for his loan until June 2018 and a €23m obligation to buy, with an additional €3m in bonuses. At the time he was 22 years of age, a product of the famous Atalanta youth academy, and he had been courted by Juventus amongst others. When he joined up with Stefano Pioli’s squad, he had an immediate impact as he gave the Milanese club a balance they had lacked in midfield. He showed he had the fitness and intelligence, and he was particularly superb at starting moves off from a deep position, often building attacks. His box-to-box mentality also saw him work well with Joao Mario and he looked like the missing link.
Admittedly, he was less effective in his second season. Almost asked to play the anchor role by Spalletti so that Matias Vecino could roam, he lost his ability to be the metronome. There were no goals across his 32 appearances and he soon became Inter’s forgotten man, despite staying a firm fan favourite. This season, his haul of 15 games has seen him play more in his natural position. Even when deep he has the license to get forward, culminating in five goals. What he is offering the team now is a link in midfield, which sets him apart from other players in the squad.
Gagliardini’s performance against Genoa was intelligent, effective and composed. Hopefully for Inter’s sake, Spalletti has realised that he has an asset which they have perhaps underused this term. He certainly hasn’t complained or made any scenes, neither has he taken to social media about his lack of game time. He has simply worked hard and, when given the chance, played well for his club.
The fact that Icardi scored his penalty, crashed the post and, more importantly, threaded a pass through the eye of a needle for Perisic to score will of course mean that he gets the headlines. The 4-0 win at Genoa was emphatic and there were many standout players, but Gagliardini was arguably the best of them all, not just for his brace but also his constant work rate, faultless passing and will to win. The prodigal son may have returned, but don’t forget about Roberto.