Wesley Sneijder is a playmaker of world class talent – a Champions League winner, World Cup Finalist, former UEFA club Midfielder of the Year, as well as a La Liga and Serie A champion closing in on 100 caps for his country.
Yet since suffering a thigh injury early in a contest against Chievo Verona, Inter have won six consecutive matches in all competitions without him, raising the question of where exactly the Dutchman will fit in when he returns. Sneijder has arrived back in Milan after treatment in Los Angeles and is undergoing personalised training sessions as he edges closer to his comeback.
It is a riddle that has plagued the minds of recent Inter tacticians, even being cited as a partial reason for the exits of Gian Piero Gasperini and Claudio Ranieri. The two Italians, oddly, could just not seem to find a place for such a talent in their ranks.
Current boss Andrea Stramaccioni recently pinpointed the dilemma the 28-year-old presents. “Sneijder is not a support striker, nor a midfielder. He has certain characteristics which we need to make the most of. That is my job, but my idea of football remains the same.”
Some would have you believe that the Netherlands star is a square peg trying to be shoved into a circular opening, however one cannot argue with success and the Oranje captain has had plenty of that.
Sneijder’s best performances at club and international level have typically been enjoyed in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the ex-Ajax prodigy in the centre of the ‘3’, allowing him the freedom to get forward and support the lone striker with ample cover being provided, but also the licence to drop deep to collect the ball and connect with those in wider positions or in front of him. Flourishing in that role, Sneijder was pivotal to the treble success of Jose Mourinho’s Beneamata incarnation during the 2009-10 campaign and arguably should have been awarded the Ballon d’Or ahead of Lionel Messi.
The player pushed out of Real Madrid is also fitted to a 4-3-1-2, although the current Inter squad are without the characteristics to effectively deploy either of these formations.
A lack of attackers with the ability and efficiency to play on either side of Sneijder in a 4-2-3-1 indicates there are not enough forwards/wingers in the squad with the requisite cutting edge. Samuel Eto’o, Mario Balotelli and Goran Pandev were all as accustomed to maintaining position as to making incisive runs inside the channels with both speed and a decisive first touch, but you won’t find players of that complete calibre in the squad for those positions at the moment or space for the in-form Antonio Cassano in such a module.
The 4-3-1-2 presents another problem. Inter’s creativity becomes all too easy to cancel out and width is barely existent. The ‘3’ behind Sneijder do not have the ability on the ball to take any significant aspect of the playmaking burden off him. Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Gargano, Fredy Guarin, Gaby Mudingayi and Joel Obi may be energetic ball-winners, but they are deficient compared to a midfield like that of the Italian national team, which can constantly rotate positions and the entire midfield possess impressive technical ability with the ball at their feet.
Stramaccioni’s initial idea was a Christmas tree system, with Sneijder and Cassano in support of Diego Milito, but this left a few too many gaping holes and saw his side sucker-punched on the counter-attack in defeats to Roma and Siena in Serie A.
Now, the Nerazzurri boss may have found a more ideal system that has shown plenty of success in their recent outings – not only in terms of attacking, but also in keeping their opposition off the score sheet. A 3-4-1-2 formation has provided a more solid defensive foundation, but also ample protection for someone with attacking characteristics to support the forwards.
Coutinho and Rodrigo Palacio have already taken turns filling the role with success and when Sneijder arrives back on the pitch it seems likely he will be thrust into a comparable position. During this more physical and fast-paced era of football, compromise is required from every one of the outfield players when contributing to defence. As long as Sneijder is willing to sacrifice as much as any other player in the role, then Strama will be hopeful the prominent player fits perfectly into his puzzle rather than distort his ideal football picture.