Lost amid the summer transfer rumours swirling around Inter Milan is the fact that Walter Mazzarri’s contract is up in a little over 12 months, and signing the Inter coach to a new deal has to be high on club president’s Erik Thohir's to-do list.
Thohir has more than once publicly backed Mazzarri since buying the club last year, but the former Napoli coach has yet to win over the hearts and minds of the Nerazzurri fans who are not impressed with his defensive-minded, counterattacking style of play.
The big question for Thohir is whether Mazzarri is the right man to lead Inter back to the Scudetto.
- Wilson: Questions for Inter coach
Inter have been terribly inconsistent under Mazzarri this season and the players have struggled to adapt to his coaching philosophy and style of play. There have been stretches when Inter looked like a top-three side, but as we saw just a month ago, there have been times when they looked more like a midtable team than Champions League contenders.
Alarmingly, in the big games this season -- Roma (H), Napoli (A), Juventus (A) -- there has been a big gulf in class between Inter and the top sides that makes me question if the sleeping San Siro giants can finish in the top three next season.
So the question is: Are Inter better off now under Mazzarri than they were a year ago?
A year ago at this point in the season they were seventh, with 53 points from 34 games. Fast-forward a year and they are fifth with 56 points, only a three-point difference between what was viewed as a disastrous season under Andrea Stramaccioni and what is being perceived as a good season under Mazzarri.
The number of goals scored is similar. The Nerazzurri scored 51 times in their first 34 matches last season compared to 57 and counting so far. The noticeable difference between the two seasons is in the number of goals conceded. Inter leaked goals last season, with 46 going in by this stage, but under Mazzarri they have let in only 35, a significant improvement. This fits into Mazzarri’s more defensive style of play.
I thought Inter were more tactically aware last season under Stramaccioni, who spent hours studying the opponent and identifying the weakness that his side could exploit. One of the criticisms of Strama, though, was that he spent so much time figuring out how to stop the opposition that he failed to develop his side’s own identity and a clear style of play they could impose on the opponent.
That is not the case with Mazzarri, who is a big fan of speed, power and strength. His sides prefer to play on the counter and are more reactive than proactive. No wonder, then, that Inter have the fifth-best away record in Serie A this season and only the ninth-best home record.
My perception is that the decision-making of the players was better last season. Far too often this season I have seen wide players cross the ball into a penalty box with one player surrounded by four defenders. Elsewhere, they persist in taking low-percentage shots from outside the penalty box when there have been teammates better placed. I cannot recall seeing as many such mistakes last season.
What the Inter boss does bring to the dressing room is experience and a strong personality. That importance cannot be overstated, especially as the careers of Javier Zanetti, Diego Milito, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso wind down. Big clubs need someone to step into that void and provide leadership. Mazzarri has the experience and communication skills to do that.
Since Jose Mourinho left in 2010, Inter have had a revolving managers' door, as Mazzarri is the sixth man to take charge at the club in just three years. Remarkably, Mourinho was the last Inter manager to handle preseason training for two consecutive seasons.
At some point all that upheaval and change is detrimental to the club, and you need to pick someone and stick with them. While I am not a big fan of Mazzarri, changing managers for the sake of change does not work. Mourinho is never coming back. Diego Simeone is staying at Atletico.
Inter can do worse than Mazzarri, and signing him to a two-year contract extension would provide stability and give the team a platform to build on heading into next season.