With Serie A coming to a close this weekend, and with Inter Milan already guaranteed a place in next year's Europa League, it is time to turn the attention and focus to next season.
Nine players -- Rolando, Esteban Cambiasso, Wallace, McDonald Mariga, Diego Milito, Gaby Mudingayi, Javier Zanetti, Walter Samuel and Luca Castellazzi -- are out of contract, meaning that this promises to be the most active summer Inter fans have seen in years.
The Nerazzurri have a jump on their rivals with the signing of former Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic, who is an upgrade over the departing Walter Samuel at centre-half.
Manager Walter Mazzarri has stated publicly that he wants some new wingbacks and a striker this summer, but the most crucial decision will be who replaces Esteban Cambiasso in the heart of the Inter midfield.
In Mazzarri’s 3-5-2 formation, the central midfielder plays a crucial role in defending the back three, while the more offensive-minded duo of Mateo Kovacic and Hernanes push forward into the attack.
In Inter's 4-1 win over Lazio last week, Mazzarri started the trio of Hernanes, Zdravko Kuzmanovic and Kovacic in the midfield, and you can clearly see their roles and responsibilities from the heat maps in ESPN FC's GameCast of the match.
Kuzmanovic's role was to sit in front of Inter's back three and provide protection for them. His heat map is limited to the middle of the pitch, with most of his action taking place within a 20-25 yard corridor. Kuzmanovic was so defensive-minded that, for the entire match, he did not get within 30 yards of the Lazio goal.
Hernanes, on the other hand, was primarily focused on the right and central side of the Inter attack, with the majority of his touches taking place in the Lazio half.
Compare that to Kovacic's man of the match performance. The young midfielder’s heat map is almost a mirror opposite of Hernanes, as the two Inter midfielders dominated the midfield. It is clear from both Hernanes' and Kovacic’s heat maps that the defensive side of the game is not a strength of either player, which is why the role of defensive midfielder is so important in this system.
Kuzmanovic was disappointing against Lazio. He is obviously not the answer to who replaces Cambiasso, as Inter need a more dynamic player, especially against the better teams in Serie A and Europe -- someone who can do the defensive work and still help link the play between defence and attack.
One player Inter have been linked to for months now, and who would fit in perfectly in this role, is John Obi Mikel. The Chelsea midfielder has fallen out of favor with Jose Mourinho this season as the Special One prefers the more dynamic Nemanja Matic in the defensive midfield role.
Mikel, I think, could be a star in Serie A. He has the ability to hold on to the ball under pressure and make the right pass at the right time -- as his 90.2 percent passing accuracy this season shows. He would bring experience, tactical nuance and a physical toughness that has been lacking at times this season. Next season, I expect teams to be more physical with Kovacic and Hernanes in an attempt to throw them off their games, but the presence of Mikel (and Vidic) would ensure that the two playmakers have enough room and protection to weave their magic.
With Mikel leading Nigeria into the World Cup this summer, any potential transfer would probably have to wait until after then, making a signing in late July/early August the most likely scenario.
But add Mikel to that Inter midfield, with Vidic behind him, and there will be a steel to the spine of Internazionale that has been missing all season.