Mazzarri ushers in new era at Inter
There's always been something rather Scrooge-like about Walter Mazzarri. He seems to mutter the word "humbug" an awful lot without ever saying it. Yet on the first day of preseason, the Inter coach turned up with a fresh perspective.
It was as though he had been visited by three spirits. Mazzarri smiled and joked throughout his opening news conference of the campaign.
"For me this is like a second youth," he said. "I have a great deal of enthusiasm, the same as when I started coaching years ago."
La Gazzetta dello Sport was aghast. "Something has changed at Inter," declared the pink paper. What had brought about this transformation? One imagines it had a lot to do with the extension Mazzarri signed through 2016. The 52-year-old now has a level of job security he didn't have last season.
Mazzarri was appointed by Massimo Moratti, Inter's longtime owner, a year ago. His future was then placed in doubt when the sale of his employer's controlling stake in the club was completed in the winter. At the time, it wasn't clear what buyer Erick Thohir had in mind for Inter. He promised to be respectful of Moratti, bow to his wisdom of the Italian game and not rush to judgement on football matters.
Speculation, however, was inevitable. Wouldn't Thohir want to bring in his own coach? And were his ideas on football even compatible with those espoused by Mazzarri? Quite sensibly for this industry, Thohir promised a review at the end of the season.
But it wasn't entirely transparent just what would constitute a successful year for Mazzarri. Did Thohir expect qualification for the Champions League? Would the Europa League be enough? As it turned out, it would. Inter finished fifth. They were back in Continental competition.
Mazzarri had convinced Thohir. By winning the respect and the confidence of Inter's new decision-makers, it seems he no longer feels under threat. All the uncertainty his team appeared peculiarly sensitive to at the time of the change of ownership -- they won only once between late November and early February -- is seemingly gone.
Mazzarri can now look ahead rather than looking continually over his shoulder. He also has more to look forward to. This team is beginning to feel like his own.
The last of the 2010 treble winners have left the dressing room. We're talking about the most influential elements of it, too -- the so-called "Argentine clan." Captain Javier Zanetti has retired (his No. 4 shirt with him) and taken up the role of vice president. Walter Samuel (Basel), Esteban Cambiasso (TBD) and Diego Milito (Racing Avellaneda) weren't offered new contracts -- nor sendoffs befitting their contributions to club history.
Unlike all his post-Jose Mourinho predecessors, Mazzarri no longer has to worry about keeping them happy and on side. Legends of the club, with 1,693 appearances for Inter between them, it took a strong character like the Special One's to show them that they didn't always know better.
In their absence, Mazzarri's authority has grown, and with it his ability to shape the team in his own image. Their departures lower the wage bill and the squad's average age by some considerable margin, but also leave a vast leadership vacuum. Filling it is easier said than done, as rivals Milan can attest following the transition of one generation to another.
The armband has passed to Andrea Ranocchia. A clean-cut, head-boy type -- Ranocchia once said you're much more likely to find him down the aisles of a supermarket than on the dance floor at a nightclub -- he is an interesting choice. In January, he was out of the side, and Inter came very close to selling him to Galatasaray. Ranocchia won his place back when the window shut and did well enough to be on the reserve list for Cesare Prandelli's Italy squad.
It was a reminder of his talent, but as a confidence player who needs others around him to do well in order to be at his best, is he the right personality to lead this team? The armband might bring it out of him. That and the new contract he has been offered shows a faith in his ability that he perhaps sometimes felt was lacking. Maybe the neuroses that affected his game will now go.
He'll have help, too. Goalkeeper Samir Handanovic is a silent leader. Then there's new signing and former Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic, as well as Hernanes and Rodrigo Palacio.
When you think about it, Inter actually have a decent blend of youth and experience: centre-back Juan Jesus is 23, midfielders Mateo Kovacic and Saphir Taider are 20 and 22 respectively and striker Mauro Icardi is still only 21.
For all the mockery of Inter's transfer dealings over the past four years, there are signs that they're beginning to get it right. That sense has only grown following the long-overdue exit of technical director Marco Branca and the promotion of Piero Ausilio in his place.
Their transfer window has been lower-profile than Juventus' and Roma's, but it's got fans curious. If Vidic can get fit and stay that way, Serie A should suit him. Former Inter midfielder and ex-Serbian international Dejan Stankovic told his friend: "Nema, in Italy there's great attention to detail on organisation and tactics. You've had to face great strikers in one-v-ones with a motorway behind you for years; here you can play with a cigarette in your mouth." It of course remains to be seen whether Vidic can adapt to a back three with Mazzarri expected to persist, at least initially, with his 3-5-2, but one assumes that with his experience he'll take to it.
Then there's the midfield. If Inter had signed Yann M'Vila two years ago, it would have been hailed as a coup. Arsenal in particular were close to the Frenchman. He was after all one of the top prospects in Europe. A bad attitude and numerous off-the-pitch incidents, however, meant that M'Vila went to Rubin Kazan instead. If the 24-year-old can recapture the form that made him a regular for France under Laurent Blanc and stay on the straight and narrow, then Inter have got themselves a very good player.
M'Vila looks set to be joined by Gary Medel from Cardiff. One of Thohir's observations at the end of last season was that Inter were lacking someone with Edgar Davids' bite and tenacity. Medel, it just so happens, shares his nickname: "Pitbull." The intensity (and versatility) he showed for Chile at the World Cup will be welcome. Think about that midfield for a moment: Hernanes, Kovacic, M'Vila and Medel is some selection for Mazzarri to choose from.
And what about Fredy Guarin or Ricky Alvarez? Well, had they performed better in Brazil, Inter might have done even more business by now. It's no secret they're looking to sell one or both. Their transfer strategy has to be self-financed. But no one is interested. As such, the funds Inter require to add further depth, particularly in the striker position, are tight. With a shade over five weeks before deadline day, a lot could change in the meantime.
A cautious optimism is discernible at Inter. The mood around the camp -- notwithstanding the controversy caused by the new logo and home shirt -- is positive. Kovacic lit up the end of last season. Icardi, once fit, was provocatively brilliant and has that intangible quality of doing it on the big occasions.
Inter just need to be more consistent. "We didn't manage games well last season," Mazzarri admitted. They also weren't clinical enough. Inter drew as many games as they won (15). If the Nerazzurri can turn more of those results into victories this season, they might be able to get closer to the Champions League places.
A lot, of course, will depend on how they cope with playing on three fronts again. A new head doctor and nutritionist have been brought in to help put a stop to the injury and health issues that have undermined Inter's campaigns in recent years. Overall, they should be in better shape.
The new era at Inter now begins in earnest.
James contributes to ESPN FC, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.