Pioli's tinkering, optimism has Inter Milan finally playing to their potential
Reflecting on his brief time in charge of Inter in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf at the weekend, Frank de Boer confessed it had been a draining experience. "It took a lot out of me," he said. "Three months felt like a year." He is now taking the rest of the season off to recharge his batteries, instead of jumping straight back into coaching, "rejecting four or five" offers with the intention of starting afresh in the summer.
Meanwhile, his successor at Inter, Stefano Pioli, has made what appeared terribly hard to De Boer look relatively easy. In two months, they have climbed from 12th to 7th in Serie A and sit just five points from the Champions League places with still half the season to play. Inter have matched the form of Juventus and Roma over that time, which was in line with preseason expectations. A four-game winning streak in the league has generated belief that maybe this campaign isn't a lost cause after all; maybe it can be rescued.
Asked to go into specifics about what he has brought to Inter, Pioli was typically modest. "Oh, not much really," he said. "A methodology. A little bit more confidence. A little bit more defensive organisation." Pioli faced many of the same challenges as De Boer: no preseason to get his ideas across, little time to prepare for his first game -- the Derby della Madonnina no less -- and a flawed team built for somebody else that, while featuring some very talented individuals, just didn't mesh when they played together.
"He found himself in the worst possible conditions for a manager," former AC Milan boss Arrigo Sacchi told La Gazzetta dello Sport. But Pioli didn't see it that way. Either because he's a lifelong Inter fan and this is a dream come true for him, or because he wants this job long-term.
Inter being linked with Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone doesn't faze him. "I don't let it get to me," Pioli explained. "It was the same when I was at Lazio. There was this voice saying: 'One day I'll coach the Biancocelesti.' It's been following me around."
Clearly the situation at Inter is a matter of interpretation. He said: "From the outside looking in all the bad results made you think there must be a lot of problems. On the contrary, what I've found is that there is everything here to work well."
Starting, of course, with the new owners, Suning Holdings Group. As far as Inter are concerned, De Boer's sacking marked more of a watershed moment than the actual takeover itself did. It shocked Suning into taking a more hands-on approach.
The owner's son, Steven Zhang, is now a regular presence at Inter's training ground and travels with the team. Liu Jun, Suning's vice president and the general manager of their other football club, Jiangsu, has replaced Michael Bolingbroke as chief executive. These guys mean serious business. They're the most aggressive foreign investors ever to enter the Italian game.
After spending €150 million on new players in the summer, Suning have just given the green light to sign Atalanta midfielder Roberto Gagliardini -- he put pen to paper on Wednesday -- in a deal that could end up costing them as much as €28m.
Inter's training ground and training apparel also now bear Suning's name, a sponsorship arrangement that has brought more money into the club as they attempt to honour the financial fair play commitments of the old regime before presenting UEFA with their own business plan for the next five years. At that stage, their hands will no longer be tied and Inter will have all of Suning's financial firepower at their disposal, the size of which was made clear in November when the company bought the Premier League TV rights for China for $650m.
You can see why Pioli thinks he's in the right place at the right time. Despite not being a big name, he has so far justified Suning's decision to back sporting director Piero Ausilio and chief football administrator Giovanni Gardini in appointing him instead of Gianfranco Zola and Marcelino, names put forward by trusted intermediaries.
A defence that conceded 14 goals in 11 games under De Boer has allowed just one in its last four outings. Pioli's solution? Get Inter's centre-backs Miranda and Jeison Murillo to swap sides. Out of favour Marcelo Brozovic has been brought in from the cold, energising a static and one-paced midfield. Brozo not only stands out for the ground he covers and how much high intensity work he does. He makes things happen, scoring four goals since late November.
Making Inter less dependent on Mauro Icardi and more unpredictable is something Pioli has also achieved. Even though Inter's captain remains their main match-winner, involved in 22 goals in all competitions, the goal-scoring burden is being shared around more. The team is getting more goals from midfield and wingers Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perisic are now regulars on the scoresheet.
The results speak for themselves: Inter have already taken two more points (16) in seven games with Pioli at the helm than in 11 with De Boer. Spirit in the camp has improved dramatically.
"The situation with De Boer had become unbearable," Icardi said.
Players who once felt left out have either been shipped out (Stevan Jovetic and Felipe Melo) or made to feel more involved. Everyone is pulling together, and that's been evident in three of the games in this four-game winning streak. Inter were second best at half-time against Genoa, Lazio and Udinese, but stayed in the game and found a way to get all three points on each occasion.
With Chievo, Bologna, Palermo and Pescara up next, Pioli and his players know they have a real chance to make up some ground on the teams in front of them, particularly as Milan labour in front of goal and Napoli have to do without half of their first choice defence now that Kalidou Koulibaly and Faouzi Ghoulam are at the African Nations Cup.
Icardi admits Inter took these games too lightly earlier in the season, claiming only five points from 12. So cleaning up here will be a test of their character and help determine whether a team that was a little over-confident before is now humble enough to accept their own limits and overcome them with good old fashioned hard work.
Overall, though, there is plenty of cause for optimism. Pioli dubbed himself the "potentialiser" on arrival. Catchy it certainly is not but there can be no doubt that he has got Inter playing closer to the level expected of them at the start of the season.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.