Slowly but surely Mauro Icardi starting to get global recognition he deserves
The numbers don't tell the whole story but they do give a sense of just how lethal Mauro Icardi is as a striker.
Still only 24, two years ago he became the youngest Capocannoniere since Paolo Rossi in 1978. The Argentine has already scored more than 100 goals in Italy. This is his fourth season in a row in double figures and we're only in November. He's the first player to achieve that with Inter since Christian Vieri. And if Icardi completes another hat trick to go with the one he netted in the Derby della Madonnina in October -- the first in this storied rivalry since the days of Diego Milito -- he will move into the top 10 Nerazzurri goalscorers of all-time in Serie A.
He is one of the best strikers in the world and yet his profile in the game doesn't reflect that, at least outside of Italy. It actually lags behind his talent. Icardi is often an afterthought in discussions about the world's most devastating No. 9s. He's better known for a love triangle and publishing a book that set Inter's ultras against him.
In the opinion of Inter coach Luciano Spalletti, a lot of people have got the wrong idea about Icardi. He's a centre-forward misrepresented and misunderstood. "In the box, Mauro's the best," Spalletti says. "Off the pitch, he's a grandissimo professional." True, the book in particular showed poor judgement. But when it comes to how Icardi lives, trains and prepares for games, his manager hit the nail on the head.
Take this summer for example. Icardi missed nearly all of preseason after sustaining an injury at his first Argentina training camp in four years. And yet he returned on the eve of the campaign looking sharper than ever, scoring a brace in each of his first two games. Big ones too in wins against Fiorentina and away to Roma. Think about that for a moment. Icardi had barely trained with the team all summer, working out on his own. To get into the condition he found himself required great discipline.
He now speaks and acts like a captain too. There was a time when Icardi would put an anonymous performance down to the shortcomings of his teammates and the inadequate service he received. Throwing them under the bus. If we return to the book one last time, calls to strip Icardi of the armband were very loud indeed amid all the furore it caused. Make no mistake, it has been quite the learning curve. But Icardi has matured in how he conducts himself and in terms of putting side before self.
The assist stats were already an indication of that in the first half of last season. This year you can point to the goal-line clearance he made in the 1-0 win against Genoa, which Spalletti considered "worth a goal" in its value to the team. Actions like that, together with the experience he has accumulated over the last year, seem to have helped Icardi assume more presence and authority as a leader. He doesn't care who scores as long as the team wins, a lesson learned from last season. "I scored 24 times," he embittered, "but we didn't get into Europe."
A little ticked off after Inter nearly threw away a 3-0 lead in a 3-2 win against Sampdoria, Icardi was self-critical after the game despite scoring another brace. He was angry with himself for hitting the post in the first half and misplacing a few too many passes. "I've got to improve in these things," he said. The disappointment writ large on his face and those of his other teammates after the draw with Torino before the international break spoke volumes about the mentality ingrained by Spalletti in such a short period.
For some reason, it feels more significant to highlight these aspects of Icardi's season than the 13 goals he has scored in 13 games. They show character development. We all know about how clever and dangerous a finisher he is for Inter. What a great header of the ball he's become. His innate appreciation of time and space. How he senses a centre-back or goalkeeper's weakness in a split second, calculating the right angle and best shot to select in the blink of an eye. A lightening quick thinker, the former Inter centre-back Daniele Adani says "Icardi steals time" from defenders. Often all he needs is a sniff. His first goal in the derby came with his first touch in the penalty area. We're talking acute concentration, elite predatory instincts. Icardi is like the shark that finds the one drop of blood in the ocean.
In some respects, it was entirely predictable he would go to another level this season. Spalletti turned Francesco Totti into a goal machine and transformed Edin Dzeko from flop to Capocannoniere last year. The brief with Icardi was different though. He has always been prolific. Not every other year. Always. Spalletti has worked on making him more complete. The seven assists he laid on last year should be enough to silence those who insist he is a goalscorer and that's it.
But Spalletti has got Icardi coming short and pulling wide to destabilise defences, drag centre-backs with him and open up space for midfield runners. He has him just outside his own penalty area instead of on the halfway line when Inter are defending a corner. Spalletti wants Icardi involved at all times. Watch his second goal against Milan. Icardi nicks the ball from Lucas Biglia in his own half, starting a move that he finishes with a frankly incredible mix of contortion and coordination.
Hidden a little because of Inter's inability to qualify for the Champions League during his time at the club, not to mention Argentina's unwillingness to give him more than seven minutes of game time until Jorge Sampaoli's appointment, it hasn't stopped Europe's elite from registering their interest in Icardi. He has a €110 million buy-out clause in his contract for clubs outside of Serie A. When Undici put it to Icardi that the figure looks cheap, he laughed: "After the last transfer window maybe you're right. But this is what we discussed with the club and decided to do. Everyone at the club knows how I think, though, and what I want. We're all very cool about it."
Spalletti naturally thinks Inter need to make the clause inaccessible. "Mauro should get the highest clause possible, like Isco's [€700m] and all the other top players." However, Spalletti shouldn't worry. True, loyalty probably isn't the first word that springs to mind when people think of Icardi but his loyalty to Inter has never been in question. If he didn't love the club he would have moved on by now. Serie A's decadence, the absence of Champions League football, and his fallout with the ultras were reasons enough to go. But he elected to stay and unlike some of his peers, Icardi, while realistic that things could change, never answers a question about his future with "you never know." He commits to Inter. "I see myself here. I hope to go on a long journey with Inter. I want to win something with this shirt."
Of course, the influence of Javier Zanetti, now vice-president, is strong. Icardi not only respects Inter's former captain for his place in the club's history and the fact he's a fellow Argentine but because "he showed an attachment for Inter and stayed until the end of his career." How depressing and simultaneously refreshing is it that saying something along those lines should make Icardi seem different.
It's about as odd as the football world not fully waking up to the size of Icardi's talent. Winning something, playing at the World Cup and the Champions League will surely change that. It's about greater exposure. It's only a matter of time.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.