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Sep 27, 2011

A victory for common sense

As if on cue, a few days before his old adversary Sir Alex Ferguson chastised television's growing influence over football, Claudio Ranieri was striking one for the sport over the medium by relinquishing his duties as Rai - the Italian state television - analyst. The 'Tinkerman' instead, accepted Inter Milan's offer of a 21-month contract to serve as a replacement for Gian Piero Gasperini, who was forced out after only three Serie A matches, none of them a win.

Ranieri had impressed as the colour commentator for Rai's live broadcasts of Italy's Euro 2012 qualifying group matches. Never a great talker, he'd nevertheless managed to strike a good partnership with Bruno Gentili, who would often turn to him for tactical explanations and to get a general feeling of where each game was heading. Despite his strong Roman accent, still intact despite all those years in London or living la vida Valenciana, Ranieri had managed to impress the most since another manager who'd left the broadcasting booth to seek yet another dose of fame and fortune, Fabio Capello.

Having temporarily fixed the Rai malaise of boring, cliché-spewing analysts, Ranieri has now been tasked with plugging a very different set of holes [and no, that is not a reference to what Inter's defence looked like under Gasperini's perfectly legitimate plan to use a three-man rearguard.]

The story is well known by now. Spurned in June by Leonardo, who'd only arrived earlier in the year after Rafa Benitez had worn out his welcome, Inter were left scrambling for a new boss at a time when the best managers either were under contract somewhere else, or cost too much. Or both, in the case of then-Porto coach Andre Villas-Boas.

Gasperini had been the most intriguing among the alternative choices, with a promise of the brilliant play, fluid passing and endless movement that had marked his best years at Genoa. The fact he'd been sacked by the Rossoblu only three months into the 2009-10 was not held against him: rare is the Italian manager, after all, who has not felt the unfair wrath of one of the many egotistical, delusional, power-obsessed monocrats who rule football in this country.

There were indeed those who uttered the dreaded sentence non è da Inter, which basically means "he's not up to the standards required of someone who coaches Inter", but the more optimistic among us believed he'd be given the time and the players to make his system work. Perhaps he might even produce, on a completely different tactical plane, a pressing, running, scoring machine not unlike Arrigo Sacchi's memorable Milan sides of the late Eighties.

Alas, neither time nor players were among the main assets Inter had in store this summer, and Gasperini was gone after a horrible evening in Novara when his side always seemed to be on the back foot against their newly-promoted rivals. Bearing in mind the heavy, often unnecessarily harsh, criticism dished out to him by the media, there was no chance Gasperini would survive a night like that, and within a few hours he was gone, his contract cancelled by mutual consent according to the club.

Having failed to win a single competitive match, Gasperini has now entered the history books as Inter's least successful manager ever, but it is far more important to understand what Ranieri can do with the side, now the so-called bad guy has been run out of town. And it doesn't take long to understand.

Ranieri's first great asset, at this time, is simply that he's not Gasperini, just as Rafa Benitez's main weakness was that he was nothing like Jose Mourinho (and wasn't dear old Jose glad about that).

Common sense and the experience borne out of coaching in different environments and under demanding owners or fans is another more tangible example of the strengths Ranieri carries. The situation is such that his perceived weaknesses have been swept under the carpet by anyone looking to find some sense in the whole matter. Common sense, Inter owner Massimo Moratti said, is what Ranieri will give us.

Which basically meant Gasperini had shown none of it. Common sense, or business as usual, at Inter, means a four-man defence and Wesley Sneijder playing just off the front two; it means Diego Milito and Giampaolo Pazzini playing up front and complementing each other, something Gasperini had refused to contemplate by leaving the Italian international out of his starting XI in three out of four competitive matches. It also means Lucio's brave and sometimes ill-advised forays into enemy territory would now be supported by a more structured and, crucially, numerically safe rearguard.

Read the above list fast and you may wonder why Inter brought in Gasperini in the first place, if they were not going to give him the time and support he needed, and you'd be right. Common sense? Nice way of putting it, but who was found lacking in that department? Was it Gasperini, drawing a metaphorical line in the sand and challenging his players to cross it and embrace his 3-4-3 or else, or was it Moratti and the club, who went about choosing a new manager, one of the most powerful and more visible men in all of Italian sports, by barely looking at résumés then turning around and mumbling under their breath about the tactics?

Gasperini's 3-4-3 simply had no room for both Milito and Pazzini, and you can see why he'd insisted Inter, with the millions from the sale of Samuel Eto'o to Anzhi had brought in, sign at least one among Ezequiel Lavezzi or Rodrigo Palacio - players who are used to cutting inside from wide positions and in fact thrive on those moves. All the transfer market gave Gasperini was, instead, an unruly winger-cum-forward with a passion for exploring blind alleys, Mauro Zarate, and a striker, Diego Forlan, whose strength clearly does not lie in constant movement.

Common sense now means Ranieri, with his cool command of the situation, chose a 4-4-2 for his initial match in charge last Saturday at Bologna, going back to the Stone Age of Interismo by having Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti as the central midfielders flanked by the swift legs, if not sweet skills, of Obi on the left and Coutinho on the right, while Pazzini was supported up front by Forlan.

Milito replaces Forlan in Europe, where the Uruguayan is cup-tied following an outrageous oversight by both the player and the club at the time of his signing, but Ranieri will not make further adjustments as the time for practicing is limited and yet another annoying international break is approaching.''I restored the side to what it was used to. There are times you cannot do more than that'' were his words in Moscow on Monday.

While this may be Inter's way, sticking to a playing formula that suits the current squad and does not force seasoned veterans to change their habits while trying to keep up with the rest, one, again, wonders why Gasperini, whose tactical ideas were well known, was signed at all.

Ranieri may stick around until the end of his contract and perhaps revitalise the side as he leans on youth and experience, but what will happen next, if it doesn't before that time? How much longer will anything associated with Inter be viewed with a mixture of scepticism, scorn, amusement that may overshadow their accomplishments on the pitch?

You have to go back to the very structure of the organisation and wonder whether there are different forces at work at once, whether some of the signings made sense and were fully endorsed by all parties, whether there is any kind of long-term plan and why the man above, Moratti, cannot seem to fully support any coach not named Mourinho. You have to wonder, and then turn around and ask the toughest question of them all: who can replace Ranieri as an analyst for Rai?

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