If you listen to Inter Milan players speak in recent months, they all have shown praise and have given credit to Simone Inzaghi for the work done since the start of the season. The ex-Lazio coach took over Nerazzurri managing duties last summer right after Antonio Conte's departure, with pressure coming from a club that lost key players such as Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku -- after Christian Eriksen's cardiac episode -- but had just won the Serie A title.
By account, those were the three best players on that roster. Hakimi joined PSG for approximately €70 million and the dynamic Belgian striker made his return to the Premier League with Chelsea for €115 million. Lukaku himself had the most surprisingly positive comments about Inzaghi, especially when you consider that they barely worked together.
"I knew him a little because he coached my brother at Lazio. And my brother spoke very highly of him to me. Inzaghi has a very human relationship with everyone and as a coach, even if we haven't worked so hard together, he is at the top of the list for me," Lukaku told Sky Italia in a bombshell late-December interview where he expressed his desire to return to Inter at some point in his career.
"Inzaghi is also very strong tactically. His teams score a lot of goals. I know his form because my brother had him for five years at Lazio and I knew he could give this extra step in managing the team. They haven't played like last year, they play harder. Many players are scoring, [Hakan] Çalhanoğlu is doing well and I'm happy for him. The team has taken this step forward."
Players have a tendency to label Inzaghi as "one of them," as if he were still a player because he puts little-to-no barriers between him and the team. It was a noticeable characteristic from his Lazio days, but it seemed pretty natural since he was managing Lazio, a team in which he had spent all his life as a player. Being able to bring his coaching characteristics to Inter Milan was the first fundamental step forward -- but being himself, provided a fresh and different context.
A difficult summer
When Inzaghi was introduced as manager on June 3 on a two-year contract, there was a bit of a worrisome atmosphere hovering around the club. Conte parted ways a few days prior because he essentially thought his aspirations and ambitions were not aligned with those of the club, even if they had just won the scudetto for the first time in 11 years.
Nine days after Inzaghi's appointment, the club was hit with another shocking bit of news when Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest during his international duty with Denmark at the Euros. It was an incident that completely changed the plans of the club. From the outside looking in, it seemed as if those working inside the club needed to pick up a ton of pieces ahead of the new season if they wanted to thrive and defend the crown. Soon after, the club chose to sign Turkish midfielder Hakan Çalhanoğlu who spent the previous four seasons at rival AC Milan. The move was made within hours of the Eriksen health incident and a signing that has already paid dividends this season.
The sale of Moroccan winger Achraf Hakimi, who arrived just a year earlier and considered by many to be the best right-backs and most versatile wingers in Serie A was a crushing blow. As if that wasn't enough, Lukaku then pushed for a move to Chelsea later in August, despite always publicly promising he'd stay at the club. Selling Lukaku was another monumental summer departure as fans began to speculate a fire sale with concerns over other key cogs of the squad such as Lautaro Martinez or Nicolò Barella. The club quickly worked to replace those players in the most efficient way possible, landing AS Roma captain Edin Dzeko, who Inzaghi is obviously familiar with in Italy and then poaching one of his loyal players from Lazio. Argentine midfielder Joaquin Correa packed his bags and left Lazio for Inter for approximately €30 million. To replace Hakimi at right-back, the club swiftly signed 25-year-old Dutchman Denzel Dumfries from PSV for around €12 million.
In a pivotal moment where you could sense the tension around the fanbase, Inzaghi managed to bring calm and confidence. From the very first interviews, he seemed enthusiastic about the idea of coaching this team and providing hope and positive vibes to the same fan base that seemed so worried about the future of their beloved club. There were fears of a one-and-done title instead of a winning cycle kick-started by Conte. But regardless of how Inter fare the rest of the season -- yes, regardless of whether or not they win back-to-back titles -- the appointment of Inzaghi brought much-needed continuity and improved the way the squad plays. You can catch every Serie A match this season exclusively on Paramount+.
Conte changed the mentality
Defensively speaking, Conte's Inter was a pretty solid team that relied heavily on the movements of wingers such as Achraf Hakimi, Matteo Darmian or Ivan Perisic who knew what to do in every single moment of the match. Lukaku obviously had a central and decisive role at striker as he defended the ball and dominated the opposing defenses in Serie A. Conte compared his strength and physicality to an "American football player." Marcelo Brozovic led the pace of the midfield and Inter Milan's possession started from the feet of Slovenian keeper Samir Handanovic and his defenders. The way Inter played was incredibly cynical and perfectly scripted, with few mistakes made by the defense but also with little freedom to improvise and break out of Conte-orchestrated schemes.
In fact, players who struggled with Conte's style were likely the ones who most needed freedom in order to thrive. Above all, Eriksen at one point failed to fit into the schemes of Conte, who's now at Tottenham, his former club. Just when we thought his minutes were spare, Conte managed to find space for Eriksen in his perfect storm. From that moment, Inter made strides and marched their way to the scudetto in the first weekend of May.
Conte brought to Inter Milan a winning mentality that has not gone away and should not be underestimated when you look at their success in 2021-22. However, it's still unfair give Conte and not Inzaghi credit for their success. Inzaghi used his savviness to improve aspects of this squad and manage to keep successful run from the past going. It was not a revolution but an evolution. Inter center-back Alessandro Bastoni had a near-perfect way to describe just how Inzaghi managed to provide a spark to this club after a turbulent summer.
"He gave us freedom and reminded us that football is a game -- except when you lose. Among the coaches I have had, Gasperini and Conte are always on the spot, Inzaghi and Mancini, in addition to the very strong commitment, take care of the human side. The result is that you are more relaxed in crucial moments," Bastoni told Repubblica last month.
The evolution of Inzaghi
Freedom is the best way to describe Inzaghi's Inter evolution. It doesn't mean players get to do what they want on the pitch. It means his players now have more freedom to make different individual decisions regardless of what is scripted in the days and hours before the game. Three players in particular have reaped the benefits.
Bastoni, thanks to his technical qualities, is sometimes used by Inzaghi as a sort of pseudo-attacking midfielder. Positioning on the pitch is smoother and less static than the previous season. A couple of weeks ago against Lazio, he scored the first goal and provided an assist to his center-back mate, the Slovakian Milan Skriniar. Inter used a three-man back line with Conte, but under Inzaghi, the two who play on the sides often have the opportunity to move toward the attacking half of the pitch as long as midfielder such as Barella and Brozovic provide preventive defensive coverage.
Brozovic is another key player, boasting a 92.6% pass completion this season in Italy. Considering that their play comes mainly through his decisions, his pass completion percentage shows us that he is Inzaghi's metronome on the pitch. That obviously puts him as Inter leader in touches (1,835), followed by the two we mentioned earlier: Bastoni (1,413) and Skriniar (1,337). At the same time, Lautaro Martinez is much more of a focal point to the team's attack after the departure of Lukaku. It's also helped by the addition of former Manchester City striker Dzeko. Between the posts, Handanovic ranks sixth among keepers with 797 touches this season. Last time out against Atalanta, he kept the ball for four minutes, which is unusual among keepers and an advantage for a club that has only conceded 16 goals this season, second to only Napoli, and boasts Serie A's best goal differential (+35). Holding the ball for that long is fundamental when you normally play from the back the way they do.
In addition to his Serie A success, Inzaghi managed to snap Inter's three-year skid of crashing out of the Champions League group stage. Inzaghi succeeded in the first year in charge and his this club in the round of 16 for the first time since 2012, with a date against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool on Feb. 16 and March 8 on Paramount+.
In recent weeks, AC Milan's Stefano Pioli and Juventus' Massimiliano Allegri were among the several coaches that strongly affirmed Inzaghi's Inter Milan as the title favorites and best team in Italy as they march toward defending their title. It's a surprise to most and it's thanks to Inzaghi's freedom and his moves to overcome a difficult period last summer.
No one saw this coming. Not even Inter CEO Beppe Marotta, who admitted as much in a recent interview. If there's one person who really believed this team could thrive and compete for another scudetto, and who today can rightly take credit for the work done in the last six-plus months, it's Simone Inzaghi.