Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Inter Stunned by Schalke at Home, Raises Questions of Leonardo at the Helm

By David Rodich

It was an out and out goal fest in the Champion’s League quarterfinal matches this week, and the Inter – Schalke meeting was no exception.  What set this match apart though is that the bulk of the goals (five of them) came from the team most people picked to lose the opening leg, which was played at the intimidating San Siro in Milan. Through a combination of injuries, suspensions, fatigue, bad luck and the coaching of Leonardo, Inter shockingly lost this one to Schalke 5-2.

Anyone who is wondering how important coaching is in modern soccer can take this Internazionale side as a case study.  The club was made famous in the 1960s for their win-at-all-cost mentality and their defend-and-counter ‘cattenacio’ tactics, leaving a shadow that still looms over the present-day Inter teams.  Last year they found enormous success with a modern application of defense-oriented tactics under the motivational and pragmatic leadership of Jose Mourinho, which led them to win their league, country’s cup and the Champion’s League (collectively known as the ‘Treble’). It will no doubt be noted in every soccer history book that Mourinho famously instructed his players to purposely cede possession to Barcelona so his side could keep their shape and better defend their aggregate lead in the second leg of last year’s Champion’s League semifinal.

After last year’s success, Mourinho left for the challenge of the Real Madrid coaching job. Inter owner Massimo Moratti, son of Inter’s legendary owner in the 60s Angelo Moratti, hired Rafeal Benitez, a coach known for his cautious defensive approach, as his replacement.  Perhaps he was trying to find someone who would best apply the template established by Mourinho, but it was quickly shown that he was not the man for the job. His caution (and what seemed to be nervous energy on the touchline) seeped onto the field, leaving his players creatively stifled.

At mid-season, Moratti gave Rafa his walking papers.  He went instead for what seems to be his polar opposite, Leonardo, who played, scouted and coached for Inter’s rival AC Milan and played for the Brazilian national side throughout the 90s. The Brazilian coach fits his national stereotype of attack-attack-attack, which has brought Inter a great of run of form in the Serie A with the team predictably scoring and allowing more goals.  Along with providing wins, this seemingly romantic approach to the game has also aided in costly recent defeats in important matches, 3-0 to Milan and Tuesday’s 5-2 result to Schalke. The question looms – how much blame should be applied to the coach?

Inter legend Tarcisio Burgnich, chimed in after this most recent loss, saying, “Leonardo should not take the blame. In football the coach takes only 20 per cent of the responsibility, and the players do the rest.”

Not everyone is letting him off so lightly though. While Inter is far from Champion’s League favorites this year, most had them picked to get to the semifinals, or at least to win this leg, especially after leading against Schalke twice in the first half.  While there were variables out of his scope of control (fatigue, missing players, bad luck and of course the play of Schalke), there were also areas he could have influenced differently such as tactics, choice of available personnel and team mentality.

As far as tactics go, critics have pointed to Inter’s lack of width, a commonplace with Italian teams in Europe, as Schalke were able to control the flanks all evening.  This was surely expected, or at least noticed early on in the match, so why did he not make adjustments? One possible change would have been for the Inter forwards to do their share of defending, as is commonplace these days, which would have helped control Schalke’s outside backs from running unchecked down the wings. Or, he could have subbed in the super-speedy Nagatomo when Stankovic was injured – moving Zanetti into the midfield. This would have helped offer more speed on the left flank and in the defense in general, which is essential if you’re susceptible to the counter attack. Leonardo could have also chosen Ivan Cordoba (both Lucio and Samuel were out) at center back over either Ranocchia or Chivu, who both have their issues at that position.

Regardless, it is unacceptable at this level to give up two leads in the first half at home.  Some of this has to be down to mentality and philosophy. Is it that Leonardo is so married to the ideology of attack – to the idea that you can score, but we’ll score more – that he fails to make the necessary pragmatic decisions in big matches?  The all-out-attack approach is certainly fun to watch, but ‘fun’ isn’t the word I’d choose if I were an Inter fan watching the recent thrashings the side has suffered.

Most likely Inter will be out of the Champion’s League next week and will finish second or third in the Serie A, which is commendable considering their poor first half of the season. Many are now wondering if Moratti will entrust his side to Leonardo next season.  For now he has publicly shown his coach support, saying after Tuesday’s match, “My estimation of Leonardo hasn’t changed. I can say that he is an intelligent person who is doing a job that certainly isn’t easy, and he makes some intelligent reasoning. Football is connected to many things like luck and timing, and this is a moment that can be overcome.”

He added, “The defeat can be explained by fatigue. The extent of the defeat did surprise me, but you could see how tired they were on Saturday (against AC Milan) and you can’t recover in just a few days.”

While his contract extends to 2012, there has been talk of Leonardo taking on a different role at the club. Also, Moratti recently met with Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who may be leaving the Nou Camp, about a possible move to Inter. The only certainty is that there will be more than enough speculation at the season end among the Inter faithful and the soccer world at large. I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing a little Barcelona influence at the San Siro.

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