Inter Milan Were Supposed To Be Fun. What Happened?

At the beginning of the season, everyone thought Inter Milan were going to be the insane team. Instead, they're just bad.

Clubs have DNA. Not in the chemical sense but more in terms of the enduring cultural traits which are endemic to every single iteration of the team they put out onto the field.

Manchester United and their propensity for scoring late, important goals.

Barcelona and their Cruyffian pass pass pass.

Tottenham Hotspur and their glorious failure.

These are values which develop and manifest in a number of different ways. But over the course of many generations, fans will be able to witness these teams reverting to the values built into the very fabric of the club.

In Italy, there’s one example which stands out head and shoulders above the rest. It’s not Juventus and their dedication to winning at any cost. It’s not Atalanta and their reliance on developing young talent. It’s not Milan’s commitment to European success above and beyond everything else.

It’s Inter and their ability to absolutely, ridiculously, hilariously ruin their best chances for success.

Pazza Inter. Crazy Inter. One of the country’s most successful clubs and the team which is only ever a hair’s breadth away from a complete implosion. Even Inter’s greatest successes can lead directly into their biggest failures.

But this year was meant to be different. This season was meant to be sensible, coherent, and successful.

Now, after a series of bad results, have Inter reverted to the mean?

Are we seeing Pazza Inter all over again?

Inter have always been one of Italy’s most successful clubs. Since the 1960s, with their European cup wins (and losses), they’ve had a reputation for excellence and craziness in equal measure. For decades under the stewardship of the Moratti family, it was possible to at least attribute this to the management style of the owners. Generations of the oil-rich family steered the club through thick and thin, making clever and stupid moves often at the same time.

But, in recent years, the Moratti family sold their stake in the club. Eric Thorir and the Suning group came in and began to spend big. Last season, we saw a touch of the Inter craziness as they spent an incredible amount of money on bang average players, to the extent that certain players were unable to play in Europe due to spending limits. Even under new ownership, it seemed Inter’s propensity for foolishness seemed to remain.

Moving into the current season, things were meant to be different. The owners seemed to have a better grip on what they could and couldn’t do. The club spent its money much more wisely. They invested their cash, rather than frittering it away.

More importantly, they brought in a proper coach. For too long, Inter had wasted their energy on a series of bad, incompetent, overrated, and ineffective managers. Indeed, the club has never truly recovered from the departure of Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese lay the foundations for a historic treble, winning an unlikely Champions League. But that huge success brought with it a cataclysmic failure, the effects of which are still being felt today.

Within a matter of months of the Champions League triumph, everything had fallen apart. Mourinho himself had fled to Real Madrid and the fragile house of cards he’d constructed collapsed. An aging squad ran out of gas almost immediately. The players hated the new coach, Rafa Benitez. They were unable to recapture the form of the previous season. Despite dominating the league in the wake of calciopoli, Inter failed to build on the legacy of their huge success. They’ve been struggling ever since.

So, it was important to get a good manager. Spalletti was that man. The former Roma boss came in without much fuss, a seemingly sideways move for all parties. But the Italian coach was exactly what Pazza Inter needed. A steady hand on the tiller. A clever, tactical coach who could also inspire the players. Quietly, Inter put together a good run of form.

Everything seemed to be in place. The club owners now knew what was expected of them. The manager was in control and excelling. The players were inspired and working well as a cohesive, effective (if not particularly attractive) unit. This wasn’t crazy Inter. This was sensible, competent Inter.

And it worked. Going into the winter break, Inter were top of the league.

But they’re not top anymore. In a matter of weeks, everything has fallen apart. So, should we start talking about Pazza Inter all over again? 

Let’s look at the weekend’s result as a good starting point. Once again, Inter drew. This time, it was against Crotone. After going ahead through an Eder goal in the 23rd minute, the defence conspired to allow Barberis to equalise on the hour mark.

Despite having half an hour to find a winner while playing at home against one of the division’s worst teams, Inter simply couldn’t do it. They huffed and they puffed and the score ended one all. Inter drew with Crotone and slipped to fourth, leaving them a full fifteen points off the league leaders.

In effect, Inter versus Crotone ended up being a textbook example of exactly what’s gone wrong.

Drawing has been the real issue and it’s been that way for months. Back in December, when they travelled to Turin to play Juventus, we praised Spalletti’s team for managing to carve out a draw. An impressive result in Serie A’s toughest fixture.

Since then, Inter have hardly been able to win. It’s like they’ve been cursed. They followed up the Juventus game with losses against Sassuolo and Udinese. Then they managed to lose in the Coppa against crosstown rivals Milan. A draw with Lazio led into the winter break and – since they’ve returned – Inter have drawn against Fiorentina and Roma (not terrible results), as well as Spal and Crotone (much more concerning.)

Averaging a point a game since coming back from the break is terrible. But what has gone wrong? And is it a reversion to type?

Ask Spalletti and he’ll tell you the problem is that the players are tired. Since the start of the season, he’s had the pleasure of being able to pick a settled team. No European football and an (unplanned) early exit from the Coppa means that he only has the league to focus on.

The early run of excellent form can be attributed to this. Plenty of time on the training ground to convey the coach’s ideas and plenty of time to rest and recover. This led to good results and plenty of points.

But as the games have begun to pile up, Spalletti has been reluctant to rotate. Injuries, suspension, and exhaustion have meant that he has had to turn to his second-string players and, as he is quick to point out, the drop off in quality is evident.

While Inter have a more robust squad than most of the teams in the league, players such as Davide Santon, Danilo D'Ambrosio, and Dalbert are simply not good enough for a team hoping to win the Scudetto.

When things began to go wrong in December, Spalletti was quick to call for reinforcements. He wanted new players. But the restrictions carrying over from the previous season’s overspending were being felt. The board couldn’t spare the funds.

In the end, they managed to sell a few players. Nagatomo, Joao Mario, and Gabigol were sent out on loans or sold, their wages cleared from the books. Rafinha and Lisandro Lopez came in to replace them, while a deal for Ramires could not be completed. Few players stand out in terms of arrivals and departures. Spalletti will not be happy with the quality of players the club have managed to recruit.

Most importantly, none of the players who have arrived will challenge the settled first XI. Inter have bolstered their squad to some degree, but they needed players who could displace and motivate the starters. They needed inspiration and they’ve simply brought in back up.

In that respect, the recruitment is not really endemic of Inter’s craziest tendencies. Last season, that was perhaps true. But the failures in the most recent transfer markets are more of a holdover from these previous shortcomings rather than evidence of the Pazza Inter histrionics.

Similarly, the series of draws are not really that bad. Inter have played decently in many of these games. They’ve been lethargic and uninspired rather than downright awful. If we were really to label this as traditional Inter craziness, then the results (and the games themselves) would be much more spontaneous, ridiculous, and dramatic.

Instead, they have been mostly dull.

So, the transfers and the performances have not really been that crazy. There’s a big difference between the Pazza Inter of old and a rough patch of (admittedly very bad) form. The club’s hierarchy, coach, and most recent batch of players seem too keenly aware of their team’s reputation to fall victim to the Pazza tendencies of previous generations.

But that might well be the problem. At any other club, especially one going into a season with such diminished expectations, this reversion to the mean would be dismissed with the wave of a hand. A bad run. An inevitable series of tricky games.

This is Inter, though. The cloud of history hangs heavy over the club. Everyone knows Inter are only ever a few bad results away from going full crazy. The club know it. The fans know it. The media knows it. Everyone knows it and they expect it. When things begin to turn bad, everyone’s waiting for a moment to declare this the return of Pazza Inter. Inevitable. Unavoidable. Predictable.

In effect, this history – baked so firmly into the club’s DNA – becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Part of the craziness of Inter is the willingness of everyone to label even their most mundane series of bad results as part of a tradition of ridiculousness going back many generations. But it’s not always the case.

There’s an old idiom which asks whether an axe inherited from your father remains the same axe many years later, even after you’ve changed the handle, the blade, and every other small, individual part. Is it still your father’s axe if all the pieces have gradually been changed over time?

In the same vein, is this still the same old Inter? New coach, new players, new owners – do they still have the same institutional memory? That same DNA? Are they still the same old Pazza Inter, even if all the individual components have been changed?

Perhaps they are. Right now, Inter are on the precipice of something completely stupid. They are in danger of throwing away all their good work this season. Luckily, they have a run of eminently winnable games. As their schedule begins to clear, they can rest players, rotate, and integrate their new arrivals. Spalletti has an excellent chance to get his team back on track.

But that isn’t guaranteed to happen. They might begin to lose – rather than simply draw – games. The coach might go too far in his public criticisms of the club. He might get fired. Icardi might revert to his drama-laden, boisterous, disruptive past. If the club veers any closer to the edge, we might as well get the Pazza Inter headlines written up already.

Inter aren’t there yet. But everyone is already expecting it. The problem with having certain traditions and tendencies within a club is that – at certain points – every one expects the club to revert to type. People expect Manchester United to score a late winner. They expect Spurs to bottle it at the last moment.

With Inter, we’re all expecting them to descend into farce at any given moment.

Right now, Inter haven’t gone full crazy. They’re simply bad. But we can mark down this most recent result in the calendar: Inter draw Crotone. It’s a line in the sand. Even if Inter haven’t gone full crazy just yet, we’re all waiting with bated breath to see it happen.

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