At the start of December just gone, with Luciano Spalletti spearheading a rejuvenated Inter to the summit of the Serie A table after a 5-0 victory over Chievo, it was, surprisingly, hard to succumb to real, tangible joy. A time where, as a fan, you truly felt that this would sustain for any significant period. In Italy they are often referred as "Pazza Inter", or "Crazy Inter". How could it go wrong? Well, with Inter they always manage to find a way. The personnel may change but it seems the mindset and propensity to make a hash of things lingers.
Mismanagement since Mourinho
When Jose Mourinho left for Real Madrid after Inter's 2010 Champions League win, the squad he left was a talented, albeit ageing one. Wesley Sneijder was desperately unlucky not to win the Ballon d'Or, guiding Holland to a World Cup final as well as a treble with Inter. Diego Milito was in the form of his life, Samuel Eto was a hardworking, goal hungry winger. The back four were immovable: Lucio, Walter Samuel, Maicon and the chisel jawed adonis that is Javier Zanetti. Mourinho did what he does best: he finds a team in need of a final push to the next level and creates a siege mentality to make it "us against the world". As we have seen, this works well with certain clubs, and at Inter it was a match made in heaven. When he left we all knew the level would drop; what we didn’t know was that shadow would linger right up until the present day, almost eight years later.
For the point of this article I won't go through the intervening years with a fine toothcomb searching for an answer, because whether it was Massimo Moratti or Erick Thohir, Andrea Stramaccioni or Frank de Boer, mismanagement is the prime reason for the club's failings. Since Suning International took over as majority shareholders in the summer of 2016, the spending power that was missing since the summer of 2009 was back. Unfortunately, the lack of any structure or wisdom in the transfer market was most certainly still present. For every Skriniar and Perisic there is an abundance of Dalberts and Gabigols.
The appointment of Spalletti, more than any other signing, was a real source of optimism for fans. Here was a manger who was coming from a direct rival, not because he was sacked but because he wanted to. And so the season began full of hope. Signings were plentiful, no real marquee names, but they all seemed to be players Spalletti genuinely wanted. The team needed an overhaul, and they got one.
Re-making a roster
Defensively, Inter signed a centre back who would not be out of place in that 2010 backline in Milan Skriniar. The gangly legged Slovak has been exceptional this season, and has even been getting a lot of attention from the usual big European clubs that Inter cannot financially compete with. Spalletti also kept Ivan Perisic at the club, though whether he actually wanted to remain is up for debate, while rumours about Mauro Icardi also leaving never really had much traction. Keeping him in Milan meant Inter had a genuine world class player, and it was as much about the players the team kept as those they signed that had the Nerazzurri faithful cautiously optimistic.
Unbeaten in 16 league games, it seemed as though the future was bright for La Beneamata. The funny thing about the start was that Inter weren't exactly setting the world alight with swashbuckling edge-of-your-seat play but had rather stumbled to the top. Wins over Fiorentina, Roma and AC Milan were ones which got everyone's attention, but the reality is that they were very generous outcomes for the way the games played out. Against AC, Icardi netted a sumptuous hat-trick, papering over the cracks that their neighbours had dominated the game, even though they were at their lowest ebb under Vincenzo Montella at the time. This isn't to say Inter were a bad team - far from it, they had a steel to them desperately lacking since Mourinho, and they were winning games while playing poor. Icardi was undeniably on fire, with 18 goals in 22 league appearances putting him close to world-class level.
The real reason for the upturn in fortunes early on lay squarely at Spalletti and his transformation of the midfield area. Borja Valero seemed an odd signing but the 33-year-old former West Brom midfielder was a revelation as a deep-lying midfielder. His partnership with Matias Vecino, both signed from "La Viola", gave far more protection to a back four, minus Skriniar, who looked below mediocre the previous season. Valero was a revelation, as close to a Pirlo as Inter could have hoped for, but was it too much to expect a 33-year-old to keep up those levels all season? Even Marcelo Brozovic was playing with never seen before levels of vigour.
Fall from grace
Two 0-0 draws with Napoli and Juventus made it seem that Inter could live with the best, but alas it was not to be. The trigger for their rotten recent run came with them barely squeaking by Serie C side Pordenone Calcio on penalties in the Coppa Italia. Three successive defeats followed by five straight draws have meant it has become rather more than a bump on the road for Spalletti.
Apart from the obvious downturn in the players performances, opposition teams seem to have almost figured out Inter's gameplan and nullified an attack which look so dangerous early on. Bereft of width Inter have looked short of ideas in recent weeks, Perisic, who began the season so brightly has mirrored Candreva's aimless running and severe, almost Aiden McGeady levels of useless end product, that is a serious worry for Spalletti. Icardi's goals have slowed off with the Madrid rumours perhaps turning his head. A thin squad has meant that perhaps players who may have needed a rest coming up to Christmas could simply not afford to. Eder is the only credible, in the loosest of terms, alternative to Icardi Inter have at their disposal, and this sums up the lack of depth Spalletti has.
Due to Financial Fair Play rules Inter were restricted in what they could do in the January market. The loan signing of Rafinha from Barcelona was the only notable transfer, one which reports say will become an obligation to buy if Inter qualify for next seasons Champions League. Inter are locked in battle with the two Rome clubs for the fourth spot and the Brazilian may well prove to be the catalyst for a return to form, but if Champions League football is to be achieved after six seasons away, Spalletti and the fans won't care who spearheads it, whether that be Candreva or Rafinha. My bet's on the latter.