In Defence Of The Inter Defence

'Past it!' the cry, but are things as bleak as have been painted for Internazionale this week? Here's Adam Digby.

Over the past three years the potent attacking players of Inter have been much lauded and rightly so. From the criminally overlooked and under-appreciated displays of Wesley Sneijder last season to some sublime solo efforts from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Alongside them we have seen the predatory skills of Diego Milito and Giampaolo Pazzini as well as some of the most versatile and diverse performances in memory from the immensely talented Samuel Eto'o.

Behind them however was living proof that great teams in any sport are almost always built upon a great defence. In conceding just 98 goals over the last three full seasons the current back line of la Beneamata is one of the most impressive Calcio has seen in its history. While not filled with the legendary names of the Juventus and Milan sides of the 1980's and 90's, they were a strong, intelligent and diverse unit that provided a fantastic platform for the team to play from throughout this trophy-laden period.

That they developed a good understanding is of little surprise given that between the defenders and goalkeepers in the squad had over sixty seasons service to the club. 35 of those seasons taken up by just three of the most decorated veterans in Nerazzurri history; Iván Córdoba, Marco Materazzi and of course their inspirational leader Javier Zanetti.

Every inch the iconic captain, 'Pupi' is as synonymous with Inter as Francesco Totti is to Roma or Alessandro Del Piero to Juventus. Both men those men hold the appearances record for their respective clubs and the versatile Zanetti is just over fifty matches behind Beppe Bergomi for the same record with the Milan club. In recent seasons he has featured in defence far less frequently as first Roberto Mancini and then Jose Mourinho preferred to utilise him in midfield, giving the side many more options in defence.

Key to that switch was the 2006 arrival of Brazilian right-back Maicon who has, almost unbelievably, just made his 200th appearance in an Inter shirt. One of the best in the world in his position (most likely a two horse race between him and his Brazil colleague Dani Alves), his impact at the club since making the switch from Monaco cannot be understated. With sixteen goals and forty-two assists already to his name, his tireless running adds much needed width to the Inter attack whilst also being a more than capable defender.

He has been joined by another Seleção regular Lúcio, whose former club Bayern Munchen have struggled in his absence to the point it is reasonable to argue that his transfer was the difference between the two teams in last season’s race to the treble. While not as measurable in obvious stats, his contribution to the Nerazzurri cause is no less great than that of Maicon. His partnership with Walter Samuel was pivotal in their success and the Argentinean’s injury was at the root of their early season woes as they struggled to come to terms with losing 'The Wall'.

Those pre-Winter break struggles under Rafael Benitez were as much to do with injuries and loss of form as with the unsuitability of the Spaniard for an established team of veterans like this Inter side. Having won every trophy there is to win the former Liverpool coach's distant approach was at odds with the tightly-knit squad who simply refused to accept the new man and his methods.

In his desire to make a clean break from the Mourinho era, Benitez employed a high defensive line as he looked to condense the space and press opponents, a tactic doomed to failure with an aging side and one which saw Inter win only 23 points in 15 games.

Leonardo arrived and the improvement was instantaneous. Another 16 league games have passed since the Brazilian coach was appointed by Massimo Moratti and the Nerazzurri have won 37 points in that time, a stark contrast to their previous difficulties. Yet the poor defensive record continues, 29 goals in the 19 games between Serie A and Champions League, keeping only 4 clean sheets.

It seemed Leonardo had found a solution however, almost by accident after what can in retrospect be described as a timely suspension. Cristian Chivu endured a torrid first half of the season, struggling at left-back, tormented on a number of occasions including a torrid Derby d'Italia where he was moved into central defence purely to save him from further embarrassment against Juve's Milos Krasic. Then in February he was banned for striking the leagues designated punch-bag - Marco Rossi of Bari - and the defence was suddenly solidified.

January signing Yuto Nagatomo took his place and the Japanese star - on loan from Cesena - stepped in and did what should have been enough to guarantee he retained his place in the starting line-up thanks to a string of impressive displays. As well as being an intelligent and athletic left-back, the former FC Tokyo defender demonstrated his versatility in the win over Sampdoria where he played on the opposite flank.

Teams from the port City certainly seem to bring out the best in him, as his first goal in Italian football came against Genoa last month served to highlight. Yet once the suspension ended, Chivu came into central defence to cover for Lucio's injury and Zanetti returned to his fullback role and as we have seen in the matches against Milan and Schalke, so too has the frailty.

The impact of another January arrival, Andrea Ranocchia has also been telling as he too has filled in for a raft of injuries to become another important piece of the defence. Ranocchia has struggled to adapt to his first spell at a truly big club as a result of two factors. Firstly his injury whilst at Bari - ruling him out for six months - was a huge setback and then moving to Genoa was a grave error.

Under Giampiero Gasperini he failed to settle in a back three, a formation totally at odds with a defender of his abilities and the difference between his tentative displays and the confidence of his former teammate Leo Bonucci - who had a full Serie A season at Bari - are a study in contrast and prove there truly is no substitute for experience.

That adage perhaps applies as much to Leonardo Nascimento de Araújo (to use the coach's full name) as it does Bonucci. The Champions League Quarter Final first leg was only the 65th of his coaching career and it seems to be when things are going wrong that this is most evident. A number of times he has made a substitution - the introduction of Pazzini on his debut being a case in point - that has changed a game, but that cannot always be relied upon.

Nowhere is tactical acumen more essential than Serie A, a point noted by Jose Mourinho at regular intervals over the past two seasons. But making these subtle changes is something that has to be learned, that learning how to react to things not going the way you planned only comes when it has happened to you. The last week may have been ugly for Inter and Leonardo but it might actually be just what he needs.

Adam is a regular contributor to IBWM, and can also be found at the excellent Serie A Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Adz77.

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