Simone Inzaghi deserves some love after Inter Milan win Serie A

Inter Milan’s title may have felt like an inevitability — football’s version of death and taxes — because that’s what happens when you’re crowned champions with five games to go and a 17-point lead over second place. It’s worth remembering, though, that in early February, the gap over second was just a single point (albeit with a game in hand). Juventus collapsed — managing just one win in nine games — while Inter continued their string of league victories, eventually taking it to 12 straight (15 in all competitions).

Juventus, the club who pride themselves on consistency and stability — with coach Max Allegri, his six league titles and his steadfast belief that it’s all about results — faltered when it mattered. Inter, for so long a by-word for chaos, instability and crumbling when the going got tough — ask any “Interista” about May 5 and if they know their history, they’ll bow their heads, their lower lip will quiver and they’ll slide into a deep depression — turned into a veritable road-grader with Simone Inzaghi (zero league titles to his name) at the helm.

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That’s part of the context that makes this victory so remarkable. There’s more, too, and it’s evident when comparing this title to the 2020-21 Scudetto, won under manager Antonio Conte. That team had a net spend of €168.5 million ($180m) over his two seasons. Inzaghi’s Inter, over three years, actually transferred players out for more than they spent on bringing them in, by margin of €175.4m ($187.5m). That’s a swing of $367.5m, and there’s no escaping that.

Conte’s four most expensive signings were Romelu Lukaku (€74m), Achraf Hakimi (€43m), Nicolò Barella (€32m) and Christian Eriksen (€27m), all of whom made significant contributions. Inzaghi’s four priciest signings were Joaquín Correa (€33m, including the initial loan fee, though he was sent on loan to Marseille after starting just 24 league games), Benjamin Pavard (€30m, a solid part of the center-back rotation), Robin Gosens (€27m, who was moved to Union Berlin for just €15m after 11 league starts in 18 months) and Zinho Vanheusden (€14.3m, though he never actually played a single minute for the club and was loaned out for three straight years).

So no, Inzaghi’s team wasn’t assembled by splashing big on the transfer market. Nor was it a case of him inheriting the superstars who arrived in the Conte Era. Of the 13 most-used players on the title-winning 2020-21 side, just four (Barella, Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan De Vrij and Lautaro Martínez) are still at the club. Of those, only Barella was a Conte signing.

Rather, it’s been about free agents (Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Thuram), “value” (read as cheap, with none of them costing more than €12.5m) signings (Denzel Dumfries, Matteo Darmian, Yann Bisseck, Yann Sommer) and “loans-with-obligation-to-buy” (the sport’s increasingly popular version of those “buy now, pay later” deals), which is how they landed Davide Frattesi. And all of this happening against the tick-tock of a massive €275m ($298m) loan — which, with interest, amounts to €385m ($411m) — that Inter’s owner, Suning, took out in 2021 and that needs to be repaid by May 20. (Reportedly, they’re on the verge of successfully taking out a new loan; if they don’t, Inter will have new owners.)

Credit for the wheeling and dealing that didn’t just keep them afloat, but kept them successful — in addition to the title, they also won two Italian Cups and reached the Champions League final last season — goes to chief executive Beppe Marotta and sporting director Piero Ausilio. But the biggest, and possibly least likely, success story here is Inzaghi himself.

In an era of folk hero/visionary managers, where most top coaches are busy marketing themselves (or having someone do it for them), Inzaghi is unassuming and disarmingly low-key. In the oft-heated Serie A cauldron, the most incensed he got was earlier this year when he quietly said “Please don’t mistake my good manners for a lack of intelligence.”

An armchair psychologist might suggest that it has something to do with the fact that Simone grew up with a far more charismatic older brother, Pippo, whose footballing achievements (288 goals to 90, three league titles to one, 57 international caps to three) far outstrip his own. And because most agree that Simone was more gifted than his brother, but achieved less, those same pop psychologists often chalk it up to metaphysical stuff like desire, intensity and testosterone.

Maybe so, but maybe bombast, self-promotion and charisma don’t matter that much if you know how to coach. And, undoubtedly, he does. Inzaghi’s teams are among the most pragmatic in Europe, capable of shape-shifting — from pressing to sitting back, from building from defence to playing long ball, from shutting up shop to playing possession football — often three or four times during a single game.

Inzaghi improves and evolves players too, whether it’s Çalhanoğlu turning from a No.10 into a deep-lying playmaker, or Thuram learning to play in a front two, or Martinez breaking the 20-goal mark in Serie A in each of his three seasons with Inzaghi. Fede Dimarco went from being an unloved, undersized third center back to one of the most devastating attacking fullbacks in the game, while Mkhitaryan transitioned in his 30s from winger to central midfielder.

He doesn’t go around reminding people that he’s an innovator, but there’s probably no manager — at least among Europe’s top clubs — that has capitalized on the increase in substitutions from three to five as much as Simeone has. From his “programmed subs” — whereby he often decides to change wingbacks ahead of time, based on the game situation — to carefully doling out playing time to minimize the impact of injuries and suspensions, Inzaghi is on the cutting edge.

He also seems to avoid controversy almost as intently as he avoids the limelight, leaving it to the players. And yes, it’s the players who actually play the games, meaning it’s only right to celebrate their contributions on the pitch. All of them deserve praise: Yann Sommer seamlessly handled the transition from André Onana in goal. Dimarco and Dumfries were electric out wide, Bastoni and Matteo Darmian held firm at the back, Çalhanoğlu, Mkhitaryan and Barella were impactful in midfield (plus Frattesi, Inter’s fourth-leading scorer despite just three starts) and, of course, Martinez and Thuram added goals and energy up front.

But let’s not forget Simone Inzaghi, the guy who put the pieces on the board and artfully moved them around all season. He may not look like a top coach, and he may not act like one outside of the training ground and on the bench come match day. But there’s little question Inter would not be where they are without him.