Simone Inzaghi made no pretences after his team were paired with Liverpool in December’s redraw for the Champions League last 16. “They were top of the list of teams I would have preferred to avoid,” said the Internazionale manager. “But we’ll try to arrive at that match in the best way possible.”
It was striking to hear such a frank acknowledgement from a man whose ability to look on the bright side has been a defining characteristic of his tenure. Even to accept the Inter job last summer required optimism where his predecessor could find none. Antonio Conte left after steering the club to a first league title in 11 years, convinced that such success would be unsustainable.
Inter were embarking on a drastic cost-cutting exercise, after posting losses of more than €245m in their accounts for 2020-21. Inzaghi knew before accepting the job that Achraf Hakimi would be sold, but not that Romelu Lukaku would follow. The Belgian led the team in goals and assists last season. Hakimi scored seven times in Serie A and set up eight more from right wing-back.
Supporters who had cheered the club president, Steven Zhang, during title celebrations hung banners outside the club’s headquarters demanding that he “take responsibility or leave our city”. Bookmakers installed Juventus, with Massimiliano Allegri back on the bench, as favourites to win Serie A. Inzaghi got on with making the most of what he had.
Edin Dzeko was signed at his request, a 35-year-old free transfer from Roma to replace a striker sold for €115m. An inspired choice. Inzaghi shared Conte’s preference for a 3-5-2 – the system he had used at Lazio – but had ideas on how to use the shape differently, encouraging his team to hold the ball more and rely less on quick transitions.
Where Lukaku had often been a bulldozer for Inter, clearing his way through opposing defences to score or apply the final pass, Dzeko plays more with his back to goal, bringing others into play. He found instant understanding with another free signing, Hakan Calhanoglu, only too happy to run on from midfield and receive the striker’s lay-offs.
Others, too, have thrived. Ivan Perisic, whose adaptation to left wing-back was a key component in Inter’s title win under Conte, has found his way more often into scoring positions under Inzaghi. The Italy midfielder Nicolò Barella has matched his seven league assists from last season with three months to spare and is shooting twice as often.
Whenever any player is asked about the difference between the managers, the same word recurs: “libertà” – freedom. Where Conte drilled specific movements and passing patterns repeatedly, Inzaghi has encouraged them to make more of their own judgments within a tactical framework.
For some players, that shift has been transformational. Alessandro Bastoni, who typically starts on the left of Inter’s back three, was already on the way to emerging as one of Italy’s most promising talents but under Inzaghi has found the confidence to roam higher up the pitch, allowing Perisic to push on and to support the attack himself.
Against Lazio in January, Bastoni opened the scoring with a side-footed finish from 25 yards. He then set up his defensive partner Milan Skriniar for the winning goal with as good a cross as any winger could provide.
Despite some growing pains, Inter made it to Christmas in first place, four points clear of Milan and seven ahead of Napoli in third. Crucially, Inzaghi also got Inter through to the Champions League knockout phase, something Conte never managed. Inter have not reached this stage of Europe’s top competition in a decade.
Can they go further? Inzaghi’s hope that they might arrive for the Liverpool tie in ideal shape has not come to pass. Inter fell off the top of the Serie A table on Sunday for the first time since early December. Their title defence is hardly blown – they have a game in hand that could vault them back into first – but the failure to win any of three matches against Atalanta, Napoli or Milan in the past month is troubling.
The two-game European suspension issued to Barella for lashing out at Real Madrid’s Éder Militão is a heavy blow, likely obliging Inzaghi to draft Arturo Vidal – who has started one league game all season – into midfield against Liverpool. Up front, Lautaro Martínez is going through a dry run, with one goal in his past nine appearances. Bastoni will be playing his first game back from an ankle injury, as he lines up opposite Mohamed Salah.
Inzaghi knows the scale of the challenge but took the opportunity in his pre-game press conference on Tuesday to remind reporters that: “We don’t start the game already beaten. We have a top club in front of us but every match starts at 0-0.”
This was not the last-16 tie Inzaghi wanted. An underpinning success of his tenure at Inter so far, though, has been to find reasons to believe in his team’s possibilities, even where others could not.
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