SERIE A: SIMONE INZAGHI, LAUTARO MARTINEZ & HAKAN CALHANOGLU — INTER’S TRIUMVIRATE OF TERROR READY TO GO ONE BETTER
Ahead of Inter’s game against Roma in Serie A and their return to UEFA Champions League action in a couple of weeks, Pete Sharland takes a look at the Nerazzurri and how they have performed thus far this season. Last year’s Champions League finalists are proving themselves not to just be a one-season wonder, but one of the best teams in the world right now, and they have three men to thank.
You’ve seen the clip now, right?
It is the 25th minute of the Derby D’Italia, one of the biggest games not just in Italy, but the world.
The ball is played to Nicolo Barella in the Inter Milan half and he plays a short pass back into the path of Hakan Calhanoglu.
Calhanoglu’s first touch rolls the ball out in front of him with the studs, he takes the minutest of looks up and then passes — scrap that — places the ball into the path of Inter’s bombastic wing-back Federico Dimarco about 50–60 yards further up the pitch.
Serie A in all their glory put out a reverse camera angle so you can watch it as close to Calhanoglu’s angle as is possible. The swerve and the pace of the pass is absolute perfection. If you look up the definition of pinging a pass in the dictionary this clip should be in there.
Sadly, it didn’t lead to a goal, thanks to a truly heroic piece of defending from Gleison Bremer for Juventus, but it was just the latest highlight reel in a season full of them for the blue side of Milan.
This season Inter have been a relentless winning machine. Across Europe’s top five leagues no team has won more than their 18 league games. Only Real Madrid (58) have more points than their 57 and no-one has conceded fewer than their defence which has let in just 10 goals.
It’s not as if they’re failing to score either. They have 51 goals in Serie A this season, the sixth-highest figure across the top five leagues. Their talismanic striker Lautaro Martinez has gone to another level this season, scoring 19 times. Only Harry Kane (24) and Kylian Mbappe (20) have more. Clearly the responsibility of being the club captain has helped Martinez rather than hinder him.
The Argentina international is one part of a three-headed monster that is the key reason that Inter have dominated this term. We mentioned another part at the top, but let’s dive into the final member now.
Simone Inzaghi has done sterling work with Inter since he was appointed as head coach. He showed with Lazio that he was able to get more out of less and more than anything, that he knew how to win.
Inzaghi won two Supercoppa Italiana trophies and reached two Coppa Italia finals, winning one of them. That may not sound like much, but whilst they are a massive historic name in Italian football, Lazio have won just two Serie A titles in their history and had just six cups and three Super Cups before Inzaghi took over. There wasn’t a history of winning, but Inzaghi brought that mentality during his time in the capital.
He’s done the same with Inter, winning two cups, the UEFA Super Cup three years in a row and reaching last year’s UEFA Champions League final.
In the league, losing the title to Milan in his first season was heartbreaking, no way around it. Last year there was more of an excuse as Napoli were on a tear that no-one could cope with, but this season Inter are four points clear at the top of Serie A with a game in hand. Barring a spectacular collapse Inzaghi should collect the first league title of his managerial career and just the second for Inter in the past 14 seasons. This man clearly knows how to win.
But what stands out perhaps more than that for Inzaghi is the way he develops players. At Lazio he took the likes of Luis Alberto and Ciro Immobile to new levels, and early on with Inter he clearly found new ways to use Alessandro Bastoni and his attacking instincts as a more advanced centre-back.
Not dissimilar to what Pep Guardiola has done with John Stones albeit with Bastoni more progressing with the ball to develop attacks rather than Stones moving forward often out of position to help create new angles and overloads when the team is trying to prise openings. Plus Bastoni can often be found way out on the left-wing with Stones normally playing central, but the point still stands. Inzaghi has taken Bastoni’s promise and turned him into an elite defender with a diverse set of skills.
However, his work with Martinez and Calhanoglu is what really has Inter dreaming of European glory again.
The leap that Martinez has taken is particularly fascinating because rather than try and get the Argentine to hone in on one area of his game, Inzaghi has encouraged the all-action personality that makes his striker so good. Martinez’s work-rate, whilst not quite Antoine Griezmann levels, is relatively unique amongst top strikers and it gives Inter’s attack a different dimension.
Case in point. Remember earlier when we said that he was the third-highest scorer in Europe? Well if you took the average tackles per game of the two players above him, Kane and Mbappe that makes 0.6 tackles per game. Martinez by himself averages 1.1 tackles per game. According to Opta, of all players across Europe’s top five leagues who have scored 10 or more goals this season, only seven have more tackles per game than Martinez. One of them is a midfielder (Jude Bellingham) and none of them have scored more than 14 goals, remember Martinez has 19. For fouls per game, only four players have more than Martinez’s 1.44 and only Bellingham has more than his 0.85 interceptions per game.
Martinez is not just the talisman for this Inter side as captain, he is a true unicorn in the way he operates as a striker. We just don’t see players who score as many as Martinez doing the work that he does.
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And that’s important for two reasons. One, he sets the tone for this Inter team. He very much leads from the front both as the striker and as captain. There is nowhere to hide in this Inter team, you simply have to do the work that is required of you, there is no other option.
Secondly, it makes Inter a team that wins the ball higher up than you would expect. Traditionally in a 3–5–2, teams will be hard to break down and then will hit you on the break. Inter will still do that, but they can now also play another way. With Martinez and strike partner Marcus Thuram making absolute nuisances of themselves, defences are often forced to kick long which allows their midfield to get the ball back and continue to dictate the tempo.
And that brings us nicely to the pass-master himself, Calhanoglu. For most of his career in Germany and across the city at AC Milan, Calhanoglu was almost a bit of a meme. No-one was doubting his wonderful technique and he often made his name online as a set-piece master. But he left Milan with a sense of unfilled potential, as if neither he nor the club were really quite able to figure out how to make it work. In the same summer that Inzaghi arrived at Inter, Calhanoglu made a surprise switch across the city to play in blue rather than red.
Since then Calhanoglu has gone from a fits and starts to a player in the conversation for one of the best midfielders in the world. Inzaghi has used him in a fascinating kind of hybrid mezzala/regista role. He dovetails gloriously with midfield partners Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Nicolo Barella. Those two nominally start a bit further forward than Calhanoglu which allows him to dictate the play, but the key thing is that when they drift wide to help create overloads, with the wing-backs Calhanoglu can burst forward into the space and become the late arrival from midfield.
Calhanoglu’s ability as a playmaker has never been doubt, what has been most remarkable under Inzaghi has been how he has embraced the defensive side of the game. Unlike Martinez this does not come naturally to him but he has followed his captain’s example to great effect.
Of all midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues to have scored five or more goals this season, only six players are making more tackles per game than Calhanoglu (2.19) and only three are making more fouls per game (1.93). There’s a small caveat in that the vast majority of Calhanoglu’s goals are coming from the penalty spot, but the point here is to demonstrate how a traditionally attacking player has been transformed. Like Martinez, Calhanoglu is breaking the supposed rules in the way he contributes to both attack and defence.
And finally we end with Inzaghi. What makes this Inter team particularly dangerous is that they can win in so many ways. They’re happy pressing and disrupting more possession-orientated teams. They are well organised enough that they back themselves to sit deep against teams that press them and play their way out, both by going short or going long.
And really it is that team cohesion that is the real star. There are players across the board having great seasons. We mentioned Bastoni at the top; he and Dimarco have formed a formidable team down the left. Marcus Thuram has taken to Serie A like a duck to water, so too have Yann Sommer and Benjamin Pavard — who have made a mockery of how quickly Bayern Munich dispensed with their services.
Mkhitaryan is another who is changing the narrative around himself with a superb late-career showing in a new role. Inzaghi deserves so much credit for what he has done when so many people doubted his appointment and given the turmoil he joined into with Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi all gone.
It is hard to understate that in an era where Real Madrid, Barcelona (sort of), Bayern Munich, PSG and pretty much the entire top-half of the Premier League have more financial pulling power than the rest of Europe that Inzaghi is setting Inter up to be regular contenders at Europe’s top table.
And in Europe, Inter cannot afford to be overlooked. As TNT Sports expert James Horncastle says, they are stronger than last season when they reached the final, losing to Manchester City.
“They came back from Istanbul not only with a regret in losing the Champions League final, believing that they could have won that game because it was really close,” Horncastle said.
“You can see how Inter have played in Serie A, they have an aura about them now. They have an experience. They don’t really fear anyone.
“I fancy them against every team apart from maybe Manchester City. They deserve to be taken more seriously than they are by the bookies.
“They look a complete team, in complete harmony, and their coach seems to be at the peak of his powers.”