It is not agreed upon defending-your-title strategy to watch one’s manager, and one of the best in the business in Antonio Conte, walk out the door in a huff mere weeks after said title due to disagreements over the financial planning. Though to be fair, that is kind of Conte’s finishing move. Still, it’s even worse strategy to then completely back up Conte’s fears by selling your two best players, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, merely because you wanted the cash to offset losses from COVID and other drains (though maybe it was just good business as we’ll see in a second).
It felt like Suning Holdings had gotten their one bauble, last year’s Scudetto, and were going to strip Inter Milan for parts to balance the books. They had already shut down their club in the Chinese Superleague. They had claimed a $285 million loss on last season, and it certainly appeared after the sales of Lukaku and Hakimi that Inter’s triumph would be looked back upon as an oddity or imbalance of the universe thanks to the pandemic.
Well, after yesterday’s last round of play in Italy before their holiday break, and exactly halfway through the season, Inter easily outlasted Torino, 1-0, at home, their seventh win in a row in the league (aggregate score: 20-2), to leave them four points clear of city rivals AC Milan and seven points clear of Napoli at the top of the table. This is Ewing theory on uppers.
How did Inter make up for the loss of their two best players? It never hurts to steal your biggest rival’s best player as medication. Inter inked Hakan Çalhanoǧlu from Milan over the summer when his contract ran out, and he has slotted seamlessly into Inter’s three-man midfield in their 3-5-2 shape. While stalwarts Nicolo Barella and Marcelo Brazovic are still in the other two spots, Inter rotated the third spot last year amongst a crew of “eh.”
Especially after Christian Eriksen is no longer allowed to play, Çalhanoǧlu was exactly what they needed ahead of the other two. He has been a creative force they didn’t really have down the middle, scoring six times and assisting seven. He already has more key passes (passes that lead directly to a chance) than anyone on Inter did in all of last season.
Selling Hakimi turned into a pretty tidy piece of business. They netted $66 million for him from PSG, and then replaced him with Denzel Dumphries for a mere $13.7 million. While Dumphries might not be quite the “DEATH FROM THE RIGHT” that Hakimi has been his whole career, and can look a little gangly at times, he’s still chipped in with three goals and two assists while splitting time with Matteo Darmian.
The signing of Eden Dzeko seemed a little desperate and a reach at the time to make up for the departure of Lukaku, for admittedly all the money in the world ($110m). He’s 35, and even though his scoring record in Italy had been close to imperious, his advancing years were making him no less of an obelisk. But Inter didn’t need him to be the major outlet for goals like Roma did, as they still have Lautaro Martinez lying around. The latter has 11 goals, while Dzeko has 8 and has dovetailed nicely with the Argentine.
The added threat of Çalhanoǧlu, along with the solid presence of Dzeko, has made Inter Italy’s biggest attacking force. They’ve scored the most goals with 49, nine more than anyone else. They have the most expected goals with 41.1, again the most by nine. They have the most shots on target by 21. They lead in shots per 90. They have the second shortest average shot-distance behind Roma, which means they’re not just firing from everywhere. They consistently get into good spots. And now they can do it from out wide and through the middle.
That doesn’t mean manager Simone Inzaghi has left the backdoor open in search of goals. Inter have let in 15 goals all season, second-best behind Napoli’s 14. Their post-shot expected goals-against is also second best in the league. All of that leads to a goal-difference that is a couple zip codes away from anyone else in Italy at +34, which ranks fourth best across Europe’s top five leagues behind Munich, City, and Liverpool (whom they just happen to be drawn against in the Champions League Round of 16, and writing all of this is not making my red heart feel any better about that tie).
Inter have been a touch lucky with injuries, as they’ve been able to roll out their preferred back-three of Milan Škriniar, Alessandro Bastoni, and Stefan de Vrij for basically every match. Inter aren’t terribly young, only Bastoni and Barella are regulars under 25, so health may be a bit of a concern moving forward.
It hasn’t hurt Inter that the competition keeps falling headfirst into the nearest garbage can. Juventus are a bigger mess than they were last year, except now they don’t have Christiano Ronaldo’s goals that just appear to bail them out. Milan seemingly have buckled under the weight of having to balance Champions League games for the first time in years, which they also crashed out of. They also can’t find consistent goal-scoring, which tends to happen when you’re depending on AARP all-stars like Oliver Giroud or THE ZLATAN at 40. While Napoli can match inter’s defensive record, they also lack the bankable forwards that Inter have in Dzeko and Martinez. Their loss yesterday to Spezia at home is a prime example of their problems, as they battered them when it came to possession and chances but found all their finishing to be agoraphobic.
That doesn’t mean any title winning team should immediately shed its manager and best players, because not every team sees the competition move sideways in response. But it’s seemingly working for Inter.