Look. I get it. Fiorentina can be unpleasant to support sometimes. Your coach might punch one of your players during a game, or your big-money transfer signing may switch flights at the airport and join a different team, or a piece of your stadium could fall off mid-match. Still, though, we’re very lucky to cover this team, because most of the folks involved are at least reasonably nice. You know what sounds terrible? Keeping track of gretzy baby Antonio Conte and his charges over at Inter Milan. Fortunately, Serpents of the Madonnina’s David McFarland does just that and was willing to discuss the Nerazzuri ahead of tomorrow’s matchup.
Viola Nation: Looking at Inter’s transfer business so far—punting on younger talent (aside from Hakimi) in favor of guys in their 30s—a lot of people have said that they’re going all-in on this year. Have they made up enough ground on Juventus? What happens if they don’t get the Scudetto? What happens if they crash out of the Champions League again? Basically, does Conte have to win the league to keep his job? What are the odds of a mid-season firing?
David McFarland: There’s no denying that Inter’s transfer window strategy was definitely that of a club aiming to win the Scudetto ASAP. It certainly hurt seeing Sandro Tonali slip out of our grasp and fall into Milan’s, but it’s perhaps necessary if the title drought is to be snapped in 2020/21. It would certainly seem as though the talent gap between Inter and Juve is gone, if that wasn’t already the case last year. But would you really bet against Cristiano Ronaldo and a team that’s won nine straight titles? I sure wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean the club hierarchy isn’t. Conte is likely to leave next summer no matter what, considering his habit of short stays at clubs. Another trophyless season, though, and he would definitely get the boot. And if he has a breakdown like the one after the Atalanta win, he could be gone even sooner. But the odds are that won’t happen. He and Steven Zhang had a one-on-one meeting to resolve the Italian’s future at the club after last season, and it was decided that Conte would stay in charge. That pledge has fueled the signings of players Conte wants, and only players Conte wants. Everyone from Zhang to Conte to Beppe Marotta would have egg on their face if the 51-year-old made a midseason exit after all of this investment, so hopefully tensions are smoothed over and what happens on the pitch will be focused on the most.
VN: With the caveat that there’s still plenty of time in the mercato, what areas has Inter strengthened? What areas are weaker than last year? Who’s going to impress? Anyone you’re backing to really surprise people? Anyone you’re backing to fall short?
DM: The most eye-catching signing so far was Achraf Hakimi’s $40-plus million move from Real Madrid, so of course expectations are high for the Moroccan. He notched nine goals and ten assists on loan to Borussia Dortmund last season, and Inter fans are hoping for more of the same in 2020/21. Early returns are promising. Hakimi has terrorized opposing backlines down the right flank with scintillating speed and tallied three assists albeit against the likes of Pisa and Lugrano in friendlies. How he will adapt to the Italian top flight, though, is still unknown. But either way, Hakimi is a massive upgrade over Candreva and D’Ambrosio, last season’s starters.
The left wingback position has also been spruced up, except in a slightly less ideal way. Ivan Perisic was on loan to Bayern Munich last season, and was a very solid option as a winger for the Germans, bagging 8 goals and 4 assists in all comps. Inter seemed to be shopping him around quite seriously after his return to the San Siro, but the Croatian is still an Inter player. If he adapts to playing as a wingback, which is no easy task under Conte, Inter will have greatly improved its weakest areas of the pitch, the wings.
As for surprises, Andrea Pinamonti may be flying under the radar for a good reason at the moment, but with some tutelage from Romelu Lukaku, and vastly improved service from his Genoa days, the 21-year-old could be a superb piece of depth for the Nerazzurri. He scored 7 goals in all comps for the Grifone last time out, and cost Inter a net total of only $500,000 after it triggered the buy-back option on Pinamonti’s loan.
All in all, the squad is filled with enough talent from top to bottom to satisfy most Inter faithful with how the transfer window has progressed. The Nerazzurri have at least one or two quality options at each position, and look set for what is sure to be a packed 2020/21.
VN: This will be Inter’s first game because Serie A has reasons and shut up that’s why. Are you expecting any rust from these players? Expecting anything new from Conte, or is he going to keep running the same old system?
DM: I could see some rust, but Inter’s 2019/20 campaign ended barely a month ago, so the players still should be pretty sharp. As for the tactics, Conte tried a 3-4-1-2 on occasion last season in an attempt to fit Christian Eriksen into the starting eleven in a role that more suited the Dane. That didn’t really work out for anybody, though, and Eriksen ended up being benched for Roberto Gagliarini in the most important games of the season. This time around, I think we’ll see the 3-5-2 and only the 3-5-2. Eriksen, hopefully, is more suited to the central midfield position after a full offseason under his belt, and maybe can now win a starting spot in the Nerazzurri’s stacked midfield. If not, though, Conte has plenty of options to choose from instead of the ex-Tottenham man.
VN: I was a bit disappointed Inter didn’t keep Biraghi, who to me is a better option than Dalbert for that left-flank. Biraghi didn’t get off to a great start at the San Siro, but after the league restarted, he became a reliable option during that hectic period. He ended the season with two goals and six assists, a not too shabby tally. Still, neither Biraghi nor Dalbert would have gotten much playing time this season so it’s not a decision that I’ll lose sleep over.
Valero, meanwhile, was also a solid depth piece but at 35 years of age. But despite being a very talented footballer, he probably can’t keep up at the level he had before. Inter would have had to sign a new contract to keep him around, and that just didn’t make sense considering Inter’s midfield is already full of options and there’s plenty of depth to pick from. I think Valero will do well at Fiorentina, and to be honest, seeing him in a purple shirt feels right.
VN: Are there any Fiorentina players you’re particularly nervous about facing this week, aside from the inherent terror of a gol del ex courtesy of Biraghi or Valero? Any matchups that particularly interest you? Any key areas of the pitch where the game will be decided?
DM: I think the midfield battle will be very interesting, to say the least. Amrabat-Castrovilli-Duncan against Barella-Brozovic-Sensi? Yes please. These are perhaps the top two midfields in the league, but La Viola have yet to be tested in the center of the park (sorry Torino). And as for someone Inter should watch out for, if Pietro Terracciano is your backup goalkeeper, I can’t imagine who could be starting instead of him. I’m sure we all remember the 30-year-old standing on his head in the final meeting between these two sides last season which ended 0-0. But in all seriousness, Inter should be prepared to deal with counter attacks. If given space to run, Federico Chiesa, Franck Ribery, and Christian Kouame could cause some major issues in the final third. With good defensive positioning, though, Inter should be able to offset most of that concern.
VN: Prediction time: Who wins, what’s the score, who gets the goals (if any), and what’s the general pattern of the game?
DM: Inter will control possession, as it seems to do most times it plays Fiorentina, but La Viola will have some good stretches of play as well. With both backlines being hard to break down, quality in the final third will be the deciding factor. Inter’s talent up front will shine through, with Lautaro Martinez and Nicolo Barella each bagging a goal. 2-0 to the Nerazzurri!
Thanks, David, even if we’re less than thrilled with your (possibly quite accurate) prediction; it’s always a pleasure talking shop with someone who’s in the know. You can read the other side of the conversation here.