No one expected miracles in Frank de Boer’s managerial debut with Inter against Chievo two weeks ago, just 12 days after taking over the club. But the manner of the 2-0 away loss was most disappointing as De Boer seemingly abandoned the principles that made him a highly sought after manager in Europe. The disjointed opening match featured Gary Medel tasked with creating play and wreaked of either desperation or stubbornness and showed how far apart De Boer and his current roster are in creating a cohesive team structure. If his time at Inter proves unsuccessful, it was a foreboding debut.
Inter improved in their second match, ending in a 1-1 draw against Palermo with a goal from Mauro Icardi. But it lacked the midfield fluidity we came to associate with De Boer’s previous team. Ajax scored 149 goals in 68 league matches in his final two seasons as manager (Mancini’s Inter side scored 109 goals in 76 matches over the same span). With an emphasis on positional play, they became one of the poster child teams for how a modern team set up. De Boer had the template in hand: a high press featuring three midfielders, direct play to wingers in 1 v. 1 situations, 60% possession each match, and goals.
Of course, it is one thing to successfully embody the principles of both Louis van Gaal and Johan Cruyff (which is like being influenced by both Plato AND Aristotle) in the top heavy Eredivisie and another to do the same in Serie A. Perhaps choosing a league with sides so well drilled in counter attacking was De Boer’s original mistake - much less doing so with under than two weeks to prepare, with existing players representing the polar opposite of his approach. Mancini’s midfield three from last season of Felipe Melo, Geoffrey Kondogbia, and Gary Medel was built to destroy. Inter were in first place as late as January before a run of two wins in nine matches knocked them out of the Champions League, and Mancini out of a job.
De Boer wouldn’t be the first manager to be forced into pragmatism at the expense of ideals when making the leap to a higher level. Many have already questioned his desire to dominate possession in a league in love with defending, and for all of Ajax’s goals, there was a sense of his sides becoming too predictable in his final seasons at the club. A deeper analysis of the Chievo match shows their opponents overloading the center of the field in Inter’s build up, effectively taking Medel out of the match. This build up section of the field, so important to De Boer at Ajax, will most likely be the biggest challenge for him to overcome. Serie A’s tactical reputation is its ability to disrupt opposition play down the middle.
Yet heading into the international break, De Boer does have the patience of Massimo Moratti and the deep pockets of a new ownership group. And there is the element of having been thrown into Serie A with little preseason preparation. If De Boer does end up winning with Inter, it may be in spite of his previous self.
Overshadowed by Juventus in the transfer window, Inter spent over $120 million in overhauling their attack this summer. Inter’s new ownership group flexed its financial muscle by signing Brazilian phenom Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa, a move as important in its symbolism as anything that happens on the field. The 20-year-old winger finished 24 goals and 12 assists in 82 appearances for Santos while drawing obvious comparisons to Neymar (although he is more Luis Suarez). A day earlier, versatile midfielder Joao Mario became the most expensive Portuguese player ever sold by Sporting Lisbon in a $50 million transfer move. The two player represent Inter’s new transfer market strategy of signing youth instead of veterans, which Mancini preferred.
With that said, 29-year-old Antonio Candreva moved from Lazio earlier this summer while Mancini was still manager, yet his versatility and creativity on the right side should fit well with De Boer. Free transfer Ever Banega was in a similar situation having signed last May, but his midfield control suits him well under De Boer. And he, Mario, Kondogbia, Medel and Brozovic represent the most diverse range of midfielders Inter have had in many seasons. That is if, and when De Boer can mold the group into a side that figures out how to balance his possession principles within the context of Serie A defending.
It’s been five seasons since Inter were last in the Champions League. De Boer is their sixth different manager in that span, with the club cycling through managers ranging from Walter Mazzarri to Claudio Ranieri to Mancini as they tried to unlock the puzzle of European soccer. If Mancini was an attempt to recreate their past era of success, then De Boer is firmly the most modern manager they’ve had since Jose Mourinho. Whether he can translate his ideas into domestic and European success is predicated on his growth as a soccer philosopher and manager. And with new owners, Inter’s stability off the field is as essential as anything De Boer does on it.