The eve of Inter’s decisive Champions League clash against PSV Eindhoven at the Giuseppe Meazza was filled with questions and uncertainty regarding player availability and, consequently, Luciano Spalletti’s line-up choices for the match. The manager himself described the game as the most important of his career at Inter and fans themselves certainly realise its significance and extremely high stakes. Therefore, concern regarding player fitness and numbers has risen accordingly.
The midfield is naturally the most preoccupying third of the pitch, as Inter’s options around the halfway line are already limited notwithstanding injuries: the forced exclusion of Joao Mario and Gagliardini from the CL list due to Financial Fair-play restrictions has left the team constantly on the brink of insufficient numbers in midfield, at least in European matches.
Indeed, injuries have further reduced manpower, finally pushing the team over said brink and forcing emergency solutions, along with the insecurity, fear, curiosity and speculation that come with them. In general these still seem to be unanswered questions at only a few hours from kick-off, as what was revealed about the (poor) health and fitness of certain players only birthed new doubts about how exactly Spalletti will deal with their absence in a crucial game like that against PSV.
More specifically, in addition to the constant issue of CL list limitations, it was the still uncertain condition of Radja Nainggolan’s ankle that fuelled fans’ concerns over Inter’s midfield situation since their minds turned away (with some difficulty) from the disappointment of the match in Turin and towards the team’s next commitment.
In fact, the club’s big summer buy has been having more injury problems than expected and desired, which have possibly been prolonged by an ill-advised insistence on Spalletti’s part to play the Belgian even if not fully fit, and by the medical team’s negligence in allowing it. It was becoming increasingly likely, though, that Nainggolan would at least sit on the bench at the San Siro, and the knock that prevented Matìas Vecino from facing Juventus on Friday was, according to most reports, not going to be an issue in regards to the PSV match.
The situation seemed set: Inter would face its Dutch adversary with a three-man midfield composed of Brozovic, Vecino and Valero, with Nainggolan possibly ready to come on from the side-lines. Spalletti himself then dropped some largely unexpected news in his pre-match press conference, saying that Vecino’s issue was worse than most thought and would rule him out of the PSV match. This was confirmed officially when the call-ups were published and the list didn’t include the Uruguayan midfielder. With Nainggolan confirmed as part of the squad but extremely unlikely to start, this is a heavy blow for Inter. At least, though, it does allow for some interesting speculation regarding the potential solutions to this midfield decimation.
The club’s transfers this summer may seem to have neglected the midfield compared to other parts of the team, expect for Nainggolan purchase obviously.
The idea, though, was to mitigate this relative scarcity by acquiring forwards and defenders that could be effective in midfield roles as well. The two most likely of Spalletti’s choices for the match both include such players being moved to an alternate role. One possibility is to start Lautaro Martinez as a number ten behind Icardi. Although Martinez’s promise in this role has only shone in pre-season friendlies, his inclusion in the starting eleven would create the striker partnership with Icardi that many fans have been wanting to see from the first minute of matches.
Furthermore, or a must win game like this one, it seems reasonable to go with a formation more offensive than usual, even though it would be somewhat surprising for a lover of balance like Spalletti. Maybe, though, even he thinks it’s the right time to risk this experiment fully by now. A second option is to move Asamoah forwards slightly in a left midfielder role, with D’Ambrosio to take his place on the left defensive flank. Danilo has played there in the past, even though he may be less effective, while the Ghanian would probably feel more comfortable in midfield than in defence, as it is his original role.
A more unlikely possibility is the advancement of Skriniar into a defensive midfielder role, with Miranda to take his place in defence. The Slovakian has played in such a position for his national team, but Spalletti is rightly unwilling to rob the defensive line of such a crucial and impressive contributor.
In the end, it’s the mentality, willingness and motivation that the boys will demonstrate on the pitch that can truly make the difference, rather than specific tactical variations, as interesting as they may be to explore. I also hope that a packed and enthusiastic San Siro could be a determining factor.
By Giacomo Locati