Analysing Inter’s coaching transition: From Frank De Boer to Stefano Pioli

Frank de Boer was sacked as head coach of Inter Milan following the team’s defeat to Sampdoria in October. This firing brought an abrupt end to De Boer’s reign, which ultimately lasted just 84 days. The Dutchman left Internazionale marooned in 12th place having compiled a record of five wins, two draws and seven losses during his 14 games in charge.

Despite some encouraging performances, including a 2-1 win at San Siro against arch-rivals Juventus, de Boer, seemingly unaware of just how tough coaching in Italy can be, was unable to settle in to Serie A. The pressure is huge and time is thinner on the peninsula. This is especially true at Inter, who have changed coach nine times since José Mourinho left in 2010.

De Boer made a series of mistakes that shortened his tenure as Inter’s coach. Against Sampdoria, his side allowed the first goal of the game for the eighth time in 11 league games. He built a squad centered ineffectively on crossing—Inter averaged 30 crosses per game; not even David Moyes’ Manchester Utd produced as many.

The former Ajax coach also left a locker room featuring a lot of underutilized and unhappy footballers including Geoffrey Kondogbia, Felipe Melo, Stevan Jovetic and Gabriel Barbosa. And, in addition, he failed to fix a midfield starring Ever Banega and João Mário.

All that said, de Boer’s failure to revive one of Italy’s most troubled clubs means the failure of a project, the fall of an idea. In a country obsessed by defence and results, De Boer tried to install his Dutch vision based on a 4-3-3 with full-backs moving forward to join flankers out wide, one holding midfielder covering the centre-backs, and interior midfielders moving forward to support the lone forward in the box.

Why did he fail? Because the system wasn’t suited to his roster. His full-backs were average at best; his midfielders were used to playing with the ball at their feet and aren’t so able to attack the spaces; his central defenders struggled in one-on-one situations.

The idea to play Banega deep, asking him to play like a No.6 or a No.8 was ineffective and highly criticized, despite the fact the Argentine played some of his best football in that position. To improve his side’s performances De Boer alternated his system, utilizing both a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formation, but the debate over Banega’s place in the side remained.

But, above all else, de Boer paid for a lack of maturity shown by Inter’s board. When Erick Thohir suggested the Dutchman as a replacement for the departing Roberto Mancini, he knew who he was hiring. Blaming De Boer for running things his way is a sign of provincialism.

The Dutchman tried to obtain results through an attractive brand of football. This idea requires time to be absorbed, especially by a group suited to playing badly organized football as they did under the previous regime. But with qualification for the Champions League a priority, Inter didn’t leave De Boer the time to prove himself. His obstinacy to stay faithful to his principles played a role, but the club’s incompetence in hiring a manager without deeply supporting him deserves the largest share of the blame.

To replace de Boer, Inter appointed Stefano Pioli.

A 51-year-old ex-central defender who played for Juventus and Fiorentina during his playing days, Pioli started his coaching career with the Serie B side Salernitana in 2003. He then moved to Modena, before getting his first chance in Serie A with Parma in 2006. However, Pioli’s first gig in the top flight came to an abrupt end as he was sacked after six months in charge.

After other stints in Serie B with Grosseto, Piacenza and Sassuolo, Pioli returned to Serie A in 2010, coaching Chievo, Palermo and Bologna. His most recent stop was with Lazio, who Pioli led to third place in 2014-15.

Pioli is a more pragmatic coach than de Boer, favouring a reacting style of play. He likes a defensively solid squad and does not stress ball possession as the way to attack. Without the ball, his Inter will be more consistent and quick-thinking.

Also, Pioli is not a dogmatic manager. Even if he has often deployed a 4-3-3 system throughout his career, he lined up a 4-2-3-1 system during his first game in charge as new Inter’s boss, a friendly game against Swiss side Chiasso. He also utilized a three-man defence during his time at Lazio.

Pioli loves to build his attacking actions on the flanks, so the game should still go through Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva. But the most important question the coach will have to face is how to build the central midfield. With Joao Mario suited to become a key member of Pioli’s midfield, the uncertainty surrounds who will line up alongside the Portuguese. Should Pioli stay faithful to his classic 4-3-3, Banega and Marcelo Brozovic could be other starters, although Kondogbia cannot be excluded from the discussion.

Banega’s disappointing form meant de Boer left the 4-3-3 he had thus far fielded for a 4-2-3-1 that had the Argentinian as No.10. That didn’t work, so the obvious solution could be a switch back to a 4-3-3 with Banega fielded as an interior midfielder. Should Banega be ineffective again, Pioli could bench him and relaunch Kondogbia.

The French ball-winner’s underwhelming performances with Inter raised questions about his tactical flexibility and true talent level.  His best performances with Monaco came in a 4-2-3-1 system playing alongside another central midfielder. This suited Kondogbia perfectly but, when Mancini tried to duplicate it at Inter, he struggled, holding the ball too long and showing little energy both in and out of possession. He is a box-to-box midfielder who is good technically and physically, but has failed to show his skills in Italy.

A 4-3-3 could help both Banega and Kondogbia to flourish with Brozovic another midfielder suited to the shuttling role in this formation. Pioli’s Plan B, a 4-2-3-1, could mean the dropping of Kondogbia with Banega moving up front in an attacking midfield role just behind Mauro Icardi.

Words by Michele Tossani @MicheleTossani

Michele is a tactical analyst. His work can also be seen on Spielverlagerung, Rivista Undici, Futbol Tactico and many others.