Different yet, somehow, so similar.
Rome and Milan are, in terms of traditions, culture and lifestyle, worlds apart. Football, however, makes no exception. The rivalry between the teams from Italy’s main cities has always been fierce and even more so when, as in the past decades, the Scudetto or a place in the Champions League is at stake.
Luciano Spalletti is undoubtedly at the core of Inter’s and AS Roma’s past, present and future. On Sunday, when Serie A restarts after the winter break, the two sides meet at the San Siro for a crucial tie. His tactics and behaviour will be, once again, under the spotlight.
Think about Spalletti and you picture a meticulous, hard-working man. Educated in the lower divisions in the 1980s, he is a firm believer that a small detail on the training pitch can change a football season, or even a club’s history. For this reason, the Coach from Certaldo, a medieval village less than an hour’s drive south of Florence, asks his players to repeat movements and passes countless times.
Rather than using a blackboard or video analysis, Spalletti prefers an eleven-a-side practice game, to the point that every player knows, almost by heart, the multiple tactical scenarios. “I like to replicate in training the same situations my team may face at the weekend”, said Spalletti in an interview to Italy’s newspaper La Repubblica, explaining his obsession with not taking any chances. “A Formula One driver does not just sit on his armchair with a steering wheel. He fixes his car by racing it as if he is competing in a Gran Prix.”
Throughout his career Spalletti has shown that he needs time for his work to pay off. But when this happens, the results are more substantial than silverware. In fact, in Jonathan Wilson’s bible chronicling the tactical evolution of football, (Inverting the Pyramid), the current Inter boss was even hailed the last Italian innovator.
Spalletti’s art of making the most of his resources and adapting the players to the best possible tactic and not vice versa, gave rise to the ‘false nine,’ since copied across the globe. This single-minded, yet creative, approach used so many times by Spalletti is summed up in one of his best quotes, given to La Repubblica back in 1997:
My father used to say that in life you need to be able to be happy with what you’ve got. I’ve always said that if I never eat more than one steak a day, what do I care about the whole cow?
In December 2005, AS Roma travelled to Genova to face Sampdoria missing three of their strikers (Antonio Cassano, Vincenzo Montella and Shabani Nonda) leaving them with 16-year-old Stefano Okaka (currently of Watford) as their only option. Spalletti, who had been appointed head coach of the Giallorossi only a few months before (after achieving a historic Champions League qualification with Udinese) decided to deploy Francesco Totti as a central striker, reinventing him in a role where the No. 10 would flourish for years to come.
“I followed Francesco’s indications”, Spalletti told La Gazzetta dello Sport in 2012, after winning his second league title with FC Zenit Saint Petersburg. “Moving Francesco closer to the box was like putting the fox near to the henhouse: he always finds the space to create panic amongst the opposition. Totti can score and provide assists, with every kick he can find cantucci (the small spaces, in Tuscan slang). Plus, playing upfront, he was freed from the defensive work.”
Roma drew 1-1 in that game at the Marassi but three days later, a 4-0 victory over Chievo Verona, including a Totti brace, started a winning streak of 11 consecutive games. Then, on March 05, 2006, the destinies of Luciano Spalletti, AS Roma and Inter became intertwined, destined to influence one another. Marco Materazzi’s late equaliser earned the Nerazzurri a point in Rome but, most importantly, it interrupted their record of consecutive wins in Serie A and gave birth to a new and fierce rivalry.
In the 2006/07 season, with Juventus relegated to Serie B after the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, which also saw AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina deducted points, Inter and Roma emerged as the only contenders for the Scudetto. This clash of football philosophies: a physically strong Milanese squad, coached by Roberto Mancini and enriched by the character and skills of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, up against Roma’s mix of quick wide men (Rodrigo Taddei and Amantino Mancini) and not particularly technically gifted but tactically committed players (Simone Perrotta and Marco Cassetti), ultimately saw Spalletti come out second best in the race for the Serie A title.
However, Roma’s consecutive victories in the Coppa Italia (Italian Cup) showed that the Tuscan’s style of play was not just beautiful to watch, but also effective. To this day, the 6-2 defeat inflicted on the Nerazzurri in the first leg of the 2006/07 Coppa Italia final is hailed as one of the finest displays ever witnessed at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
In January 2016, after a five year hiatus in Russia and two years without a job, Spalletti began his second spell in charge of the capital club and subsequently led them to their highest ever points total (87), yet they still fell short of champions Juventus. However, his decision to leave Totti on the bench for certain games during his last playing season attracted ferocious criticism from fans, media and players alike: “He has created some disasters”, commented Daniele De Rossi a while later.
In the summer of 2017, Spalletti joined Inter, who along with Roma, started their 2017/18 campaigns strongly, impressing with their defensive solidity and game management. Up until the end of the year, both sides were being considered (alongside Napoli and Juventus) as contenders in an unprecedented four-horse race for the title.
Spalletti had quickly restored the players’ confidence and, despite a low-key transfer market, equipped the team with a solid mentality and a clear style of play. Pragmatic and direct, Inter learnt to utilise the direct running and crosses of Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva to supply in-form striker Mauro Icardi to great effect.
Although the tactician did not completely give up on the idea of retaining the ball and moving it quickly into spaces, he focused on getting his players to do the simple things well: be organised and exploit the quick counter-attacks. A tactic that paid off on several occasions, a 3-1 win at the Olimpico against Roma and a 3-2 triumph in the Derby della Madonnina being prime examples.
However, as the season has progressed, opposition teams have become accustomed to Inter’s style of play and have learnt how to cut off the supply line to the Argentinian striker. In the eight games leading up to the first round of post-winter break matches in 2018, including two domestic cup ties, the Nerazzurri scored only two goals, exposing their shortage of attacking options.
Spalletti knows that reinforcements will be needed if his team are to progress, but he has yet to publicly request investment from the club’s Chinese owners, Suning. In fact, his strenuous refusal to give into the criticisms about the depth of this squad has led the tactician into quarrels with the media. “You are a loser”, raged Spalletti against a journalist who asked him whether some of his current players were of adequate quality after a 1-1 draw at Fiorentina. “Everyone knows I’m missing a central defender. Even my mum is aware of that; you (the media) have asked me the same questions 700 times already,” he added. “But I am not going to cry about this, we need to work, win and be credible.”
Since moving to Milan, Spalletti, renowned for being a touch prickly, has not been shy in taking on his detractors. In particular, those who suggested favourable VAR (Video Assistant Referee) decisions and a degree of luck (back in October, La Gazzetta dello Sport, wrote that Inter’s goalposts were the most hit) masked his team deficiencies. Echoing Jose Mourinho’s two seasons in charge, the 58-year-old has managed to rally supporters around him, even using his personal social media account to get his message across. On Instagram, where he tends to comment on Inter’s performances, his messages are signed off with #SenzaTregua (No Truce).
When Juventus’ Head of Communications, Sandro Pellò, declared his desire to defeat the old rivals and send them “back to the sewers”, Spalletti waited for the opportune moment to respond. “Also this week the sewers will remain empty”, he wrote after his side earned a precious 0-0 draw in Turin.
Spalletti may have already had an impact on Inter, but the new environment has changed him too. Divided between past and present, unique in the way he lives through football, always looking to innovate, Luciano Spalletti is perhaps the biggest thing Milan and Rome ever had in common.