Several factors have led to the downfall of the defending champions in the Italian top-flight league.

“Everything is going well. We’re going in the right direction. When you’re at the start of a new season, you always have high expectations. We want to consolidate what we’ve done and go further in the Champions League.”

“Everything is going very well. We’ve had three intense weeks of pre-season where all the players have given it their all. We’re moving in the right direction. We want to build on last season, and we’ll battle hard to reproduce that as well as trying to have a good run in Europe. We know it’s very difficult to win, but we have the means and the ability to do it. The whole club is determined to continue pushing for that.”

These were the words of long-time goalkeeping coach Adriano Bonaiuti and rehabilitation coach Andrea Belli to the official website of Inter Milan. It certainly paints a very positive picture of the training ground where new coach Simone Inzaghi attempts to defend a Serie A title that they snatched from the iron grip of Juventus for the first time since 2012.

The departure of Conte

It took a combination of a fire-in-his-veins coach in Antonio Conte, a willingness to give him the tools he sought, a wily Giuseppe Marotta and Juventus going through transition for the Nerazzuri to win their first league title since the heydays of a certain Jose Mourinho in 2010.

However, Conte did not have time to savour his hard-earned title win. He and the Inter board fell out over player transfers and retaining core members of his Serie A title winning squad such as Achraf Hakimi, Lautaro Martinez, Nicolo Barella and Romelu Lukaku. His resignation could have just as easily been something that happened last year. But the former Chelsea manager and the owners called a truce amidst the beautiful surroundings of Villa Bellini in Sicily.

Conte left Inter by mutual consent. This was something that he did even with Juventus in 2014. Back then the Old Lady could not match his transfer ambitions. In came highly rated Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi. The appointment by Inter Milan made sense upon a first glance.

The 45-year-old made his bones at Lazio for 11 years before taking the reins from Stefano Pioli in 2016. What followed were two Supercoppa Italiana titles and one Copa Italia. He also led them to Champions League qualification.

In addition, he was part of a new breed of progressive young Italian coaches who believed in counter-pressing high up the pitch. He had preference for a three-man backline and greater verticality in their play.

The Chinese mess

The true Pandora’s Box lay further upstairs in the Inter boardroom. Chinese firm Suning Holdings Group, who the majority owners of Inter, felt the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic. The club could not depend on the gate revenue from the 86,000 seats at the San Siro which had started to regain its old glory in the last three years. In addition, the financial effects of the pandemic on sales and over-spending on players with large wages did not help. This led them towards talks with Goldman Sachs in February 2021. This was for a $200m loan to ease the club through the crisis, as per the Financial Times.

During the middle of May 2021 when Oaktree Capital Management sanctioned a $336m deal to Great Horizon Sarl – the Luxembourg-based company through which Suning owns Inter. This was like a ray of hope. This was to prevent the club from going into further debt. This would give Oaktree a 31% stake in the club that LionRock Capital currently held.

The move to back the European Super League was done with the possibility of a cash boost of $427m into their coffers. The failure of the project led Inter towards Oaktree.

Best players gone

Hakimi’s move to PSG was a big blow for Inter (Credits: Ligue 1)

Inter needed to shed some deadweight and would have to listen to offers for some of their best players. Chelsea and PSG’s long-drawn pursuit of wing-back Achraf Hakimi led to the Moroccan finally landing in Paris for €68m. Chelsea was not to be denied a second time as they landed Lukaku for €115m and thus becoming the first Italian club to register a transfer of this size.

But it did not end there. The other half of the famed ‘LuLa’ strike partnership, Lautaro Martinez was being linked with a €71m move to Tottenham. The Lukaku-Martinez partnership was key for Inter, delivering 78 goals and 19 assists over the course of two seasons.

The numbers are there to be seen. Inter are losing Lukaku who was among the top six in Serie A for both non-penalty and assists for every 90 minutes (0.9) and non-penalty xG per 90 minutes (0.57)

Hakimi jointly ranked fourth in the list of top crossers in the league into the penalty (21) along with Antonio Candreva, Domenico Berardi and Nahitan Nandez. The latter is heavily linked with a move to the San Siro in addition to a €12m offer set to be made for Netherlands wing-back Denzel Dumfries from PSV.

In addition, they have terminated Radja Nainggolan’s contract, thus ending a saga that had run for almost three years. Despite the high-value transfers, they would have to shed more weight in the form of ageing stars such as Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Alexander Kolarov. In addition to Nandez, Inter are close to signing Roma’s 35-year old Edin Dzeko as a replacement for Lukaku. They are also linked with a move for Lazio attacker Joaquin Correa.

Hakan Calhanoglu moved from AC Milan for free. Inter Milan also agreed a deal for Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana to move on a free transfer next season. Inter is all set to sign Ageing striker Edin Dzeko. These represent a call back to Serie A during the start of the decade where such deals were in plenty.

Opponents strenghtening

It is hard to not notice the difference in quality of the incoming and outgoing transfers. During Conte’s reign, Inter Milan landed top talents in Italy such as Nicolo Barella, Stefano Sensi and Alessandro Bastoni. This was in addition to the purchase of Lukaku, which led to forge a title winning squad.

This would not bode well for a league that has just started gaining momentum in Europe in the last three years. This even concluded with a well-deserved Euro 2020 victory for Italy at Wembley. Massimiliano Allegri’s return to Juventus, Roma’s poaching of Jose Mourinho and Atalanta’s consistent run of form will only be a reminder that Inter Milan could be well out of the race for the title even before it has begun.

Whether Inzaghi can prove his doubters wrong and deliver a stiff title defence is left to be seen.

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