Simone Inzaghi never did fear the madhouse. His predecessor at Internazionale, Antonio Conte, made it a mission to end the club’s reputation as “Pazza Inter” – Crazy Inter – insisting they should instead be “regular and strong”. That goal was achieved as they marched to the 2020-21 Scudetto. Once they claimed top spot, they never let go: 11 clean sheets in the final 21 games ensuring their rivals never got a sniff.
It was a different story last season, when Inzaghi’s Inter led in December only to stumble through the winter and finish second. One journalist asked whether the pazza days had returned. “If being crazy means reaching the last 16 of the Champions League and the final of the Coppa Italia,” Inzaghi replied, “then I hope I always will be.”
He was right to feel proud of such achievements. Inzaghi was the first manager in a decade to steer Inter to the knockout phase of Europe’s top club competition, and he would guide them to victory in that Coppa Italia final as well. Not bad, for a side that had been weakened since Conte’s departure by the sales of Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi.
The Belgian’s return this summer fuelled hope for a fresh title challenge. Although Ivan Perisic and Alexis Sánchez left on free transfers, Inter otherwise kept the core of their first team together. Inzaghi had dug his heels in when it came to the defence, persuading the board not only to resist big offers for Milan Skriniar, Alessandro Bastoni and Denzel Dumfries but to loan Francesco Acerbi from his former club Lazio as well.
With Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the promising 20-year-old Empoli midfielder Kristjan Asllani adding depth further up the pitch, the sense was that this team ought to be stronger. That was before Lukaku, having scored on his first game back and provided an assist in his second, sustained a hamstring injury that has ruled him out now for the best part of two months.
Inter lost away at Lazio, Milan and Udinese, and at home against Roma as well. They opened their European campaign with a 2-0 defeat by Bayern Munich at San Siro that felt more emphatic than the scoreline suggests.
At times Inter looked toothless. Lautaro Martínez, the main man in Lukaku’s absence, endured a crisis of confidence, going eight games without a goal. Edin Dzeko delivered some winning interventions but, at 36, could not do it every week.
There were bigger problems at the back. The defence Inzaghi had been so anxious to protect conceded 14 goals in its opening 10 league games. Lazio, Milan, Udinese and Barcelona each scored three times against them. On Saturday, Fiorentina did the same.
Everything had looked so straightforward for Inter after a quarter of an hour. The Nerazzurri took the lead in the second minute through Nicolò Barella, before Lautaro made it 2-0. But they let their opponents back in when Federico Dimarco crashed his studs into the knee of Giacomo Bonaventura as the Fiorentina player attacked a cross.
It was a shocking challenge – late, high and dangerous – missed by the referee in real time but picked up by VAR. Paolo Valeri awarded a penalty after seeing the replay, yet inexplicably chose not even to card Dimarco, who ought to have been shown a straight red.
Arthur Cabral converted his spot-kick to bring Fiorentina back into the game. They equalised in the second half with a brilliant goal from Jonathan Ikoné, who chased Acerbi on to his heels as he cut in from the left before firing into the far top corner.
Inter bounced back, Lautaro winning and then scoring a penalty of his own. Still, they failed to close the game out. In the final seconds of regular time, Nikola Milenkovic headed down a corner, and Luka Jovic hooked home an acrobatic volley.
The Viola celebrated his equaliser as though it were a winner. They have had a disappointing start to this campaign, struggling to score goals and languishing in the bottom half of the table. To persevere and get a result after the injustice of Dimarco’s non-dismissal felt like a potential turning point.
Yet this game still was not finished. In the fourth minute of injury time, Inter broke forward again, Dzeko feeding Barella, whose square ball for Mkhitaryan instead found the defender Lorenzo Venuti. His attempted clearance hit the Armenian, and rebounded into the net to give Inter a 4-3 win.
Crazy Inter? You could say they were simply a very lucky Inter here. Besides the Dimarco incident, Fiorentina felt the final goal ought to have been ruled out after some borderline contact from Dzeko during the buildup. The home side’s manager, Vincenzo Italiano, was within his rights at full-time to call it an undeserved defeat.
Inzaghi could hold on to the positives for his team all the same. This was Inter’s fourth win in five games across all competitions, with the only exception being a 3-3 draw away at Barcelona. They might have won that game, too, if Asllani had shown the same presence of mind as Barella and squared the ball for Mkhitaryan at an almost identical moment of second-half injury time.
Just as last season, it seems as though Inter may draw strength from their European exploits. They arrived for their home game against Barcelona at the start of this month with low expectations after consecutive league defeats, but a 1-0 win that day transformed the mood at the club. Lautaro broke his drought in the return fixture at the Camp Nou and has added three more goals since.
It is not the first such cold streak the Argentinian has endured in his five years at Inter, and during a similar patch last season he confessed that he would go to bed “thinking about it every night”. The contrast between his gamechanging best and anonymous worst would be a puzzle for any manager. Lautaro is the only player in Serie A to have scored three times this season off each his left and right boots.
Inzaghi will be grateful to have Lukaku back, possibly as soon as Wednesday, to share the scoring burden, but there is no such quick fix available for Inter’s defence. He already replaced Samir Handanovic in goal with André Onana, the Cameroonian starting all of these last five games. As good as Inter’s results have been in this stretch, they have still conceded seven times along the way.
It feels as impossible as ever to know if Inter are turning a corner or simply banking into another corkscrew on a rollercoaster ride. There is talent enough in this team to beat almost anyone, with Marcelo Brozovic also expected back soon from injury and Barella in irrepressible form. Yet it feels as though there is self-destructiveness enough to lose any game as well.
Inzaghi does not aspire to rewrite the club’s DNA as Conte did. He was happy to embrace the crazy last season, but now he must harness it to his own ends.