The much talked about "Year Zero" revolution is slowly turning into "Year Minus One", as increasing expectations allow old habits to re-surface.
"Young people are an asset and the club together with the coach will decide how best to manage them. The assessment of when and how to do it is an important and delicate thing because you can take a risk and rush the evolution of a young man But I think the president has already given a signal." - Stramaccioni
And that signal was hiring young Stramaccioni as the head coach of Inter earlier this year. Before this appointment, Stramaccioni was the coach of Inter's U19 primavera side, which had just won the inaugural "NextGen Series", a youth equivalent of the Champions League. He had no coaching experience at senior level, and had only been coaching at U19 level at Inter for less than a season. Making Stramaccioni the head coach was definitely a signal by the Inter President, a signal for the dawn of a new era with a focus on youth development.
Translating Youth Talent
Clearly this has been an area where Inter have proven to be quite incompetent in the past. For many years, Inter relied on Moratti's millions buying the talent that the squad needed. The focus always has been on mega deals, like the world record transfer fee deals which brought stars like Ronaldo and Vieri to Inter. Over the last decade and a half, there have hardly been a handful of players from Inter's primavera who have made it to the senior team.
This is not a case of Inter having a weak Primavera (U19) side. Quite the opposite. Apart from winning the NextGen Series, in the last decade or so, Inter Primavera has won the Scudetto 3 times and finished runner's up thrice. At youth level, Inter have been doing exceedingly well. The problem is of translating this youth talent to benefit the senior team, and thats where Inter have failed miserably.
The few youth talents who did break into the senior team, like Pirlo for example, were because they were special talents. And even then, Inter were unable to convert them into future regulars. Even Pirlo, who was heralded as the "new Zidane" when playing for Inter's primavera and the Azzurrini, miserably failed to translate his talent on the pitch for the senior Inter side, and was promptly shipped off to City rivals Milan for a small fee. Milan, with a much better track record in converting youth potential, managed to develop Pirlo into a world class playmaker.
Pirlo's is not an isolated case. If you look at the most recent Italy National team, 4 other such players stand out. Balotelli, Santon, Bonucci and Destro were all Inter youth players, and now all of them are plying their trade elsewhere. The cases of Bonucci and Destro are quite typical of how Inter waste their youth talent. Bonucci was loaned out to Trevisio & Pisa, where he gave clear indication of his talent. He was at 21 already valued at 3m, with just 3 Inter starts in Serie A. and then he was sold to Genoa, along with 3 other youth players, as a sweetener to the deal which brought Milito and Motta to Inter.
Destro was given even less of a chance to prove his mettle, not even a single Serie A appearance. For Inter primavera, Destro was devastating with a very prolific scoring record. He looked and played the part of a classic Italian striker of the future. Inspite of that, he was pushed off to Genoa (along with half rights to Longo, another gifted Primavera striker) as a sweetener to the deal which brought Ranocchia to Inter. And why was Ranocchia so important? Because in that one year, he had developed into one of Serie A's best defensive partnerships at Bari with... wait for it... Bonucci (who signed for Juventus for 15.5m, and won the Scudetto with them). Life is not without a sense of irony. At a time when Inter were desperately looking for a new striker last summer after wasting millions on "proven" star purchases like Forlan and Pazzini, Destro was bought by rivals Roma in a deal worth 15m, a sum now beyond Inter's means.
Its a classic Inter "LOL" moment.
The Missing Link
Coming back to the present, in the last 12 months, the focus has shifted at Inter. Thanks to UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations, Inter can no longer rely on Moratti millions. Inter Primavera's win at NextGen earlier this year was no coincidence. There has been a sizable investment in Inter's academy, with talents like Alborno, Tassi, Spendlhofer, Bessa, etc bought with the intention to develop them into senior team regulars. The appointment of youth coach Stramaccioni as the senior team coach was another step in this direction. The intent was clear, Stramaccioni was probably the best candidate to convert some of his NextGen champions into Serie A stars.
However, Inter still lack the competence to grow these kids from primavera stars into the senior team. Its a big jump from a quality and physical aspect of the game. Indeed, there is a stage of development missing between the Primavera and Serie A, where the youth can further develop their skills without the added pressure. The only strategy that Inter seems to have to make up for this "missing link" is to give these kids experience via loan/co-ownership deals, like Inter are already doing with some of their NextGen stars like Longo, Crisetig, Alborno, Benedetti, etc.
But this startegy is not without its risks, and has historically had a very low rate of success. Most of these players end up becoming squad players for smaller teams, for these teams are more interested in developing players they own. This not only ends up negating the very reason of sending them away (experience) but also ends up destroying the confidence of a young talent.
One way of making a success out of this startegy, is perhaps following the recent example set by rival clubs like Juventus and Roma. This is by inserting clauses into the loan / co-ownership agreements with smaller teams that encourage (or even force) them to start their youngsters. Of course, this would mean dealing with Serie B or even Serie C clubs, but these lower divisions of Italian football have for long proven to be excellent grounds for youth development.
But apart from this, are there any other strategies possible to make up for this "missing link" in an young player's development?
The Spanish Way
One successful model that we can see in Europe is in Spain, where top teams have B-sides playing in the lower leagues. This helps them to grow some of their youth talents in their own club philosophy and infrastructure, which clearly can work wonders as Barca have demonstrated in recent times. Clearly the main advantage here is that you can control the development your own talent, without the fear/pressure of results. But the ball in this case rests with the FIGC, and knowing their decision making history, it could take years before this proposal sees the light of day. So this option is currently out of Inter's hands.
The Udinese Experiment
Another interesting model is the one Udinese's owners are experimenting with. They have had a brilliant scouting network for some years now, and were one of the very few Italian clubs which were making money out of football. Now they are logically expanding this model.
They have bought La Liga club Granada, and English Championship club Watford FC. This has given them the opportunity to not only loan a lot of their talent to these clubs, but also take advantage of their scouting network to gather and develop more talent than is possible with one club. I am very interested to see what their end game is here. My guess is that they will prioritise one club (most likely Udinese) to benefit from the other two "feeder clubs", while at the same time continuing their business model of profiting from talent development overall.
But perhaps for a club like Inter, it may make sense to invest in a club in Spanish or English 2nd division, that could be Inter's own answer to the "missing link". This investment would be in purchasing such a club, or even developing a formal strategic relationship which goes way beyond in scope than what Inter currently have with Espanyol.
The Traditional Way
However, if Inter do not have the resources for the above, the most tried and tested way of developing your own talent is by playing them.
“Let’s say that everything now is a fresh start, with a clear idea to put us in a position to do well, so yes, this is a ‘year zero’. It is a new beginning that had and brings enthusiasm..." - Moratti
Moratti's statement at the beginning of this season did bring a lot of that enthusiasm among all Inter fans. Finally there was a definite plan for the future. Stramaccioni was the right man at the helm to begin with "Year Zero". At 36, he was even younger than his captain Zanetti (39). He knew his primavera players inside out, so who better than him to develop their talents for the senior team.
“Among [the new faces] will certainly be some from our youth team, from the success of the primavera and other categories. We will always need patience because it is not always easy." - Moratti
And true to his word, Stramaccioni included some primavera graduates in the Inter squad, farming their rest of them to smaller clubs to gain experience. Liveja, Duncan, Benassi, Romano, Pasa and Belec were inducted into the squad as back ups, with the idea of slowly integrating them by giving them some top flight experience. But somewhere over the last 6 months, predictably as some would say, Inter lost their way...
Year Minus One?
I think I can put my finger on what went wrong. The idea of this "Year Zero" was to gradually build a squad over the next season or two which can challenge for the scudetto. Like Moratti said in the beginning of the season, "patience" was the key. And then Inter went on a 7 game winning run in Serie A, even ending Juve's 49 game unbeaten run away at Turin with a brilliant 1-3 win. The expectations from this young coach and new squad went sky-rocketing.
"We're doing what I think is within our power and we will see if we are better than all the other teams come the end of the season. Winning the next two league games could be enough for us to have a happy Christmas." - Moratti
"Year Zero" was forgotten. "Winning" with an eye on the Scudetto had become the new mantra somewhere down the line. This was not just from the president. But the expectations of the fans, the media, the players, everyone was now focussed on results.
In all this, youth development took a back seat. Livaja was given a few starts when other strikers were unavailable, or rested in the Europa League, and while he did justify that faith with 4 goals in the Europa League, Inter could no longer afford to let him grow from his mistakes. One bad game, and he was shunted to the bench. Inspite of showing promise in Europa League, Benassi could not get even a single Serie A appearance. Romano is a name we rarely see on the teamsheet, so much so that many Inter fans jokingly suggested that he is a fictitious player. For all practical purposes, this could as well be true.
Inter have now allegedly signed 35 year old Tomasso Rocchi of Lazio to become their 3rd choice striker behind Milito and Palacio. I guess in Moratti's mind this is a sign of "Year Zero" proving to be more successful than earlier anticipated, perhaps the club is already achieved "Year One"... but from another point of view, the view of NextGen star strikers Livaja and Longo, this could look like Inter have gone back to "Year Minus One", focus on youth development has been postponed by yet another year.
Same may be the case with Duncan and Benassi, with the rumoured arrival of at least one more midfielder. And what happens to star defenders of the future (Benedetti & Caldirola, currently gaining valuable experience at smaller clubs) if the rumoured bids for Andreolli/Douglas Teixeira are true?
Patience has gone out of the window.
The Brutal Truth
Inter are risking more than a generation of talented primavera stars by changing focus to short term results. The fact of the matter is that Inter can no longer afford to buy a Ronaldo or even an Ibrahimovic, thanks to FFP. The only way Inter can buy champions that can live upto the club's ambitions is if they focus their transfer spend on a very few players. And the only way to do that, is to have a part of their squad graduating successfully from the primavera.
If Inter continue to spread their limited budget thin on a lot of average players like Mudingayi, Rocchi, Andreolli, etc, the danger is that the club might end up with a very average "Europa League" level squad. Which is exactly what Inter are becoming.
The only way to reverse this, is to actually believe in this "Year Zero" and not let a few short term successes divert your focus. Inter need to start believing a bit more in some of their more talented youngsters, give them first team exposure, and let them learn from their mistakes. This will impact short term results, and the expectation needs to be set accordingly.
It is my opinion that Inter's ambitions for the next two seasons should be limited to CL qualification. Yes, a club of Inter's stature does need to play in the CL, specially because of the financial reward from that tournament - that money is critical for improving this squad. However, putting pressure on Stramaccioni to start delivering silverware this season or next, would end the club's "youth revolution" even before it begins.
I do agree that Inter should use the EL and the Coppa for giving young players exposure at top flight football, but also that Stramaccioni should not be afraid to start a Benassi in a Serie A game if the kid does well in the EL (which is exactly what he has done). However, unreasonable expectations of keeping up with Juventus, who are at least 1 or 2 years ahead of Inter in their development, are putting way too much pressure on the young, inexperienced coach, clearly making him afraid of giving youth a chance.
My advise to Moratti is to believe in his own words. Show patience, Inter have done the first bit and collected some talented youth, now lets not screw up in the "follow through". Not again. Else, we might end up seeing Benedetti and Bessa lifting a scudetto in Milan colours in a few years time.
This is "Year Zero". Let it be.