The early clash of titans ensures there’ll be at most one team with a perfect record after four rounds, as the only remaining two come to blows.
Serie A Week 4 – Saturday 16 September 2023 – San Siro| Preview by Enrico Passarella
Inter will certainly be pleased that a busy summer filled with departures and arrivals didn’t lead to an adjustment period. They couldn’t have looked any better in the early going, as they breezed past three minnows without conceding. Despite several moves, they changed just one starter, Lautaro Martinez’s partner.
Marcus Thuram is different from Romelu Lukaku and Edin Dzeko, but he brings a lot to the table and combines some of the traits of the two forwards who are no longer here. They lost physicality and brute force but added pace, agility, and inventiveness. That will come in handy in crunch matches that can be decided by a timely bursting run. Plus, they can always turn to Marko Arnautovic if they want an old-fashioned bruiser.
Swapping out Joaquin Correa for Alexis Sanchez rips the band-aid off on a pricey blunder, will help their finances if the Argentine is bought out, and brings in a fierier competitor, although his health will be a question mark constantly. Still, they have enough depth in the midfield to go with one no.10 and one striker if the Chilean talisman isn’t available when they want to rotate.
After plenty of rumors about an offensive splash, they did it in the back by onboarding Benjamin Pavard to replace Milan Skriniar. Even though Matteo Darmian was perfectly fine as a braccetto, their defense was sneaky lousy for a while last year, so investing there had its logic. Perhaps splitting the budget would have been the better way to go, but it’s nitpicking given the caliber of player they purchased.
The only quibble, and not a small one, with their transfer market window as a whole is the lack of longevity of many of their signings. There’s little doubt Yann Sommer, Juan Cuadrado, Arnautovic, and Sanchez will live up to the task for a year or two, but then they’ll be forced to intervene again. The management has masterfully navigated the absence of long-term planning that derives from the need to self-finance as the ownerships closed the faucets, but it could catch up to them at some point.
Conversely, they added a lot of high-level depth in a few roles. Young-ish studs like Davide Frattesi and Carlos Augusto technically begin as backups, and that’s a luxury very few other Italian teams have, perhaps none. The ex-Sassuolo star will probably unseat Henrikh Mkhitaryan, although he’s still going strong, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, he’ll crack open a game or two off the bench with his forays and nose for the goal. The wingback was a bona fide difference-maker in Monza. While the whole team won’t cater to him as in Brianza, throwing him at tired opponents will be a major advantage. Plus, they won’t suffer when Federico Dimarco rests, as Robin Gosens was washed.
Losing top-end contributors like André Onana, Skriniar, Marcelo Brozovic, Lukaku, and Dzeko in rapid succession is rough, but they bounced back nicely and reutilized all the money, which didn’t always happen in the past. The deep Champions League run ended bitterly but had large economic benefits. Only two things can prevent them from competing for the title: another team putting together a perfect season as Napoli did, which was an outlier. The Partenopei already don’t seem the same juggernaut they were in their title-winning campaign, but there are other threats too.
The other is their attack sputtering, as Lautaro Martinez is their only pure goal poacher in the truest sense of the definition. He has gone like gangbusters so far, but month-long slumps have been the norm for him and offset by furious flurries in rosier times. The frontline is even more centered around him, and they don’t have another proven scorer like Lukaku to pick up the slack eventually.
His consistency will play a huge part in determining their fortunes. There’s no doubt they’ll be in the mix for the apical positions, but they can be dominant if El Toro bags something like 30 goals in Serie A. Considering how much they produce, especially in easier matches, there’s no reason he can’t tally massive numbers. On the other hand, they now have more contributors who are capable in the box in other roles. Frattesi and Augusto were excellent for their previous teams, and even Cuadrado was fine, plus Denzel Dumfries is a sleeping giant in the final third. That’ll help if Martinez and Thuram have dry spells and makes them mighty tough to contain should the two forwards keep it going.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Sommer; Darmian, De Vrij, Bastoni; Dumfries, Barella, Calhanoglu, Mkhitaryan, Dimarco; Thuram, Martinez.
Doubts: Darmian/Pavard, De Vrij/Acerbi, Mkhitaryan/Frattesi.
Injury Report: Sanchez (anemia), Cuadrado (tendonitis) – Questionable.
Milan have been slightly more impressive because they have already been tested, but they landed the plane against Roma despite being one man down for a while. The fact that they already look like not only a well-oiled but also a sophisticated machine is remarkable considering how deeply they overhauled their squad.
They were surgical with their additions, and it shows, as Tijjani Reijnders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek perfectly complement each other in the midfield. One brings more muscularity, the other more technique and both have stamina for days. A better deep-lying playmaker would have put them in the running for the best midfield in Serie A, but they like Rade Krunic and will have to wait for Ismael Bennacer to come back to fulfill their entire potential there.
The bet on Christian Pulisic has borne fruits right away. They were starving for a playmaker opposite Rafael Leao. His long-range shooting is a welcomed extra weapon. The upcoming busy stretch will give everybody an opportunity to shine. It’ll be interesting to see if Samuel Chukwueze and Yunus Musah, in particular, will exploit it and show enough to challenge the starters or will have to settle for a rotational role for a while. They had very little bench depth in the past. It was no coincidence that their title defense was lousy once they had to cope with the Champions League. They addressed that, although they came a couple of pieces shy of finishing the job.
The backup striker is one of the few positions they bungled this summer. Considering the options they tracked, ending up with Luka Jovic was underwhelming. He was okay last season when he finally managed to stay healthy and came in with a decent enough resume, but, all things considered, he got outplayed by Arthur Cabral at Fiorentina, not exactly by an indestructible force. While he’s a purer no.9 than Noah Okafor, he doesn’t have the same skillset as the Frenchman, as he’s not as big and well-versed in interplaying with his teammates.
Somebody like Mehdi Taremi would have been perfect, but not overpaying to sign him was understandable. Considering their MO, it’s odd they didn’t put more emphasis on finding somebody younger without breaking the bank earlier in the summer rather than resorting to a last-minute search that came up almost empty-handed. Perhaps they thought Okafor would have been suitable but changed their mind after seeing him practice.
They’ll face the task of substituting Fikayo Tomori since he was red-carded against Roma. While it’s not as daunting as it would have been during their title-winning campaign since they have more alternatives and he plateaued, it’s still not ideal since they have been working on the pairing between him and Malick Thiaw all summer long. It’s not much of a choice, as Pierre Kalulu got hurt, so Simon Kjaer is the only one left standing. The French youngster would have probably been more apt for his nimbleness, but it spared them an about-face since they were grooming him as a fullback as they stood pat after offloading Fodé Ballo-Touré, leaving the flanks one man shot.
Both sides have displayed almost no sign of vulnerability so far. Milan ran into a little more trouble and weathered the storm, while Inter cruised almost entirely. The Nerazzurri have a more proven infrastructure, while the element of surprise is more in favor of their crosstown rivals. Hopefully, it won’t be a war of attrition where the two sides refuse to play head-on. It’s very early, so the two managers might unfortunately decide to keep things close to the vest.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Maignan; Calabria, Kjaer, Thiaw, Hernandez; Loftus-Cheek, Krunic, Reijnders; Pulisic, Giroud, Leao.
Injury Report: Bennacer (knee cartilage lesion), Kalulu (thigh strain) – Out
Draw – Under 2.5 Goals