2016’s European Championship acted as a breakout tournament for a number of up-and-coming young players. Portugal’s Joao Mario was one such player. The midfielder appeared in every single one of his country’s seven finals games, starting five of them. And, in spite of the more restricted role afforded to him due in the main to the cautious nature of Fernando Santos’ tactics, he was integral as the Selecao secured an unexpected triumph.
In the aftermath to the competition it was clear that the 23-year-old would be on his way from Sporting Clube de Portugal, the club whose youth academy he came through and who shaped him into the player he is today. While the Portuguese giants have a reputation for developing some of the finest footballing talent in the world, they also have a tendency for selling this talent on. And Mario, just as Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo and countless others before him, did eventually move on, signing for Inter Milan on 27 August.
For the first half of last season, Inter were serious title contenders in Italy. However, after a spell of poor form they fell away, leaving Juventus to romp to a fifth consecutive Scudetto. The Nerazzurri, with new ownership, appeared determined to make a more concerted bid for domestic success this season, however, and a number of signings were made to certify this ambition.
Ever Banega came in from Sevilla on a free transfer, Cristian Ansaldi arrived from Genoa and Antonio Candreva joined, following years of speculation, from Lazio, both for undisclosed fees. Mario joined highly rated 20-year-old Brazilian forward in signing for the club towards the end of August, signed for a sizeable transfer fee of €40 million plus €5 million which would be “dictated by objectives,” according to Football Italia.
By the time of Mario’s signing, Inter had gone through managerial change. Roberto Mancini left the club by mutual agreement on 8 August and, within a day of his departure, former Ajax boss Frank de Boer had been hired as his successor. The new head coach brought with him his own ideas, though there were a few obvious issues from last season that had to be ironed out first, many of which regarded Inter’s midfield structure, or lack thereof.
Throughout 2015-16, Inter’s play was deemed functional, pragmatic, or any other word to depict football that wasn’t particularly easy on the eyes. They ground out results, winning all of their opening five games by one goal, four of which were 1-0 results. It was against this backdrop that their round six meeting with Fiorentina was billed as ‘beauty and the beast’. The Viola had played beautiful football up to that point and showed their superiority by vanquishing Inter 4-1 at the San Siro.
That evening, Inter’s alarming midfield issues were highlighted. Mancini had lined up with a three, as he often did throughout last season. The midfield trident was made up of Felipe Melo, Gary Medel and Geoffrey Kondogbia, none of whom could be described as a technician. And the lack of ball-playing capability within each of these players was only aggravated further by the lack of a link man between the lines.
While Inter rarely operated in the 3-5-2 system used against Fiorentina that night, Mancini did regularly opt to start with two strikers and no number 10, often in 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 shapes. And the lack of a player scheming between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines, combined with the poor movement of their wingers, made it very difficult for Inter to build effective possession through the centre. Consequently, their attacks were often wing-focused and unproductive, with crosses a primary route; indeed, only three teams put in more crosses than Inter last season.
Without someone between the lines to target with passes, Inter’s functional midfield trio were forced into long balls toward Icardi or passes out wide to the wingers, from where the only route back in was often a cross to Icardi, a dribble against the opposition’s entire defence, or a pass back. None of these options are viable forms of attack, and furthermore the individuals within the midfield – the rugged but limited Melo, simplistic ball-winner Medel, and the physical Kondogbia – possessed the technical qualities or intelligence needed to thread through game-changing passes.
In theory, these midfield issues were to be solved by the signature not just of Mario, but of Banega.
During his time in charge of Ajax, de Boer evidenced a proclivity for a 4-3-3 formation. And the system, which is part of Ajax’s heritage dating back to the days of Total Football, looked set to suit the new-look Inter. With Mario and Banega providing more control, better passing ranges and more intelligent movement, there was a belief that they, partnered by one of the more functional players of last season, could provide a solution to the aforementioned structural problems in midfield.
To an extent, they have, with Mario settling surprisingly quickly to the rigours of Italian football.
An extremely versatile player, he has been known to play in central midfield, closer to the strikers and out on either wing. This positional fluidity has been exercised by de Boer; Mario appears to glide across the pitch for Inter, appearing in pockets of space where he can influence the game. Often, he will advance into more dangerous areas, giving his midfield team-mates a viable forward pass, something that was lacking last season.
However, he is also comfortable with sitting deeper, something that enables Banega to drift forward into a more attacking area of the pitch. In this aspect, Mario’s positional sense comes to the fore, as he is always looking for ways to get on the ball and impact the game positively.
Last season Inter struggled to find midfield balance in an attacking sense, but with Mario and Banega their problem has perhaps inverted; now they must find balance in a defensive sense, with two central midfielders who relish with greater freedom of movement.
But, regardless of balance, Mario has brought much needed penetrative passing and clever movement to the middle third for Inter.