On Saturday night, when the players take to the field in what promises to be one of the most exciting Milan derbies of recent times, the television cameras will be trained on just one man. The man on the Inter bench, the man who occupied that same position for their city rivals last season, Leonardo.
Leonardo’s cross over from Milan to Inter left many Rossoneri fans fuming, after all he was not only their Coach the previous year but closely involved with the club for well over a decade prior to his departure. Now the Brazilian is at Inter and what is likely to hurt even more is that he is doing well there, very well. The Nerazzurri have clawed back a 13-point gap in Serie A and have a chance to go top if they win on Saturday, not only that but they are the only Italian side left in Europe after completing an epic comeback against Bayern Munich.
But what exactly has been Leonardo’s role in this fantastic turnaround for a club that parted ways with Rafa Benitez only six months into his tenure? Inter’s record of 15 wins, 1 draw and 3 losses with him at the helm is mightily impressive to say the least. Leonardo is not a master tactician; this much has been made apparent from his time at Inter, as well as the one year he spent at Milan. Inter have been leaking goals ever since he took over and regardless of the changes he has made at the back, it has had little to no impact on il Biscione’s actual showings.
We have also seen Leonardo make some grave errors in substitutions and formation changes during the game, most notably in the matches against Udinese and Juventus. In those two matches, the Brazilian had no answer to the tactics employed by his opponents and struggled to find a solution. We had seen similar shortcomings in his repertoire with the Rossoneri as they consistently failed to beat teams who played counter-attacking football. The losses Milan suffered at the hands of Inter and Palermo last season are quite alike to the ones Inter have endured so far. So how has Leonardo still managed to keep the Nerazzurri within touching distance on all fronts?
The Brazilian has an art and as Thiago Silva recently described it, ”he always has the right words”. Leonardo’s man management skills are some of the best in the game and he has proved to be an excellent motivator time and again. This was exactly the tonic that Inter needed as Benitez’s tenure seemed to have sapped much of the enthusiasm from the players, especially with his comments about the Inter squad’s lack of quality and age. Leonardo’s effect on the team was visible from his first game in charge, as the players gathered around the Coach immediately after Thiago Motta scored the opener. There were more scenes of exuberance as the players mobbed Leonardo following the Bayern Munich win and, as the World Cup winner put it, ”I was tackled from behind.”
There is an obvious camaraderie between the players and their Coach, this has come to the fore time and again and it is here that Leonardo excels. Ronaldinho was almost back to his best with him in charge of the team, and credit must be given to Milan for sustaining a title challenge for the first half of last season despite clearly not having a team equipped for it. After Jose Mourinho’s contributions in organising Inter and making it a well-functioning unit, it probably didn’t need as much tinkering as Benitez tried to implement, but more of the encouragement and prodding that Leonardo has provided. The players all know their roles already; it is only a question of getting the best out of them.
And herein lies Leonardo’s biggest weakness as well. Inter may be the exception and not the rule. The players he has at his disposal makes his job a lot easier, but one cannot see him replicate this kind of success with a team that is in need of an overhaul. Teams that may need to go back to the drawing board and rethink their strategies, may present a much more difficult task for him. But give Leonardo a team that already has all the talent it needs and it won’t be a surprise if he achieves a lot with them. No wonder then that he is already tipped to be a future Coach of the Brazilian national team.