The history of the modern Inter-Roma rivalry almost encapsulates the history of Italian football since Calciopoli. The two teams were the most prominent and successful representatives of two radically opposed tactical philosophies which have dominated Serie A after the World Cup victory – on one hand, Luciano Spalletti’s spectacular ‘calcio-champagne,’ on the other, Roberto Mancini’s grinding, physical battleship. Speed against power, as they used to say.
There has been much talk about the pyrotechnical aspects (and consequences) of this Sunday’s 5-3 result between the teams, but what was really striking about the game was its evolutionary significance. To put it baldly, the teams which used to be the Yin and Yang of Italian football are now virtually identical. The colours, personalities and backgrounds remain very different, of course, but the shape they take to the pitch with is one and the same. Let us consider some of the similarities.
Both teams play with a 4-3-1-2. Both employ a trio of midfielders subdivided in regista / destroyer / all-round player (‘tuttofare’ is the slang term in Italian for the latter, which means ‘do-everything’). Both teams are built around a young, foreign fantasista. Both like to have their muscular midfield lay back, comparatively tranquil, while the anarchic front trio is left to improvise. And incidentally, both teams make up their front golden triangle with one free-roaming fantasista behind the strikers, one highly technical and extremely fast forward, and one classical poacher (trequartista, velocista, prima punta). The schema may just be the beginning of a new trend. Oh yes, and both have a Brazilian keeper named Julio.
The teams were in fact so similar that until the send-off of Nicolas Burdisso, the game could easily have gone either way. Ultimately the difference came down to the details – Inter had better full-backs and marginally better central midfielders, and it showed. Douglas Maicon’s cooperation with Samuel Eto’o tore shreds in Roma’s left flank, leading to both of Inter’s first two goals. Roma lacked a comparable drive, with Marco Cassetti failing to deliver much support coming forward. Notably, on the one occasion that Cassetti did put momentum coming forward (alongside midfielder Fabio Simplicio), it resulted in Roma’s first goal. Had the full-backs been inverted, the result could easily have followed suit.
Inter’s Wesley Sneijder and Roma’s Jeremy Menez, the fantasisti in both teams, are undisputably their most interesting players. The role of the classic No 10, which has recently and fashionably cited as in decline, is enjoying a portentous resurgence in the Italian peninsula. They display some differences in style, of course. Sneijder plays deeper and central by default, while Menez has a tendency to pick up the ball from the flanks and then carry it towards the middle (in this he resembles Antonio Cassano, another of the most clamorous fantasisti around at the moment). Sneijder has a devastating shot, only too well demonstrated by his first goal this Sunday, while Menez is almost unrivalled in his dribbling skills. Both are superbly gifted at passing, as anyone playing in their position must be. They also share, to be truthful to the end, a somewhat deplorable personality on the field – Menez is known as an incorrigible diver and whiner, while Sneijder is perceived a presumptuous and irascible little aristocrat. Eccentricities of genius.
The importance of these two specific players to their teams reflects the rising relevance of their general roles in calcio. For all those who bemoaned the decline of fantasia, it is as solid as it’s ever been. Other teams confirm the pattern (and we shall be writing more about them in upcoming articles). No less importantly, the presence of fantasisti is but one of the ‘signs of the times’ offered by the match we saw this Sunday. Comments on the standings and the Scudetto race should not overlook the historical value of this game. Inter-Roma represented a tabula rasa. Differences and divisions which subsisted once have ceased to be. The two football philosophies since Calciopoli have exhausted their cycle, and they have reached synthesis. These teams are more interesting now than they have been in years. The way they will separate and head on to distinct paths, as they inevitably will, could well indicate the new conflicting trends that will develop in Italian tactics over the next five years or so. Where they shall go is impossible to say. But they shall go somewhere new.