septembre 18, 2021

Inter sold Lukaku and Hakimi for €180m – but is Inzaghi’s squad stronger without scudetto heroes?

6 min read

Nicola Berti was asked by the Gazzetta dello Sport earlier this week what he had learned from Inter’s first three games of the new Serie A season. 

The former Nerazzurri midfield replied, « The fact that we’ve taken around €180 million (£154m/$213m) from the sale of Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, reinvested very little of the money, and are still stronger than last year! » 

Not every Inter fan would agree with Berti’s take on the club’s summer business – at least, not yet. 

With seven points from three games, there is denying that the Italian champions have made an encouraging start to the 2021-22 campaign, particularly against the backdrop of a bitterly disappointing transfer window in which they lost not only two key members of the Scudetto-winning squad, but also coach Antonio Conte. 

However, there remain justifiable doubts over whether the side that romped to the title last season can retain their crown, let alone mount a long overdue Champions League challenge. 

In that sense, Wednesday’s eagerly-awaited continental clash with Real Madrid at the Giuseppe Meazza will tell us much about the strength of Simone Inzaghi’s squad. 

The former Lazio boss certainly impressed all and sundry with the way in which he handled an awkward first few weeks in the San Siro hotseat. 

Inzaghi knew that because of the Suning Holding Group’s pandemic-related financial problems, Inter’s owners would have to sell one top player during the off-season, and Hakimi’s €60m (£52m/$71m) departure to Paris Saint-Germain was effectively a done deal even before he arrived. 

Getty/Goal

However, Lukaku’s exit hit hard.

Inzaghi had even called the Belgium international before his appointment had been confirmed to explain how integral he would be to his plans and how much he was looking forward to working with him. It was a wise move on the part of the incoming coach, given Lukaku’s strong bond with his predecessor, Conte, and it looked to have paid off. 

Lukaku departed for the European Championship with his faith in the Inter project restored and when he returned, he spoke with genuine optimism about the new season. However, his head was turned as soon as former club Chelsea expressed an interest in bringing him back to Stamford Bridge. 

The fans were furious with Lukaku for wanting to settle some unfinished business in England, believing his move had been motivated by the promise of a pay rise. A Lukaku mural at San Siro was defaced while the Curva Nord ultras group posted a message on Facebook which read: 

“Dear Lukaku, we expected more honest and transparent behaviour from you. But, despite the fact we protected you like a son, like one of us, you too proved yourself to be just like all the rest, going to your knees for money.

“We wish you the best, even if greed doesn’t always pay.”

Inzaghi, for his part, was more upset that his employers were even willing to consider a sale. However, former Inter goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca argued that as soon as Lukaku’s mind was made up, Inter were left with no choice but to sell, given the massive £98.5m ($136m) offer on the table from Chelsea. 

« Only a madman would have turned it down, » he told the Gazzetta. 

Of course, what many found frustrating was the fact that because of Lukaku’s exit, Inter actually ended up making more money than they needed from sales in order to balance the books.

The question was, thus, repeatedly asked, if the Nerazzurri had just sold Lukaku at the start of the window, could they have afforded to keep Hakimi? The only thing we know for sure is that both players were integral to Conte’s game plan. 

With his pace and technical ability, Hakimi was a perfect fit for the Italian’s 3-5-2 formation, offering both width and penetration down the right flank. 

Getty/Goal

As for Lukaku, Conte had tried to sign the forward on two previous occasions, so convinced was he that he could transform the Manchester United flop into one of the most complete No.9s in world football. 

He belatedly achieved that goal at Inter. Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate just how important a role Lukaku played in Inter ending Juventus’ run of nine consecutive scudetti. 

He was a most worthy winner of Serie A’s MVP award last season, the most dominant player in the league by some distance. It wasn’t just that he scored goals, he also bullied defences. He was, of course, ably supported by Lautaro Martinez, but Lukaku often tore entire backlines apart on his own. 

Replacing both Hakimi and Lukaku was, therefore, never going to be easy. However, there are those that believe that Inter CEO Beppe Marotta, a man long renowned for his mastery of the transfer market, has worked his magic once more. 

Denzel Dumfries has arrived from PSV for just €12.5m (£10.7m/$14.8m), after an impressive Euro 2020 with Netherlands, and he is likely to make the right wing-back berth his own once he is fully up to speed. 

Up front, meanwhile, Inter have brought in both Edin Dzeko and Joaquin Correa to try to make up for the loss of Lukaku. 

Dzeko is 35 now, his best days are undoubtedly behind him but he appears to have been rejuvenated by his move to Milan, after a turbulent final season at Roma. 

Nobody is expecting the Bosnian to lead the line like Lukaku but he has impressed in the opening weeks of the new season. 

Correa, too, looks like an excellent addition. Many Inter fans would have preferred to see their side sign Andrea Belotti from Inter but Inzaghi was convinced that his former Lazio charge could explode at San Siro. 

And the Argentine has already made a big impact, scoring twice on his debut as a substitute in a 3-1 win at Verona on matchday two. 

Getty/Goal

With Hakan Calhanoglu also looking like an excellent free transfer – a Marotta speciality down through the years – Inter also look equipped to deal with the absence of Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen, who faces a long road to recovery after his cardiac arrest at Euro 2020. 

Inzaghi’s Inter have yet to fully take shape, of course, as we saw in Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Sampdoria. But he’s employing the same formation as Conte – which was always likely to make the transition easier – and arguably with better control of the ball. 

There has long been the allegation that Conte teams struggle in Europe because they don’t keep possession well enough to succeed against the game’s top sides, so it will be fascinating to see how Inter fare against the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos on Wednesday night. 

Inzaghi says Inter will need « a perfect game » to prevail but he is going into the game optimistic about his side’s chances of at least making it out of their group this season. 

“I am very satisfied, because the club, fans and above all the players are very open to what my staff and I are proposing, » he told reporters on Tuesday. « We knew there could be some difficulties early on, but we have seven points from three games, two of them away from home. 

“I knew when I arrived that the club had to sell some important players, but we brought in others who are well-suited to my idea of football and now we work going forward.” 

Lukaku and Hakimi’s qualities will almost inevitably be missed over the course of the coming campaign. And it really is difficult to support Berti’s claim that Inter already look better off without them. 

But after a desperately dark summer at San Siro, the Nerazzurri’s future is starting to look a little brighter, which is the best they could have hoped for at this early stage of the season.

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