Hiring the youngest coach in Serie A to lead the oldest team in the league is not usually how things are done in Italy, but in order to reinvigorate an Inter Milan side that had completely lost its way since the departure of Jose Mourinho, club chairman Massimo Moratti decided that extreme measures were required.
In March, 36-year-old Andrea Stramaccioni therefore found himself in charge of a squad of seasoned campaigners, three of whom were actually older than him. Slowly but surely, without drawing any negative attention to himself or the club, the untested tactician breathed new life into Inter’s season, winning over fans and players in the process.
Mourinho left in the summer of 2010, and since then Rafael Benitez, Leonardo, Gian Piero Gasperini and Claudio Ranieri all found the pressures of emulating their Portuguese predecessor too much to handle, and struggled to find a way to revitalise a talented yet oversized squad that seemed beset by weariness.
Tired of spending money that did not render results, Moratti - not a man renowned for his patience - turned to I Nerazzurri’s youth team coach, who had just overseen the U-19 team’s impressive NextGen Series victory in London.
It was as good a way as any to make Inter’s veterans understand that revamping the squad had become a pressing issue. “If Mr Moratti, a man who has written his own page in the history of world football, decided to give me a chance, it’s no doubt because of what he saw on the pitch over the last few months,” said Stramaccioni, offering a measured response to those who have questioned his appointment.
“I’m confident in my working methods. I just have to explain what I need, and the players will do the rest,” he added.
A proud native of Rome, Stramaccioni was on his way to establishing himself as a defender for then third division Bologna when a serious injury brought a premature end to his playing career. Unable to cut ties with the game, he began coaching youth teams in the suburbs of the Italian capital, before coming to the attention of Roma Youth Director Bruno Conti, who brought him on board to perform the same duties at Stadio Olimpico.
Passionate yet composed, Stramaccioni prepares every match as if it were a crucial UEFA Champions League encounter. Future opponents are studied down to the finest details, and tailored, in-depth reports – covering the strengths and weaknesses of each player’s direct adversary – are handed out at training sessions.
I speak to Sacchi quite often. Sometimes he gives me compliments and other times criticism. But I still haven’t been able to get my team playing the way he likes.
He has two idols in the world of coaching: the wily Arrigo Sacchi, and the current coach of La Nazionale, Cesare Prandelli, who he worked with at Roma. “They both passed on the incredible passion they have for the game to me," he said. "I speak to Sacchi quite often. Sometimes he gives me compliments and other times criticism. But I still haven’t been able to get my team playing the way he likes."
A tireless worker, Stramaccioni can spend hours on getting his tactics right, especially when it comes to set pieces, be they defensive or offensive. He is not, however, a fan of a fixed formation – the one common theme running through the teams he selects is the presence of an intelligent, highly skilful player just behind the attack, used to dictate the tempo.
The former Rossoblu centre-back gives short shrift to questions about how such a young coach can make himself heard above Inter Milan’s battle-scarred old warriors in the dressing room. “Youth is not only determined by age – you’ve got to be young inside too," he insisted. "Zanetti is a perfect example. He’s older than me, but he’s got the desire of a youth team player."
Now 39, Inter’s legendary captain realises, however, that the torch is passing to a new generation. “I also believe that the club needs to focus on young players. I’ll try to help them in any way I can by sharing my experience without getting in the way,” Zanetti stated.
Wesley Sneijder, whose dissatisfaction out on the pitch had been clear for all to see for many months, has also been won over by the new man at the helm. “After the injuries I’d had, I didn’t think I’d be able to get back to my best,” explained the Dutch international. "I was trying to come back too early, there was a lot of pressure on me, I was asked to play all over the pitch, I was tired, less motivated and generally not very happy."
“And then a coach arrived who understood me straight away, helped me get my energy back and fielded me in my correct position. He simply sorted things out,” added the midfielder.
In order to get his message across effectively, Stramaccioni decided that honesty was the best policy when speaking to his new charges. “I’ve been sincere right from the outset. For me, it’s a real source of pride to be their coach,” he said.
“I used to admire them from the other side of the hedge at the youth team’s training pitch, and now they’re part of my team. Asking such players to ‘learn’ things would be a bad mistake. I simply have to provide them with the best possible conditions for them to exhibit their talents,” he continued.
The fans have been extremely enthusiastic about his stewardship: 87 percent believe that appointing Stramaccioni was the right idea. The remainder may well be won over next season, if Inter continue to move in an upward direction.