You would never confuse Stefano Pioli with Frank de Boer. Despite both men having spent their careers in central defence and each spending time wearing an Inter club suit this season, the contrast between them is staggering. The Dutchman won every honour in the game during his time as a player, representing Ajax and Barcelona while collecting over 100 international caps before guiding the Amsterdam giants to four more league titles as a coach.
Meanwhile Pioli – who at the age of 51 is just four years older than De Boer – enjoyed modest success with Juventus and Fiorentina before dropping down the leagues, never close to receiving a call-up from the Azzurri. His time as a coach has been played out in similar fashion, stints with 12 different clubs leaving a third-place finish with Lazio as his biggest accomplishment to date.
The differences during their time in Milan have arguably grown even wider however, Pioli revitalising a squad that previously looked unbalanced and unconvincing, transforming them into a strong and cohesive unit that has stormed up the table. They had slipped to twelfth place under his De Boer but now find themselves fourth, just six points away from a coveted place in the Champions League.
The latter never looked settled at San Siro, arriving less than two weeks before the opening game of the season following Roberto Mancini’s decision to quit. A talented and expensive squad had been assembled, but De Boer failed to connect with those players who largely looked disjointed and confused during his tenure.
While the man he replaced was constantly chopping and changing his tactics, Pioli has done away with the previous uncertainly to almost exclusively utilise a 4-2-3-1 formation that has brought the best from the quality at his disposal. That system has often been good enough to mask the side’s glaring weakness at full-back, while Captain Mauro Icardi has thrived on the service its revitalised attacking prowess has been able to provide.
A hat-trick in Sunday’s 7-1 demolition of Atalanta took the Argentinian striker’s Serie A goal tally to 20 for the season, and he is clearly enjoying life under the new boss. “Our objective is to try and get third place, but we’ll see where we are in May,” the 24-year-old told Mediaset Premium as he left the field. “Stefano Pioli changed our way of training and of thinking, so we are doing great things together.”
He is not alone either, with Ivan Perišić enjoying a similar level of impact on the left flank. The Croatian winger managed just two league goals during De Boer’s time in charge, but he’s added a further seven – and three assists – in the time since. Terrorising defences with his speed, skill and direct approach, he provides a perfect foil for Icardi, the two routinely dragging would-be markers out of position to create space and opportunities for each other.
9 - Ivan #Perisic has scored 9 league goals in a single campaign for the first time since 2013/14 (10 goals for Wolfsburg). Brace.
The club’s second-highest goal scorer this term, Perišić provides width to stretch opposition back lines, exploiting gaps and forcing his full-back to stay deep and pay attention. According to WhoScored.com, the 28-year-old is completing an average of 1.1 take-ons and creating 1.7 chances per game, both figures comfortably career-highs for the former Borussia Dortmund man.
He has also connected with 34.5 passes per outing (another all-time best mark) while tracking back to make 1.3 tackles and one interception per game as he provides essential cover for his own team. His play has attracted attention from Chelsea – who reportedly sent scouts to watch him in action against AS Roma earlier this month – while a former Croatia international believes he could thrive at Old Trafford.
“I expected him to leave for a big European club in the last transfer window,” Dario Šimić told TMW recently. “He has the class to play at the top level and I could see him doing well at Manchester United.” Those comments came after Perišić was identified by numerous outlets as a summer target for Jose Mourinho, and the player certainly has the strength of character to thrive in English football.
Other clubs will undoubtedly be aware that Inter’s Financial Fair Play issues are likely to come into play once again for the Nerazzurri, and La Gazzetta dello Sport believe that they could look to capitalise on his rapidly increasing value. Signed from Wolfsburg for €16 million back in August 2015 and under contract until 2020, they insist that a bid of around €40-€45 million might be enough to convince the Milanese club to cash in.
They may well need the money, but the contrast between Inter with or without Ivan Perišić is almost as stark as the one between their two most recent managers.