“If he’d thought about the Ballon d’Or, he would’ve wanted to change teams.”
Hardly what every devoted fan wants to hear from the agent (and wife) of their team’s star player. Wanda Nara, the controversial representative of Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi, hoped to promote her husband’s professionalism. In reality, by November, she’d dealt it a savage blow. Since her bizarre outburst on Italian football magazine show, Tika-Taka, things have drastically deteriorated for Icardi. He has since been stripped of the captaincy, publicly argued with the ultras and been lambasted by his coach.
Despite the Argentinian’s return to the first team squad in March, however, the damage appears to be done. Head coach Luciano Spalletti and the Inter board are praying to get through the remainder of the season with enough tact to ensure a high bid for the striker. In the meantime, the hunt is on to find a replacement for their formerly-much loved leader. Through this player analysis, we shall assess the various options open to the Milanese club.
Born to run: Mauro Icardi
In the midst of what has led to accusations of treachery and deceit off of the pitch, it is easy to overlook how important Icardi is for Inter. Indeed, it could be argued that the level of venom directed at the player and his family, correlates with how dearly he was held in the hearts of the fans.
This season, the former-Barcelona youth starlet, has collected 16 goals from 28 competitive starts for Inter, as well as three assists. He’s been in imperious form, despite his off-field issues, and he will be a difficult player to replace. His stats alone show how crucial he has been this season. However, by looking deeper into his playing repertoire, we can see how central he is in Spalletti’s plans.
The Argentinian striker is a very accomplished false nine, who is very good at dropping deep to link play. He, therefore, fits perfectly into Spalletti’s desired 4-2-3-1 system as the focal point of the attack. Indeed, Icardi can be compared to Francesco Totti. Totti, the Roma legend, played in a similar role during Spalletti’s first stint at the capital side.
One of the crucial components of the modern number nine is their ability to open space and bring others into the attack. The below season average heatmap, taken from wyscout.com, demonstrates how the striker, whilst leading the line, often shows up deeper down the pitch.
In short: what Inter need
Icardi’s successor must be a competent goal scorer and provider. They must work fluidly with their teammates, willingly coming deep to allow others to come into play behind.
A ‘Roma-fide’ striker: Edin Džeko
The undisputed target for Inter to replace Icardi with is Roma’s Edin Džeko. The Bosnian has started 27 games this season for Roma, racking up 12 goals and six assists. This is a decent return for the veteran striker, who has been a stalwart of the side following his transfer from Manchester City, after an initial loan spell in 2015.
Again, turning to WyScout’s season heatmaps, we can see that the striker is more than happy to play deeper, potentially as a false nine. More so, Džeko’s size and aerial ability can’t be discounted, even when not always used to convert chances. Statistics from understat.com show us that the Roma forward’s expected assists and key passes (from headers) of 0.33 per passes crush Icardi’s feeble 0.7.
Clearly then, Džeko can add more to Inter’s game, and this is further corroborated by looking at how each team generates opportunities. Whilst not a false nine by trade, Džeko could adapt to the role, as both clubs have similarities in how they attack.
Statistics from whoscored.com show that when comparing their key passes, Roma have had 2.4 long balls per 90 minutes (p90) and 10p90 which are short. On the other hand, Inter manage 2p90 which are long and 9.7p90 which are long. As Džeko already performs in a team which attacks so similarly, this certainly bodes well for a potential transfer.
Surely, however, Džeko can’t be seen as a long term replacement for Icardi. The Bosnian is already 33 and with a year left on his contract, Roma may test Inter’s desperation with large demands. He’d fit the system well but he’s already a decade too old. Maybe the Nerazzurri should look closer to home.
Inter-nal replacement: Lautaro Martínez
Lautaro Martínez has been recognised as the default replacement for Icardi. Following Nara’s televised polemics, Martínez has started eight times. Icardi’s compatriot has been classed as something of a revelation in his native land, after making his debut for Racing Club at the age of 18, in 2015.
From his 14 starts for Inter this season, Martínez has scored nine goals, although, this ratio may be inflated when considering how often he has been called from the bench. Regardless, this certainly looks to be a promising start to his career in Europe. Martínez’s statistics compliment this.
Almost as if the Inter board had foreseen upcoming challenges with their star striker, Martínez’s playing style makes him a designated replacement. This season, according to whoscored.com, both of the attackers have the same goals p90 record, with 0.4. However, Icardi slightly shades it on xG90, with his 0.58 slightly more than Martínez’s 0.5.
We’ve already highlighted how important linking up play will be for Icardi’s successor. Yet, far from needing to catch up with his teammate’s throughput, Martínez has exceeded Icardi in this department. The youngster has notched an average of 1.6 key passes p90; Icardi has managed just 1.3p90.
Icardi’s junior certainly looks like a worthy successor to the crown. By next season the Curva Nord could very well be passionately chanting his name. Whilst this is indeed his first season, it has been excellent.
We can’t predict how successful he shall be, but his debut Serie A season beats both Icardi’s debut season with Sampdoria and his debut Inter season. What appears crucial would be the retention of Spalletti, who prefers a system which both of these players thrive in.
Inter-nal replacement: Keita Baldé Diao
Following a decent run in the first team in December, Keita Baldé Diao has also stepped into the attack as a replacement for Icardi. During the latter’s exile, Keita stood in as a striker once, in the 1-0 home defeat to Lazio.
Clearly then, Keita has the experience which Martínez lacks and the youth which Džeko has lost. Furthermore, he had a four-year stint at Lazio before the start of the season, from whom he later signed with Monaco. Combined with a wealth of versatility in his game, the all-rounded attacker is an experienced, able performer in the Inter team.
With four of his 10 starts this season being as a centre forward, Spalletti clearly considers the player capable of playing through the middle. However, his most natural fit appears to be playing as a back-up for Perišić, on the left. This is instantly recognisable when we look at his season heatmap.
Keita has much quality when he has the ball at his feet. He is also good at opening opportunities for his teammates, as well as scoring goals. He is so deadly when playing as a centre forward this season, that his xG90 is just 0.02 under Icardi’s. His xA90 is very similar, also only 0.02 assists lower, with 0.9 to Icardi’s 0.11.
It could be a gamble using Keita as the main line-leader for Inter after Icardi’s near-inevitable departure. The Senegalese is very much a wide man, but with the correct training, he could become a very classy false nine.
Despite wealthy Chinese owners now bankrolling the club, a move for Džeko seems largely unnecessary. The Bosnian leads the line well for Roma and can play in a role like Icardi, with his size only adding to his game. However, his age and potential fee are surely not justifiable for a team which is intent on challenging for the league title.
Martínez seemed to shape up as the new Icardi during the elder’s demotion: he was a brilliant replacement. His scoring record, style of play and team-roundedness perfectly capture the best parts of Icardi’s game. He is surely worth banking on for next season, even if a little inexperienced.
Finally, the versatility of Keita is surely something to get behind. Despite often finding himself relegated to the reserves or the bench this season, the Senegalese international has proven himself. His completeness as a player and his natural sense of wide play, mean that he is a dangerous threat. Definitely, he could be a worthy back-up for whomever the Nerazzurri decide to replace their fallen star with.