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“Icardi is a traitor.” Diego Maradona’s words cut through Mauro Icardi’s character like a thousand knives as the verbal grenade from the Argentinian living legend landed. Maradona’s lethal character assassination propagated while he broached the topic of Icardi’s controversial affair and marriage to Wanda Nara, ex-wife of Icardi’s former Sampdoria teammate, Maxi López, during an interview with Canale 5. Though the events of the Icardi-Nair-López triangle occurred in 2013/2014, the manner in which Icardi engineered the whole operation still hasn’t been forgotten by football’s luminaries.1
Had the bad blood with Maxi López been the end of Icardi’s deleterious actions, he would’ve been pardoned down the line. However, after delivering six goals and two assists through his first nine games in all competitions this season, Icardi released his autobiography, Sempre Avanti – Always Ahead, in mid-October 2016. The ill-conceived book appeared in bookstores mere days after Icardi and Inter announced a new five-year contract extension that would keep Icardi in Milan until 2021.
In the book, Icardi touches on an altercation he had with the Inter Ultras following a 3-1 defeat at Sassuolo in the 2014/15 season. Though the events that followed remain sinister and Icardi should have done better to control his temper, it’s inarguable that Icardi should have moved on by the time the book released. Icardi’s retelling of the events reignited a dormant Curva, and the Ultras once again took arms following the release of Sempre Avanti. The Ultras claimed Icardi’s version of the events was heavily fabricated and their official statement went on to add, “One concept must be clear to everyone. The Inter captain cannot allow himself these kinds of remarks. An individual like this cannot wear the captain’s armband.”
Thankfully, both sides ended the clash swiftly as cooler heads prevailed the second time around. Having finally put aside his personal drama, Icardi has proceeded to turn in an excellent season with Inter Milan. Through 34 games in all competitions, the Nerazzurri captain has netted 22 times while assisting on eight goals. His prolific and timely goalscoring has helped Inter climb to within eight points of Napoli, who sit in third and own the final Champions League spot.2 With Icardi carrying the goalscoring burden, Inter have also nabbed the fourth-most goals (55) in Serie A, trailing only Napoli (68), Roma (64), and Juventus (59).
All of Icardi’s contributions this season have assisted in placing Inter Milan within striking distance of the top teams in Serie A, and the consistent elite performances have even led to former Inter forward Diego Milito asserting that Icardi’s become “a great striker.” Despite the fruitful league campaign, Inter has already cycled through two different managers – Roberto Mancini (who was fired in August) and Frank de Boer (who lasted only until November) – this season. But it seems Inter have struck gold with former Lazio boss Stefano Pioli, who took control of the team in November after de Boer’s departure.
Pioli galvanized the squad by repeatedly preaching of the importance of developing a proper mindset both on and off the field. He then offered the starting XI some stability by abiding to his 4-2-3-1 formation, with Mauro Icardi the chief beneficiary of the three-man forward line behind him. But the arrival of Stefano Pioli actually resulted in a direct evolution of Inter’s captain: Icardi began scoring slightly less and assisting more frequently.
This evolution of Icardi under Pioli signaled the rise of a player who was not only “a great striker,” but one who had fully actualized the extent of his playmaking abilities. Before Pioli’s arrival, Icardi had scored 10 of Inter’s 17 goals. With Pioli at the helm, Icardi has bagged another ten goals, but his scoring is now supplemented properly by Inter’s excellent supporting cast, featuring the likes of Ivan Perišić, Éver Banega, and Antonio Candreva, which has chipped in 28 of the 38 total goals under Pioli.
Pioli’s system weans a team away from over-reliance on an individual player like Icardi. Sure, having elite stars like Mauro Icardi supplying the goals during crunch time and Samir Handanović consistently rising to the goalkeeping challenge never hurts, but Pioli’s Inter is built to hum along like a well-oiled machine with or without the key cogs.
“The formation doesn’t matter, it’s about a winning system. What counts is principles, attitude and interpretation. I won’t change a lot, I think that would be the wrong move. I need to get to know this environment. I’ll go with a four-man defence because I’ll only have the whole squad for a few days before the derby [with Milan], but I repeat: it’s the attitude that matters. My ideas are clear, regardless of formation or defenders.”
– Stefano Pioli, remarking on his tactical philosophy at his first Inter Milan press conference
With the whole team contributing in the attack, teams are slowly learning to give Icardi his space even in key areas. Otherwise, if they get sucked into Icardi’s gravitational pull, then a long-range howitzer from Banega or a curling effort from Perišić could inflict heavy damages. Atalanta learned of this the hard way on Matchday 28 when Inter Milan scored seven goals with hat-tricks from both Icardi and Banega. Icardi had his three goals by the 26th minute and Banega soon followed with his third goal in the 67th.
In typical Icardi fashion, the hat-trick showed us the variety with which Icardi goes about his goalscoring. He capitalized on the fracas of the Perišić free kick on the first goal by going with his weaker left foot to send a dribbler past the flustered Atalanta keeper. The second goal came through his tumble in the penalty area, and the resulting penalty probably made Andrea Pirlo happy. The third and final goal came through Icardi’s perfect maneuvering in the box and getting enough leverage to send the header towards the far post.
Against Fiorentina on Matchday 14, Icardi provided another glimpse of his otherworldly ability to take on – and finish – a never-ending waterfall of defenders.
Following a brilliant pass from Candreva, Icardi eviscerates the first defender with simple cutback move. But here’s where things get interesting.
Rather than exploiting the acres of free space (yellow circle) or sending a low-percentage curling shot with his weaker left foot (red arrow), Icardi decided to take an extra touch with his right foot, which immediately allowed two Fiorentina defenders to close in on him.
For most strikers, going from plenty of space to no breathing room in a matter of milliseconds might spur the arrival of a missed opportunity. Worse yet, they may squander possession.3 But Icardi, who has made a career out of his fleet-footed execution in the box, didn’t seem fazed for a nanosecond as he performed a quick exchange with his feet and found the sliver of daylight he needed to get one past Fiorentina’s Ciprian Tătărușanu.
As captivating as the Fiorentina goal was, Icardi has shown his sublime skills even more during volleyed shots, especially from crosses.
Yet again, the Icardi-Candreva connection formed as Candreva launched a finely-calculated cross that swerved right into Icardi’s extended left foot, leading to a goal-of-the-week candidate. What makes the Candreva cross even more impressive is that when he receives the ball and sets up for his cross, Icardi is nowhere near the position he eventually ends up (tip of the yellow arrow in the photo below).
As fascinating as Icardi’s movements have been in the box, his sense of passing has improved vastly this season. Following Pioli’s instruction, Inter have begun to space out the opposition by getting the defense to focus on the entire crew rather than the star performer. This has allowed Icardi to have more room to work with when operating on the fringes of the penalty area. Teams drop off of Icardi because they believe he’s cornered, and this is where Icardi taps into his passing abilities and pulls off assists like the one he engineered against Udinese.
The genius of Mauro Icardi is that he’s like a chameleon, able to switch the color of his personality and ability both on and off the pitch. He’s a passer when you need him to be, he’s a sufficient presser when required, and a veritable goalscoring phenom to top it all off. The best part is he’s only turned 24 in February of this year, so the future is bright for Mauro Icardi. Whether he remains at Inter Milan until 2021 is up in the air, as his good behavior and excellent performances will need to keep improving under Stefano Pioli’s reign. A huge £98 million release clause will help placate the Inter fans for now, but with the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal, and China ringing the phone for his services, it will be tough for Inter to decline. But for the time being, Mauro’s their man, and that’s more than enough.