What Inter can learn from St Etienne

Other than Walter Mazzarri’s woes, last night’s Europa League tie underlined just how a team of Inter Milan’s stature could stand to learn a thing or two from Saint Etienne, who either put into effect or incarnate some methods that a cash-strapped Serie A needs to take an interest in. In the wake of news that Inter Milan are still over 100€ million in debt, the sight of a former trigger-happy coaching graveyard – not to mention relegation struggler- following a manageable yet promising strategy must set alarm bells ringing in Milan. Here are a few of the contrasts that struck me as a youthful and ambitious Saint Etienne side made Inter look like they were playing away:

If you’re not going to compete with the Galacticos, spend efficiently

The post-Champions League hangover didn’t take long to set in at the Giuseppe Meazza, with Massimo Moratti announcing spending cuts to keep Inter in line with the upcoming Financial Fair Play (FFP). With Italy already in decline compared to other, richer leagues, it was time for a rethink.

14-10 Inter- St Etienne 3

Alvaro Pereira upon being asked how he thinks Inter fans view him

If Inter couldn’t be big spenders either on the Italian or the European scene, then they needed to separate themselves from the pack, to find talent where no-one else saw it, develop their own, or at least sign players at market-efficient prices. Think of what the Oakland Athletics have been able to achieve in America, or indeed Udinese, going full Portuguese and reselling their young, cheap, well-scouted talent at exhorbitant prices.

What Inter didn’t want to do was spend in excess of £60 million over a season (that of 2012-13) on a few signings that didn’t really make the team significantly better. There was certainly quality to be found (Samir Handanovic, Rodrigo Palacio, Mateo Kovacic), but also ridiculous clangers (Alvaro Pereira) and overpaid players (Pereira alone cost Inter £10.96 million, Fredy Guarin £9.68), making sure that Inter couldn’t reel in many recruits and properly rejuvenate an ageing squad comfortably past its prime.

Why were Inter waiting in line behind the richer clubs and settling for the last turkey in the shop, and not looking for a value find to trump the competition?

Saint Etienne, for their part, have spent a mere £35.82 million since the 2012-13 season. Obviously, the French market is less affluent, but we’re still talking of the 8th budget in France  regularly overachieving since Christophe Galtier helped the club avoid relegation in 2010, coming in fourth last time round.

That 2012/3 window summarises the situation perfectly, ASSE snatching two exciting playmakers inYohan Mollo and Romain Hamouma, a decent striker in Brandão, one of France’s most dynamic midfielders (Renaud Cohade) and a veteran defender (François Clerc) for a combined £3.52 million. Only one of them -Mollo’s- was a loan, though he has recently signed with the club.

Invest in youth

Surprisingly, the average age of the Inter squad is lower than Saint Etienne’s (transfermarkt has them at 26.2 and 26.8, respectively). Nobody would believe that of the team that gave away Davide Santon to Newcastle for mere peanuts.

St Etienne are, by comparison, a model for many European clubs. One of France’s traditional four youth academies, Les Verts have unleashed Josuha Guilavogui, Faouzi Ghoulam, Allan Saint-Maximin, Kurt Zouma and Ismaël Diomandé, the latter three semi-finalists at the 2011 Gambardella Youth Cup. Not all of them are world beaters, but three have earned big transfers, and two are becoming contributors at the Geoffroy-Guichard, both playing over 180 minutes this year. St Etienne eventually welcomed six members of that Under-19s squad to the A team.

Inter don't want this guy! Nagatomo forever!

Inter don’t want this guy! Nagatomo forever!

Inter’s transgressions are too many to list, but their youth players all seem to go through the same gauntlet of endless loans, insignificant stints and preposterously low transfer fees. Not all these players have to be world-beaters, regular starters are a more than enough. Inter need both youth and development in their squad, not short-term punts on golden oldies looking for a golden parachute. A good example would be Davide Santon: did Inter so desperately need £4.5 million that they couldn’t be bothered to develop a fullback some had (prematurely) compared to Paolo Maldini? What about Faraoni, or Caldirola?

Italy’s Under-21 squad for the Slovakia game spins a sad yarn: Inter owns 4 of its members, but they’re all out on loan. Two more were recently given away. Again, this isn’t markedly different from other Italian clubs, but if you’re short of money and ideas, developing youth can provide a valid alternative, especially when it comes to resale.

Who would you believe had made more money off selling players, the Italian giant, or the French mining town scrapper that came within a few points of relegation back in 2010? Well, since 2012, it’s the giant, but by a whopping £2.97 million. St Etienne brought in £67.25 million over that time, £37.49 coming from Zouma, Guilavogui, Ghoulam and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Inter, for their part, sold most of the crown jewels two years ago, Erick Thohir’s policy of only spending what comes in a mere excercise in self-deception.

If you won’t buy Italian, Buy French

With Europe’s biggest clubs around snapping up most of the recognised star power, and Italian talent generally coming at a premium, clubs like Inter need to look for market inefficiencies in order to boost both squad and books. France is one such example, Newcastle paying £4.4 million for Yohan Cabaye and selling him back for £22, just a million less than what was spent on him, Yanga-Mbiwa, Debuchy, Haïdara, Debuchy and Moussa Sissoko combined.

Yet with the whole continent obsessing over Adrien Rabiot, only Fiorentina zoned in on Benjamin Stambouli, a highly promising young Frenchman. Most French clubs aren’t run by Jean Michel Aulas, and often don’t know how to extract the best price for their young talent: Faouzi Ghoulam’s £4.4 million price tag an example of a downright criminal steal from the Neapolitans. Stambouli himself left for a clip under €6 million, David Ospina for €3.5.

St Etienne, for their part, have been diligently recruiting French for a number of years: Renaud Cohade, Stéphane Ruffier, Benjamin Corgnet, Franck Tabanou, Yohan Mollo and Romain Hamouma being some of the examples. Most of them young, some from recently promoted clubs (and hence at better prices), all good Ligue 1 players. Worst case scenario, Les Verts have a cheap, well-stocked squad. Best case scenario, they compete for the Champions League and keep raking it in as some leave for foreign shores.

Keep your squad stocked

Inter are falling asleep at the wheel. Coach Mazzarri’s choice to play a 3-5-2 isn’t helping, of course, but there is no justification for how the Nerazzurri lack any serious cover at most positions. St Etienne’s sheer numbers are a major boon here. If Hamouma or Corgnet are out, Tabanou and Mollo can come on.

Inter’s barely-rejuvenated squad had seven players out last weekend (joint-most in Italy that weekend), a massive red flag for a team with evident fitness issues, which the club shamefully tried to bemoan after the humiliating 3-0 defeat to Fiorentina, as if it were normal after a whole seven games. Since the 2011/12 season it has become painfully obvious that Inter are stumbling around in the dark, not making any long-term plans or investing in their future. To quote Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball, “If we try to play like the Yankees in here [the boardroom], we’ll lose to the Yankees out there”. I guess Beane had never heard of Cagliari.

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