After years of flux at Inter Milan, are they finally back on track?
Inter fans woke up on Wednesday morning to find themselves sitting atop of Serie A. It may end up being for just 24 hours, but it's still something. And while they were top as recently as two years ago -- January 2016 in fact, with Roberto Mancini at the helm -- this feels different.
That side was laden with veterans and the detritus of a club that peaked with Jose Mourinho's Treble and then spent the next five years in a state of perpetual flux with over 50 signings, seven different managers and two different owners. If there was a vision, it was the sort you get after a diet of peyote and absinthe.
The current Inter team is far from perfect. You saw it again in the 3-2 win over Sampdoria on Tuesday. They dominated for more than an hour, went 3-0 up, hit the woodwork three times and then suffered a nervy chaotic ending that recalled the old Sir Alex Ferguson quote: "squeaky bum time." They lived up (down?) to the song that, while not being the official club anthem, has come to replace it as their soundtrack: "Pazza Inter" ("Crazy Inter").
A look at the starting lineup suggests plenty of slots that will require upgrades in the very near future. Full-backs Yuto Nagatomo and Danilo D'Ambrosio are over-performing right now, but these are not top-shelf players and at 31 and 29 years of age respectively, they never will be. Whether Joao Cancelo and Dalbert can be the worthy long-term replacements they are meant to be remains to be seen.
Joao Miranda is 33 and his back-up Andrea Ranocchia is 29 (plus, he's Andrea Ranocchia). Borja Valero and Antonio Candreva are in their 30s, as is Eder off the bench. But this was a team operating under Financial Fair Play restrictions. The past summer was always going to be about watching pennies after the gluttony of the past.
There was reason to be apprehensive at the start of the season. Inter had finished seventh the previous year and they weren't just 29 points behind Juventus: they were also 25 behind Roma and 24 behind Napoli. That's a heck of a big gap to close. Juxtapose that with their cross-town rivals at Milan lavishing some $200 million in the transfer market and you wondered whether they could compete.
The appointment of Luciano Spalletti as manager felt like an upgrade but even then, there were doubts. Spalletti is one of the sharpest tactical minds around and in his day, a real innovator too. But he can also be prickly and difficult: a guy I know who worked with him at Zenit St. Petersburg said that by the end he was a bit like Mister Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness". How would he react when placed in the context of a team in genuine flux?
We have yet to see. But the first impression is that Inter under Zhang Jindong (who acquired the club in the summer of 2016) are not the mess they once were. You don't have 10 different people briefing 10 different things to the media and undermining each other, as was the case under previous regimes. If there are disagreements -- and you imagine there must be given the personalities involved not just Spalletti, but new sporting director Walter Sabatini too) -- they're kept in-house. And the club itself stays broadly on-message, avoiding some of the stupid controversy of the past and focusing on the football.
Oh, and by the way, that's pretty much what Mauro Icardi has done too. Whether he's finally matured (or whether it's his better half, Wanda Nara, who has grown up and taken Maurito with her) remains to be seen, but his last 15 months have been about as productive as any central striker around and he has 35 goals in his last 44 Serie A matches. After the summer dalliance (real or imagined) with Manchester United, Ivan Perisic is more consistent and happier (maybe the new contract he signed last month helped) while out wide, Candreva continues to be one of the more solid wingers around.
In midfield, the two Fiorentina imports, Borja Valero and Matias Vecino, have executed well at both ends after arriving under the radar. Roberto Gagliardini could do with adding some consistency to his game, but it's worth remembering that he's 23 and this is only his second top-flight season. At the back, the arrival of Milan Skriniar has been an undoubted success thus far.
Make no mistake about it: there's still a long way to go and if you're of an analytical bent, you'll notice that the numbers don't suggest a massive improvement over Stefano Pioli's time in charge last year. Like Spalletti, Pioli outperformed every opponent he faced in terms of Expected Goals (xG), except that Inter did it by a greater margin. It doesn't mean that Spalletti is building on Pioli's Inter (which, it's easy to forget, was often very unlucky) since a lot of the personnel is different and the scheme has changed, but Inter's transformation into a more stable, "normal" club predates his arrival. And that, to some degree has to be down to the owners.
Good stewardship isn't just about flinging cash at players and growing revenue; it's also about fostering the right environment in which to work. It can't be a coincidence that after the initial screw up with Mancini's needlessly late departure and Frank De Boer's appointment, things are now calmer and quieter at Inter.
Whether they hang on at the top, or even finish top four, remains to be seen. Napoli and Roma stil look a notch above in terms of quality while Juventus, you'd expect, will come roaring back. Until the derby 10 days ago, Inter's results had probably been better than their performances. Now we're seeing (though maybe not for 90 minutes) some really good football too, a sign that Spalletti is doing his thing.
If that continues and you throw in the benefits of no European football and a better club culture, they might just get used to this top-of-the-table lark.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.