Overshadowed Vecino making an impression in debut season with Inter
"He was the best signing. If he was a good player in Florence, he'll become a top player under Spalletti."
Inter fans will be forgiven for thinking that Piero Ausilio was talking about Borja Valero in this quote, as the Spaniard was signed from Fiorentina in the summer and scored that beautifully-worked goal against Verona a few days ago.
And how could they be wrong? Part of the reason that the Nerazzurri are sitting pretty on nine wins, two draws and no losses is the fact that they have cultured midfielders now, capable both of threading difficult passes yet still being involved in the play, a stark contrast from the days of Geoffrey Kondogbia and Ever Banega.
And yet, as well as he has performed, Valero isn't this week's feature, or indeed the subject of that quote from Inter's sporting director.
It was actually Matias Vecino, whose huge impact has been obscured by the emergence of Milan Skriniar at the heart of Inter's defence.
Such an oversight is perfectly understandable: the Slovakian has had such a huge impact that even defensive partner Joao Miranda has praised him as a "great player, who is easy to work with".
Yet there are many parallels between the former Sampdoria man and Vecino, beginning with how they were recruited. Both needed Inter to pick up their respective release clauses, moves which were rightly viewed with some suspicion at the time, the Nerazzurri seen as paying over the odds (a combined €47 million upfront) for an untested commodity (Skriniar) and a midfielder who, while promising, simply may not have been worth the investment (Vecino).
Both predictions have turned out to be horribly wrong -- at least for the time being. Eleven Serie A games in, they are both indisputable starters and, at ages 22 (Skriniar) and 26 (Vecino), likely cornerstones of the future Inter.
Yet the Uruguayan has been overshadowed by his younger partner's meteoric, and especially immediate rise. While Vecino was struggling to shield the defence as Roma hit the woodwork three times with shots from outside the box, the Slovakian was already a towering presence at the back on Matchday 2, making Joao Miranda look like he'd just discovered Serie A, and not the other way around.
Gradually, however, the former Fiorentina man has established himself as a necessary cog in Luciano Spalletti's well-oiled machine. The cynics correctly wondered whether the Tuscan coach's attacking, pass-oriented style could work with a squad as technically average as Inter's. Buying Vecino and Valero seems to have quickly put that notion to rest, at least with regards to the midfield.
Part of Vecino's charm is the fact that he tends to bring a little bit of everything to the table -- something modern midfielders are increasingly asked to do. He can pass well, he can tackle, and is both physical and graceful: the former Empoli man has, in short, the toolkit needed to shine not just in Italy, but (hopefully) also among Europe's elite.
And yet there is something very traditional about Vecino's contribution. Despite Spalletti himself saying that he "doesn't believe in static midfielders," it's remarkable that Vecino seems to fit the mold of the old-school incursore, or box-to-box midfielder. His powerful, piercing runs have become a weekend ritual, taking Milan's defence apart by using the space well and cutting out two Rossoneri midfielders with a deft turn.
Come to think of it, Inter's entire midfield has both divvied up tasks the traditional way (Roberto Gagliardini is more defensive, while Valero is the old school rifinitore, providing the flourish or the killer pass), while accommodating each player's technical gifts. There is, for example, still space for Il Gaglia's beautiful, cutting long balls, or Valero's pressing. One only hopes that Vecino's shooting can become a part of this repertoire, his finishes often the only thing lacking in his flowing moves.
Come to think of it, our doubts about Vecino blatantly ignored the fact that he was a part of Maurizio Sarri's magic team of 2014-2015, and hence capable of playing a certain type of football. Moreover, he was considered an untouchable at Fiorentina, so much so that Paulo Sousa's initially-successful Viola fell apart whenever either the Uruguayan or Milan Badelj didn't start out of sheer fatigue. Moreover, Vecino is basically the only one or Sarri's boys to have actually been successful elsewhere -- unlike Juventus' Daniele Rugani, Napoli's Lorenzo Tonelli or the injured Mario Rui.
Either way, it's ironic that Inter are playing Torino this weekend, for the under-fire Sinisa Mihajlovic has struggled to find the right long-term solution in the middle. Daniele Baselli and Afriyie Acquah both rather inconsistent.
While Tomas Rincon is a strong addition, questions are raised about Mihajlovic's footballing acumen when talented ex-Interista Marco Benassi revealed that the Serb jettisoned him in the summer.
It would be even funnier if the names linked to the Toro bench cropped up again after this weekend, especially that of a certain Walter Mazzarri...
Edoardo Dalmonte covers Inter Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @EdoDalmonte.