João Mário sounded so certain. Interviewed by Gazzetta dello Sport at the start of June, just after he had completed a successful six-month loan at West Ham, and shortly before the start of a World Cup in which he would play in all four matches played by Portugal, the midfielder insisted he would not return to Inter.
“I do not want to try again,” he said of life at his parent club. “I would not have the right motivation. That experience is over now. Zero doubts.”
Inter were happy to grant the player’s wish to be sold. The problem was finding a buyer. Sevilla were reported to have an interest but wound up taking Maxime Gonalons on loan from Roma instead. Their neighbors Real Betis, likewise, preferred Giovani Lo Celso. When more concrete offers arrived from Turkey, João Mário turned them down.
And so he stayed at Inter, a situation which seemed to please nobody. For the first two months of this season, he disappeared from view, not playing even a minute off the bench.
Then came the trip to Lazio two weeks ago when Spalletti stunned Inter fans by starting João Mário.
But he played well, and Inter won 3-0. This was their eighth win in nine matches across all competitions, and easily the most convincing. Better was yet to follow against Genoa on Saturday. João Mário started again, and had a hand in four out of five Inter goals.
The best of the goals was Inter’s second. The ball played out from defense to Marcelo Brozovic, who immediately squared it to João Mário. He released Matteo Politano with a first-time 30-yard ball, and the latter finished coolly.
Inter had gone from the edge of their own area to the back of the net in seven touches. Gazzetta called it “an anthem to vertical football”.
It is not just that Inter are attacking with more pace than last year. Spalletti has the team playing with aggression and physicality to dominate the pitch as well as the ball.
A tactical shift has helped. With Radja Nainggolan sidelined by an ankle injury, Inter abandoned plans to play with a No 10, opting instead for a 4-3-3. The formation has offered Brozovic more support, giving him options when pressed, as he was on Politano’s goal.
It has seemed to suit the players alongside him – the extra cover allowing all midfielders to become runners, taking turns to get forward and break the lines. Gagliardini followed up that opening goal with another just after half-time. João Mário, along with two assists, scored one of his own in injury time. So did Nainggolan, an 87th minute substitute.
While João Mário nor Gagliardini are available to face Barcelona, Nainggolan’s return is a boost, though it may tempt Spalletti to revert to his previous formation. That could be a mistake. Matias Vecino was rested against Genoa, but had been excellent against Lazio on the right of a midfield three.