Jorge Sampaoli’s maiden year in European football has been a definitive success. While his Sevilla are winless in five in La Liga and were knocked out of the Champions League at the round of 16 stage by Leicester City, they have at times looked like worthy title challengers this season, and remain on course for a first top-four finish since 2010.
Not only did the Rojiblancos briefly threaten the traditional duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona, but they have played some wonderful attacking football that has thrilled fans and neutrals alike.
With his reputation enhanced by a strong debut campaign in Europe, Sampaoli – who initially gained worldwide renown when, in 2015, he led Chile to their first Copa America victory – has attracted covetous glances from some of the continent’s top sides, including Barcelona. More recently, however, his name has been linked to Italian giants Inter Milan.
Since José Mourinho guided them to a historic treble in 2010, Inter have hired and fired managers at an alarming rate. Indeed, since the Portuguese left 10 coaches have taken the reins, often to little avail. And the off-pitch turbulence has had a devastating effect on results; the Nerazzurri haven’t finished in the top three of Serie A since 2011 and, after a Monday night defeat at home to Sampdoria, the situation is extremely unlikely to change this season.
The 2-1 loss to Samp left Inter sitting sixth in the table, nine points off of third-placed Napoli. With a return to the Champions League looking increasingly unrealistic, there has been speculation that current head coach Stefano Pioli will not be in charge come 2017/18.
Pioli has improved the club’s fortunes, winning 15 of his 23 matches in charge. However, he simply does not possess the reputation of a top manager, which Inter seem to feel they need going forward.
Appointing Sampaoli would not necessarily lead to immediate results. The Argentine has his own unique style of play that could take time to implement, especially with an Inter side that has seen constant change over the last few years.
The experience of Frank de Boer should act as a warning to any aspirational coach – Sampaoli included – planning on joining the club from outside Italy. The Dutchman arrived last August but was gone by November, with João Mario and club captain Mauro Icardi stating a language barrier between the coach and players caused issues.
Sampaoli: "It's my dream to coach Messi. I dream of watching and training the world's best every day." pic.twitter.com/d55ChAsEOi
— Barca Galaxy (@barcagalaxy) April 5, 2017
Succeeding de Boer, Pioli has restored certainty at Inter both in clarity of communication and tactical ideas. While he has occasionally experimented with a 3-4-2-1, his side have often taken up a clear 4-2-3-1 shape in which wingers Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perisić and centre-forward Icardi can operate in their favoured roles. Sampaoli, however, would likely institute much more fluidity not only in the type of football played, but in the systems used.
Building on the work of Marcelo Bielsa, he further established a specific “Chilean way”. The focus was on verticality and speed in possession, as well as aggressive defending with intense, high pressing.
The football Chile played under Sampaoli was not only effective, but enthralling to watch, and he has done similar work with Sevilla. Another predominant theme throughout the Argentinian’s coaching career is the strategic detail he brings. As a disciple of Bielsa, he is, unsurprisingly, a meticulous planner with an eye for exploiting weaknesses in opponents, and he often changes his own team’s shape on this basis.
This season, he has – according to WhoScored – tried 10 different formations with Sevilla. These formations have included the conventional, such as 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and the less orthodox 3-5-1-1, 3-4-2-1 and 4-1-3-2. This frequency and scale of change is something Inter’s players struggled with under de Boer, but Sampaoli’s ideals and systems could have greater success for a number of reasons.
Firstly, his style of play is entirely different to that of de Boer. While the Dutchman prefers a slow build-up with a focus on retention of the ball and little positional rotation, Sampaoli seeks to get his teams playing incisive passes as often as possible, with plenty of freedom to move within the system.
Secondly, Pioli’s brief time in charge has proven that the current Inter squad are equipped to play at a high tempo both in attack and in the defensive phase, where he has, on occasion, asked them to press high up the pitch to disrupt the opposition’s passing rhythm. This suggests they would adapt well to Sampaoli’s demands.
And, finally, regardless of the system chosen, several individual players seem perfectly suited to Sampaoli’s style of play.
One of the main beneficiaries of Sampaoli’s coaching has been Samir Nasri, whose career has been revitalised at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán this term. With creative license, the Manchester City loanee has been allowed to roam and contribute to his side’s possession game with his movement, passing and vision. Éver Banega, an equally refined playmaker who relishes a lack of positional constraint, would likely enjoy a similar rebirth were the Sevilla coach to join Inter.
Defensively, a number of the present Inter squad would be suited to the Argentinian’s tactics. Gary Medel was a pivotal member of Sampaoli’s Chile team and could thus resume the central defensive role he has done for his country, while the combative and athletic Jeison Murillo would find his attributes maximised. Elsewhere, Danilo D’Ambrosio’s ability to play anywhere across the back line would be appreciated by a manager who prizes versatility.
Sampaoli likes to pack as much creative talent as possible into his teams, so the abundance of attacking midfielders at Inter would be fully utilised. The pace and dribbling of Perisić and Candreva, as well as the movement of João Mario and the aforementioned Banega, would be exploited between the lines, while the dynamism of central midfielder Roberto Gagliardini would also suit Sampaoli’s style.
Up front, Icardi, one of the most natural strikers in football today, would benefit from the fluidity of movement and consistency of penetrative forward passes behind him as the lone striker atop an Inter side managed by Sampaoli. This, along with his intelligent runs, instinctual positioning and clinical finishing, could prove highly productive.
In the event Sampaoli were to leave Sevilla for Inter, he would have a quality squad at his disposal. But more importantly, he would have a group of players likely to be open to his ideas.