Even when he was still in charge at Roma, Luciano Spalletti was unafraid of making his views on an opposition player abundantly clear. “Everyone likes Borja Valero,” declared the Tuscan tactician back in the summer of 2016, and just twelve months later – when the Spanish midfielder joined Inter Milan from Fiorentina – the Nerazzurri boss finally got his man.
However, those who regularly watched Valero in Florence had seen that he was no longer the Andrea Pirlo-esque player that many still thought he was. This was a major factor behind the decision of sporting director Pantaleo Corvino to accept a bid from Inter while he could still command a fee, no matter how unpopular the choice was with the Viola supporters.
Spalletti has since found out the limitations of the player for himself and, of late, had begun to consign him to a role on the bench. Despite this realisation, Spalletti was forced to bring him back into the side versus Atalanta in round 32 due to the suspension of Marcelo Brozović, and in that match Valero would prove exactly why he had previously been left out.
That match was an opportunity to take advantage of the fact Roma and Lazio – their rivals for a Champions League place next term – were playing each other in the Derby della Capitale. However, Inter failed to score and limped to a 0-0 draw with Valero much-maligned for his performance that evening, playing too many negative passes and failing to bring anything to the attacking third of the pitch.
Statistics according to StatsZone reveal that 34 of the midfielder’s 64 total pass attempts were either backwards or square, with only ten successful in the attacking third of the pitch during the entire match. He failed to create any chances for his Inter team-mates, didn’t attempt any take-ons, and furthermore was dispossessed by the opposition on two occasions.
With this in mind, it was no surprise that Valero was then left out of the starting line-up by the coach in the following midweek match, at home to Cagliari. In his place in holding midfield was the returning Brozović, a man courted by both Tottenham Hotspur and Atlético Madrid for a potential move this summer, and the Croatian’s performance displayed why clubs away from the peninsula have been keen on securing his services.
The 25-year-old struggled to find a place behind Mauro Icardi in Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1 earlier in the campaign, but the tactician has brought him to form by finding a role for him in the side, one that the aforementioned Pirlo used to so occupy so comfortably for AC Milan and Juventus.
Against Cagliari, Brozovic shone in that deeper midfield position, not least by supplying a superb goal and an assist in a 4-0 victory as Inter re-discovered their attacking prowess for the first time in three matches. Yes, the opposition were somewhat inferior to Atalanta, but a look at the stats reveals that the Croatian was truly majestic in the centre of the park.
Borja Valero replaced the suspended Marcelo Brozovic in the Inter lineup vs. Atalanta. Here, via @StatsZone you can clearly see how much more effective Brozovic was when he returned vs. Cagliari pic.twitter.com/44SwgyFzsg
— Chloe Beresford (@ChloeJBeresford) April 20, 2018
In that encounter he completed 106 of his 113 attempted passes, with 23 successful in the attacking third. He created four clear-cut chances for team-mates, intercepted the ball from the opposition twice and won three from four tackles, being dispossessed only once.
“I was wrong with Brozović,” Spalletti told the Corriere dello Sport newspaper after the Milan derby on April 4. “The way he plays led me to say it was risky to put him in front of the defence, because it could have lowered our levels of continuity. Instead, this position has made him responsible and at this moment he is an important player for us. He makes the ball travel quickly.”
Increasing the speed of passes is something that is of huge benefit to Inter, their build-up play slow and predictable at times this season, and the side guilty of an over-reliance on striker Icardi to fire in the goals. Brozović provides an accurate range of both short and long passes, is both tough and accurate in the tackle and potent in attack, a range of qualities that is always highly coveted.
That the Croatian is coming into a rich vein of form just before the transfer window re-opens will not have gone unnoticed amongst his suitors, but with a 33-year-old Valero seemingly unsuitable for a long-term future in that role at San Siro, it remains to be seen whether it will be beneficial for Inter to let Brozovic go this summer.
A good performance at this summer’s World Cup could hike his value, and with Financial Fair Play still a consideration for the Nerazzurri, a profit on the player would certainly be welcomed. This would especially be the case if they could secure a replacement at a lesser cost, but wherever Brozović ends up for 2017/18, it seems like Luciano Spalletti has discovered his best role as a deep-lying playmaker.