Reluctant Inter captain Mauro Icardi standing at crossroads as English suitors lurk
Mauro Icardi stands atop the San Siro advertising boards, arms spread as he accepts the praise of his adoring public.
The wild celebrations in the stands of that historic stadium are not only in honour of their side going 2-0 up against Frosinone, but in appreciation of the Argentine marking his 100th Serie A appearance with his 45th goal. The Nerazzurri go on to win 4-0, an emphatic scoreline that puts them top of the table and helps silence those who have been critical of their penchant for 1-0 wins (they have recorded seven already this season).
Icardi is spearheading Roberto Mancini’s Inter revolution, not only by leading the line in attack but by taking on the duties of captain this season
Icardi is spearheading Roberto Mancini’s Inter revolution, not only by leading the line in attack but by taking on the duties of captain this season. In moments like this it’s easy to ask: why would he possibly want to leave? However, the reality of the striker's situation is more complex than it may seem.
Ironically it was last season – one of the Inter’s worst in recent memory – that Icardi’s star quality really shone through
The Argentine’s rise has been rapid and mightily impressive. After scoring 19 goals in 23 matches for Sampdoria’s youth team in 2011/12, Icardi then reached double figures in his debut season for the Blucerchiati the following year.
This earned him the chance to adorn the famous blue and black shirt of Inter, and he managed to find the net nine times in his first season in Milan despite being continually pestered by injuries.
Contrastingly it was last season – one of the Inter’s worst in recent memory – that Icardi’s star quality really shone through. He scored 22 league goals despite the Nerazzurri stuttering to an eighth-place finish, a tally that made him, aged 22, the youngest capocannoniere (top scorer) since Paolo Rossi in 1978.
The captaincy that followed was something of a surprise, and he was open about the interest that he had attracted: “It’s true that Real Madrid wanted me, but I asked to stay,” Icardi told Spanish reporters in July.
I do what I want and don’t care about the others
Perhaps it was the striker’s personal life that raised eyebrows about him being awarded the armband. He infamously married his former team-mate Maxi Lopez’s ex-wife Wanda Nara, a drama that reached its peak with a typically overhyped refusal to shake hands at a Sampdoria-Inter game that the Italian press labelled the ‘Wanda Derby’.
More recently, there have been unconfirmed reports that Icardi sacked his long-time agent Abian Moreno to hire Nara in his place, and she is known to have sat at the negotiating table for him.
“I do what I want and don’t care about the others,” Icardi told Inter Channel at the start of October, when questioned about whether he had broken a code of team-mates’ ethics with his behaviour.
It's this sort of comment that leads many to question his leadership qualities. He said in the same interview: “In all honesty, when I arrived at Inter I didn’t expect to become the captain. These are choices made for the present and arrive from one moment to the next but were not planned ahead. When the campaign started I found myself with the armband on.”
With Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, not to mention Madrid, circling the striker after his impressive season, the captaincy begins to look more like a negotiating tool to keep the player than a considered, or arguably even merited, delegation of responsibility.
Trouble in the water
In 10 games I received four decent passes and scored three goals. That seems like a good average to me
Despite that aforementioned image of triumph against Frosinone, the current season has been a challenging one for the 22-year-old. Interestingly, the roles have reversed somewhat in terms of club and player. Where last season Inter laboured as Icardi produced wonderful individual performances, the team unit has impressed during this campaign while the striker has suffered dips in form.
Inter’s success so far has been built on an impressively resolute defence that has conceded only seven times in 13 games, despite three of its components having only arrived in the summer: Joao Miranda, Jeison Murillo and Alex Telles.
Icardi, meanwhile, has offfered a decent, if unspectacular, four goals in 11 appearances. Although it is worth pointing out that these four strikes represent a quarter of the Nerazzurri’s total and make him the club’s top scorer, he hasn’t taken long to shift the blame for his decreasing strike rate.
“I’m a striker and I can only score if the ball gets to me,” he told Sky Sport Italia a month ago. “In 10 games I received four decent passes and scored three goals. That seems like a good average to me.”
The other concern has been that, no matter how much Mancini has tried, Icardi has struggled to form an effective partnership with Stevan Jovetic. Their incompatibility has resulted in a shift from 4-3-1-2 towards 4-3-3, and with Adem Ljajic often proving a better foil for the strikers, a situation could potentially develop in which Icardi and Jovetic are directly competing for only one available centre-forward spot.
With Chelsea, Liverpool and Madrid also rumoured to be in the mix, Icardi has options should he or the club decide it's time to leave
If Inter are to decide that their captaincy experiment has failed and that they can continue their title challenge without Icardi, they won’t have to look far for suitors. The loudest noises have been coming from the Emirates recently, with Arsenal rumoured to be considering a hefty bid for the striker. With some sources suggesting an offer in the region of £31.5 million could arrive in January, Inter would be putting serious faith in their captain by turning down such significant money.
Although Icardi would currently only face direct competition from Olivier Giroud with the Gunners, he would encounter the biggest test of his adaptability yet should he make the move. The free-flowing, intricate passing style of Arsene Wenger’s side would represent a completely different style of football to that of Mancini’s Inter, and in a notoriously faster and more physical league.
With Chelsea, Liverpool and Madrid also rumoured to be in the mix, Icardi has options should he or the club decide it is time to leave. However, with a contract at one of European football’s grand old clubs running until 2019, an adoring public and the compelling challenge of securing Inter’s first Scudetto in six years to play for, there are plenty of motives for him to stay put.
A cause for concern for Mancini, though – the captaincy probably isn’t one of them.