It didn’t take long. When Pippo Inzaghi was announced as the latest coach of AC Milan, the questions soon started. Why replace Clarence Seedorf with another inexperienced figure? A poll on Gazzetta dello Sport revealed two naysayers for every one person backing the appointment.
A return of a former hero that should be greeted with excitement instead comes with a list of caveats. Fresh from their lowest league finish in 16 years, there is a sense that this could be another dramatic gesture to distract the masses from problems that run far deeper at the club.
Dispensing with Seedorf just months into a two-and-a-half year deal certainly does not offer much hope for his replacement – especially given that Unai Emery is believed to have been the first choice before opting to extend his deal with Sevilla.
And yet, Inzaghi has been beating the odds for much of his professional life. It’s a career that’s been conducted against a backdrop of whispers and doubts from some of the most respected figures in the game. And the quotes are well known.
There are the insults – Sir Alex Ferguson claiming Inzaghi was “born offside”. Then there are the backhanded compliments. Roberto Carlos said: “He is the man who sorts everything out – even though it’s difficult to lay your finger on what it is exactly that he’s got.”
Johan Cruyff was typically blunt. “Look, the thing about Inzaghi is he can’t actually play football at all, he’s just always in the right position.” Indeed, complimenting Inzaghi is so rare within the game that when Jose Mourinho once said he would prefer it if Pippo did not play against his Real Madrid side, the comment was widely interpreted as mere ‘mind games’.
All this talk might lead one to conclude that Inzaghi’s rise was some sort of fluke. How could such a player survive at the top of the game for the best part of 15 years? Perhaps it all hints at a keen football mind - one that achieved his goals in spite of rather than because of those much-maligned technical skills.
The critics really ought to know better. Cruyff, as the creator-in-chief of Total Football – with its unique appreciation of the importance of space – must be acutely aware that being “always in the right position” is one of the finest gifts a footballer can possess.
Likewise, Ferguson’s flippant remark betrays the fact that life on the shoulder of the last defender is one of small margins. Inzaghi used all his guile and cunning to outwit that offside trap on countless occasions down the years and has the goal tally to prove it.
Inzaghi’s journey to Champions League and World Cup glory required endeavour and sheer force of will. He may have coached Milan’s primavera team but he was not an academy man himself, instead beginning his rise at home-town club Piacenza via loan spells with lowly Leffe and Verona.
There was an underwhelming spell at Parma before finding success with Juventus. When a reported personality clash with Bianconeri hero Alessandro Del Piero proved one battle he couldn’t win, the move to Milan just shy of his 28th birthday was not certain to succeed. He was still there scoring goals over a decade later. The great survivor.
Witness his resilience in bouncing back from a cruciate knee injury in November 2010. On the field he successfully fought off the challenges of men more technically and physically blessed – the Brazilian trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho came and went, while Andriy Shevchenko, Hernan Crespo, Christian Vieri, Alberto Gilardino and Marco Borriello were all outlasted too.
It was at Milan where he truly showed himself as the man for the big occasion. His brace in the 2007 Champions League final against Liverpool was followed up by another goal in the subsequent Super Cup and two more to defeat Boca Juniors in the World Club Cup.
Even in his finest hour, Inzaghi’s opener against Liverpool was deemed to have an element of fortune to it. At first glance, Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick appeared to deflect off an opponent in the wall. As Pirlo’s team-mates rushed to congratulate him, the unmistakeable sight of Inzaghi rushing off into the distance at full pelt left nobody in any doubt who had got the touch. Vintage Inzaghi.
That ability to come up with something from nothing will be needed more than ever now. Indeed, some might mischievously suggest that Inzaghi’s knack for making the very most from minimal talent might well be the task at hand for any Milan coach in charge of this squad. It is fair to say there have been better times to be the club’s head coach.
Seedorf exits having questioned the fitness levels and psychology of the team, but sheer quality is also an issue – as shown by Milan’s results against their rivals in 2013/14. Twelve Serie A games against the top six brought no fewer than nine defeats. The Milan that became famous for raising itself for the big occasion appears long gone.
Inzaghi inherits a group of players discarded from other clubs, but will recognise that the demands of the shirt dictate that he must fashion them into an elite force – and all without the finances of old with which to aid his cause.
It’s a job that requires a person capable of making what’s available to him. Someone with nous and passion. They were traits not always appreciated in Inzaghi, the player. Perhaps in Inzaghi, the coach, those qualities will be perceived rather differently.
“Inzaghi has great knowledge of football and he dedicates an unbelievable amount of attention to the fine details,” says former team-mate Cristian Brocchi. Nous. “Inzaghi has fantastic enthusiasm. He has the characteristics needed,” adds former manager Carlo Ancelotti. Passion.
Write off Pippo Inzaghi? People have done that before. And as the man himself once memorably put it: “If they are calling me into question, why, that’s the end of football.”