Crisis of Identity

December 11, 2019 By Fabian Odhiambo

Crisis of Identity

noi saremo qui
pazzi come te
Non fateci soffrire
ma va bene… vinceremo insieme!
Pazza Inter amala!

Those are words from a stanza from Pazza Inter, an anthem of the Italian club from Milan, Internazionale, or just Inter. It loosely translates to: “Nerazzuri, we will be there. Nerazzuri, crazy like you. Nerazzuri, do not let us suffer, but that’s okay…we will win together! Love it! Crazy Inter love it!” Nerazzuri is the club’s nickname, derived from their colours of black and blue. Quite some expression of devotion, right?

As an Inter fan I know quite a bit about this (in)famous ‘Crazy Inter’ tag. I mean, it’s one that we identify with all over the world. To be honest, it’s not just for the Inter faithful, but rival fans, media and anyone enthused about Italian football generally associate the club with the love for the crazy, absurd and incomprehensible. By this I mean the historic nature of the club to flirt with explosion (in performance and achievement) and implosion in almost equal measure. Over the years the club has managed to sustain decent winning runs only to be followed in quick successions by collapses of the almighty persuasion. In fact when Inter usually is winning, you can never celebrate too much because you know there’s a madness incoming, as evidenced in this twitter thread on the club’s banter era. As the current social media mantra goes, it will end in tears. And almost always, in the blue half of Milan, it has.

In the summer, Inter hired Antonio Conte, the former Juventus, Italy and Chelsea manager to take charge of the club in a bold move that pretty much went against the spirit of Pazza Inter. Thanks, Beppe Marrotta. We all know Don Antonio as a tough, no nonsense, highly demanding and a high overachiever, so this appointment was a nice fresh breath of air. One of the first proclamations the new boss made was that he wanted to get rid of the ‘pazza’ side of Inter. Wow! Can you believe this guy? In one fell swoop he was threatening to do away with our entire brand and identity that we had worked so hard (sic) to maintain. Well, he certainly did get everyone’s attention with that, no doubt.

Fast forward to the present, and the situation is like this: Inter lead the Serie A standings with 38 points, two ahead of champions Juventus with 15 games played. During that period Conte’s men have won 12, drawn twice and lost just once, at home to Juve, coincidentally. Furthermore, they have conceded the fewest goals and boast a 100% record on their travels so far in the league. Even though last night they crashed out of the Champions League and into the Europa League after going down to Barcelona, it still has been a decent showing in Europe that gives them a platform to build on next season. This is a dramatic turn in fortunes and perhaps, Conte is keeping true to his word: no more pazza Inter. A new identity emerging? Seems very much like it.

In Gavin DeGraw’s ‘I Don’t Want To Be’ hit (remember the One Tree Hill soundtrack?) song, he says:

I don’t want to be anything
Other than what I’ve been trying to be lately
All I have to do is think of me and I have peace of mind
I’m tired of looking around rooms wondering what I gotta do
Or who I’m supposed to be
I don’t want to be anything other than me.

He futher goes on to allude to being surrounded by liars, imposters and identity crisis everywhere he turns. That picture is reminiscent of what’s currently happening at some of the biggest clubs in the world, like Inter above. Arsenal last year parted ways with their manager of 22 years Arsene Wenger, replaced him with Unai Emery who last month faced the guillotine and now have former player and legend, Freddie Ljungberg in an interim capacity. The hunt for a permanent head coach is on and the debate to go along with it is centered on getting preferably someone who shares the Arsenal values and who would get the team back to playing the ‘Arsenal Way’.

The question though is what’s the Arsenal Way? Before Arsene Wenger, Arsenal was known to be a solid, pragmatic and defensively drilled side which derived the most pleasure in grinding out results and winning games with the tiniest of margins. ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ became the clubs unofficial motto, known to fans, opponents and even the media.

Then in 1996 Wenger touched down and revolutionized the club, got them to be more attacking, quick and easy on the eye. Arsenal was playing football of the most immaculate order which at times elevated itself to become gorgeously gliding football characterized by a marriage between the individual brilliance and the collective competence and competitiveness. And yes, the celestial football came along with glory; 3 league titles, 7 FA Cups, falling just short of the crowning glory in the Champions League final in 2006. So, is the Arsenal Way the pre-Wenger pragmatist era, or the Wengerian two decade long era of art on the grass?

Over the weekend in the Manchester derby at the Etihad, Manchester United rolled back the years with a vintage efficient and effective 2-1 win over the champions Manchester City. It was a performance that evoked the feeling of United being back to their old best selves under Sir Alex Ferguson. Manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer definitely passed this particular test to ease the pressure and remind everyone that under him, the club really is going back to the United Way. But which way is this?

Since Sir Alex retired in 2013, Man United has tried (largely in vain) to find the right formula with subsequent managerial appointments, a manager that would bring back the glory, all the while playing the ‘exciting attacking’ United football with a squad boasting of a respectable contingent of homegrown talent. David Moyes replaced Fergie as the Chosen One, but didn’t last even a season as performance took a nosedive. Club legend Ryan Giggs replaced him on an interim basis to steady the ship but he too had to make way for Louis Van Gaal on the back of a storming World Cup tournament with the Netherlands. Van Gaal tried to install his style, insisting that it was a process. The process though was a painful slow burner and despite winning the FA Cup in 2016, he wouldn’t be allowed to see it through – a trick, I feel, United missed. The legendary Dutchman is a coach you put in place and buy into his vision and let him format your operating system. Bayern Munich did that with him in 2009 and even though he didn’t last long, his style and ideas was utilized by the club culminating into their most successful decade of existence.

United then felt Jose Mourinho was the one to finally end the malaise of the post-Fergie era. To be fair, you could say that it was the logical appointment to make in 2016. Sir Alex was a serial winner, Jose Mourinho was a serial winner. Sir Alex was a dominant character and an effective communicator, so was Jose. For United fans at the time it probably felt like they were getting a slightly younger version of their beloved colossus of a manager. But football doesn’t necessarily follow scripts. Jose would win silverware for United, the Europa League, League Cup and the Community Shield. He also managed to finish second in the league in 2017-18 to the ridiculously dominant City, but at the end of his tenure on a cold winter December last year, everyone at the club had had enough. The players were apathetic, the fans only felt bound by their duty to remain supportive and the board upstairs was increasingly fed up of the Special One’s constant antagonism. The once heralded union of the ‘biggest club in the world’ and the Special One had reached its bitter end.

Solskjaer’s installation (initially in the interim) was seen as a realization that it doesn’t necessarily work with the big name pill to cure the disease. The hope was that a legend that had been at the club during their successful spell might inspire the players to replicate that particular past. He knew of the fans’ demand for attacking football and so would ‘get it’. Ole’s reign started well but tailed off towards the end of last season with the club missing their target of a top four finish. This season hasn’t seen a huge upsurge in performance – United lie fifth on the table and are on course to better Mourinho’s points tally of his ill-fated final season by just a point if they beat Everton this weekend. The overriding feeling though is that the decision-makers at the club will stick with him in the hope that his work is taking shape. We will see.

It’s a constant search of identity for many football clubs but also when you take a deeper, closer inspection; it seems like a never ending hunt for what worked in the past which is then taken to represent this identity. The three clubs above and many more would definitely resonate with Gavin’s words:

I don’t need to be anything other than a prison guard’s son
I don’t need to be anything other than a specialist’s son
I don’t have to be anyone other than the birth of two souls in one
Part of where I’m going is knowing where I’m coming from.

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