Three games played; three games lost. Already Gian Piero Gasperini must be fearing that that distant tolling of bells is meant for him. He was, in truth, always an odd fit for the Internazionale job, just as Marcelo Bielsa, who was interviewed before him, would have been. Gasperini may not be quite such an idealist as the Argentinian but, like him, he has a clearly defined preferred style of play. Imposing that on an established squad of players, many of whom have the egos that come with success, is never easy even if it is desirable and, given the pressures inherent at a club the size of Inter, the demands for instant success, it may not even be possible.
Bielsa at least seems to have recognised that. He is a brilliant exception, a man so wedded to his philosophy of the game that his main question when he applies for a job is whether he will be able to apply it unopposed. He spoke to River Plate and to Inter, and ended up at Athletic Bilbao, a club with an equally idiosyncratic approach. One point from two league games (plus a home draw against Trabzonspor in a Europa League play-off that was abandoned after Fenerbahce's expulsion from European competition and Trabzonspor's subsequent elevation to the Champions League) suggests an awkward start, but at least he has begun better than Gasperini, whose first three games have brought three defeats.
Gasperini's Genoa played a vibrant, exciting style of football in a 3-4-3. He is wedded to that. That's what he's good at; it's what he does. To appoint him and expect him to play something different is akin to signing Niall Quinn and expecting him not to play as a target man. Inter's squad, though, doesn't look suited to the system.
I confess I assumed when Gasperini was appointed that it meant Wesley Sneijder was on his way, for he is a player who doesn't readily fit into the midfield four. Nor does he fit on to the left of the front three, which is where Gasperini has tried him so far. Sneijder, in fact, is a confusing player, because he seems to have turned himself into an anachronism. In the final months under José Mourinho, he played at the centre of the trident in a 4-2-3-1, a very mobile, modern attacking midfielder, a creator – perhaps even a playmaker - who was prepared to drop back and play a little deeper if required. Then he scored five goals at the World Cup and seemed to believe he was a classic number 10. He had played at times as the one in a 4-3-1-2 under Mourinho – although notably in the earlier, less successful part of the season – and spent the majority of last season in the role, something that contributed to the fatal narrowness so thrillingly exposed by Schalke 04 in the Champions League.
Gasperini as good as admitted Sneijder's unsuitability to his tactical shape by leaving him on the bench for Sunday's 4-3 defeat to Palermo, only to bring him on midway through the first half to replace Mauro Zárate. Diego Forlán, another who seems unsuited to the 3-4-3 – and less explicably so than Sneijder given he was signed after the appointment of Gasperini – switched from left to right, and Sneijder spent the next hour chugging unenthusiastically and ineffectively up and down the left, then drifting infield and looking the dazzling player he can be.
When he and Forlán did cross paths in injury time as both wandered into the centre, the possibilities of the combination were apparent. It was a Sneijder pass to Forlán that brought about the corner that led to the penalty that restored Inter's 2-1 lead, and Sneijder then laid in the Uruguayan to score Inter's third. Having two such intelligent players working in tandem, surely, is a must, although when Sneijder, having begun on the left of a 4-3-3 against Trabzonspor, switched into the centre after 12 minutes, creating a 4-3-1-2, it had little effect.
Only the two wing-backs, Maicon, who is injured, and Yuto Nagatomo, look a natural fit for the 3-4-3. The 3-4-3 shape was being questioned even before the defeat to Milan in the Super Coppa. Inter's owner, Massimo Moratti, last month said that he thought Gasperini would "eventually change" to a back four, but that seems the wrong way round. Surely a new coach should take the existing squad and mould them gradually towards his ideal, whether by coaching or transfer activity, rather than taking his ideals and gradually diluting them? That, of course, is assuming he has an ideal; some coaches – Fabio Capello, for instance – are almost entirely pragmatic, fitting the system to the players rather than the other way round.
As it turned out it took Gasperini just one league game to move away from his 3-4-3. Seemingly preparing the ground for his change of shape against Trabzonspor, Gasperini said that he thought it natural to play three at the back against a team that operates with two forwards, and four against teams who play with three (by which he clearly means those who play with a lone central striker, however advanced their wingers are). That thinking is entirely orthodox: Rinus Michels believed his sides should always have one defender more than the opposition had forwards, and Barcelona's use of a back three against Villarreal followed the same logic.
What is a little puzzling about his claim is that, before last night, he had employed a back four in only 20.4% of games since taking over at Genoa in 2006; it also raises the question of whether, had Palermo set out with the 4-3-2-1 they used last season rather than a 4-4-2, they would have played a back four. Even in Italy, in which variants of 4-3-1-2 remain the most common system, significantly more than one in five teams play with a lone central striker. This, fairly evidently, was a response to criticism.
It failed. As the Gazzetto dello Sport noted, the change of shape brought a reversal of faults. "Messy, reckless, exposed and beaten 4-3 on Sunday," its report read. "Ordered, immobile, lacking ideas and defeated 1-0 tonight. Which one do you prefer? It's like choosing between a stomach ache and a headache."
Order, though, at least is a start; the immobility and lack of ideas were perhaps down as much to anxiety after the disappointing start as to any intrinsic failing. What the shambles in Sicily – and it was a shambles; Palermo were far more dominant than the 4-3 scoreline might suggest – exposed was that certain key individuals are not the players they once were. Júlio César has slipped from the supreme standards he set two to three years ago, and admitted a measure of responsibility for the third and fourth goals; the third, in particular was a worry, stemming from his strange habit of going for even relatively low balls with the outside arm in the dive (ie, the left as he dives to his right).
Lúcio, meanwhile, has never been quick, but has come to look slow, something that was evident in the Copa América, in which Brazil's 2-2 draw with Paraguay was just as much to do with his failure to cover Dani Alves as with the right-back's adventurous positioning. In theory a three at the back system should help him, allowing him to get on with marking and winning headers with an extra player to cover, but Gasperini's interpretation of the 3-4-3 is Dutch in style; it's not a libero and two markers, but three defenders spread across the pitch, with the wing-backs more midfielders than attacking defenders. Lúcio was poor against Palermo, and it was his hesitation in pushing out that led to Ondrej Celustka's winner.
More generally, given the age and general lack of pace among his central defenders, Gasperini may have to reconsider how high up the pitch his back line, whether a four or a three, plays. His style at Genoa was based on hard-pressing and a high offside line; at Inter his defenders are so slow on the turn that they look vulnerable to any ball over the top.
Again, given the make-up of the squad, you wonder why Gasperini was ever appointed. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with his 3-4-3 or his high-tempo style, but tactics do not exist in isolation; they must always be fitted to players, opposition and circumstances. There is no "best" system or formation; although there are styles of play that, thanks to other developments, become outmoded. It would be wrong to say that it makes no sense for a coach to have a preferred system, but there must always be a compromise between theory and resources.
An obvious interim solution would be to use Sneijder as a playmaker in a 3-4-1-2, which would restore Forlán to a more central role, but this, surely, is the case of a bad appointment. Giving Gasperini, a man stylistically antithetical to most of the squad, the job made sense only if Moratti was going to give him time to oversee a long-term evolution. Undermining him by publicly questioning his tactics almost before he had begun is bafflingly self-destructive.