IT SEEMED AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK, but by the end, Lazio had made it possible. For more than two years Juventus had been undefeated in Turin, an imposing, inexorable force with six successive Serie A titles behind them.
No-one really expected their imperious record to be ended so unceremoniously. In the Lazio camp, though, there was a quiet confidence. “We achieved something remarkable this evening,” said Simone Inzaghi after the 2-1 win – and they had. It felt like a landmark moment, a victory of palpable significance. “This result will go down in the history of the club.”
There is still work to be done for Lazio. They have experienced a fruitful, exciting mini-resurgence under the guidance of Inzaghi, but the perspicacious young coach will not want to dwell on the win against the champions. They moved level on points with Juventus following victory, and for the first time in a long time, Lazio are being mentioned in the same vein as Italy’s elite. And at the heart of their recent success has been Inzaghi, emerging from the shadow of his older brother as a nascent coaching talent.
The Inzaghis – Filippo and Simone – were born in the small village of San Nicolo, just outside Piacenza. Filippo – or Pippo as he has always been affectionately known – was born three years earlier than Simone, but by the time the youngest sibling was eight he was captaining his elder brother in the village football team.
Simone was already demonstrating an aptitude for leadership. He had a keen eye for detail, too. The young boy’s friends noted how he could name every player in every team, their strengths and weaknesses, and their favoured positions.
Pippo, meanwhile, was single-minded. He scored goals, a lot of them, and eventually turned pro. Simone followed in his footsteps, but it felt like he was always lagging behind, always a step further back. The two boys from San Nicolo had grown tall with distinguishable, dark lanky hair and idiosyncratic playing styles. They were both strikers and they were both talented, but their sibling rivalry never escalated to bitterness.
Instead, the two always looked to support each other. When he was young, Pippo was regularly asked by neighbourhood kids to play for their teams because they knew he would score. But his mother, Marina, always insisted, “Only if Simone can play too.”
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Simone did play and the brothers learned to work together. Their relationship was a far cry from the most famous of Italian sibling rivalries; the patricidal Romulus and Remus. Still, it would certainly have frustrated Simone that Pippo’s ascent to the top was achieved far more quickly than his own. It will have frustrated him too that he was – and still is – almost routinely mentioned in relation to his brother.
When Pippo signed for Juventus in 1997, Simone was still in the third division with Brescello. But a year later he had earned a contract with Piacenza and the year after that he had signed for Lazio. They were both in Serie A, both prominent figures in Italian football, but it was still Pippo who earned more recognition and plaudits. It was understandable. By the end of his lucrative career he had won three Scudettos, two Champions Leagues and a World Cup.
Simone, meanwhile, finished with one Serie A title, two Coppa Italias and a UEFA Super Cup. He scored significantly fewer goals, earned only three Italy caps, and was known by many outside Rome as “Pippo’s little brother”.
But inferiority was not a sentiment felt in the Inzaghi family. When Simone’s Lazio moved within three points of Pippo’s Juventus late in the 1999/2000 Serie A season, there was no desperation from either to get one over on the other. “Either way the league title is staying in the family,” said Simone. “At least this way if one of them loses, he can console himself with the fact the other has won,” said their father, Giancarlo. Lazio and Simone went on to win it by one point.
Even if he did not reach the heights of his brother as a striker, there was a shrewdness, a meticulousness about Simone that suggested at a potential future in coaching. His teammates at Lazio used to call him ‘The Almanac’, and he became known for his obsessive attention to detail. Marina Inzaghi had hoped her children would become doctors had they not pursued football, but Simone obtained a degree in accountancy and it was readily apparent in his analytical approach.
His playing style too was more nuanced and intricate than that of his brother. Simone’s mind, it seemed, might be perfectly suited for the challenges of coaching. Erudite and open-minded, he embarked on the next chapter of his footballing career ready to relinquish the tag of the less successful sibling.
“My objective was always to become manager of Lazio,” Simone said in 2016. After six years as coach in the club’s academy, in which he led the under-20s to two domestic cup wins and within a penalty shootout of a league title, his objective had been completed. “I’m proud and I cannot wait to start,” he said. “I am the manager today but I want to be manager for the future as well.”
As it turned out, he would be the manager for the future, but his first spell was only temporary. He took over from the sacked Stefano Pioli towards the end of 2015/16 season, after a thrashing at the hands of city rivals Roma. With seven games to go in a disappointing campaign, Lazio were searching for a steadying influence. Inzaghi offered it, and in difficult circumstances.
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He inherited a squad ravaged by injuries with Stefan de Vrij, Ștefan Radu, Dušan Basta and Wesley Hoedt all out. Then there was the negativity, the hostility surrounding the club. Their notorious ultras had boycotted the defeat against Roma and after it descended on the training ground in their numbers. It resulted in clashes with police and more bad press.
On the pitch and off the pitch, improvement was needed. Inzaghi took his players on a team-building retreat to Norcia, 100 miles away in the Umbrian hills. Then it was time for his first training session, the day of his 40th birthday. “I’ve seen the lads are ready to work,” he said.
That was not enough to appease the demanding ultras, though. At Inzaghi’s first session they were there again, impassioned and angry. The newly appointed coach led his players over to the fans who requested an increase in desire, a more frequent demonstration of tenacity. Lazio had underachieved and they were not happy.
Inzaghi’s first game eased some of the tension. An impressive 3-0 win against Palermo was the start of an improvement, and Lazio would go on to finish eighth in Serie A. There were certainly still issues and there was no immediate fix, but there were encouraging signs of tactical discipline and fluid attacking play that had been previously lacking.
But by the end of the season, Inzaghi was gone, his caretaker role fulfilled. In came the mercurial Marcelo Bielsa, a coach almost the antithesis of his unproven predecessor. For Inzaghi, it might have been very different had Bielsa not decided to quit after just two days in the job. Lazio again turned to him, again almost as an afterthought – perhaps fittingly given the perception of him as a player – but he was not deterred by being second choice. This was Inzaghi’s opportunity to take control of a full season, to build his reputation.
The tumultuary nature of the summer that preceded his first campaign as permanent manager was hardly ideal. Bielsa’s abandonment had left Lazio in a state of chaos, after one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory. Few expected much; the prevailing sentiment was pessimism and there were understandable doubts. But Inzaghi had brought composure, an air of calmness in a situation that would have left many flustered and stressed.
It’s that seemingly unflappable demeanour that has characterised his tenure to date. He has gone about reviving a floundering club with little drama, quietly but expertly. And he has done it pragmatically.
He guided Lazio to fifth place and European football last season, above both Milan and Inter and a sizeable 16 points better off than the season before. If that was not enough, Inzaghi led his side to a Coppa Italia final, where they were beaten 2-0 by a dominant Juventus.
The football under Pioli had been uninspiring, at times turgid, but with the arrival of Inzaghi, it was almost unrecognisable. With a mindset clearly that of an ex-striker, he instigated a fluidity and directness in attack, helped by the impressive forward duo of Keita Baldé and Ciro Immobile. They bagged 39 goals in the league between them, and only three teams scored more in total than Lazio.
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There was certainly an emphasis on attack, but it was far from reckless and thoughtless. Inzaghi regularly made tactical tweaks to adapt to various challenges, seamlessly switching between a back three and a back four. He may have been unheralded and inexperienced, but Inzaghi’s methods were beginning to catch the eye. “Simone loves Lazio, it was always his dream,” said Pippo of his brother midway through the season. “He prepares matches in a big way. He’s emerging with the stubbornness and caution of a veteran coach.”
There has been evidence enough that Inzaghi is a precocious coach. Few young managers have made such a definable impact so quickly and in such uncertain circumstances. Having guided Lazio back to Europe last season, the start of this campaign was marked with the clubs first silverware in four years. Not since the Coppa Italia of 2013 had the Biancocelesti lifted a trophy, and that they won this year’s Supercoppa with a two-legged victory against Max Allegri’s imperious Juventus only made it more impressive.
Then they beat Juventus again, in Turin, and Italy took notice. The two victories were examples of the adaptability of Inzaghi’s Lazio. They have scored freely and played attractive football since his appointment, but against technically superior opposition they are content to surrender possession and adopt a compact but aggressive defensive shape, with an emphasis on counter-attacking.
There have been impressive individual performances, too. De Vrij, Sergej Milinković-Savić and the prolific Immobile have excelled, given freedom under Inzaghi’s tutorship.
Pippo is a coach, too. Unlike Simone, his reputation preceded him and he got the Milan job within two years of retiring as a player with the Rossoneri. It didn’t go to plan. He lasted just a year and was dismissed in 2015 having won only 35 percent of his games. Now he coaches Serie B club Venezia, and although he has guided them to second place after 10 games following promotion from the third tier last season, it is he that must now work to reach the heights of his brother.
It is Simone being mentioned as a potential successor to Allegri at Juventus, as one of Italy’s most talented young coaches. “He has taken a sabbatical,” Simone said of Pippo before he joined Venezia last year. “He is continuing to study and preparing to take another spot on the bench next season. My hope is that both of our careers are full of success.
“As kids we used to read Gazzetta dello Sport every day, spending time reading the line-ups. We grew up in San Nicolò, five minutes from Piacenza. It was at Piacenza we started playing in the youth academy all the way up to the first team, him in Serie B and me in Serie A. Pippo was always my inspiration.”
Perhaps soon, he will be Pippo’s too