The striking simplicity of the Inter captain’s approach to the game is something that we may not see again – at the highest level, at least
Every transfer window has its saga and this month is no different. Mauro Icardi is in the sights of goal-shy Real Madrid while the striker’s agent and wife, Wanda, uses their interest to squeeze more money out of Inter .
The Spanish giants are struggling since their all-time record goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo joined the Argentine in Serie A, so much so that they are reportedly willing to pay €110 million for their man.
For Madridstas who don’t know much about Icardi, the links will be underwhelming. A quick look on YouTube at his highlights reel will suggest that his only moment of Ronaldo-esque inspiration was last season’s Goal of the Season winner against Sampdoria.
But even that effort wasn’t a 30-yard screamer, an acrobatic overhead kick or a breath-taking solo goal. It was a simple piece of brilliance conducted in the six-yard box, as he backheeled the ball past the despairing dive of a bewildered Emiliano Viviano.
It was superb skill, but it’s the words ‘simple’, ‘brilliance’ and ‘six-yard box’ that best describe Icardi and make his development into the greatest No.9 in world football even more remarkable.
These being his outstanding attributes explain why he is often overlooked, in a world where Ronaldo and Lionel Messi dazzle the sport every week with something extraordinary.
While those two are of another species, Icardi is an ugly duckling; an old-fashioned, poaching centre-forward at the very top of the game.
His goal-scoring record is exceptional, particularly for a 25-year-old: 120 goals in 204 games put him ninth in Inter’s list of all-time scorers, his time at San Siro making up all but 33 games and 11 goals of his professional career.
The Argentine averages 0.6 goals per game and is just three strikes behind Christian Vieri’s total for the Nerazzurri .
“The fact that it is his first experience in the Champions League seems a lie,” Ivan Rakitic told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He is one of the best strikers in the world. Scoring a goal from just 15 touches? Pippo Inzaghi is back!”
One might argue that Luis Suarez or Harry Kane fall into his category, and that both are better than Icardi. Yet both are much more.
Kane’s will to track back, get involved in build-up play and his ability to score top-quality goals outside of the area make him much more than a centre-forward.
On the other hand, Suarez will always be much more than a fox in the box, even if his move to Barcelona has seen him deployed as a natural No.9 after such a free-roaming role at Liverpool.
It is perhaps not since Inzaghi, Ruud van Nistelrooy or David Trezeguet that the game has seen a player who possesses such ruthlessness in an area of just 18 yards.
This is a player with a better chance conversion rate this season than Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as the aforementioned Kane and Suarez; a player who sparks into life when the ball is near but looks disinterested the rest of the time.
That perhaps offers another explanation for the lack of hype around Icardi; his perceived laziness.
Even Inter boss, Luciano Spalletti, has publicly stated that he would like Icardi to contribute more outside of the penalty area, telling Sky Sport Italia: “When we are under pressure, he should be closer to the rest of the team and help by holding the ball up. I think he’d do even more if he came deeper and combined with the midfielders.”
With high pressing a huge part of today’s game, critics can also be quick to jump on the Argentine’s back when he isn’t running at breakneck speed to close down a defender in possession, something his former team-mate Eder has called “unfair criticism” of a “world-class” player, speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport .
But what may appear as lazy to some is simply another version of defending from the front. Watch closer and the striker is constantly cutting off options for his opposing centre-backs and always pressing if a chance for his team to regain the ball arises.
It’s something that Icardi himself has recognised and addressed, emphasising the importance of his main duty on the football pitch.
“The attacker has to score, the midfielder has to play, the defender has to defend, and the goalkeeper has to save,” he told Corriere dello Sport.
“People talk too much about my involvement in the game, which many say is poor, not enough, but I don’t give a damn about what the journalists and critics say. I know only one way to help my team-mates and the coach, and that’s to put it in the net.”
What is most important for Icardi, though, is that continues to be guided by coaches who recognise his skillset, his strengths and his weaknesses.
To throw him into a high-pressing system, to ask him to drop off deeper and get involved in the build-up earlier, or to work the ball into the box on the ground instead of also looking for the cross, would all be to reduce the impact of the man Gonzalo Higuain described as “an assassin”.
Spalletti is a coach who understands Icardi.
“Mauro has very precise characteristics,” he said. “When it comes to finishing, he has no weaknesses, he’s perfect. In the penalty area, he is an animal. However, there are times when perhaps he needs to come back more to help get us out of difficult situations.”
However, just when defenders think they are keeping this man quiet, that is when he is most dangerous.
His stats this season could not make that much clearer. In games where Icardi has played 60 minutes or more, he is averaging just 23 touches per game – only five of which are in the box.
However, he’s scored 13 goals, provided two assists and created 19 chances. Not bad for a man who doesn’t do much.
Icardi is an anomaly, a modern-day enigma. He’s not a player for a moment of magic; he’s a player who, given a sniff of the ball, will stick it in the net.
At just 25, it’s exciting to see just how much longer he can continue his incredible goal-scoring. With the direction the game is taking, it does not seem like long before the classic No.9 is gone for good – at the very top, anyway.
So, let us maintain the lack of fuss around Icardi and simply enjoy him for what he is; the last of a dying breed.