Major League Soccer players report to training camp March 8. Inter Miami went through typical growing pains and a COVID-related shutdown in its first season, but still made the playoffs. The standard playoff format returns this season, so the club will need to show real improvement if it is to make a deep run.
New Manager, New System
The appointment of Phil Neville as the new manager should change the team’s tactical identity. As manager of the English Women’s National Team, the 44-year-old from Greater Manchester stuck to the same tactical approach and formation for most of his matches. He led the ladies to the semi-finals of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, where they lost to the eventual champions, the United States.
Neville’s strengths as a manager should help overcome the team’s deficiencies. According to Maximilian Ramos-Paez, founder of The Siege, an Inter Miami fan club “consistency in our tactics and formations is something that was sorely lacking last year. Neville knows his style, plays to his teams’ strengths and relies on a consistent group of players.” Many players have spent a year or less in the league, so it will not be hard to readjust and forget what was implemented during Diego Alonso’s tenure as manager last season. But the implementation of Neville’s European philosophy will be no small task.
Integrating Designated Players
The MLS’s salary cap limits signings, but rules allow for three designated players per team to be paid more. This is nicknamed the “Beckham rule” because it allowed for the LA Galaxy to sign now-Inter Miami owner, David Beckham, in 2007. The arrival of Gonzalo Higuain, Rodolfo Pizarro, and Matías Pellegrini to the team as designated players was meant to create a fluid attack. However, last season, the trio rarely played together and was unable to generate consistency.
Higuain, who was signed after a prolific goal-scoring career in Europe, was expected to produce at the same level as other stars in the league. He’ll need to be in top form for the team to achieve the success it craves. Pizarro joined Inter Miami for $12 million, making him the fourth most expensive incoming transfer in MLS history according to Transfermarkt. While he was arguably the club’s best player last season, he still only had 8 goal involvements in 20 matches. Pellegrini was also brought in with a hefty price tag, ranking tenth in the highest incoming transfers in MLS history. He struggled with fitness last season, making 20 appearances and being subbed on or off in all 20 matches, never completing a full 90 minutes. The club spent a lot of money to bring in strong attacking threats and thus far, it hasn’t paid off. The trio will need to create a strong link in the attack to produce at the expected level.
Overcoming Defensive Struggles
The team’s first season was marred by an inability to hold leads and concessions at inopportune times. Overcoming this will be a big ask, with starting goalkeeper, Luis Robles, retiring. Robles’ nine seasons of MLS experience helped to mask some of the team’s defensive shortcomings. Losing him will put more pressure on the defenders to form a cohesive backline that the rest of the squad can depend on. There is also the question of who will play in goal.
Backline choices will be crucial to winning. Ramos-Paez spoke about the issue last season, saying, “There was no set lineup in the back, and it caused myriad issues… the team knows it needs to improve on maintaining leads and not going down.” Diego Alonso’s back-line choices last season changed by the game. He switched between four and five defenders. This caused issues for the players, who couldn’t develop any tactical familiarity with either style of play. One set defensive style should help the players understand and excel.
Developing Youth Players
With a squad filled with young players, developing young players is crucial to the team’s success. Last season, many of the youth players struggled to find playing time. Finding a role will be essential to the development of these players. Examples include Julián Carranza and Christian Makoun, both 20-year-old players who struggled to find a rhythm. Their paths to playing time, however, may be different. Carranza was injured to start the season before making his debut and scoring the first two goals at Inter Miami’s home stadium. He then failed to score in 16 matches the rest of the season. More experienced players are ahead of Carranza in the rotation, so he will need to play well as a substitute to prove himself.
Makoun appeared only four times. He also played with Inter Miami’s feeder club, Fort Lauderdale CF. Using a feeder club effectively can be crucial to developing youth players. Many European teams use the model of a B-team to ensure that their younger players see consistent minutes on the pitch. An example of this is FC Barcelona, one of the biggest clubs in the world. They have developed world-class players, such as Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets utilizing their B-team. Inter Miami can use this philosophy to help their young players reach the senior team.
Hit On Defensive Signings
With the club struggling to hold leads last season, experienced defensive signings are needed. The core of defenders last season was young and inexperienced, and the club seems poised to change that. Inter Miami recently announced the signing of 33-year-old Stoke City captain Ryan Shawcross, a teammate of Phil Neville at Manchester United. Additionally, according to Sam Mcevoy of The Daily Mail, the club is also pursuing 31-year-old West Bromwich Albion defender Kieran Gibbs.
These players with European pedigrees can help organize the defense and mentor the younger defenders. The backline lacks a true, vocal leader — but Shawcross and Gibbs have both proven themselves capable of this. Shawcross was Stoke City captain for 10 years. His new club hopes he will bring the same level of leadership and organization to Miami.