Whilst on the phone late on Wednesday night I mentally trawled through the vault of football clichés to find one that offered hope and comfort, but none seemed apt. Rays of sunshine rarely peek out of such generic quotes. My Liverpool supporting friend on the line was understandably devastated, though like many of the players in red gracious enough to concede that his team were beaten by a group of exceptionally talented Milan players. There was one though, the obvious one, to whom he could not extend any goodwill.
“That f*cking Inzaghi.” he moaned. “A deflection and a f*cking tap-in. Sums him up.”
I knew how he felt. As a Manchester United fan (which incidentally wasn’t helping the consolation process any) I watched in horror eight years ago as we went two-nil down inside ten minutes in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final at the Stadio della Alpi. Filippo Inzaghi supplied the first by tapping in a Zidane corner from inches out and minutes later his tame shot took a freak deflection off Jaap Stam to loop over Schmeichel and increase Juventus’ lead. Annoyingly, he wheeled away in triumph at this absolute fluke like he’d just scored a goal worthy of Maradona in his pomp.
And I felt that same gnawing contempt my friend later would towards this man, this anti-footballer, for what he had done. His critics, and they are legion, can compile a veritable shopping list of faults in his game – he has no real pace, a mediocre first touch, his passing is erratic, he doesn’t tackle, he gets caught offside all the time, he offers nothing in terms of build-up play and he’s not very good in the air. He seems totally detached from the game until the ball arrives in the penalty area, at which point it will invariably drop to his feet and he will score a simple goal, like the irritating kid on the school yard used to, the kid they called the goal-hanger.
In the low-scoring game of football just scoring goals is not a bad ability to possess, and Inzaghi has done that with startling frequency during his career. Since his breakthrough season with Atalanta ten years ago he has scored one hundred and twenty-seven goals in Serie A, fifty-eight goals in European club competitions and twenty three goals in fifty-three internationals for Italy. He has winners medals for the World Cup, the Champions League and the Serie A title, which makes his record at first glance seem like that of one of the great strikers of his era. And yet for his utter ineffectiveness away from the six-yard box he continues to attract derision and scorn, and move the likes of the great Johann Cruyff to remark “Look, actually he can't play football at all. He's just always in the right position.”
And within that snide comment I believe lies the key to Inzaghi. Football is a game for athletes, for those who possess speed, skill and strength, but it can also be a game for thinkers. Being in the right position as often as Inzaghi manages it is not luck but intuition, a vivid reading of the intentions of other players and of situations that alter by the nanosecond. We laugh at him for being offside nine times out of ten but he is waiting for that one moment where he times his run perfectly and is clean through, alone in that vast green expanse with only the goalkeeper (often the only man on the pitch less technically accomplished than Pippo) to beat. That’s what he did on Wednesday for the second goal, and when his moment arrived he finished with the composure of a man who had, both mentally and physically, been in that situation a thousand times before. A player of this ilk is a selfless indulgence for coaches and teammates alike, yet one that clubs of the stature of Milan and Juventus have been more than happy to oblige.
Now thirty-three years old Inzaghi will probably not get credit for anything he has achieved either in the remaining few years of his career or any time soon after. Eventually though, and as with all players, his years as a footballer will be summarised in a highlights reel of his famous moments, a table of his appearances and goals and a list of his medals and honours. Considering his abilities, or lack thereof, it will be a remarkable CV.