Pippo Inzaghi was, in theory at least, barely a footballer. But he won every trophy going and is one of the great goalscorers of his generation. Here’s why we love Pippo Inzaghi…
There’s a story in Carlo Ancelotti’s book ‘Quiet Leadership’ from Adriano Galliani, the former AC Milan chief executive. ’I attended the last training session…Pippo Inzaghi, our centre forward, was completely out of sync – he was barely able to trap the ball. We had another strong centre forward, Alberto Gilardino…As I was standing at Ancelotti’s side on the field watching Inzaghi miss every single ball, I said to him: “Why don’t we let Gilardino play? He looks to be in much better shape than Inzaghi.” Carlo simply said: “Inzaghi is a strange animal. Maybe tomorrow will be his night.”’
That training session was before the 2007 Champions League final. Inzaghi scored twice to beat Liverpool and exorcise the horrors of 2005. Ancelotti had some logic for his decision, in Super Pippo’s remarkable record in European competition, but mainly it was just a vibe. ‘He said to me afterwards, “After thirty years I’ve developed an eye for this and I’ve learned to trust it,”’ wrote Galliani. “Gilardino is in better form, but Pippo is Pippo,” Ancelotti himself would later say.
Pippo was indeed Pippo. The man who used to illicit laughter in training from his teammates at his lack of technique and basic skill, but who ended his career with two Champions Leagues, three Serie A titles with two different clubs and 288 career goals, 70 of which came in European competitions – only Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Raul have more.
Here was a player who defied logic, one frequently described as being the best terrible footballer of all time. Because objectively speaking, he wasn’t good at the things that most footballers were supposed to be good at. “Even today I can’t explain how he managed to score so many goals,” said his peer Vincenzo Montella a few years ago. “He couldn’t dribble, he couldn’t shoot from outside the box. He had half the talent of players who had half the success.”
You don’t have to search for long to find plenty of other similar quotes. “At Milan we’d do a rondo every day but Inzaghi didn’t participate because he knew he’d be in the middle running after the ball,” said Jaap Stam. Paolo Maldini said his colleagues would “roll around laughing” at his efforts in training. “Look,” said Johan Cruyff, “actually he can’t play football at all. He’s just always in the right position.”
On the edition of Golazzo dedicated to Inzaghi, Gab Marcotti tells a tale of Inzaghi on the pitch after that 2007 final, when a ball is thrown to him. He miscontrols it, regards the empty net in front of him, goes to finish and simply shanks the ball across goal. “It summed him up,” said Gab. “This was not a relevant goal, but he rarely missed a relevant goal.”
Richard Hughes came through the ranks in Italy at roughly the same time as Inzaghi, and in a few training games he was instructed to man-mark Pippo. “He was constantly running in behind, but sometimes his runs were so poorly-timed you were never sure whether to go with him or let him go offside,” Hughes told Golazzo.
“Sometimes the ball would bounce off his shin, bounce off his knee, and you’d think you were controlling him – but then he always found a way of coming away from these games with a hat-trick. Someone would miss a penalty, he’d be there for the rebound. A cross would come in, hit the post and bounce off him. His goals weren’t pretty.
“I felt my career had come full circle when I played against him for Portsmouth in a UEFA Cup game, and he did to us what he’d done to me as a 16/17-year-old – he scored a scrappy goal to break my heart. There was part of me that had been part of a team he’d scored a last-minute equaliser against, and there was part of me that was just smiling, thinking “That’s what he does.”
Look, he can't actually play football at all. He's just always in the right position.
Watch any collection of Inzaghi’s goals and you’ll see very few screamers. It’s all tap-ins, scuffed shots, toe-pokes, slightly mistimed headers. Perhaps the quintessential Inzaghi game came in the 2005/06 Champions League quarter-final against Lyon. He opened the scoring in the first half, with a header that looks odd at first glance but you can’t quite work out why: then you watch it again, and realise that Inzaghi completely mistimed his jump, and the ball just sort of hit his head on the way down and happened to float into the net.
Then, with moments to go and Milan heading out of the tournament on away goals, Peak Inzaghi was reached. Andriy Shevchenko collected the ball in the area and hit a crisp shot across goal, which Lyon keeper Gregory Coupet got a hand to. It pinged off one post, pinged off the other and rebounded into a burgeoning scrum of players in the six-yard box. Inzaghi was there, because of course he was, to throw out a right toe and jab the ball over the line from around two yards out, nipping in ahead of teammate Kaka.
Then came the celebration. The classic Inzaghi celebration. Off he tore towards the corner flag, screaming in goalgasm, making Marco Tardelli look like a member of Belle and Sebastian, climbing up onto the advertising boards. And then, when his teammates were finished, off he went again, sprinting back across the face of goal with exactly the same intensity, some 30 seconds after the goal was scored.
That goal was one worthy of great celebration, a strike to relieve tension in the closing stages of a crucial match. But most of his other celebrations were the same, Inzaghi charging away having successfully completed that three-yard tap-in against Modena, or Salernitana, or Piacenza: if you just watched the aftermath of the goal, you wouldn’t know whether it was an open goal in a meaningless friendly or a 30-yarder in the World Cup final. “If you judge a game purely by goals [as Inzaghi did], the release must be incredible,” said James Horncastle on Golazzo.
The only thing Inzaghi could really do was score goals, and herein perhaps lies the central reason why he was so loved and admired. For all the noise around football, for all the discussion of tactics and systems and philosophies, ultimately the only things that really matter are the goals. Inzaghi was not only just good at the only thing that really matters, but the only thing that really mattered to him was the only thing that really matters.
He was football pared back to its most elemental and basic parts. No frills, nothing fancy, nothing extraneous. In theory, he was barely a footballer; in practice, he was one of the greats of his generation. He was a bit like those early punk bands who couldn’t play their instruments, but who managed to make a brilliant noise nonetheless.
Perhaps this is all being a little unkind. You don’t get all those goals without being a decent finisher. That line from Cruyff about Inzaghi always being in the right position: that’s probably not an accident, and anticipation is not as appreciated as it should be because it’s so intangible.
Inzaghi was an everyman, a wildly successful footballer who didn’t have otherworldly gifts. If you watch a flamboyant genius do things with the ball that few others can, you admire them but can’t relate to them. Inzaghi on the other hand was incredibly relatable, the sort of footballer you could kid yourself into thinking: yeah, I could do that.
“He wasn’t in love with goals,” once said Emiliano Mondonico, Inzaghi’s coach in his early days with Atalanta, “goals were in love with him.” So were we, Super Pippo. So were we.
This piece first appeared on the Totally Football Show on October 17…
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