Inter’s transfer campaign ended on an extremely high note in summer 2016, having signed new European Champion João Mario for a €40m fee from the Portuguese side of Sporting Lisboa. The explosive midfielder had shown great skills throughout the European Championship in the summer with his national side, adapting to a wider role of left midfielder in a stretched diamond formation completed by William Carvalho as holding, Renato Sanches as the counterpart of the new Inter player and Adrien Silva completing as a number 10. During the tournament João Mario proved to be a unique player as he demonstrated a unique combination of tactical intelligence (given his central midfielder mentality), explosiveness and a decent level of pace, all whilst playing in a new position. Overall, his strong performances in the summer tournament (culminating with Portugal’s historic win) that confirmed his consistent form throughout the year with Sporting Lisboa (6 goals and 11 assists in 33 games), developed high hopes for the neroazzurri fans.
Unfortunately for Inter, this momentum was short-lived. Partly due to Inter’s poor performance and overall season, the Portuguese did not shine nor partake in any important parts of the laegue for the Milan-side. Often played in a position where he did not fit in particularly well, as a winger or #10 in a 4-2-3-1 formation, João Mario soon found himself surrounded by boos of disappointment throughout his first spell at Inter, just like the rest of his teammates.
Nevertheless, fans and football experts were eager to see both Inter and João Mario’s response to the previous disappointing season and it was a quite surprising turn of events. Whilst Inter was guiding the Serie A for the first time in almost seven years, until the first weeks of December, the struggle for the Portuguese was continuous. New Inter coach Luciano Spalletti often did not consider him fit or tactically aware enough for him to start any matches and when he did come on, he did so almost unwillingly. Ultimately, his performances prompted him into a negative spiral forcing Inter managers to consider possible alternatives for his future with the Nerazzurri.
Diverse interest from Premier League clubs open various scenarios for João Mario’s future development and he ultimately chose to go with the Hammers, in the closing week of the transfer market. Although his move is only a temporary loan spell, it gives the Portuguese national a chance to perform and secure a spot for the upcoming World Cup while helping the Hammers in their struggling yet recovering season.
João Mario had a lot of difficulties settling in at Inter and Serie A. First and foremost, he was playing in a very unique position in Inter’s 4-2-3-1 whereby he was required mostly to act on the very extreme side and his lack of pace and agility, compared to the more standard wingers like Candreva and Perisic, did not allow him to perform adequately. Unfortunately for him, his character and passion showed for the nerazzurri side was not particularly noticeable. Nevertheless, his adventure in England started off rather well. The Portuguese was utilized right away in the starting line-up for the game weeks in a row, assisting once (unfortunately unimportant) and establishing quality connections with Chicarito and the awaited Marko Arnautovic.
While he has played three different positions (left mid, attacking midfielder and right wing) in as many matches, his impact on West Ham’s performance has been rather consistent and identifiable. The role João Mario has when playing behind Chicarito, in tandem with Arnautovic creates unique spaces in the opponent’s defence allowing both midfielders and the other attacking partners to cut in open areas and create chances. Overall, the apparent confusing formation David Moyes’ proposed against Watford, a singular 3-4-3 disposition, has brought some much-needed excitement to the Hammers’ playstyle and, more importantly, three vital points.
Although the “official” line up appears to be a sort of 3-1-4-2, the Portuguese international definitely plays a more attacking and proposing role compared to his midfield companion Mark Noble.
The most important advantage that this formation gives both West Ham and João Mario, is freedom. As mentioned before, his speed and physicality do not really make him a great threat as a winger or even as a standard #10. However, what does set him apart is the ability to attack the opponent’s box with great timing and ultimately delivering key passes and creating important chances. In his first matches for the Hammers, we were definitely able to see this.
Against Crystal Palace, the Portuguese and Chicharito were attempting to finalize a counter attack started from the Mexican. Having reached Palace’s box, João Mario found himself marked by four men as you can see from the picture above. The unique physicality that the Portuguese possess, strong yet not excessively aggressive, allowed him to resist the pressure from Crystal Palace’s defenders and deliver a striking intelligent ball for Chicharito, who managed to win a clutch penalty to tie the match. João Mario really did impress in his first start for the Hammers, a complete turnaround compared to his time at Inter.
The following week West Ham were playing in Brighton. While the result was not what the East London team hoped for, it did provide João Mario another chance to show his talent and he delivered indeed. Once again, the singularity of his role alongside Chicharito was extremely important in determining the development of the play. Other than his unique position on the field, the connection between him, Chicharito, Arnautovic and the midfielders seems to be working perfectly thus far.
The temporary tying goal was created in a nice three-men play between Noble, João Mario and Chicharito as shown above. João Mario’s creativity allowed him to play a one touch back heel pass from Noble’s through ball, to put Chicharito in the box. I realize this is hard to visualize with the images above but the arrows and positions do give some sense of what happened. Ultimately, the Mexican striker was able to tuck away a lovely shot after a few dribbles in the box following the nice vertical play constructed.
Overall, the Portuguese international seems to have stepped out of his Inter bubble. He has shown tactical intelligence, physicality and creativity as well as solid technique. It may seem too soon to crown him as West Ham’s new phenomenon but there are high hopes for him; the World Cup in Russia this summer will spur him to work harder in the hopes of getting called by Fernando Santos and ultimately prove Inter fans wrong. With his new established positions in West Ham’s unique system and the links created with Chicharito and Arnautovic, João Mario has a great chance to redeem himself for the past sluggish year he has been having.