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Statistics and Tactics: A look at Sousa's Basel compared to Montella's Fiorentina

A brief statistical glimpse of new manager Paulo Sousa's Basel last year, and some potentially irresponsible extrapolations of what those numbers say about Sousa's tactical style and how they could apply to Fiorentina.

Paulo Sousa out-thinking and out-dancing Brendan Rogers in the Champions League
Paulo Sousa out-thinking and out-dancing Brendan Rogers in the Champions League
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

New Fiorentina manager Paulo Sousa comes to the club with a reputation for a high-tempo, counter-attacking style that crushed all opponents with Basel. While he paid service to Fiorentina's recent tradition of intricate possession-based football under Vincenzo Montella, it seems likely that we'll see a substantial change in emphasis for next season.

Fortunately, we can make wild guesses about what's in store. In the interest of time, I'll restrict myself to three (admittedly lengthy) points. Unfortunately, I couldn't find complete stats for the Swiss Superleague (holler at me if you have some), so I'm using Basel's statistics from the Champions League and Fiorentina's from Serie A. All stats come courtesy of

Basel Fiorentina
Goals scored 1 1.61
Goals conceded 1.14 1.21
Posession 45 58
Shots 11.9 16.2
Shots on target 4 5.3
Shots inside area 5.35 8.42
Shots outside area 6.55 7.78
Shots conceded 14.4 12.1
Shots conceded inside area 7.2 6.53
Shots conceded outside area 7.2 5.57
Passing accuracy 81% 84%
Short pass percentage 84 83
Long pass percentage 13 12
Crosses 14 25
Left/center/right 32/28/40 35/29/36
Successful dribbles 7.8 10.1
Fouls suffered 10 14.6
Fouls committed 14 14.2

Before we start any analysis, I think it's worth mentioning here that that there are two significant obstacles with Basel's data set. The first is sample size: there are only eight games represented here, so any outliers will obviously have an outsize impact. The second is that these eight games were against Real Madrid, Liverpool, Porto, and Ludogorets. The former three teams represent a giant step up for Basel in terms of overall talent, and (and with all respect) Ludogorets is a step down.

We therefore didn't see how Sousa would scheme for an opponet of his own level, and only really saw him working with a talent gap that Fiorentina probably won't see in Serie A. Furthermore, one can expect that Sousa would coach Basel against Real differently than he will Fiorentina against Empoli.

With that established, the first thing I noticed were the possession stats. Basel were clearly willing to cede possession in return for defensive organization, and they frequently succeeded: conceding one against Real Madrid in one game, holding Liverpool and Porto to draws, and beating Liverpool. Basel's possession numbers were under 50% in each of these games.

Interestingly, their goalkeeper and centerbacks attempted nearly twice as many long passes as their midfield trio, indicating that the midfielders' jobs tended to be more functional than creative. Defensive midfielder Fabian Frey was the key passer, tallying three assists and averaging the most passes per game. Interestingly, he rarely hit long balls, preferring to keep it on the ground. His primary role seems to have been more defensive than offensive.

The second point I'd like to highlight is width. Basel clearly focused on attacking in the wide areas, particularly their right, as two-fifths of their build-up came down that wing. This was probably due in part to available personnel -- right back and occasional emergency midfielder Taulant Xhaka (who is linked to Fiorentina) and wunderkind winger Derlis Gonzalez were maybe Basel's best two players, tirelessly getting up and down the wing, while central midfielder Mohammed Elnenny also frequently drifted wide to overload opponents in this zone.

Superbly named leftback Behrang Safari was far more conservative than Xhaka, mostly staying at home, while left winger Shkelzen Gashi tended to come central to provide another goal threat, leading the club in shots. For Fiorentina, this means a similar approach to the one Montella deployed against Inter: central midfielders shuttling out wide to provide width, one attacking fullback, and a nominal wide player coming inside to provide a goal threat behind a lone striker. This bodes well for Mati and especially Borja, who are both central playmakers who like to drift wide, and for Salah, who's a wide player known for cutting into the center of the pitch. It also explains Sousa's demands for a more reliable and attack-minded rightback than Tomovic.

The third big point is about the formations. As we all know, Montella's willingness to shift his personnel between a 4-3-3 and a 3-5-1-1 over the past couple of seasons often seemed to be done without any rhyme or reason. Sousa is also something of a formation switcher, have deployed no fewer than three different looks in eight games, but for him the changes appear more purposeful.

Basel's most interesting games to me, tactically speaking, are their group stage games; they were simply outclassed by Porto in all phases during their knockout-stage tie. That game against Liverpool showed Sousa's willingness to change formations, as Basel set out in an unexpected 3-4-3 formation. Both wingbacks tended to stay deep and provide an easy outlet pass for the defenders, while the wingers also stayed deep and narrow to help compensate for Liverpool's numerical advantage. Liverpool were completely bamboozled: the three centerbacks could, between them, mark Liverpool's striker out of the match, help double up against opposing wingers, and pick up midfield runners without abandoning their responsibilities.

Going forward, the nominal right winger was actually a converted central midfielder who came narrow, confusing the opposing fullback, while the left winger stayed wide and drove at goal. Basel came out with a surprising and well-deserved win. At Liverpool, Sousa out-smarted Rodgers again, this time reverting to Basel's usual 4-3-3 and playing exclusively on the break, scoring an early goal, and easily hanging on for a draw that assured their going through.

At Real, Basel got shelled. Sousa tried to replicate the success of his 3-4-3 from the first Liverpool match, but Real turned out to be a good deal better than the hapless Liverpudlians. In their second game, though, Sousa reverted to the 4-3-3, and, through a combination of pluck and luck, Basel held their own, losing 0-1 and forcing numerous saves from Keylor Navas. While the team defended deep, they didn't entirely park the bus, repeatedly sallying forward to harass Madrid in the midfield. This courage was only possible because Sousa was willing to sacrifice an extra defender against the threat of Ronaldo in favor of another midfielder to pressure Real higher up the pitch. Such positivity demonstrates to me that Sousa isn't a purely reactive tactician.

Against Ludogorets, Sousa continued with the 4-3-3. With all respect to the men from Razgrad, Basel simply has more talented players. However, a red card to midfielder Sergey Die within the first half-hour of their first clash meant Basel played with 10 for most of the game. Sousa immediately reshuffled his squad into a 4-4-1, and Basel parked the bus and played for a draw, succeeding until stoppage time, when Ludogorets finally broke through.

In the second leg, mindful of the gap in quality, Sousa deployed the 4-3-3 again and crushed Ludogorets 4-0, dominating the scoreline and possession against an inferior opponent and better showing his plan for the first game. With a team like Fiorentina, who are more talented than a number of their Serie A brethren, such willingness to play on the front foot means the traditional Florentine desire for pretty football won't go entirely unfed. His ability to quickly react to the red card also shows a fine awareness of the game.

There is obviously a lot more information to be had from these data. Looking forward to seeing everyone else's insights.