Perhaps feeling the criticism leveled at him over his bland and defensive tactics, Paulo Sousa opted for an extraordinarily attack-minded side with Borja Valero, Federico Bernardeschi, Cristian Tello, Josip Ilicic, and Nikola Kalinic in the side, leaving Matias Vecino as the only remotely defensive player in the middle.
Things started about as badly as they possibly could have, short of a meteor strike obliterating the entire city of Florence. Cagliari pressed forward from kickoff and played one into the channel for Marco Sau, who reversed it back into Nicola Murru. Murru duly crossed it and midfielder Davide di Gennaro popped up unmarked at the front post to nod it home after less than 2 minutes. Every Fiorentina fan watching immediately assumed this would be the beginning of the end for Sousa.
Cagliari produced a 4-on-3 break a few minutes later which the Viola backline snuffed out (at this point, a central midfield pairing of Valero and Vecino looked suicidal), but the Viola began growing into the match. Ilicic forced a sprawling save from former Fiorentina backup Marco Storari with a wicked free kick in the 7th minute. Tello nearly set Vecino through with a clever bit of play between them, but the Uruguayan got the ball caught under his feet and fired a weak shot that deflected out for a corner. Moments later, Marco Boriello created a good chance by flicking on a throw-in to di Gennaro, whose volley was sharply saved by Ciprian Tatarusanu.
The 19th minute was the best one for Fiorentina in the young match; Tello sent in a deep cross from the right wing and Kalinic somehow beat the offside trap to head the ball past Storari, equalizing the match and drawing the visitors back into it. Fiorentina kept the pedal down, though, and next Kalinic turned provider. The Croatian galloped into the left channel to chase down a through ball, then turned past his defender and swung in a low cross which Bernardeschi met on the volley at the back post for the second goal in 6 minutes.
With 2 quick goals, you might have expected Sousa to calm things down. The Gigliati kept going, though, and their intent paid off again in the 31st minute. Ilicic got the ball on the break and played in Berna down the left side. The Italian international took a couple of touches at the top of the box, then rocketed an unstoppable shot into the top corner of Storari’s goal to complete his brace and leave the Sant’Elia completely stunned. That astonishment would only increase 8 minutes later, as Berna accidentally set up Kalinic. The youngster cut in from the right and was fouled right on the edge of the box. Nikola, seeing the ball bouncing free and the referee’s arm up for advantage, placed a lovely curler just inside Storari’s near post from 19 yards out to turn 1-0 to 1-4 in the space of 20 minutes.
Despite the fans’ anxieties, there was no post-halftime letdown from the Viola, who immediately began galloping down the pitch on another series of counterattacks. A few minutes into the period, Berna and Bartosz Salamon collided in the box; both ended up needing treatment, and Salamon eventually had to come off the pitch. The excitement ratcheted back up in 52nd minute as Tello curled an absolutely inch-perfect cross onto Kalinic’s head, and the striker easily headed home for his hat-trick.
Even up by 4 goals, Fiorentina kept pressing for more, with Ilicic and Kalinic nearly combining to put the Slovenian through at the 54 minute mark. The next goal came at the other end, though, as Marco Capuano got a clean run from the top of the box to head home a di Gennaro corner from the left. Sousa responded by bringing on Carlos Sanchez for Borja in hopes of closing up shop. Ilicic forced another good save from Storari with another well-placed free kick before making way for 18-year-old Ianis Hagi, who got his Serie A debut.
Just a minute later, though, Cagliari won another corner on the left. Di Gennaro swung in a corner to the same spot he had before, and this time Boriello capitalized with an unmarked header to reduce the arrears to 3-5, but the Viola held out for the remaining 15 minutes to record a win. The only other really notable incident was a debut for Kevin Diks, who came on for Cristian Tello in the 88th minute.
There’s a lot to talk about with this one. Sousa’s very attacking XI certainly paid dividends going forward, combining with each other brilliantly and finding no shortage of angles from which to attack. Moving Borja deeper into midfield resulted in the Spanish maestro playing incisive passes into the attackers to start quick breaks, which we haven’t seen in months. Similarly, unleashing Berna in a more attacking role added an extra dimension of pace to the attack, as he and Tello ran riot all over the pitch.
However, the defensive frailty of the side was clear. Vecino’s tendency to motor forward often left the back three stranded, and although they generally coped quite well, it could have been a different story against a quicker tridente. The abysmal marking from set pieces will also concern Sousa quite a bit. All in all, there’s plenty for the Portuguese mister to think about as he tries to fit the pieces of this purple puzzle together correctly.
Tatarusanu—6.5: Not at fault for any of the goals, and made a couple of good stops, particularly on di Gennaro’s second attempt.
Salcedo—6.5: Generally solid on the right, although both of the Rossoblu’s goals from corners came from his area.
Gonzalo—6: Not his best showing. Lost track of di Gennaro for the first one, and both goals from corners came from his area. Pretty solid in open play, though.
Astori—6.5: Made some excellent last ditch tackles, but was caught watching on the last 2 goals. Picked up a dumb booking.
Tello—7.5: Assisted 2 of Kalinic’s goals, and looked dangerous up and down the right all day. Looks to have fully recovered his excellent form from last season, which makes this attack way more dangerous.
Vecino—6.5: Occasionally looked overwhelmed in the middle, but was frequently stranded in the middle by himself. Still buzzed around impressively for 90 minutes, but needs a bit more help in the middle.
Valero—7: Left Vecino to battle in the middle by himself a bit too often, but keyed a number of promising attacks. Clearly at his best deeper than the no. 10 role Sousa’s been using him in.
Olivera—6: Pretty solid defensively (with one or two exceptions), but clearly doesn’t have the technical ability to play at wingback going forward. He’s probably going to be a very solid leftback, though, and may have supplanted Milic in the first XI.
Ilicic—7: Assisted Berna’s thunderbastard and came close to bagging one for himself on at least 4 occasions. Being paired with Berna rather than Borja clearly agrees with him.
Bernardeschi—8.5: Moving away from wingback worked wonders for the youngster. His dribbling and passing were good, but it’s his off-ball movement that makes him special. May have cemented his spot here.
Kalinic—9.5: Simply unplayable. Won innumerable free kicks and held the ball up brilliantly, plus produced the poaching performance we’ve been waiting for since last January. Also showed some class with his assist. The pace of Berna and Tello opens up a lot more space for him to work in.
Sanchez—6: Helped solidify the midfield, although he got into some type of tiff with Sousa towards the end.
Hagi—6: Looked fairly tidy, but didn’t have enough time to really make an impact. Still, he didn’t seem out of place. Bright future ahead.
Diks—n/a: Only played a couple of minutes, but at least he’s gotten his first Serie A action.
Not too long to rest on the laurels here, because last-placed Crotone comes to town on Wednesday in what sure looks like it could be a trap game.