Remember last year when we made a bunch of predictions about what the Viola season would look like and got every single one of them right? We've decided to the same thing again this year, because the season is much better when it doesn't hold any nasty surprises.
1. What's going to be the biggest difference this year for Fiorentina? What's going to stay the same?
Nolan: Compared to last year, one year further removed from Montella, I expect the club to be more defensive from the get-go - Our midfield ensures the possession advantage will not go away, but with the forward group something of a question, I expect Sousa to commit to a more cautious style of play, especially if the Juventus match is anything to go by. As far as what will stay the same goes, the core players remain the same, and so the team's strength is still going to be short passing; the bigger question is what it will be used for. Additions like Toledo and a full season of Tello mean there is more potential for pace on the wings, but this is still generally a relatively slow team.
JSE: I would attribute the biggest difference to the change of sporting director. Corvino coming in for Prade means that any new signings will come from the Corvino business school. Which to me indicates a trend towards what we have already seen in this window, players that more or less amount to unknown quantities joining the ranks. I doubt we'll be seeing many, if any proven talents arrive in Florence anytime soon.
Sousa’s tactics do not presently look in line for an overhaul. With the Portuguese manager at the helm we can expect more of the same possession based football. In theory that should have us creating enough chances to beat the smaller sides but just like last season will see us come unstuck to the bigger teams. Sousa has to find a solution to the quick counter attacking transitions these teams will hit us with, it happened time and time again last year. Unfortunately I do not see that changing. I hope I am wrong about this but caution seems to be Paulo’s middle name and unless his position comes under scrutiny it will be glorious, spellbinding, safety first football at the Franchi for at least one more year.
Huw: Ambitions have been tempered, I think. Last season saw the tantalising door of opportunity open up before a strange stale patch slammed it shut again. This year, rather than dreaming of a Scudetto in November, we can realise that finishing in the top five is probably alright, top three would be beyond fantastic, considering the competition and the money spent. Basically, everything stays the same but we look at it differently.
Tito: I think the biggest difference is going to be tactical. Sousa's placed an emphasis on quick transitions and wing play at every one of his stops prior to this one. Last year, that obviously wasn't an option. This year, the additions of several pacey wide men make me think that he's going to return to form in that regard. The greatest similarity, I fear, is going to be that singularly Viola penchant for stalling out in the final third, recycling the ball endlessly through the midfield, and then giving up a succession of quick counter attacks. This team needs to learn how to shoot pretty much as soon as they get into the box, then get back to prevent the opponent from breaking against them, especially if they try to follow the traditional Sousa blueprint.
2. What's been the best move in the mercato? Worst? Any areas that still need work?
Nolan: Most of the best moves this mercato were ones with an eye to the future, which may be good overall but they mean there might not be much to get excited about short term. With an influx of young players on loan, guys like Hernan Toledo, Carlos Salcedo, Kevin Diks, and Ianis Hagi may offer little in the short term, but will hopefully get the chances to show us what they are capable of for the future. The last minute moves to shore up the defense are also welcome, but I'm still uncomfortable with the forward group - Kalinic is probably not going to repeat his performance from the first half of last year, Ilicic and Zarate are both erratic, and Sousa appears to have little interest in Rossi or Babacar.
JSE: A difficult question, does holding on to Milan Badelj count? If not getting rid of Mario Gomez! Signings wise I would have to say getting Cristian Tello back in. Most of our other signings are unproven and thus it would be difficult to put my neck out and opt for any of them. I do like the look of Hernan Toledo, I have hope that he could well make an impact if given the opportunity. The worst bit of business was not biting off Napoli’s hand for the 40 million they were reputedly willing to spend on Nikola Kalinic, sheesh I would have given them a 10 million discount and still sold him, though in reality Napoli probably did not even want Kalinic. As for areas that still need work, I think the whole team can be improved upon, starting perhaps with the manager.
Huw: Getting actual money for Mario Gomez.
Honestly, I’m baffled by the transfers. I look away for half a second and Corvino strikes. Boom. Mexican defender. Boom. Polish goalkeeper whose name I can’t spell. Boom. Carlos Sanchez from Aston Villa. Boom. Hagi’s kid. Boom. Milić, with a first name like a bad scrabble hand. Boom. Julian Dicks Kevin Diks.
I don’t know who half these guys are but - in an age where every single transfer is tracked in minute detail on social media - it’s kind of refreshing.
Areas that still need work? As I type this out, Nenad Tomović hasn’t been placed into a canon and shot directly into the heart of the sun. Not yet, anyway.
Tito: The best move has been hanging onto the core of the squad. Considering that Milan Badelj is actively campaigning to leave, Matias Vecino and Nikola Kalinic are both coveted by a ludicrously wealthy Napoli, freaking Arsenal made an offer for Davide Astori, Josip Ilicic was targeted by several teams in England and Germany, and Borja Valero is totally going to leave his favorite city ever and stuff himself into the clown car that is AS Roma, I think Corvino deserves some plaudits for not breaking up what's a pretty good group of players. That familiarity should only help this team improve next year. On the other hand, there haven't been any big transfers to put some pressure on the starters and keep them hungry, which is particularly important seeing how complacent this squad got in the second half of last season.
3. What's the team's greatest strength right now?
Nolan: The midfield is still our biggest strength - the Borja Valero, Badelj, and Vecino trio should still be among the league's elite assuming they can remain healthy, and I believe the addition of Carlos Sanchez can help (hopefully more than Mario Suarez). It's the one part of this team with some certainty, even if we are already seeing injury concerns. I also keep forgetting Matias Fernandez is still on this team; if he stays, he can hopefully continue his trend of being very good every other season (if given the chance).
JSE: The greatest strength lies with the fact that the team is more or less unchanged, we have a settled squad who all know each other's game. Strength can arguably be found in consistency, I just hope Sousa can improve in the areas that we were found to be deficient in last term, I am not holding my breath though.
Huw: Mystery. Mystery and surprise. Mystery, surprise, and lots of confusion. No one knows whether we’re any good. Including us.
Tito: I can't believe I'm about to type this, but there's depth all over the pitch right now. For the first time since the Cesare Prandelli era, every starter has a pretty clear backup. Sure, not all those guys are proven, quality players, but they aren't Octavio, and that's the point: they exist in three dimensions and can chew up minutes to keep the starters a little bit fresher, which should help avoid last year's precipitous post-Christmas slide.
4. And its greatest weakness?
Nolan: As I mentioned, the forward group has a lot of questions - there's a wealth of options, but as opposed to the midfield, little certainty. There's talent, but I don't particularly trust any of the options as a reliable source for goals. I'm glad the Mario Gomez experiment is over, but I'm not convinced Kalinic is that #9 who can reach 20 goals for us, or even 15. I wish Sousa would give Rossi or Babacar more chances, but we can't expect that, and Ilicic and Zarate are better when they aren't expected to be primary goal scorers. The defense has not looked good in a while, but I have more faith that the new additions can put it together than I do that this team will suddenly become clinical in front of the goal.
JSE: Can your greatest strength also be your greatest weakness? With an unchanged team we will be a known entity to all of our Serie A opponents. That said if we are looking at it from a positional stance I would say our lack of firepower. This team with a 20 plus goals a season striker would be, or rather should be qualifying for Champions League football. The way Kalinic tailed off last year makes me prone to thinking Mr. Babacar should be let off the leash in order to strike fear into defences up and down the peninsula. If given the main role I think the Senegalese forward would flourish. However it remains to be seen whether he will ever get given that responsibility at Fiorentina.
Huw: Is Sousa actually good? I’m still not convinced. Occasionally he does very good things and then, every now and again, he looks as confused and helpless as everyone else.
Tito: There's nobody on this squad who just scares the pants off an opponent. Federico Bernardeschi and Cristian Tello are good, but don't force teams to change anything. Ditto for Giuseppe Rossi. Fiorentina need that guy who forces opponents to alter their plans to stop him from winning games. Until they have someone like that, we're going to see a lot of points dropped.
5. Who's your player to watch for the season? Which youngsters or unheralded players are going to make the jump to key squad members like Berna and Vecino last year?
Nolan: I'm excited to see Hernan Toledo; he will be a wild card and is probably closer to a finished product than say, Josip Maganjic or Ianis Hagi. But if anyone will get the opportunity to break out, I suspect it will be some of the new guys on defense - Kevin Diks is very young but has significant first team experience in the Eredivisie, plus he plays a position where additional depth is needed, while Carlos Salcedo is the type of physical stopper we have been looking for to give Gonzalo and Astori some rest. If this team ends up having a good season, it will likely come from the defense exceeding expectations, and these two kids could play a part in it.
JSE: My player to watch is Milan Badelj, I honestly do not think there are many better players in his position in the world. Therefore make the most of it because he will probably no longer be in purple next season, or who knows it could be even earlier than that if he departs in January. Of the youngsters I'm looking at the kin of Messrs Hagi and Chiesa. Federico Chiesa looked to be a pretty smart operator against Juventus so we can live in hope that big things beckon. It's a double edged sword for these guys though as their name opens the door but also buries them if they do not live up to the high expectations set by their antecedents. Surely it is not fair, but that is unfortunately something that comes with the territory if you are the spawn of footballing royalty. A nod in the direction of Luca Lezzerini too, there is an outside chance he might oust Ciprian Tatarusanu from between the sticks. In the games Lezzerini has played he has looked like a natural goalkeeper. As in he looks very comfortable when commanding his penalty area and has combined this with good decision making, in my opinion it's so far so good for the young Italian.
Huw: Giuseppe Rossi? That’s a cheating answer but I think he’s still got a lot to offer. I liked the look of Chiesa, so far, he’s been quite good in that one actual game. Desperate for Hagi to be anything like his dad because that’d be great.
Tito: I think that Gonzalo Rodriguez and Borja Valero are, as ever, the key men. What's different, though, is that they're both getting older; Gonzalo looked poor against Juventus, and Borja's already dinged up. We may see a lot more squad rotation than we did last year, especially once Matias Fernandez is healthy again. I also think that a full season of Cristian Tello will open a lot of space for the midfield, which would be swell. I'll jump on the Hernan Toledo train, because he looks like a tailor-made Vecino replacement, but I also think that Kevin Diks may work out rather nicely. Sousa's preference for easing new players in (unless there's really no other options) makes me doubt we'll see much of the youngsters for another couple of months, outside of the Coppa and maybe some Europa League game in Estonia.
6. And, as always, we'll end with the predictions. Where does Fiorentina finish in Serie A, the Coppa Italia, and the Europa League at the end of the season?
Nolan: That ugly Juventus game - don't let the score fool you, Fiorentina was completely awful - still stings, so while I'm trying to be objective, I'm just not feeling it right now. Last year started out far better than most of us expected, but as soon as the enthusiasm died down, things got ugly - our overall result last season masks how awful we were for the second half of the season - relegation worthy bad. And while it might not be THAT bad, the body language from the players out there has been concerning since preseason began, and even an opening day game against Juventus was not enough to get them motivated. Combined with a coach who seems to have no faith in his own squad, disinterested management, and a fan base that is likely ready to erupt in anger, we could be in for a very ugly season. I'm predicting a mid table finish in Serie A - 8th place might actually be generous, combined with a phanton quarterfinal run in the Coppa Italia and a first knockout round exit in the Europa League.
JSE: I hate making predictions, I am a bit superstitious in that regard. Nevertheless I will throw caution to the wind. Always the optimist I will say 7th in the league, evened out by a Coppa Italia victory and a round of 16 exit from the Europa League. The European campaign is of course dependent on the draw, maybe we will make the quarter finals or we could well go out in the groups, tis a difficult prediction to make without first seeing our group opponents.
Huw: Fifth. Out of the cup because no one seems to care about it. Europa League… don’t know. Spurs will probably turn up after crashing out of the Champions League and then we can play them again, as is traditional.
Tito: I'm not hitting the panic button yet. With the depth all across the board, this club should be able to avoid a mid-season meltdown, but its also unlikely to surprise anyone enough to run out to capolista. Looking around the league, I think that Juventus, Napoli, Roma, and the Milan clubs are all capable of finishing ahead of the Viola. As a pessimist, I'll assume they all will (or, more realistically, that one of those five will fall apart and Torino or Sassuolo or someone will nip in ahead) and predict a 6th place Serie a finish, with semifinal exits from the cup competitions--ignominiously in the Europa League, and in typically heartbreaking fashion in the Coppa.