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3 at the back could hurt Fiorentina more than help

An extra defender looks nice on paper, but the knock-on effects across the pitch just aren’t worth it.

ACF Fiorentina v Atalanta BC - Serie A
The face of a man who’s deep in contemplation.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1, as currently incorporated, doesn’t seem to be working, and I doubt that even the most hard-headed of observers will argue. Amidst conjecture from various media outlets, it’s been rumored that the mister could shake things up with a switch to a 4-3-3, the ramifications of which are discussed here. But there’s also an outside chance that he could move to a 3-man defense, which would shake things up even more.

While Pioli’s shown himself pretty committed to the use of fullbacks and wingers throughout his career, we can agree that either 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 could conceivably suit his personnel. The most obvious change at the back would be the inclusion of €8-million-man Vitor Hugo, who’s been banished to the bench since the arrival and blossoming of Germán Pezzella. While it’d be nice to actually get some value for that investment, the Brazilian never seemed to get on the same page with Davide Astori. Furthermore, the centerbacks haven’t been the problem, and it doesn’t make sense to change a unit that’s been fine this season.

Further forward, we could see a midfield three of Milan Badelj, Jordan Veretout, and Marco Benassi. It’d be nice to see Benassi get a chance in a 3-man midfield, in which he’s always looked more comfortable, and the protection of an extra man in the middle could well help the Viola control things. With Carlos Sánchez and Sebastian Cristoforo on the bench, this could easily become a more defensive unit when the situation required it.

Alternatively, the Badelj-Veretout pairing could be allowed to continue in favor of adding an extra forward in a 3-4-2-1/3-4-3. Federico Chiesa, Gil Dias, Riccardo Saponara, Valentin Eysseric, and (yes) Cyril Théréau all have the characteristics to man that spot behind the striker. With the freedom to drift inside, they could help protect the midfield duo and contribute a bit more to the buildup while still staying fairly close to the striker. Giovanni Simeone is a lock at striker, but his isolation has left him a spectator to most matches. The chance to pair him up with Khouma Babacar or Théréau would certainly allow for quicker breaks and combinations of up top in a 3-5-2.

The wings are where we run into problems. On the left, neither Cristiano Biraghi nor Maxi Olivera possess the pace and quality going forward to stretch a defense as the only man on the left, while Dias certainly doesn’t have the defensive nous right now. On the right, Bruno Gaspar looks a natural for the job, and Chiesa could drop back in a pinch.

The real problem here is the shortcomings we’d see elsewhere. In a 3-5-2, leaving Biraghi or Olivera as the only wide option on the left would allow opposing defenses to collapse the middle, much as they have already this season with only Théréau to trouble them on that side. With strikers in Simeone and Babacar who like to stay central, this would lead to a lot of attacks fizzling out as opponents collapsed into the box and dared the Viola to play through them.

In a 3-4-2-1/3-4-3, the midfield pair would remain badly exposed, as we’ve seen all season. Adding another defender behind them might seem like it could help them keep possession by playing simple passes back, but Vitor Hugo certainly doesn’t have the passing quality to shift things into attack, and the removal of one more option going forward would probably make it even harder to work the ball into dangerous areas.

This is all theoretical anyways, as Pioli has favored four at the back through his entire career. He also likes having wide attackers to stretch opponents horizontally across the pitch, thus opening more space for the central players to work. Unfortunately, this is very different from how the Viola have played for the past half decade, when Vincenzo Montella and Paulo Sousa have chosen to flood the middle and control matches with steady, short passes rather than try to stretch play and strike on the break. It’s yet another reminder that the project Pioli has undertaken to rebuild Fiorentina is a lengthy one, and we probably shouldn’t judge it until we’ve seen at least a year of his work.