Riccardo Saponara is a really, really good player. His close control and dribbling are very good, he’s got an eye for the killer pass that’s as good as anyone’s in Italy, and he can crank a shot from distance with the best of them. When the official announcement arrived that he’d signed with Fiorentina from Empoli, I full-on jumped up and down and yelled with surprise and excitement. But before we (I) get too carried away, how does he fit into this team?
Usually used as a number 10 in Empoli’s 4-3-1-2, he’ll have a very different role in Florence, and not only because the Viola have a bunch of other creative midfielder types in Borja Valero, Federico Bernardeschi, and Josip Ilicic. So we’re going to look at Paulo Sousa’s tactics and try to figure out where “the Cheese” will fit in once he’s recovered from his ankle injury.
Sousa’s recently returned to the 3-4-2-1 formation that worked so well last year, albeit with some mixed results. It’s pretty obvious that Saponara would slot in as one of the two playmakers here, as he’s probably not robust enough for a midfield spot or up-and-down enough for a wingback spot. The knock-on effect, though, is that one of Berna, Borja, and Lurch—Sousa’s preferred options in that role—would drop to the bench. Josip seems the most obvious candidate, with Valero dropping into a deeper midfield spot. However, that would force one of Milan Badelj or Matias Vecino out as well and make the Viola even more vulnerable on the break, particularly against opponents with physical midfields. Given the struggles at the back in recent weeks, that’s almost suicidal.
The second option is a return to the 4-2-3-1 that we saw earlier this season. The prospect of a Berna-Saponara-Chiesa line behind Nikola Kalinic or Khouma Babacar is mouthwatering and would surely be one of the best in Serie A. However, this runs into the same problems as the 3-4-2-1. Where does Borja Valero go? If left in front of the defense, he leaves an enormous burden on his midfield partner. If pushed into the number 10 role, Saponara and Chiesa would be forced to the wing and the bench, respectively.
There’s no easy solution here. A return to a 3-man midfield (say, a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2) would accommodate Valero better, but then leaves at least one of the attackers out in the cold. The best solution, perhaps, is a 4-3-2-1, as it would allow Berna and Saponara to operate a bit behind the striker and let Valero dictate play from deeper while maintaining a sturdy midfield pairing to help the defense. But even then, Chiesa and Ilicic are left in the cold.
So what do you think, sports fans? What should be the shape and personnel in Sousa’s new first XI?