The rummage sale being held in Florence is finally closing in on its conclusion. Gone are Borja Valero, Gonzalo Rodríguez, Federico Bernardeschi, and Josip Iličić. Matías Vecino, Milan Badelj, and Nikola Kalinić should be close behind. That core has been the center of Fiorentina for at least 2 years; in the case of Borja and Gonzalo, for quite a bit longer. And now they’ve all moved on or will do so soon.
And that’s not an entirely terrible thing. While these are all very good players in a vacuum, they didn’t ever achieve much, outside of reaching capolista status at midseason, which was immediately followed by a tumble not just from the top of the table, but out of the Champions League places. While they leave behind individual legacies ranging from outright heroic (Valero) to “wow how’d he score that many goals” (Josip), their collective efforts never did much for the club as a whole.
Some, if not most, of the blame falls squarely on Paulo Sousa and his inability to find a system to get the best out of all his players. Some of the blame falls on Pantaleo Corvino for not finding adequate reinforcements. Some of the blame falls on the Della Valles for refusing to pony up the cash required to buy a stronger supporting cast. But whoever’s fault these past few underachieving seasons are, the conclusion remains that they were disappointing.
So what can a club do? Fiorentina don’t have the financial clout of Juventus or AC Milan or Inter Milan, or of AS Roma or Napoli or Lazio. Heck, it looks more like the Viola are on par with outfits like Atalanta, Sassuolo, and Genoa, at least in financial terms. And the inability to buy top players leads to a further inability to consistently climb up the table, leading to further difficulties in buying top players, and so on to the point of ourobouros.
By ditching all of the more senior, more valuable, and higher-salaried players on the roster, Fiorentina have begun a very difficult transition at the exact right moment. The club veered away from buying talented youngsters during the Daniele Pradè years, instead hitching its wagon to proven veterans who had, for whatever reason, underachieved for a few years. While that strategy paid immediate dividends under the guidance of Vincenzo Montella, Pradè didn’t focus on the long-term, and few of his younger purchases are ready to help out now.
What smart clubs do is buy cheap and young talent that will appreciate in value, excel as those young players mature, and then sell them when they get an offer that will allow them to reload. That’s not a secret. Heck, there’s a whole chapter devoted to this concept in Soccernomics. But what a lot of people forget is that, for an ambitious club, you need an in-house replacement for the players you’ve sold. You need someone who knows the system and the team and the dynamics both on and off the pitch to avoid a massive drop-off. This was Pradè’s greatest sin: he brought in quality players, but never thought about what would happen when they left.
If it feels like Corvino is doing the opposite now, that’s because he is. The raft of bright young things he’s imported over the past couple of years isn’t perfect. Not every teenager he’s bought will become a €100 million player. But a lot of them look like future internationals and, at worst, steady players at the club level. As they mature, Corvino will continue to buy their replacements three years ahead of time, stashing them with the Primavera or out on loan.
The reason this is the perfect time to do this is that the Viola academy is at its zenith. The Primavera have been top 4 fixtures in their league for years, and the list of prospects wearing purple is one that nearly any club in the world would envy. Guys like Federico Chiesa and Ianis Hagi are ready for first-team action, and that’s great. But it’s perhaps more important that guys like Jan Mlakar, Abdou Diakhate, Gaetano Castrovilli, Lorenzo Venuti, and Andy Bangu are beginning to spread their wings on loan. And with youth stars like Giacomo Satalino, Riccardo Baroni, Luca Ranieri, Fabio Maistro, Joshua Pérez, Josip Maganjić, Gabriele Gori, and Riccardo Sottil nearing that stage as well, the Gigliati have an absolutely stacked group of youngsters. Within the next three years, we should know which ones are keepers because they’ll be featuring regularly for the senior side. It’s really exciting.
It’s also gonna hurt. Seeing Fiorentina languishing in the midtable places will bring back unpleasant memories of the Siniša Mihajlović years. But if Fiorentina wants to get back to Champions League football, a renewed focus on building a successful, club-wide infrastructure is what’s needed, not a few ultra-talented players. By focusing on the little things, the Della Valles and Corvino are slowly but surely creating a purple juggernaut, and that should be the intention.