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Fiorentina needed Saponara 4 years ago, but not anymore

The Cheese would have fit right in under Montella, but the Viola project has moved in a very different direction.

ACF Fiorentina v Spal - Serie A
Cheese shark.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

We can all agree that Riccardo Saponara is a fun footballer, even if he rarely does the spectacular things that end up on YouTube. He’s got a knack for finding creases between the lines, playing on the half turn, and involving his teammates. While he sometimes hits the killer pass, he’s more likely to pull an opposing defense out of shape with his positioning and movement, thereby creating space for somebody else to exploit. Although he’s not the fastest, and he’s not going to slip past defenders with the ball at his feet, and he doesn’t pack a punishing shot from distance, he’s every inch the number 10, the trequartista, the man tasked with connecting midfield and attack, with a foot in both departments and his heart not entirely in either.

These kinds of players have always been so much fun to watch. Juan Román Riquelme is probably the finest example of a lead-footed player who’s a step ahead at all times; while Ricky is nowhere near that level, he fits a similar space on the pitch: the elegant creator who you want on the ball as often as possible to open things up. That very elegance, though, is what’s doomed his sort of player in the modern game, which is all about pace and pressure, blood and thunder, and not the sort of slower play that harkens back to a time when players still smoked cigarettes. Stefano Pioli is creating a new Fiorentina side, one that’s built around running and tackling and getting in the other team’s face to win the ball, and Saponara simply doesn’t fit.

We knew that about Ricky, of course. While he may be willing to stick a foot in, he lacks the defensive nous to cut passing lanes or body a man off the ball, and he’s not fast enough to stick out wide and threaten a fullback. More importantly, he doesn’t seem very interested in either of those things: even when nominally fielded as a winger last year, he spent nearly all of his time in the middle of the pitch where he could see more of the ball and run things.

And you know what? It worked. Fiorentina looked so much better after Pioli, desperate to get his attack clicking, threw the Cheese out there. Ricky found space and stayed in space and all of a sudden Federico Chiesa and Giovanni Simeone looked so, so much better. He gave the functional Viola midfield a short forward passing option and gave the players a way to control matches a bit rather than launching the ball into the channels every time it came near them. Although he didn’t score once, he tallied 4 assists in 18 matches and may have been the most important man down the stretch for Fiorentina, albeit not the most talented.

But that’s the thing. He’s got heaps of talent, but he can only perform one role, and that’s the role of the trequartista. The team has to be built around him. At Empoli, it worked perfectly since he was one of, if not the, best players there. In Florence, he’s at best the third-best attacker behind Chiesa and Simeone. The problem is that using him as a 10 means that the team has to sacrifice either a central midfielder—and thus its defensive solidity—or its width, which means that Chiesa gets mobbed as the only man near the touchline.

It also means that, when Saponara is injured (which is a pretty frequent occurrence), the team has to change its entire approach or find a similar replacement. Frankly, Fiorentina can’t really afford one luxury player, much less two, so finding a replacement is right out, and it doesn’t make sense to have two entirely separate formations and sets of tactics based on one player’s availability.

Had he arrived in Florence under Vincenzo Montella or Cesare Prandelli, he would have been a star. He would have thrived as the number 10 in Prandelli’s 4-2-3-1, and Montella—no stranger to shoehorning classy ball-players into the side regardless of formation—would have found him a spot. But under Pioli, there’s simply no room for passengers, which is what Saponara is when he’s not seeing lots of the ball.

It’s a blow for the romantics who think that football should be a pursuit that requires the joy of self-expression. It’s yet another indication in a month full of them that Fiorentina may not be the type of club that can afford romance anymore if it wants to climb back into the European places and beyond. The 10 and Florence are one of the most iconic combinations in calcio—Antognoni, Roberto Baggio, Rui Costa, Adrian Mutu—and Saponara is, while not that caliber of player, hardly a disgrace to the shirt.

This, more than the summary departures of Borja Valero and Gonzalo Rodríguez, indicates that the Vincenzo Montella era is well and truly over. Paulo Sousa tried to keep Cousin Vinny’s style of play, but lacked the necessary vision and commitment (and maybe also the squad); you may not like the fast, powerful, aggressive, brutalist thing that Pioli is building, but at least he’s trying something different rather than riding a predecessor’s coattails. At least he’s stepping out on his own, refusing to be a lesser son of greater sires. If he fails, it’ll be failure on his own terms instead of a failure from half a decade ago that won’t admit it’s dead.

But you can also be sad for what Fiorentina has lost: the magical interplay through the middle, featuring some of the best passing midfielders in Europe. Riccardo Saponara was made for those teams. He just didn’t get to Florence in time to be a part of them.