Stefano Pioli set out a slightly unexpected formation. Nikola Milenković resumed his spot at rightback, pushing preseason darling Kevin Diks back to the bench. In midfield, Christian Nørgaard and Gerson both started in a rather unfamiliar pairing. Valentin Eysseric got the nod on the wing over new signings Marko Pjaca and Kevin Mirallas.
Fiorentina started with a very deep block, inviting pressure from the hosts and honestly soaking it up pretty well; they barely allowed Schalke 04 a sniff at goal. The only times the Germans threatened early were when Alban Lafont fluffed his distribution, letting an early backpass roll just past his post for a corner and mishitting a pass that found its way to a blue shirt, but the Viola coped each time without too much trouble. Milenković in particular stood out for the defense, stopping everything they threw at him with typical power and composure.
It took Fiorentina about half an hour to really find their passing rhythm; prior to that, the buildup was mostly comprised of the defenders knocking the ball across the backline until Schalke pressured them into thumping it long, then retreating and repeating. However, Gerson began to stamp his authority on the match after thirty minutes or so, moving a bit higher up the pitch and driving at defenders with the ball at his feet. He caused some chaos between the lines. He created the half’s best chance at 14’, slipping in from the left wing to set up Marco Benassi for a thunderous shot that forced Ralf Fährmann into a diving save.
Benassi did a fair amount of shooting from distance, doing poorly with a setup from Giovanni Simeone and then better (but still not especially good) with a Federico Chiesa cutback. Valentin Eysseric was also more involved than we’ve seen him of late, producing a couple of twisting runs that won free kicks in promising spots. The Frenchman also seems to have overtaken Cristiano Biraghi for corner kick duties.
Fiorentina came out just as they’d gone in: firing on all cylinders, although Kevin Mirallas came on for Valentin Eysseric. It took 3 minutes for Fede to cut in from the left wing and fire a rocket that forced Fährmann into a sprawl, but Cholito somehow put the rebound over the bar from 4 yards out with the net wide open. It, uh, got a lot worse after that. Viola ex Matija Nastasić struck the post with a free kick (anyone else remember him never doing anything like that?).
At the hour mark, Pioli brought on Marko Pjaca for his Viola debut (against a former club, no less) and Federico Ceccherini for Chiesa and Vitor Hugo. Perhaps the new additions weren’t fully up with their teammates, as Fiorentina completely lost control of the match around this point. Schalke kept the ball in the Viola half for pretty much the rest of the match, and the Viola were unable to relieve the pressure. At 69’, Weston McKinnie (who grew up right up the road from me) charged forward with the ball following a turnover, spread it to Daniel Caligiuri on the right, and continued his run into the box, where he somehow ran straight through the defense unchecked and sidefooted home the cross unmarked.
That opened the floodgates as the Viola tried to push forward, but all they did was leave space at the back, and Schalke happily took up the offer. Five minutes after the first goal, the Germans grabbed a second through Steven Skrzybski, who got in behind the defense and finished neatly past Lafont. A few Schalke chances later and they grabbed a third when Ceccherini, trying to keep the ball under pressure at the back, inexplicably played in an attacker who centered it for Skrzybski, who converted a ridiculously easy chance. The ref blew soon after, bringing the nightmare to a close.
Despite the scoreline, this wasn’t an entirely negative match for the Viola. They were miles better for the first 50 minutes, playing stout defense and offering a serious threat on the break. The subs may have jerked the lads out of their rhythm; with so many players who’ve had little or no practice time with their mates, it’s hardly a surprise that they’d fall apart when faced with an experienced opponent.
On the downside, though, some of the new signings were not very impressive. Christian Nørgaard didn’t look ready. Ceccherini had an absolute horror show, giving away one goal on a platter and doing pretty poorly on another. Mirallas was invisible, and Pjaca’s only action was a frustrated foul that earned him a booking. The pieces are in place for this team to be solid, but Pioli will have to get them playing cohesively. From what we saw here, it may take longer than we’d like for that to happen.
Three things we learned
- So Gerson, huh? The Brazilian was a revelation in midfield. He continually found space between the lines or wide on the left and played on the turn very well, earning a number of free kicks in dangerous areas. With the ball at his feet, he drove at the defense and put opponents in tough situations. His passing was mostly safe, but fairly clever and occasionally incisive. He should overtake Marco Benassi very soon if he hasn’t already.
- This Fiorentina is going to be a nightmare matchup for just about anyone. Again, the unfamiliarity of the squad led to a late meltdown, but once they’re all on the same page, this is going to be a team that nobody relishes playing against. The starting defense is strong, quick, and well-organized. The midfield—at least for the first 50 minutes—was impeccably positioned and denied Schalke any avenues to goal. The forwards—assuming that one of Pjaca and Mirallas turns out to be a lot better than they showed here, which is likely—have the pace and technique to make you pay on the break, but also to break down a deep block. The physical style and non-stop running should leave opponents tired and sore.
- It’s all on Pioli now. Fiorentina’s first XI is as good as we’ve seen in a few years. Everyone out there is, at worst, a league-average player, and there’s some star power there as well. The backline, as I said, is good. A midfield of Veretout, Dabo, and Gerson may lack fantasia, but makes up for that with grinta and running. The tridente is young, fast, and talented. Corvino has found a good group of players; now the mister has to meld them into a team. It may take a bit longer, as there have been a lot of late arrivals and Corvino specializes in the final week of the mercato, but Pioli may find his seat a bit warmer than he’d like if he can’t produce results with this bunch fairly soon.