Now that the dust has settled a bit on the most emphatic Fiorentina win in recent memory, let’s have a look at how and why the match turned out the way that it did. While there are plenty of obvious reasons for this one—Chievo Verona playing an extraordinarily high line in the second half, some good Viola finishing—there are some other factors at play as well. I’m going to highlight the three biggest, although there was pretty much an infinite number of other dynamics at play with each other, just like in any other match.
1. Marco Benassi’s positioning
Many of us spent all of last year trying to figure out what the heck was up with Marco Benassi. We couldn’t really tell if his tendency to drift in and out (but mostly out) of matches was due to the unconventional shuttling role that Stefano Pioli stuck him in, or if it was his own misinterpretation of that role. Against the Flying Donkeys, though, Benassi’s mezzala role was refined a bit from how we saw it last year, giving him a bit more freedom. Last year, Benassi was instructed to stay wide in the defensive phase before either overlapping Federico Chiesa like a fullback looking to cross or underlapping to pick up a cutback from the winger. This unconventional brief for a central midfielder seemed to confuse him; the first half of the Chievo match was more of the same.
In the second half, however, Pioli seemed to give Benassi a new set of instructions, ordering him to get chalk on his boots. This allowed Chiesa to play a more central role, pulling the Chievo fullback inside so that Benassi was left all alone on the right. Without a direct marker, he had time and space to pick his passes, but also to run in behind the defense, as he did for both his goals.
Most interesting to me, though, was Benassi’s role in defense: he would frequently push all the way up the pitch and join Simeone in pressing the opposing centerbacks. This out-to-in role suits him much better than the former in-to-out one, since it lets him get in behind and make quick decisions in space, which is more his strength than guile in possession. It also complements the rest of the side, allowing Chiesa to vary his width, secure in the knowledge that Benassi will fill in behind him, and adding another forward passing option rather than a lateral one. With Jordan Veretout returning from suspension soon and Edimilson Fernandes unlikely to start in the holding role again (not to mention a slate of 36 more matches which won’t be played against Chievo), it’ll be interesting to see if Pioli sticks with this new role for Benassi or if it was a one-time thing.
2. Balanced fullbacks
This feels pretty new for Fiorentina fans. After all, a hybrid defense featuring a rightback who shuffles across to become an extra central defender and a leftback who stays way up the pitch to stretch play was perhaps the defining feature of Vincenzo Montella’s tactical system, and Paulo Sousa kept it in place as well. Pioli has scrapped that, though, and opted for a more symmetrical approach. While there were various occasions which saw Nikola looking like the right side of a 3-man back line, he and Cristiano Biraghi were actually a lot more balanced in their positioning than I recalled. Have a look at their heatmaps if you don’t believe me.
The difference is their approach when they get up the pitch. Aside from that shot (which holy hell), the Mountain likes to keep things tidy when he ventures forward, usually looking for a simple sideways or backwards pass to keep the ball circulating. Biraghi, on the other hand, is a good crosser of the ball and like to swing in curling crosses from deep; of the 8 crosses that Fiorentina played in this game, 6 came from Biraghi. One was a lovely one that Benassi finished up; one nearly gave Giovanni Simeone a goal and required a last-second Nenad Tomović intervention which resulted in a corner; another picked out Chiesa in the box, but the youngster couldn’t sort his finish. It’s the crossing that makes me think that Biraghi’s always up while Nikola’s always back, but their positioning makes it clear that such is not the case.
3. Vulnerability from set pieces
Because this is Viola Nation, of course I’m going to seize on the one goal the team conceded instead of the six that it scored, because doom, doom, DOOM. Fiorentina conceded from a set piece, and that’s pretty troubling, because set piece goals were the silent killer last year. The Gigliati allowed 15 goals from set pieces last year. Only Benevento (16), Hellas Verona (16), Udinese (17), and Crotone (21, as part of arguably the worst defensive record in Serie A history) allowed more. The teams that qualified for Europe conceded an average of 6.7 goals from set pieces over the course of the season.
Of greater concern than the sheer number, though, is the rate at which Fiorentina allow their opponents to score from set pieces. 33% of all the goals that the team conceded last season came from dead ball plays. Serie A teams, on average, allowed 22% of their goals from these situations; the only side in the league that allowed a higher proportion from free kicks was, weirdly enough, Juventus. The difference is that the Bianconeri only allowed 10 goals from open play, which number was so much lower than everyone else that it skewed their defensive metrics quite a bit. The six sides that qualified for Europe allowed an average of 23% of their goals from set pieces, and Newcastle Junior wrecks that number; if you ignore their obvious outlying statistics, it’s 21% among the rest of the teams.
Some of those struggles are certainly on Marco Sportiello, whose greatest weakness seems to be a penchant for misreading free kicks. Alban Lafont, though, is just 19 years old, and commanding the area is one of the trickiest things for a young goalkeeper to master, as it simply requires experience. It’s hard to imagine Lafont being an immediate upgrade in this department, especially considering his nervousness on crosses. I’m not sure what Pioli needs to do to combat the rash of goals conceded from set pieces, but it has to be among his top priorities if it doesn’t headline the list.