Stefano Pioli sent out the exact XI we’d expected, while Udinese boss Julio Velázquez, faced with a shortage of options in central midfield, swapped shapes from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. The real action ahead of the actual game, though, was the motorcade (scootercade?) that the Fiorentina fans provided to the team bus as it entered the Artemio Franchi.
As planned, Fiorentina supporters accompany the team bus from the hotel to the stadium in Florence before today’s match. Some with flags, some with Astori shirts, but all keen to show their solidarity with this young side.— Chloe Beresford (@ChloeJBeresford) September 2, 2018
Fiorentina started brightly, with Federico Chiesa going down in the box under pressure from Samir in just the second minute. Perhaps not wanting to award a penalty so early, referee Antonio Giua waved it off, although replays showed that the Brazilian probably did trip Fede up a bit. 5 minutes later, Cristiano Biraghi played a marvelous ball through for Marco Benassi, but the midfielder got the ball stuck under his feet in the box and couldn’t shoot or cross for Giovanni Simeone. Fiorentina spent the remainder of the opening quarter hour moving the ball well and creating half chances, but never got the final touch just right.
At 22’, Chiesa went on a brilliant run through the middle, swerving past 5 defenders before getting dragged down about 30 yards from goal. Valentin Eysseric curled the ensuing free kick just past the post. The rest of the half, honestly, was more of a scuffle, largely because Udinese’s strategy seemed to consist mostly of kicking the hell out of Fede and company, with Viola ex and captain Valon Behrami the worst offender. While the Viola managed to get a few more shots off, with Cholito, Benassi, and Gerson all involved, it was a disjointed, stop-start affair, and the break came as a relief. Fiorentina had clearly dominated the match, allowing just one shot from the visitors, but Giua’s reticence to do something about the persistent fouling prevented the hosts from finding a rhythm.
Bartłomiej Drągowski made his season debut at the break, as Alban Lafont had picked up a hamstring strain at some point and had to come off; he wasn’t busy at all, so it’s hard to know what exactly happened. Anyways, Fiorentina came out and immediately pinned the Zebrette back again without quite finding a way towards goal. The visitors managed a counter in the 52nd, but Vitor Hugo made a brilliant sliding intervention on Ignacio Pussetto to prevent a shot as the Uruguayan wound up. A minute later, Fiorentina had their best chance of the match from a corner as Gerson flicked on a header at the front post and neither Germán Pezzella nor Nikola Milenković, who were both completely unmarked at the back post, could quite reach it.
Pioli went to his bench again just after the hour mark, bringing on Marko Pjaca for Eysseric. The Croatian provided an instant impact down the left, putting his shoulder down, stepping over the ball, and leaving two defenders in his wake before driving into the box and finding Gerson, who cut it back for Biraghi at the top of the box; the Italian’s powerful drive cut just wide, though. Udinese’s determined defense and policy of kicking anything in a purple shirt looked to have this young Viola side frustrated.
The difference, of course, is that the visitors simply didn’t have the quality to stop Chiesa. In the 73rd minute, Udi won a corner that Fiorentina cleared to their young star. Fede turned, drove up the pitch past several defenders, and then slowed down outside the box to let the blur named Benassi catch up—Marco probably covered 70 meters at a dead sprint to support his teammate. Chiesa clipped a ball over the top right into Benassi’s path, and the midfielder did the rest, lashing a stupendous volley that lasered its way into the top near corner past Simone Scuffet.
Udinese, who’d been doing everything they could to waste time, suddenly discovered a new sense of urgency. They applied pressure to the Viola defense, winning a series of corners, but never really looked like putting one past Drągowski. Indeed, the space they left at the back gave Fiorentina plenty of room to attack; Bryan Dabo, Pjaca, Chiesa, and Simeone combined on a brilliant move which fizzled out when none of them took on the shot, and Chiesa hit a lovely cross to Pjaca deep in stoppage time, which the Croatian unselfishly cut back for Dabo, whose shot was blocked.
Fiorentina fully deserved a win here as the only team that even remotely set out to play football. It was ugly and disjointed, but this was a heck of a display from the hosts; last year, they wouldn’t have scored and it would have been a lost two points. Now, though, this group is ready to grit out ugly wins even when they’re not at their best and their opponents are studiously assaulting their legs. You don’t expect to see such a winning mentality from the youngest team in the league, and yet here we are.
Stefano Pioli mostly got his tactics right here, although the lack of composure in the final third remains a concern. Then again, very few teams are going to be able to engage in anti-football like this without some sort of penalty from the referee. Too, the return of Jordan Veretout next time out will be a boost, even if it comes against a Napoli side that’s hurting and angry and thus probably quite dangerous. But 6 points with a match in hand isn’t a bad thing to look at over the international break, and we’ll happily take it.
Lafont—6: Didn’t have very much to do. Had one excellent claim off a cross, but was otherwise mostly a spectator. Hopefully his injury is of the minor variety and he’ll be back after the break.
Milenković—5.5: Was half a step off in the first half, misplacing simple passes forward and losing the ball with distressing regularity. Settled down after halftime and dug in well, but didn’t go forward very often. It’s easy to forget he’s so young and that he’ll have matches like this occasionally.
Pezzella—6.5: Another quietly assured performance from the man with the armband. Had little to do besides shuffle the ball from side to side. Stood strong at the end when the Zebrette had the team pinned back.
Vitor Hugo—6.5: That sliding challenge on Pussetto was magnificent, but it wasn’t all the Brazilian did. He added a physicality to the match that the team didn’t really have otherwise, bodying Behrami into the ground at one point. Finished the evening gushing blood from his mouth after catching an elbow. Got to love that kind of toughness.
Biraghi—6.5: Created a lot of solid chances with his crossing as he played up the pitch a bit more this week, looking like a wingback more than a fullback. Had a bit of trouble defensively as Eysseric was always infield, leaving him overloaded going back, but mostly coped well. Has quietly become one of the best leftbacks in Serie A.
Benassi—7.5: The goal was spectacular and the determination to get to the spot was admirable. Played almost a wingback on the right. Clearly a smart player with a knack for finding space in behind despite not being a pace merchant; if he can sort out his first touch, could be lethal. Seems like Pioli finally figured out how to bring out his best.
Fernandes—6: Put in a fine battling performance and got through a lot of running, but doesn’t seem quite suited to the holding role he’s featured in thus far. Would have loved to see him be more aggressive going forward in a match like this, as he’s a dynamic talent in the middle. Also continues to lose the ball a bit too easily.
Gerson—6.5: Started very slowly as Udinese’s physical play seemed to set him off his rhythm in the early going, but grew into the match and scrapped well. Sat deeper than he did last week and showed promise as a ball-winner, but never really got into the flow of the match going forward aside from a crack from distance just before the half.
Chiesa—8: Simply unplayable. Embarked on about half a dozen lung-busting runs with the ball and went past his man every time, forcing Udinese to hack him incessantly. Despite the lack of protection from the referee, never lost that aggression. Also got better at picking his head up in the final third and delivered some excellent balls into the box as well.
Simeone—6.5: Produced the usual bustling, all-out defensive performance we’ve grown accustomed to, but didn’t do much on the other end with the ball. That said, he neatly dummied a couple of passes to give his teammates a chance on goal. While that sort of selflessness is wonderful, at a certain point you’d like to see him assert himself a bit more.
Eysseric—6: The free kick was nearly a peach and he had a few moments where he almost made things happen, but his lack of pace and trickery on the ball meant that he lost it a lot and was generally invisible. May have been passed up by Pjaca after this.
Drągowski—6: Wasn’t really tested, but was quick off his line a couple of times and should be a capable deputy for Lafont if necessary.
Pjaca—6.5: Dazzled with his pace and dribbling, adding an extra dimension to the attack that was otherwise absent. Heavily involved in the attack after coming on and looks healthy. Should be starting pretty soon.
Dabo—5.5: Was his usual muscular self in defense, and energetically sprang forward when possible. He still doesn’t get it right around the goal very often, but if he ever does, he’s going to be a dang monster.