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Fiorentina 1-0 Udinese: Player grades and three things we learned

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Three wins in a row? We don’t even remember how that’s supposed to feel.

ACF Fiorentina v Udinese Calcio - Serie A
Great goal and all, but let’s give full marks to Martín Cáceres’ invisible chairlift.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Pre-match

First half

Rodrigo de Paul was the first to threaten, knifing through the Viola rearguard before cutting back a ball which Bartłomiej Drągowski bobbled clear in just the 3rd minute. Within 10 minutes, though, the hosts took over, with Federico Chiesa forcing a save from Juan Musso. The winger was involved throughout the rest of the half, combining well with Pol Lirola and Franck Ribery and setting up Gaetano Castrovilli for a shot which the youngster should have buried. Germán Pezzella came close to opening the scoring with a diving header off a corner after Nikola Milenković blocked off his marker, but his effort hit the ground and soared over the bar. Castrovilli also nearly turned home a clever try from the front post off a low corner, but it was the Zebrette who got the ball in the net through a calcio di Angola through Ilija Nestorovski; it was quickly waved off for an obvious handball in the buildup from Samir. Other than that, though, it was all Fiorentina: the good guys created a hatful of chances with Chiesa, Pulgar, and Ribery but couldn’t quite connect the dots before the halftime whistle went.

Second half

Samir nearly handed the hosts a lead with a loose backless that Chiesa picked off, forcing Musso into a kick save. Samir hacked down Castrovilli as the midfielder raced for the rebound just outside the area, and Ribery spun the ensuing free kick just wide of the post. Tudor managed to get himself sent off for arguing with referee (and Serie A debutant) Alessandro Prontera about a foul, but the momentum remained squarely with the Viola. Rather than delicate passing around the area, though, Fiorentina took the lead through the brawn of Milenković, who rose over everyone to head home an Erick Pulgar corner. This being the Viola, though, they nearly threw away all that hard work as Kevin Lasagna burst past a lackadaisical defense and fired an angled shot that Bart somehow pushed past the post. At the other end, Dalbert fizzed an impressive volley on frame from a tight angle that forced Musso into an acrobatic punch, although a cutback may have been the wiser choice, but that was pretty much the last scoring chance of the match, which Fiorentina saw out competently for a change.

Player grades

Drągowski: 7—Kept just his second clean sheet of the year and earned it well. While he wasn’t threatened too often and looked pretty shaky on the early de Paul chance, his stop on Lasagna right after the goal was magnificent.

Milenković: 7.5—The big man finally looked like the set piece destroyer we’ve been waiting for him to become, scoring one himself and using his gravity to create a chance for Pezzella. In defense, he was pretty sharp, dealing well with de Paul, who spent most of the match operating in his area.

Pezzella: 7—A typically gritty performance from the captain, who dug in well and repelled everything that Udinese threw into the box. It’s too bad that he’ll remember the gilt-edged chance to score that he didn’t take, but he was quite solid today.

Cáceres: 6—Made two serious mistakes that nearly saw Udinese in on goal, but was perfect otherwise. Put in some big stops in the penalty box and showcased some impressive passing range. Those two moments almost proved very costly, though.

Lirola: 6.5—Offered a bit of pace and trickery down the wing, but didn't find an end product particularly well. On the other hand, he really dug in defensively and helped solidify the back, which was a bit of a welcome change. Seems to be developing some good chemistry with Chiesa and Milenković, which is a good thing.

Pulgar: 7.5—Another all-action performance from the Chilean general as he packed the box score. Got his set piece delivery consistently right and created chances from open play as well as maintaining possession. Also chipped in with his usual tenacious defensive contribution. Surely one of the smartest under-the-radar signings in Serie a this year.

Badelj: 6—Did his usual Badelj act, which means he did all the little things that you never notice until you watch him for the full time he’s on the pitch. Understands the game so well. This week, he did seem a step slower than usual at times, so it made sense to replace him with a more attack-minded midfielder. That said, he was still his usual, reliable self.

Castrovilli: 7—Dug in at the back when he needed to and did a good job of challenging high up the pitch, but that’s not what we’re here for with him. As usual, he drove forward well in possession and shifted the ball around the final third cleverly. Again, if he can consistently finish his chances, he’s going to be unstoppable.

Dalbert: 7—Continues to work as more of a runner in behind than a contributor to the buildup, which suits him well. Put in a typically lung-busting performance, working down the left effectively and stretching the Udinese defense. Also contributed to the cause on the back foot, as we’ve come to expect. How he didn’t do better at Inter Milan is a mystery.

Chiesa: 7.5—A constant menace to Udinese’s back line, as you’d expect. Started the pressing brilliantly and dominated the first half with his clever movement. Also brought his teammates into the play at times, showing vastly improved maturity over last year, although he did have one selfish shot from distance when Pulgar was available in a better spot. Still, though, you can begin to see exactly how limitless his potential is this year. It’s fun.

Ribery: 7—Slithered around his usual inside left position, alternately dancing past defenders and moving the ball intelligently around the pitch. Seemed a bit off the pace at times, though, with a couple of timid attempts, and couldn’t quite connect the final pass. Still gave the Zebrette plenty to think about, though.

Benassi: 6—A really positive performance, honestly. Played centrally for the first time in forever and passed decently, added something defensively, and generally looked like an actual midfielder rather than a wingback. Maybe Montella can fix him yet.

Żurkowski: n/a—Maybe could have scored a late one to put this one to bed but was a bit slow on the trigger, allowing Samir to get a block in. Looked like he belonged out there, though, which ain’t a bad thing.

Ghezzal: n/a—Not on for long enough to do anything of note, although it is a bit strange that he’s jumped Riccardo Sottil and Dušan Vlahović in the pecking order.

Three things we learned

1. Maybe this group is turning the corner. It’s obviously way too much to read into one match against a relegation-struggling team with the weakest attack in Serie A, but this feels like the sort of game that Fiorentina of the recent past would have dropped points in. A dominant performance everywhere but around the goalmouth for the first 70 minutes felt like the usual impotence rearing its head again, especially against a side playing with a deep block. Even after Milenković headed in the opener, it felt like the Viola would leak in an equalizer, and sure enough, they would have if not for a big Drągowski moment. But they were pretty assured other than that. Again, it’s too much to read into a single result, but maybe the mindset is finally starting to shift.

2. The 3-5-2 can work against a low block. We all knew that Udinese would defend very deep, limiting the space in behind that Chiesa, Dalbert, and Castrovilli have made their living in thus far. What we weren’t certain about was whether Fiorentina would have enough ideas to threaten that packed-in defense, especially without a central striker. A litany of (narrowly missed) chances indicated that yes, this team can do without the likes of Pedro or Dušan Vlahović or Kevin-Prince Boateng battling with opposing centerbacks, at least for now. The mobility and dagger-like quickness of the Ribery-Chiesa attack is a lot for any team to cope with. That said, having Pedro or another striker available to change the focus sure would be a comfort too.

3. Fiorentina is going to win Serie A. That’s what three victories in a row means, right?