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How Brescia stifled Fiorentina’s attack and what Fiorentina can do about it

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The Rondinelle provided a template on how to slow down what had been the league’s funnest offensive unit, but they also showed how to counteract their own defensive measures.

Brescia Calcio v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
Time to get the thinking cap on.
Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

As you’ve probably heard, Brescia held Fiorentina to a scoreless draw on Monday. The Rondinelle were quite impressive, as Sandro Tonali and company largely shut down Franck Ribery and Federico Chiesa. How did a recently-promoted side largely comprised of journeymen players stymie the darlings of the past month?

The problem

Brescia manager Eugenio Corini clearly did his research ahead of this one. He saw that Udinese was mostly successful in countering Fiorentina’s strikerless formation before the international break and spent a couple of weeks tinkering with the template the Zebrette developed, taking their ideas farther and adding a few wrinkles of his own. As a result, the Viola were disjointed and forced out of their favored space in attack (specifically, the area on the left of the pitch and between the lines). In turn, this knocked the Tuscan attackers off kilter and they never really recovered.

Deep defense

While the simple view of the match is that Brescia kept a very deep line, that’s not exactly accurate. Unlike Udinese, they play with a back four rather than a back three, but they opted to keep the central unit pretty far back as well. That makes a lot of sense, as neither Andrea Cistana nor Jhon Chancellor has the pace to turn and run with Chiesa, Dalbert, or Gaetano Castrovilli, who are the three primary threats over the top for the Viola. By sitting deep and keeping everything in front of them, they avoided having to chase faster players. They both seemed pretty safe in the knowledge that, even if Fiorentina got down the wings, the lack of size in the middle wasn’t enough to threaten the Leonessa goal that much, so they were able to position themselves to watch for cutbacks more than high balls. Take a look at where their heat maps: those aren't exactly where you’d expect guys whose only job is to sit in the penalty box to pop up. Hold that thought for a moment, though, since this fits in with a following point.

Cistana and Chancellor’s combined heat maps. Pretty high up the pitch for a team that defends deep, no?
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That’s all pretty basic, but it’s the rest of the defense that’s interesting Instead of keeping his fullbacks very deep as well, looking to keep everything in front of them, Corini instructed them forward, with Stefano Sabelli on the right particularly fearless in getting forward. His high positioning, however, was as much a defensive tactic as an attacking one: by pushing up the pitch, he helped compress that space on the left where Ribery, Dalbert, and Castrovilli generally set up. On the other side, Aleš Matějů also stayed wide rather than tucking in, denying Chiesa the room to build up a head of steam and run at him, although the Czech was far more conservative in his positioning in attack.

Sabelli on the right and Matějů on the left. The former is especially high up for a team defending deep.
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Central midfielders pulling wide

Most teams playing a 4-3-1-2 look to control the center of the pitch, as they’ll nearly always have a numerical overload there. Against a Fiorentina team that, despite playing a nominally narrow 3-5-2, stretches play through unconventional methods, though, Brescia took a completely different tack. While Tonali played just how you’d expect a regista to play—right in front of the middle of the defense—the carrileros (outside midfielders in a bank of 3) took up unexpectedly wide positions, eschewing compactness in favor of crowding the half-spaces and flanks.

This was particularly apparent on Fiorentina’s left, where normally the troika of Ribery, Castrovilli, and Dalbert plays triangles around a single midfielder and a fullback. Take a look at where Dimitri Bisoli spent most of his time: nearly on the touchline. Even Romulo, who was theoretically the trequartista, spent a lot of time moving to that wing to help out defensively. Combined with Sabelli’s high positioning, Brescia squeezed Fiorentina’s most productive area of the field really well; whenever someone got through, Cistana was on hand to sweep it up, safe in the knowledge that he wasn’t abandoning a striker to exploit the space.

Left: heat map for Sabelli, Bisoli, and Romulo. Right: heat map for Ribery, Castrovilli, and Dalbert. The Brescia trio made sure that their Viola counterparts couldn’t overrun that zone.
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Possible solutions

With this blueprint now pretty well written, expect most mid- to lower-table sides to follow it, regardless of what formation they use. Of course, calcio is nothing if not a game of move and counter-move, so Vincenzo Montella is probably already scheming ways to exploit the weaknesses this approach leaves elsewhere. I’ve picked out a couple that seem like pretty simple fixes to outline here, but I’m sure the mister has plenty of other ideas up his sleeve too.

Challenge the centerbacks

Part of what made this tactic so effective for Corini’s men was the lack of a challenge to their centerbacks. Chancellor and especially Cistana were, as mentioned above, both pretty confident in charging forward to plug any gaps that arose, knowing that there wasn’t a striker ready to move into that vacated space in the middle, which is usually the last place a defense wants to surrender. The obvious solution, then, would be to introduce a striker. In fairness to Montella, that’s exactly what he did when he brought on Dušan Vlahović for Chiesa. However, the Very Large Teen didn’t seem sure how to capitalize on the space, and removing Chiesa’s threat from the right simply meant that Jaromír Zmrhal and Tonali could shuffle towards the danger area where Ribery, Castrovilli, and Dalbert were, further compressing the space. Vlahović did find some space behind, and his hold-up play in the box—particularly one moment where he turned and fired on goal—showed that the new approach required the Rondinelle to adjust to a different threat.

What would make a lot more sense there, though, would be maintaining a wide threat on the right besides just Pol Lirola, who hasn't yet shown the ability to win those 1-v-1 battles up the pitch and provide a threat. That’s where Riccardo Sottil comes in: the young winger terrorized Matějů and constantly got by him with and without the ball, stretching the Brescia defense and opening more space all the way across the pitch. A double change here seems like it would have made a lot of sense: Vlahović (or Pedro or Kevin-Prince Boateng) to provide a threat through the middle and Sottil (or Chiesa if he can stay on) to prevent the defense from abandoning that wing.

Flood the middle

This is the other thing that really stood out. While Milan Badelj just had an off game, Erick Pulgar was absolutely fantastic. The Chilean, usually more of a scrappy ball-winner who keeps his passing relatively simple in open play, took advantage of the Brescia midfielders moving wide to double up on the Viola wingers. Left in acres of space with only Alfredo Donnarumma dropping deep to sporadically harass him, he ran the game, taking his time to pick long passes over the top for Dalbert and playing passes through the lines. He also made some clever runs himself, popping up in space at the edge of the box or on the right as no opponents really tracked him.

Despite his MotM performance, though, this game doesn’t really suit him. It would have made a lot of sense to leave him as the sole deep midfielder here and introduce someone who can either make runs over the top or carry the ball through the lines to add that extra stress to the defense. By the last 15 minutes, Brescia had pretty well given up on attacking with anything but hopeful punts forward. Having two static players in Badelj and Pulgar doing the same things unopposed, Fiorentina were hamstringing themselves. Boateng for Badelj would have made some sense here, but it could have been the perfect spot for Szymon Żurkowski or even Bryan Dabo as well.

The idea, though, is to put a completely different stress on the defense. After basically abandoning the center of the pitch, adding either a creative number 10 or a powerful runner to the middle and forcing Tonali to man mark him would restore that numerical superiority in the left half space and let Ribery/Castrovilli cook. It would also force the centerbacks to pay more attention to those central areas rather than looking wide to sweep up behind.

Conclusion

Montella’s new 3-5-2 has proven very effective against teams that play a high line or rely on man-marking high up the pitch, as that leaves a lot of space for Viola attackers to either get in behind or beat a defender and exploit the resultant space. However, against teams that defend deep and have done their homework, this approach seems a lot less successful and will probably get even worse as more opponents figure out what works to slow Fiorentina down.

This is where an alternative approach makes a difference. While we’re never going to see a Montella team resort to Route One tactics, a change of emphasis still makes sense. There are three possible formations that would help Montella achieve this: a 4-3-3, which would offer the threat of a central striker and wingers threatening the defense all across the pitch while Castrovilli continues to burst forward from midfield; a 4-2-3-1, which would force him to abandon his beloved midfield three but would provide wingers for width, a striker to challenge defenders, and a trequartista to occupy the opposing deepest midfielder; or a 3-4-2-1, which would allow the back three, wingbacks, and double pivot of Badelj and Pulgar to remain unchanged while allowing the striker and the attackers to combine across the pitch wherever they see fit.

Of these, a more traditional 4-3-3 looks the most likely; after all, this was what Montella tried at the beginning of the year, although it didn’t work at all. The 4-man backline looked terrible, which doesn’t inspire confidence, but against an opponent that’s bunkered back, could probably hold up for the final 20 minutes of a match. The 3-4-2-1 would maintain some of the flexibility in attack that Montella prioritizes while still keeping the defensive structure intact, but I can’t think of a time when Cousin Vinnie’s ever broken up his central trio except for the direst of circumstances, even if it would make a lot of sense here.