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How Fiorentina manipulates space in attack without a center forward

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Everyone wondered where the goals would come from in Montella’s strikerless formation, but the Viola attack has been rolling right along regardless.

AC Milan v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
The goal men.
Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Since shifting away from the 4-3-3 that he used in the first two matches of the season (both defeats), Vincenzo Montella’s 3-5-2 has taken the league by storm. While the system caused Juventus all sort of problems in the scoreless draw between them, it really roared into life against Champions League side Atalanta, putting 2 past la Dea and controlling the first 80 minutes, then earning a win against Sampdoria before ransacking AC Milan at the San Siro. The starting “strikers” for those 4 matches have been wingers Federico Chiesa and Franck Ribery, neither of whom has ever been a prolific goalscorer previously. So how the heck has Fiorentina scored the second-most goals in the league—trailing Atalanta by one—over the past 3 weeks?

There’s obviously no single answer, and trying to draw a complete conclusion here is probably a fool’s errand, given the vanishingly small sample size. However, there are some trends we can look at and some observations that might help us figure out how Montella’s system has worked for the past few weeks and could help us project a few things going forward.

Unconventional positioning and movement

While the shape has been described as a 3-5-2, it’s probably something closer to a 3-6-1-0. That sounds absurd (and it is), but with Ribery often dropping very deep into midfield to help with possession and Chiesa generally staying very wide, it’s probably the closest description. With Ribery dropping into an inside right space (and sometimes deeper) in possession, Dalbert has permission to push forward from the left wingback spot to make runs over the top. On the right, Chiesa stays higher up the pitch but keeps his width, which means right wingback Pol Lirola tends to sit deeper than Dalbert. The closest thing to a striker is often Gaetano Castrovilli, who sometimes pushes up the pitch to work in the half space as a 10.

Fiorentina in a typical possession set. Who are Milan’s centerbacks supposed to mark?

The knock-on effect is that the opposing central defenders have no idea whom they should mark. Ribery pulls opposing defenders high and wide, opening space for Dalbert to attack. Chiesa stays wide, which overloads opposing fullbacks with him and Lirola, forcing a defender wide. Castrovilli’s clever positioning tempts defenders forward, opening space in the back line for Chiesa to exploit. Meanwhile, nobody steps in as a strikers; the centerbacks, then, have to decide whether to hold their positions and allow their teammates to be overloaded out wide and in the midfield or whether to track a runner into an unusual area, leaving huge spaces that the Viola can motor into.

By forcing opponents to make these difficult choices, Fiorentina wreak havoc with defenses. This double false nine (a false eighteen?) is a step beyond what Luciano Spalletti and Francesco Totti or Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi ever did, and, like any cutting-edge tactical innovation, leaves a substantial lag time before everyone catches up. While this approach doesn’t lead directly to goals, it discombobulates the opposition considerably, thus facilitating the other aspects of the attack.

Dribbling

Once the opposing defense has been shifted into an irregular alignment, Fiorentina has players who are more than capable of taking advantage. Gaetano Castrovilli is tied for the most successful dribbles in Serie A with 18. Ribery is third with 16, and Chiesa is just one behind. While having players who can beat an opponent in a 1-v-1 situation isn’t exactly a tactical masterclass, Montella has created a system that forces opponents not only into uncomfortable positions, but also into very quick decisions on the back foot. With 13.2 successful dribbles per game, the Viola put pressure on opponents in attack. Given their skill in those 1-v-1s, it’s perhaps a bit surprising that the team earns only the fifth-most fouls per game in the league, although it does help explain the knack for earning penalties (most in Serie A) and getting opponents sent off.

Pressure

This is a long way from Stefano Pioli’s furious, all-pressure sides, but Montella understands how to press up the pitch. It’s hard to separate cause and effect here, so I’m not going to suggest a cause, but a look at where Fiorentina has been attempting tackles over the past three weeks indicates that the Viola still excel at pushing opponents into wide and deep areas, effectively cornering them against the touchline, which makes winning possession much easier.

Fiorentina’s tackle positions at Atalanta, against Sampdoria, and at AC Milan.
Graphics from WhoScored.com

There are a couple of possible explanations here. The first is that the Viola are happy to stand off opposing centerbacks in favor of shadowing midfielders and fullbacks. This approach puts a creative burden on central defenders, who generally aren’t especially creative passers. The Viola hold off their press until the ball moves forward to an opposing midfielder or wide to a fullback, at which point they close down. If this is the case, a centerback who can carry the ball forward would probably break Fiorentina’s press with relative ease.

The second explanation is that, due to the Fiorentina attackers’ odd positioning, they frequently draw opponents out of position. With the opposing centerbacks out of position, there isn’t anyone to pressure in the middle, and so we haven’t really seen Fiorentina try to attack anyone’s centerbacks yet in the defensive phase. Naturally, with nobody on the ball in central defense, the Viola aren’t going to be there, so all the action will be on the flanks or in the space in front of the defense.

The data supports both of these interpretations; having watched all three matches, I’m going to say that it’s probably a mix of the two, although I want to see more action (particularly against teams that aren’t down a man) before I make a determination about this. Either way, though, it’s clear that the Viola emphasize pressing in the opposing fullback zones.

Conclusions

Like I said earlier, this sample of three games is awfully small. Given that two in a row have featured red cards for the opposition, there’s a bunch of extra noise in here too. However, given that Montella hasn’t changed his plans when up a man, it seems reasonable to conclude that the advantage has been more about amplifying the usual tactics than switching to a new approach entirely. This week’s clash with Udinese, who are a much more negative side than any of Atalanta, Samp, and Milan, will also provide a very different challenge and could (and probably will) completely reshape all of these thoughts.

There’s also the chance that Pedro, Dušan Vlahović, Kevin-Prince Boateng, or even Bobby Duncan will force his way into a role up top at some point this season, which will force Montella to shuffle the deck considerably, abandoning this entire setup. However, it seems like these tenets have been at the forefront of Fiorentina’s approach over these past few games and will remain foundational until the rest of the league catches up or something changes in the composition of the squad.