With Rocco Commisso in attendance and a mini-selection crisis on his hands, Vincenzo Montella picked Lorenzo Venuti, Riccardo Sottil, and Kevin-Prince Boateng in the absence of Martín Cáceres, Pol Lirola, and Franck Ribery. Instead of pivoting to a 4-3-3 as that personnel may suggest, though, he kept his 3-5-2 with each player slotting into slightly unnatural positions. Perhaps the most impressive presence for the away team, however, was the vociferous home support, which drowned out the Neroverdi fans before, during, and after the match.
Sassuolo came out looking stronger and quickly targeted Sottil at wingback as the weak link. After some nice moments, including a cross for Enzo Caputo that required a VAR check for a possible Venuti foul, Jeremie Boga eventually beat the youngster and curled a beauty past Bartłomiej Drągowski. Fiorentina woke up after that, with Federico Chiesa leading the charge, although Boateng had the best chance from a narrow angle; Andrea Consigli got a touch to it and the ball rolled agonizingly slowly across the face of goal with nobody there to put it away. Marco Benassi popped up and crushed the ball in the back of the net with a wonderful volley after a corner, but Erick Pulgar was inches offside in the buildup.
The Viola spent the first half hour controlling the match in midfield without creating any chances. Montella switched to a 4-3-3 with the introduction of Rachid Ghezzal for Sottil, with Venuti moving to the right, and it paid immediate dividends: the fullback got forward and measured a perfect cross for Castrovilli to rise up over a defender and head home. The match rather deteriorated to some testy kicking back and forth, as well as some racist chanting from the Viola fans towards Alfred Duncan (which is goddamn unacceptable and we should all be ashamed). Late on, Consigli made a miracle save on a Nikola Milenković header, but was powerful to stop the Mountain on the ensuing corner; Chiesa spread the ball to Castrovilli, who fizzed a cross in for Nikola to unfussily tap home. Both teams had late chances, although Sassuolo’s Marlon somehow missed a stoppage time equalizer when unmarked from about 5 yards out—seriously, I still don’t know how anyone can miss that—and the Viola wrapped up their first victory with Commisso in attendance.
Drągowski—7: Wasn’t tested too much, honestly, but made a couple of saves and commanded his area well. He’s slowly developing the sort of comforting presence at the back that makes you feel safe; not saying he’s Seba Frey yet, but he’s on the right path.
Milenković—7.5: Could have done better supporting Sottil against Boga early on instead of hanging centrally to help against Caputo, but did keep the striker very anonymous. Came alive in the second half, including one sequence in which he bossed Grégoire Defrel within an inch of his life, and of course is now the joint-top scorer in the league for the team this year.
Pezzella—7: Pretty much erased Caputo from the match, which was good, but should have made some adjustments to his defense to help Sottil cope with Boga. Also did a nice job of mopping up behind Venuti in the first half when the Italian had trouble with Domenico Berardi.
Venuti—7: Looked really nervous in the first half, getting booked in the first quarter hour and making a few awkward challenges, including one on Caputo in the box that resulted in a VAR check. When moved to a right fullback role, though, he excelled both in attack—assisted the opener with a beautiful cross—and in defense, where he mostly coped quite well with the dangerous Boga.
Sottil—5: Got picked on remorselessly by a technical and athletic attacker in Boga and came out the worse. Had a few moments going forward in which he showed promise, but his end product remains uneven at best. Definitely not suited for a wingback role at this stage of his career.
Benassi—4.5: Not what he was hoping for. Had just 41 touches and spent most of his time drifting to the right wing. Played one or two nice passes, but had a couple of shocking giveaways as well and didn’t add too much in defense. Could have scored the most Benassi goal possible in a scramble but had it flagged for offside.
Pulgar—7: Added very little in attack but was an unholy terror for the Neroverdi. 8/11 tackles to go with 2 interceptions, 5 clearances in his own box, 4 blocks, and the second most touches on the team. Doesn’t add Milan Badelj’s fluidity in possession but adds a very different identity to the engine room. Love him so much.
Castrovilli—8.5: Man of the match. Effervescent. Irrepressible. Tormented would-be markers with clever turns through the middle. Even experienced hands like Duncan and Francesco Magnanelli had no clue how to cope with him. Sure, he was occasionally a bit loose with the ball, but he was making things happen. Heck, he even chipped in defensively more than we’ve seen this year. What a stud.
Dalbert—6.5: Seemed a bit lost without Ribery there to direct traffic for him, but was game running up and down the wing. Moved back in the second half and bottled up a red-hot Berardi, which is quite impressive. A good, solid, and unremarkable performance.
Chiesa—7: Lively as ever but often seemed to be playing on his own, as KPB didn’t get forward to support him quickly enough. Wasn’t trying to be selfish like he was last year, but was just too isolated. Still made some good things happen both with and without the ball, though, and was clearly the main focus for the Neroverdi rearguard.
Boateng—5: Had a few good moments, including some excellent holdup play—playing in runners, winning fouls, et cetera—but wasn’t a presence in the box and simply doesn’t have the pace to get forward in support when the likes of Chiesa, Dalbert, and Castrovilli whirl forward. He has a role on this team, but this isn’t the way to bring out his best.
Ghezzal—5: Very anonymous. Lost the ball a bunch of times and didn’t do much with his passing. Would have loved to see Sottil in his role on the wing rather than at wingback, but them’s the breaks.
Vlahović—5.5: Brought some physicality and solid back-to-the-goal work in relief of Boateng, but also added some vertical running and link-up through the channels. Still doesn’t seem like much of a goal threat at this stage but causes a lot of problems to opposing defenses.
Badelj—n/a: Came on late to shore up the midfield and did that for a few minutes, showing some clever dribbling, but wasn’t out there long enough to garner a rating.
Three things we learned
1. Montella’s still got a stubborn streak a mile wide. Even without Milan Badelj and Franck Ribery—arguably the two most important cogs in his 3-5-2—he tried to force players into unfamiliar roles to keep his project rolling. It failed miserably in the first half, as the Viola were desperately disjointed and lacked any incision whatsoever. When he finally switched things up to a 4-3-3, though, the attack suddenly looked so much better. It’s no surprise that the assist for the equalizer came from Venuti, who’d been overmatched on the left of the back three but had time and space to step up from the right of a back four and pick his cross. Without Ribery and Cáceres, this has to be the default.
2. Riccardo Sottil isn’t a wingback. We love Ricky Sottil. Not only is he very handsome, but he’s also a really talented attacker, blessed with pace, close control, and an impeccable sense of timing that allows him to sneak in behind defenders with or without the ball. Once he develops an end product, he’s going to be lethal. However, he’s spent his entire career as a winger; asking a 20-year-old making his third-ever Serie A start to figure out the nuances of a really demanding position that requires a level of defensive focus he’s never needed to apply is begging for disaster. Jeremie Boga is a good player, true, but most wingers in the league probably would run circles around Sottil in the defensive faze. Having him spend so much time deep in his own half basically removes all his positive qualities while emphasizing his negative ones, which is bad for the team and surely not helpful for a young player’s development.
3. Gaetano Castrovilli is really, really good. Not a lot of analysis here, but holy crow is he talented. The tight control, acceleration, and vision are really special. He’s starting to grow into his talent, too, knowing when to force the issue and when to just keep the ball moving. Even without a wicked shot, he’s one of the funnest midfielders in Serie A. Let’s just enjoy watching him.