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5 things we’ve learned about Montella’s substitution patterns

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It’s been 12 matches and we’re starting to get a feel for how the Viola boss likes to use his bench.

Cagliari Calcio v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Enrico Locci/Getty Images

As we lurch into yet another international break, this seems like as good a time as any to take a longer look at some aspects of Fiorentina’s season so far that we haven’t really discussed. Given that Vincenzo Montella’s management style is rather under the microscope lately, we’ll have a look at how the mister has deployed his bench so far. We’re only looking at Serie A matches, so friendlies and the Coppa Italia thriller against Monza won’t figure into this. For each match, I’ve listed the substitution, time of match, and score at the time.

Week 1: 3-4 loss against Napoli

61’ Boateng for Vlahović (2-3): Brought on a more experienced attacker to replace a young striker who’d been fairly ineffective up to that point. KPB paid almost immediate dividends with a spectacular long-range equalizer. The change didn’t affect the 4-3-3 formation very much.

73’ Benassi for Badelj (3-4): Removed a regista in favor of a midfielder who gets forward into the box and led the club in scoring last year. Logical move when searching for a goal, although Marco Benassi didn’t contribute anything of note.

78’ Ribery for Sottil: Brought on an experienced attacker for a young player. Franck Ribery was fouled, possibly in the box, and could have wound up winning a penalty were it not for a blatant non-call; there were questions about his fitness at this point, so it made sense not to start him.

Overall: Montella made smart changes here. While it would have been nice to see him replace Badelj with Boateng early and leave an extra striker out there, it makes sense not to change everything with half an hour left. Benassi was the logical next step as there weren’t any other strikers available at that point with Vlahović already withdrawn. Ribery perhaps could have been introduced earlier as well, although Sottil had been rampaging down that wing all night. Vinnie basically made all the right choices with his bench in this one.

Week 2: 1-2 loss at Genoa

60’ Dalbert for Badelj (1-0): This moved the team to a back 3, with Dalbert slotting in at wingback. It allowed the Viola to throw more attackers forward while leaving an extra man at the back; in short, it was a textbook, Michael Cox-approved move.

72’ Ribery and Vlahović for Sottil and Boateng (2-0): Sottil had been AWOL all match, so replacing him with another attacker was a no-brainer. Once again, though, when you’re down 2 goals against an opponent that’s probably inferior, the decision to swap out strikers rather than add an extra body in the box feels like a copout. It also took 7 minutes for Montella to make a change after conceding for the second time, which feels like a lack of urgency.

Conclusion: Bringing on Dalbert for Milan Badelj was a good attacking switch, even if the team conceded 5 minutes later. That’s the type of gamble you have to make when you’re behind sometimes. However, it would have made a lot more sense to give one of the defenders (Luca Ranieri hadn’t been good at all) the hook and bring an extra attacker on rather than just make like-for-like changes to a formation which had proven toothless the entire match.

Week 3: 0-0 draw against Juventus

69’ Boateng for Ribery (0-0): With Franck still not at full fitness, it made sense to replace him with another guy who’s comfortable playing as a withdrawn forward in KPB. It would have been nice to see Riccardo Sottil get a shot up top partnering with Federico Chiesa, but it’s easy to understand why Montella opted for Kevin-Prince Boateng.

83’ Ceccherini for Pezzella (0-0): Have no idea what brought this on. Germán Pezzella didn’t look hurt and had kept a red-hot Gonzalo Higuaín in his pocket all match. Federico Ceccherini, meanwhile, nearly threw the match away with a terrible backpass. If you want to reinforce the defense, why not bring on Bryan Dabo or Szymon Żurkowski? Alternatively, why not bring on some fresh legs in the attack and go for the kill? The Viola had Juve on the ropes, and the scenes if they’d beaten the hated Bianconeri with a late goal would have been incredible.

89’ Żurkowski for Castrovilli (0-0): A nice chance for the young Pole to make his Serie A debut and give Gaetano Castrovilli a chance for a big ovation from the Franchi, which he richly deserved.

Conclusion: None of us expected a point from this fixture, much less an impressive performance, so you can’t criticize Vinnie too much here. Standing pat as much as possible rather than changing things and risking a disruption to a system that had worked very well is a logical decision. That said, switching out defenders doesn’t make much sense, so it’s hard to see what the plan was there.

Week 4: 2-2 draw at Atalanta

68’ Boateng for Ribery (0-2): Again, changing out players who vaguely play the same role, albeit with very different interpretations, is logical, especially since Ribery probably doesn’t have 90 minutes in those legs.

77’ Vlahović for Chiesa (0-2): While the Very Large Teenager possesses an astonishing turn of pace for a man his size and likes to get in behind just like Fede, he’s not going to dribble past his man or provide a threat from the wing. Using Sottil here feels like a better move, as he’d have maintained some width for the Viola; nothing against Dušan, but having him and Boateng up top doesn’t offer a lot of threat.

86’ Venuti for Dalbert (1-2): Unless the Brazilian was hurt or completely out of gas, this doesn’t make sense. He’d been fantastic all game long, galloping forward in attack and remaining steady in defense while neutralizing his opposite number Timothy Castagne (who ended up equalizing in stoppage time). Again, assuming no injury or exhaustion, there’s no reason to throw a fresh defender in this late, when he may not have time to settle into the rhythm.

Conclusion: Not a great set of subs. While you can understand the urge to remove the star attackers and rest their legs a bit, everyone knows that la Dea possesses a nuclear-capable attack that can go off at any moment. Chiesa in particular can run all day and didn’t seem to be injured, so why not leave him on the pitch to provide a counter-attacking outlet? The Dalbert-Venuti swap was also weird, but the decision to bring on two very large attackers who aren’t the types to dribble past a marker on the break was bizarre, especially with Riccardo Sottil right there.

Week 5: 2-1 win against Sampdoria

73’ Sottil for Ribery (2-0 and a man advantage): With Ribery getting tired and Samp down a man and pressing for goals, it made perfect sense to bring on a pacy, direct wide player like Sottil to add a threat on the break.

81’ Benassi for Castrovilli (2-1 and a man advantage): I guess there’s no reason not to swap out Tano, but a more defensive midfielder makes sense here, I’d think. Dabo or Żurkowski could have added more solidity to the middle.

90’+3 Vlahović for Chiesa (2-1 and a man advantage): Strictly to waste time, so not much you can read into it.

Conclusion: With Jeison Murillo sent off in the 54th minute and Fiorentina scoring a second goal 3 minutes later, it seems like that would have been a good time to make a change. Adding some width and pace on the break a bit earlier would have stretched Samp out even more. Waiting until the final 10 minutes to change anything else also feels like a very slow reaction from Vinnie, especially after conceding to a team playing with 10.

Week 6: 1-3 win at AC Milan

79’ Benassi for Castrovilli (0-3 and a man advantage): The switch itself makes sense.

84’ Boateng for Chiesa (1-3 and a man advantage): As previously detailed, removing Chiesa’s pace on the break out wide can cause the entire attacking system to collapse, especially when his replacement is a slower player like KPB. Too, the Ghanaian often occupies the same space as Ribery, rendering him rather redundant.

89’ Ghezzal for Ribery (1-3 and a man advantage): Just wasting time and handing a guy his debut. Sure, why not?

Conclusion: When you pile up a big lead on the road while dominating your opponent completely, why not make a change sooner so that your stars can save their legs a little bit? Ribery in particular doesn’t need to be playing those minutes, especially with so many guys behind him who could use the time. Milan wasn’t ever going to dig itself out of a 3-goal hole, so why not give some time to the guys at the end of the bench?

Week 7: 1-0 win against Udinese

64’ Benassi for Badelj (0-0): Makes sense to add some more attacking power to replace a holding midfielder, especially since the Zebrette had pretty well given up on playing through the middle at that point. Around the hour mark feels like the right time for this sort of substitution, too.

81’ Żurkowski for Castrovilli (1-0): Adding a bigger, busier body to the middle while holding a lead makes good sense, especially when it gives a youngster like Szymon some minutes.

86’ Ghezzal for Ribery (1-0): Another time-wasting appearance off the bench for Ghezzal and nothing more.

Conclusion: The Benassi switch made perfect sense and it’s easy to understand why Żurkowski came on too. But waiting so long to make the second change doesn’t make much sense. Either a quick fire swap after the first one to add more attacking thrust—namely a striker who could work in the box—or right after Nikola Milenković opened the scoring—adding sturdiness at the back—would have fit. The second two changes felt rather arbitrary.

Week 8: 0-0 draw at Brescia

68’ Vlahović for Chiesa (0-0): Fede was carrying an injury, so it made sense to bring him off. The Very Large Teen was a smart addition, too, given that Fiorentina seemed desperate for a presence in the box.

79’ Sottil for Lirola (0-0): With the Rondinelle bunkered all the way back, brining a fullback off in favor of a winger was a logical choice, especially since Sottil looked excellent.

88’ Boateng for Ribery (0-0): Unless Franck really didn’t have anything left, why not let him finish the match? If, on the other hand, the Frenchman was struggling, why not give him the hook earlier?

Conclusion: Using Sottil at wingback against a deep-defending opponent was a smart move, but the two changes up top were a bit harder to parse. Was there a plan beyond throwing new faces in there? It doesn’t really feel like it.

Week 9: 1-2 loss against Lazio

39’ Ranieri for Cáceres (1-1): The Uruguayan picked up a knock and Montella brought on the next man up. Ranieri wasn’t great, but you can’t be too hard on the kid given the situation.

61’ Sottil for Lirola (1-1): Another injury-enforced change. Tasking a 20-year-old winger with serious defensive responsibilities, though, felt like a huge gamble, especially with the more defensively sound Lorenzo Venuti available.

75’ Boateng for Ribery (1-1): Franck clearly didn’t want to leave, which may have contributed to his meltdown after the match, but you can’t hold that against Montella.

Conclusion: Given that two of the subs were due to injuries, there’s not a lot to read into this one. Replacing Lirola with Sottil, though, was a mistake (and that’s not just the hindsight talking). It worked against Brescia because the Rondinelle weren’t offering a threat going forward. Against a team like the Aquile, who frequently look to overload the wide areas, it was clearly asking way too much of Sottil, especially with the scores tied.

Week 10: 1-2 win at Sassuolo

61’ Ghezzal on for Sottil (1-0): This felt like an admission of guilt, as the Algerian’s introduction was accompanied by a switch to a 4-3-3. Sottil had spent the previous hour laboring as a wingback, where he was manhandled by Jeremie Boga for the entire match. Ghezzal, on the other hand, played as a traditional winger. Would have been nice to see Ricky get that chance.

75’ Vlahović on for Boateng (1-1): Given that Ghezzal tends to drift infield and look for the ball at his feet, it made sense to remove KPB; Vlahović’s knack for working the channels added extra verticality to the attack.

87’ Badelj for Benassi (1-2): A late swap to stabilize the midfield with the added bonus of wasting some time.

Conclusion: The first two changes felt like they were enforced by Montella getting his tactics wrong to start with. It also felt unfair to Sottil that he didn’t get a chance to play as a winger, which is clearly where he belongs right now. On the other hand, at least Vinnie admitted his mistake and switched things around, albeit much later than he should have.

Week 11: 1-1 draw against Parma

54’ Vlahović for Ghezzal (0-1): Given that Ghezzal didn't add anything, it felt like Vinnie could have made this switch at halftime. The move did shoehorn Dušan into an unfamiliar wide role, which didn’t feel great, but you can’t fault the boss for bringing on a striker when his team is trailing.

85’ Pedro for Boateng (1-1): Everyone was super-excited to see the young Brazilian, even if it was just for a moment.

Conclusion: The first change was a bit choppy but certainly made sense. What doesn’t make sense is why Montella waited another half hour before changing anything else. The Viola were hardly dominant in that time, and someone like Sottil or Żurkowski could have brought a new look and fresh legs to proceedings. It felt like the mister was perfectly happy with just a point at home, which isn’t the mindset you want.

Week 12: 5-2 loss at Cagliari

46’ Sottil for Lirola (3-0): A pretty logical move; when you’re down by 3 at the half and need more attack, you may as well bring on a winger for a fullback and see what happens. In this case, it wasn’t anything especially good, but it’s the right throw of the dice.

67’ Benassi for Castrovilli (5-0): Yeah, just pull the most important starters before something bad happens.

73’ Ghezzal for Chiesa (5-0): See above.

Conclusion: There’s not a whole lot to learn about a manager’s substitution patterns from a blowout, so we won’t look too much into it.

What we’ve learned

1. Montella likes to wait. I’m not sure if it’s because he doesn’t trust his bench or because he trusts his own instincts and thinks the starters will figure it out, but Vinnie usually seems content to leave the first XI in for a long time, even when he needs a goal. In a dozen games, he’s only turned to the bench before the hour mark twice if you don’t count injury subs. It’d be nice to see him react a bit more quickly to situations on the field rather than assume that his squad will put it together.

2. Montella only seems to trust about 16 players in the team. The usual XI, plus Sottil, Boateng, Vlahović, and maybe Benassi and Venuti are the only guys who play significant minutes barring injury. Combined with the bloated roster, that indicates that the Viola could be big players when the winter mercato opens in 6 weeks, as Daniele Pradè and Joe Barone are likely to try and get the mister some more players he believes in. Even so, though, it’s not like the rest of the squad is useless. Pedro, Szymon Żurkowski, Bryan Dabo, Federico Ceccherini, Luca Ranieri, Sebastian Cristoforo, and Valentin Eysseric are all useful, albeit limited, options. It’s odd that Cousin Vinnie wants to reduce the number of arrows in his quiver.

3. Montella doesn’t worry about shape all that much with his attacking subs. Seeing Vlahović replace Fede or Ghezzal is a pretty clear indication that we’re a lot more worried about width than Vinnie. It seems like Riccardo Sottil makes sense as the vice-Chiesa, but that’s not how it’s worked out at all, as the former is yet to replace the latter. Instead, we’ve seen a lot of substitutions that stick Ribery up top with Boateng or Vlahović, which means the width in attack has to come from the midfielders scurrying to the wings (Castrovilli’s done some of this) and the wingbacks; with both wide men trying to get up the pitch, the flanks are rather bare defensively in case of a quick transition, particularly if Fiorentina’s chasing the game.

4. We’re starting to get an idea of the depth chart. Venuti’s clearly the top backup at either fullback spot, left wingback, or even on the outside of the back three. Ranieri’s another option in that latter role as well. Benassi’s the top midfield replacement, either as a straight swap for Castrovilli or for Badelj if Montella wants to throw more bodies forward. Boateng is clearly the vice-Ribery, as they both nominally play as strikers while actually dropping deep and looking to dictate play from a withdrawn forward position. Ghezzal seems to be the top backup to Chiesa rather than Sottil. Vlahović seems to be the go-to attacking sub, although that could change with Pedro finally finding fitness.

5. The players don’t have set roles yet. While this may seem to contradict the previous item, it’s not exactly the case. Most teams have one or two go-to options off the bench for certain situations: the second striker, the extra attacker on the wings or through the middle, the midfielder who brings a change of pace to the engine room, the fulback who either solidifies the defense or provides another option going forward. While we’ve got an idea of who the protagonists are this season, it feels like Montella’s still mixing them in at random rather than because every regular player has a specific role. While that can help ensnare opposing managers in uncertainty, it also means that Fiorentina often feels like it lacks any cohesion. Guys need to know their jobs.