Gian Piero Gasperini shuffled his deck substantially, bringing on Pierluig Gollini, Berat Djimisti, Andrea Masiello, Robin Gosens, and Remo Freuler. He kept the tridente that caused Fiorentina so much trouble in the Coppa Italia, though, and maintained his beloved 3-4-2-1 shape.
Stefano Pioli made some big changes, none bigger than changing shape to a 3-4-3 in an apparent attempt to match Atalanta. Germán Pezzella, who apparently has Wolverine’s healing factor, anchored the middle, while Vitor Hugo got a badly-needed break. Vincent Laurini was the choice on the right ahead of Marco Benassi or Gerson, while Edimilson Fernandes got the nod in the middle next to Jordan Veretout. Giovanni Simeone joined Federico Chiesa and Luis Muriel up top.
Muriel got things off to a flying start, picking off a miserable backpass from Marten de Roon and juking Djimisti out of his cleats before slotting past Gollini with his left. It was a magnificent goal and gave the Viola a huge boost, as now they’d be able to sit deep and tear their hosts apart on the counterattack. After 11 minutes, it looked like they’d double the lead through Chiesa, who pounced on a lovely Veretout ball over the top, drove down the pitch, and smashed a piledriver that Gollini barely parried. From the ensuing corner, though, Atalanta showed their own countering ability with Papu Gómez, who led a 3-v-3 from his own half and probably should have leveled; instead, he dallied on the ball and let Cristiano Biraghi close down Josip Iličić.
At minute 13, la Dea booted the ball out to touch and let the Atalanta crowd applaud Davide Astori. The former Fiorentina captain was born just outside Bergamo, so the home fans felt they had an interest in respecting the player as well. Iličić was reduced to tears, as was Pioli.
After that, though, the hosts took over. Alban Lafont made a string of impressive stops against Gómez and Duván Zapata, the latter of whom also threw an elbow into the goalkeeper’s face at one point. However, Fiorentina were sitting way too deep and offering no resistance in midfield, allowing Atalanta to play at the edge of the area and look for creases in the defense. They found one just before the half hour mark, albeit in fortunate fashion: Gómez won a free kick that Freuler astutely tapped to Iličić, who made a couple of moves and fired a shot that took a big deflection off Biraghi, wrong-footing poor Lafont completely, before nestling into the net. The Viola were too busy talking to the referee to notice until too late.
They refocused for a moment, though, and Laurini of all people nearly restored the lead 3 minutes later: some fantastic work from Simeone took the Argentine to the byline, and he fizzed a low cross to the back post. Laurini, completely unmarked, made good contact but hit the ball straight at Gollini; anywhere else would have left the goalkeeper helpless. Gómez responded with a move that was very similar to the one that led to his goal on Wednesday, twisting past Nikola Milenković deep in his own half and jogging all the way to the edge of the Viola box before dispatching a perfect finish past Lafont.
Chiesa produced a bit of wizardry to round Djimisti while somehow keeping the ball from rolling over the endline, but nobody was there for his cutback (they’d probably expected the whistle for a goal kick) and Veretout almost played Simeone through in stoppage time, but it was pretty much the Dea show as Lafont made a succession of impressive saves to keep his side in the match.
Muriel roared back to life at 52’, dusting José Luis Palomino down the left and slithering into the box, but his outrageous backheeled cutback couldn’t find anyone in the area, although the ball rolled across acres of space. Another brilliant Lafont save later, though, and the Viola were undone again by Papu. The little Argentine jinked down the right and fizzed a cross past the face of goal that Zapata somehow didn’t turn home. However, it got to Timothy Castagne on the other side, and the wingback crossed to Gosens, who was wide open to head home at the back post as Laurini switched off.
The introductions of Vitor Hugo and Bryan Dabo didn’t do much to improve Fiorentina’s fortunes. Chiesa stung the bar with a venomous strike at 66’, but Atalanta shut up shop well and nearly capitalized on a disorganized Fiorentina twice, but both Gómez and Freuler missed 1-v-1s. Dabo missed a header in stoppage time, but there was no question at the end of the day that Fiorentina had been well and truly beaten; only a superhuman 90 minutes from Lafont kept the scoreline remotely respectable.
Credit to Stefano Pioli for trying something new with the 3-4-3, but it’s hard not to feel like he got it all wrong here. His team was completely unable to compete in the middle as Atalanta’s attackers dropped deep to provide overloads and keep possession. More concerning, though, was his desire to soak up pressure after Muriel scored. His charges had shipped 3 goals to Atalanta just days before; how could he have thought that his defense could keep them scoreless for 90 minutes this time, even with a hobbled Pezzella?
While we may not like the 4-3-3, this match made it glaringly obvious that the Viola need three men in the middle. Otherwise, they get overrun immediately in defense and lack any forward drive from the center. It feels a bit late in the season to still be tinkering like this and looking for the best approach, and it’s hard not to blame Pioli for still not knowing his best XI.
Lafont: 8.5—It’s not often that a goalkeeper who gives up three is the man of the match, but Lafont kept this one respectable. Made half a dozen truly remarkable saves and basically looked like the sort of player who’s going to be a top professional for a very long time.
Milenković: 5—Another rather shaky match from the big man. Not sure why he was chasing Papu so far up the pitch for the goal, but was nowhere to be seen on the Gosens goal either. Did well against Zapata but struggled against quicker, trickier opponents all day, and his positioning was rather suspect.
Pezzella: 6.5—The only defender worth a lick out there today, the captain made some key tackles and generally battled his heart out. Had to come off after 65 minutes, though, so you wonder if it was really wise to rush him back.
Ceccherini: 4.5—Booked after 6 minutes for a slide on Iličić and never seemed to get his feet back under him. Didn’t show off the excellent passing at the back we’ve come to expect and was dominated by the bruising Zapata.
Laurini: 4.5—Would have scored with a bit more composure and completely lost Gosens for the third goal. Didn’t provide much of anything going forward aside from one decent cross, and didn’t really solidify the back either. Doesn’t seem suited to wingback duties.
Veretout: 6—Played a few good passes and got his set piece deliveries looking a bit more threatening, but struggled to defend at the edge of his own area and got himself booked for pure frustration.
Fernandes: 4.5—This is the sort of game he should relish: a physical, grinding encounter that lets him use his length and athleticism to disrupt opponents and gallop forward. Instead, he was more or less invisible and provided, at most, a speed bump for Atalanta’s midfield dominance.
Biraghi: 5—Not his best performance. Doesn’t seem suited to the wingback role as much as the fullback one, as he’s at his best on the overlap. Starting higher up the pitch takes that space away from him. Didn’t do much in attack, but was adequate defensively.
Chiesa: 7.5—As usual, looked like the only Viola player capable of conjuring something out of nothing. Produced some impressive runs up the pitch, but was mostly starved of the ball. Unlucky to hit the bar rather than the net at 66 minutes.
Simeone: 5.5—Did his usual sprinting around like a maniac and had a couple of nice moments, highlighted by his sinewy drive into the box before crossing to Laurini, but vanished for long stretches and took a few very bad touches as well.
Muriel: 7.5—The goal was wonderfully taken and showcased his speed and quickness, along with his lethal finishing, but he drifted in and out of this one as Fiorentina were unable to get the ball to him. Still roused himself to provide a threat several times and kept the hosts on their toes throughout.
Vitor Hugo: 5—Switched off badly to let both Gómez and Freuler through for 1-v-1s that they both inexplicably failed to turn on frame. Hopefully, the return of Pezzella will get him back on track.
Dabo: 5—Brought in to play wingback and still doesn’t convince there. His instinct is always to go infield rather than keeping his width. Just seemed off today, too, with some bad touches and bad passes.
Pjaca: n/a—Took a throw-in during stoppage time and otherwise didn’t touch the ball that I can recall.