Fiorentina boss Giuseppe Iachini rolled with Marco Benassi in midfield over Milan Badelj and Kevin-Prince Boateng over Dušan Vlahović up top. With ex-Viola defender Nenad Tomović unavailable, SPAL Ferrara boss Leonardo Semplici turned to ex-Viola defender Felipe; youngster Federico di Francesco also got a rare start up top ahead of Sergio Floccari. The biggest personnel decision, though, was that referee Federico La Penna contracted an illness late and was replaced by Daniele Doveri.
Boateng got the ball in the net following a scramble with Benassi and Federico Chiesa both failing to convert, but it was ruled out for offside following a VAR check. Pol Lirola played a nice ball in for Gaetano Castrovilli to force a good save from Etrit Berisha. SPAL had a couple of chances as Felipe airmailed a free header and then when Gabriel Strefezza mishit a free kick that looped over everyone and nearly fooled Bartłomiej Drągowski, who tipped it onto the post in stoppage time. That was all the action, though, as the half was about as dire as anything we’ve ever seen at the Franchi; SPAL saw nearly 60% of the possession despite coming in averaging under 48%, for example. It was deathly dull.
Fiorentina opened up a bit to start the second period, with Vlahović involved early and looking lively. The Very Large Teen tried a shot himself early and nearly fed Chiesa for the opener, but couldn’t get the touch right on either. Nikola Milenković popped up for a vicious volleyed attempt on goal that needed a block and Lirola fed Vlahović, but SPAL held firm and nearly struck on the other end as Mattia Valoti slithered by 5 defenders before chipping just wide. It was in the 82nd minute that Erick Pulgar lofted a corner kick in for Germán Pezzella to powerfully head home. Despite the Estensi throwing everything forward, the Viola coped well enough and Patrick Cutrone nearly grabbed a sensational goal on his debut with a brilliant backheel, but put it just wide of the post.
Drągowski—5.5: Didn’t have much to do. Caught one sharply-struck shot well, but his helpless flailing on that free kick and a poor rush out on Valoti’s run didn’t inspire much confidence. Still, both were pretty fluky situations, so we’re not too worried.
Milenković—7: Massive today. Ran with the tricky di Francesco and bullied Chonky Cat cosplayer Petagna brilliantly. Stepped into midfield well to provide another safe passing option and kept his distribution tidy. This is the Mountain we’ve been hoping for.
Pezzella—7: Scored the sort of inspirational goal you want from your captain when the team’s struggling, but wasn’t actually great otherwise. Struggled with Petagna and di Francesco a bit, particularly the former’s wide loadness, and gave the ball away with errant long balls too often.
Cáceres—5: Had a lot of trouble with Strefezza and had a couple of moments where he just forgot what he was doing, misplacing passes or missing tackles or just letting a runner go right by him unopposed. Off day from a class player.
Lirola—7.5: Brilliant performance from the Spaniard, and his best in the shirt thus far. Led the team in touches, created chances, zipped around the flank, kept the ball moving, and defended adequately against Igor and Cionek. Iachini’s the best thing that’s happened to him since he arrived.
Benassi—5: Took 5 shots and put just 1 on target. Did his usual disappearing act otherwise, although he was a bit more engaged defensively, at least. Still, he remains a negative unless he scores. What a bizarre player.
Pulgar—6: Bustled about and dominated the center of the pitch, not letting SPAL work in front of the defense at all. Won the ball, mostly kept his passing simple and positive, and got an assist with a lovely corner. Still a bit clunky in possession at times, but remains a net positive.
Castrovilli—7: Made a couple of those effortless-looking bursts forward after winning the ball deep. Nearly opened the scoring and provided some inspiration. Didn’t see enough of the ball, though, especially as he frequently had to drop too far back to retrieve it. Still a bit profligate at times.
Dalbert—5: Another odd player. Hit a couple of excellent crosses, but his concentration just seems to fizzle at times, leading to bad decisions or misplaced passes or defensive miscues.
Chiesa—5: Scarcely saw the ball, so this is more of an indictment of the midfield’s inability to get him the ball. It’s simply criminal that he had just 24 touches in 75 minutes.
Boateng—4: Well, we’ve determined he’s not a striker. Crucial in the buildup for the Castrovilli chance, but that was pretty much the only time he surfaced. Simply doesn’t offer anything as a center forward in a 3-5-2, although he sure looks like a useful player in other circumstances.
Vlahović—5.5: Looked lively. Dropped deep to offer a passing option, held up play well, and ran the channels with typical fervor. The end product remains a real concern, but his confidence clearly isn’t suffering; he had 4 shots in his 45 minutes.
Cutrone—4.5: Like Chiesa, was starved of service; only had 2 touches on the ball in his 15 minutes despite some clever runs that weren’t picked out. Did nearly blow the roof off the Franchi with that backheel, though.
Three things we learned
1. The problem isn’t the forwards, it’s the midfield. Chiesa is without a doubt the best player on this team. He has to be more involved if Fiorentina are to stand a chance against Serie A sides. However, there’s not a midfielder in this bunch who can play a pass through the lines to involve him; Pulgar’s a destroyer who mostly passes horizontally, Benassi is Benassi, and Castrovilli’s a demon of a dribbler but not much at bringing other players into the game as yet. This is where Milan Badelj shone, and while the Croatian looks past it in every other regard, he’s the only one who seems to get how to find Fede. Most of the passes he received seem to have been thumps forward from the defense, which isn’t especially helpful either.
2. This 3-5-2 doesn’t suit the personnel. It’s weird. You’d think that this team is set up for a 3-5-2, with quick forwards who like to pull wide, a pair of midfielders who like to drive forward, a wingback who stays high up, and a couple of pacy outside defenders. However, that isn’t how it’s worked out, and it’s time to scrap pretty much everything Vincenzo Montella did here. For Beppe Iachini, that’s a tough order: he’s always used a 3-5-2. When it’s worked maybe twice all year, though, it’s time for a change. 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-2-1, 4-3-1-2: it’s time for an old dog to learn a new trick or two.
3. It’s time to unleash Riccardo Sottil. Fiorentina spent the first half trying to play through the middle, which is exactly what SPAL, who excel at packing the center, wanted. In the second half, the Viola turned to the wide areas, looking to push the wingbacks forward, and looked a lot better. Instead of leaving it entirely up to those two players to provide width, though, why not use a pair of wingers with the fullbacks in support on the overlap? Given Fiorentina’s penchant of striking through set pieces and lack of pace and dynamism outside of Chiesa and Castrovilli, a quick and tricky wide man who’s happy to run without the ball seems like he’s exactly what this team needs. And yet we haven’t seen Sottil in months. Get him involved already for crying out loud.