Fiorentina as a club has undergone more identity shifts than most. Right around the turn of the century it was living the golden age of the Seven Sisters, beating teams like Manchester United and Arsenal in the Champions League; a few years later the team no longer existed.
Then, rising from the ashes of Serie C2, the Viola once again became a force in Europe, reaching the UEFA Cup semifinal in 2007/2008 and the Champions League round of 16 just two years later, a run highlighted by memorable wins against Liverpool and Bayern Munich. This most recent apex has since given way to four straight seasons without European football and no finish higher than eighth place, which is right about where this year’s side is predicted to end up.
Even on the pitch, the fluctuations have been drastic. At the start of the 2018/2019 season, the club seemed to be investing in youth, with the youngest squad of any team in the top 5 European leagues. Now, following a change in ownership and a focus on adding veteran players, it doesn’t even crack the top 25.
Cycles of this sort are unfortunately the norm for a mid-size team, and it is of course natural that the squad should have a new look and feel since Rocco Commisso’s takeover last year. It’s also natural that this will not happen overnight, but at some point Fiorentina has to decide precisely what kind of club it wants to be, and this needs to start on the field.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but following the Viola in recent seasons, I can never quite tell what sort of team I’m supposed to be watching. Is this an exciting, free-flowing team pressing high up the pitch? Or is it a stout defensive unit that grinds out games and hits on the counter? One that stacks the midfield with skill or one that attacks down the flanks? And, in a broader sense: is this a team pushing for a place in Europe or looking over its shoulder towards the relegation zone?
Sunday’s 3–2 victory over Udinese, while much needed, still failed to provide too many clues. Despite scoring three times, Fiorentina created relatively little, with only five shot attempts overall versus 16 for the visitors, who also out-passed and out-crossed the home side by considerable margins. The attacking trio of Dušan Vlahović, Patrick Cutrone and Christian Kouamé was virtually non-existent, being involved in none of the goals and managing just 61 touches between them across 115 combined minutes, less than Sofyan Ambarat had on his own (69). Being ahead two goals within 21 minutes does provide some tactical context, but regardless, it seems fair to call this another uneven performance.
The imbalance was only further highlighted across Serie A this past weekend by the play of Fiorentina’s most direct rivals. Sassuolo, riding high at third in the table, drew 3–3 with Torino and has now scored at least three goals in the last four games. Verona, a revelation a year ago, has not missed a beat this campaign and after drawing at Juventus 1–1 has allowed just two goals all season. Sampdoria, after dropping its opening two matches, has rattled off three-straight impressive wins over Fiorentina, Lazio and Atalanta.
More than anything though, these sides have all carved out a distinct approach and system—you know exactly what you’re going to get. Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo will always play on the front foot, likely score and concede goals in bunches and give young players a chance to shine. Ivan Juric’s Verona will be incredibly hard to break down defensively, be competitive in almost every match, and opportunistic and precise on the counter. Claudio Ranieri has turned Sampdoria into a compact unit that defends extremely well between the lines and has likewise proven to be dangerous and efficient on the break. Even watching Udinese felt somewhat familiar, such being the impact of a player as integral and skilled as Rodrigo De Paul.
That all these “provincial” clubs have considerably smaller budgets than Fiorentina can both underline and go some way to explaining this disparity. Teams working with less naturally don’t face the same pressure and expectations, and their immediate goals are more clearly defined, which helps to shape a squad’s style and cohesion.
Fiorentina is different. Not a provincial side, but at the same time not a big club, it exists in a precarious middle ground where merely grinding out results can be looked down upon just as much as not winning. It is a team well aware—and rightly proud—of its past successes and desperately wanting to aim high, but perhaps at the moment losing sight of its immediate surroundings. It’s time to choose a side.