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Fiorentina 2-1 Padova: Player grades and 3 things we learned

For 45 minutes, we saw a focused, dominant Viola side, but the usual group emerged after that.

ACF Fiorentina v Calcio Padova - Coppa Italia
Patrick Shark, dun dun, dun dun dun-dun.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Player grades

Pietro Terracciano—7: Once again proved that he’s well above average as a backup. Made a couple of tremendous stops late on to preserve the lead and was quite proactive with his passing in the first half, when the team actually wanted to keep the ball. If Bartłomiej Drągowski ever misses time, Pietro and his fun dad energy should be just fine.

Lucas Martínez Quarta—6.5: Looked very composed on the ball and was happy to push forward into midfield to overload the opposing defense without getting too far up a la Martín Cáceres. Strong in the tackle and sharp with his positioning. Looked less comfortable in the second half when asked to sit in his own box, which is definitely something to watch out for with his deployment this year.

Nikola Milenković—6.5: It was almost immediately clear that Padova’s strikers weren’t going to trouble him in open play because Big Nicky’s just too large, too strong, too smart, and too athletic. Never seemed rattled in the slightest. Didn’t seem as comfortable directing traffic as Germán Pezzella, but that’ll surely come with added reps.

Igor—6: Like Nihola, he’s just so athletic that it didn’t seem like Padova had the ability to bother him much. That said, his decision making can still be a little impetuous at times and he loses track of his man occasionally. Against a third tier side, his incredible physical skills meant he could catch up, but better teams will target him. He was, however, really good going forward and offered a lot of promise with his passing.

Lorenzo Venuti—7: Took his goal fantastically, continuing his run into a pocket of space in the box and reacting quickly to the deflected cross; maybe he can teach some of the strikers. Was quite good otherwise as well, showing a knack for stepping in front of opponents to intercept the ball and speed off the other direction while offering a constant out ball on the wing, especially in the first half. Guilty of occasionally wobbly focus that sees him lose his man at times, but he’s a great guy to have on the bench and proved it again.

Riccardo Saponara—6.5: Helped run the show early on, constantly popping up between the lines and shifting the ball onto his teammates. Assisted the opener (albeit via a deflection) and nearly scored the goal of the season thus far with a lob on the turn but was denied by the crossbar. On the other hand, his lack of lateral quickness meant that Padova motored past him several times, forcing his teammates to shuffle across to the rescue. Still, his technique and vision meant he was a class above at times in this one.

Erick Pulgar—6.5: This is the anchor man we wanted. Tenacious as ever and constantly in the right place at the right time to put out fires, especially in the second half; made several key interventions to snuff out promising chances. Passed the ball well when he wasn’t pressured but wasn’t quite as sharp with a man in his face. That said, seems a much better fit next to another deeper player rather than as the sole holder. Sofyan Amrabat should have a word with Giuseppe Iachini about that.

Alfred Duncan—6.5: It was just against Padova, obviously, but the Ghanaian once again demonstrated that he’s just wonderful. Took it in turns with Pulgar to drop deep and constantly showed to the ball. Did that thing he does where he turns in an unbelievably tight circle on the ball to send his marker flying off the wrong direction. Made smart passes to keep things ticking and earned the assist for Callejón’s strike. Could’ve been more involved defensively and faded a bit in the second half but surely deserves a chance instead of Giacomo Bonaventura at some point.

Antonio Barreca—6: Solid debut for the Monaco man. Got up and down the wing well, won some fouls, pinged in a couple of good balls and one that was just lovely. Really struggled when Padova changed shape at the half, sitting off Umberto Germano and letting him get a running start down the touchline time and again. You get the sense that was tactical more than anything, though, so you can’t penalize him too much.

José Callejón—7: Opened his Viola account (again, albeit a deflection) and looked quite active. Seemed much more comfortable dropping deep and central to collect the ball than he did against Udinese. Would’ve liked to see him try to get in behind more, especially in the second half when Fiorentina were sitting back, but again, that’s probably more on the tactics than anything else.

Patrick Cutrone—4.5: You could tell he wanted to impress in what will likely be a very rare start, but it just never came together for him, as evidenced by his obvious frustration when he was subbed off. Missed the two best chances he had and lost the ball a bit too easily at times. Even so, showed a knack for finding space in behind and pressed well from the front.

Christian Kouamé—4.5: Held up play decently well and contributed defensively. Didn’t really get any good chances to score.

Franck Ribery—5.5: Had a chance to end it on a break but hesitated to pull the trigger. Pulled the strings as per usual but didn’t provide an end product.

Cristiano Biraghi—4: Didn’t really add much except a couple of missed crosses.

Gaetano Castrovilli—n/a: Brought on in stoppage time to run a couple of seconds off the clock.

Dušan Vlahović—n/a: See previous entry.

Three things we learned

1. This team is never safe. The first 45 minutes were exactly what Fiorentina would’ve wanted. They controlled the game (73% possession), created chances, scored twice, and didn’t allow a shot (a wild blast from distance that was nowhere near Terracciano’s goal) until the final minute of the half. More importantly, they looked confident, composed, and never seemed to even get out of second gear. After the break, though, Padova adjusted. Urbano provided more width in attack, Santini and Nicastro added extra movement in the box, and the whole team worked harder to close the Viola down. In that case, Fiorentina should’ve been able to find space over the top, but none of the passes were ever more than panicked thumps forward. The lack of cohesion when Plan A gets figured out isn’t anything new, but it remains the most concerning thing. This is perhaps the least flexible Fiorentina I’ve ever seen.

2. The players don’t believe. Julian Nagelsmann said back in 2016, “30% of coaching is tactics, 70% social competence.” It’s a reminder that the tactics usually aren’t the most important thing in the world if the players are willing to go all out. The problem, though, is when the tactics create fear for the players. When the Viola dominated the opening period, the players had some swagger, a fearlessness we haven’t associated with them since the season opener. In the second half, they were clearly told to sit deep, soak up pressure, and play on the break. What that would say to me is that my coach doesn’t trust me to keep control of the tempo and simply be better. It says that he doesn’t trust me to not make mistakes. It says that even against a much smaller opponent, he’s afraid. There’s no way that doesn’t bleed into the team at some level and impact how they play.

3. The double pivot works. Iachini (or in this case, his assistant Giuseppe Carillo) clearly likes having a single holding midfielder and two box-to-box runners in his midfield. This allows those number 8s to shift around to the wide spaces, which in turn allows the wingbacks to sit even with the back line, making his defense nearly impossible to play through. A double pivot means that he loses a bit of that flexibility, yes, but it also provides a much simpler platform to build from in the possession phase. With two midfielders free to drop in and pick up the ball rather than just one, the opponent either has to stand off or commit another marker forward, opening up space higher up. Pulgar and Duncan handled this brilliantly in the first half, and Amrabat impressed in a partnership last year as well. While making this change seems minor, it would require the wingbacks to take different, higher positions, which would in turn spread the back three wider as well. Beppe needs to figure out if that’s worth it right now, though, because what he’s doing isn’t working. Shipping a goal and desperately defending against a Serie C team is just deeply embarrassing.