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Ribery as a Lone Striker?

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This may sound crazy, but there’s precedent in Serie A for this exact sort of setup.

FC Internazionale v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
Is it really that crazy?
Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Inter via Getty Images

What’s next for Fiorentina? Since the “summer” calciomercato—at once truncated yet interminable—came to an end with Federico Chiesa’s transfer to Juventus, a sense of acrimony seems to be hovering over the club and its supporters. The move is sure to be scrutinized not just this week or this season, but for years to come, and opinions will inevitably differ. What’s beyond debate, however, is that over the past three campaigns Chiesa, for better or worse, was a major focal point of this team and as such, his departure will all but necessitate an overhaul to the approach on the pitch. This alone should be reason for optimism.

So, how will this new Viola line up? The most obvious strength of Beppe Iachini’s side is the quality and depth of the midfield, which has undergone, as the Gazzetta dello Sport put it in a transfer window round up, a “mega lifting.” The return of Borja Valero and additions of Sofyan Amrabat, Giacomo Bonaventura and José Callejón (to go along with Alfred Duncan and Gaetano Castrovilli) leave no shortage of options and ability down the middle.

As solid and experienced as this unit is, the attacking core, Franck Ribéry aside, appears its polar opposite. Not one of the young trio of Christian Kouamé, Dušan Vlahović or Patrick Cutrone has looked anything near to the answer so far. And while there is of course room and hope for growth, in the meantime one intriguing option Iachini should consider is using Ribery as a false nine with a stacked midfield behind him.

It may not seem the most natural transition for a player who has spent basically his entire career as a winger and is most dangerous cutting in on his right foot from the left side, but if there’s one thing the first three matches of the season have shown it’s Ribery is our best all-around player and is more than capable of taking on this role. There is also precedent for a similar kind of late-career reinvention within Serie A, and in this we can look to Luciano Spalletti’s first stint at Roma for inspiration.

Lacking a true, reliable goalscorer, in 2006 Spalletti redesigned his squad into a 4­­–2–3–1 with Francesco Totti as the lone striker. The move surprised many, including the player himself, who has said he never fancied himself a true center forward, but that, “with Spalletti, I was free to roam and that was the position where I felt best in my career.” It also worked quite well, as he put up 26 goals the next season (2006/2007) to win the European Golden Boot, the last time an Italian and anyone in Serie A had won the award before Ciro Immobile last year.

It’s not a perfect parallel for this Fiorentina squad and Ribery and Totti, while both legends, are of course not identical players. No one is expecting the Frenchman to become the top scorer in Europe. Yet there are other similarities between the two sides. That Roma team featured a central midfield three of Daniele De Rossi, David Pizzaro and Simone Perotta—not too different from, say, Amrabat, Duncan and Castrovilli. On the flanks it generally deployed Mirko Vucinic and Mancini to support the attack, roles in which both Bonaventura and Callejón have had plenty of experience and success.

(Defensively, this would mean a back four, with likely Pol Lirola and Cristiano Biraghi as the fullbacks and Nikola Milenković and Germán Pezzella as the first choice central defenders.)

Ribery has already shown he’s more than capable of playing in a front two and is far better than anyone in terms of controlling the ball with his back to goal, keeping possession and either finishing or creating chances for his teammates. Fiorentina’s best moments this season (and last) have nearly all come from his ability to hold up play and draw multiple defenders to create space for and then set up a forward running midfielder. Consider Castrovilli’s and Chiesa’s goals against Inter (and Vlahović’s miss).

More than anything, this formation would simply allow for the best players to all be on the field at the same time, and while it may not be the most forward-looking approach, we can only wait so long for a real goalscorer to emerge.

Losing Chiesa was undoubtedly a blow, but it need not define this season in the negative. It’s time for something to change, indeed been time for something to change, and Fiorentina has a great chance to emerge as more cohesive unit as a result. There are pieces in place. Hey, the architect of that Roma team is even available…