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Prandelli’s best option may be to stick with the 3-5-2

Everyone’s sick of those numbers in that order, but it’s tough to see a better option.

1st Tiebreak Game of 2020 Women’s World Chess Championship title match in Vladivostok
The only winning move is not to play.
Photo by Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images

Now that Cesare Prandelli is firmly ensconced as Fiorentina manager (at least until the end of the year), it’s time to begin the baseless guesswork of how he’ll coach the team. While many of us want to see him return to his roots and trot out something like his 2008 XI, that’s simply not an option with the squad as currently constructed. We should also recognize that he’s not in it for the long haul. His brief is to keep the team afloat for 31 more games, when a new manager can come in.

The problem (okay, one of dozens) here is that there are only two natural wide attackers in the team, and their combined age is 70. Franck Ribery’s injury history and apparent exhaustion after the hour mark is a major red flag; relying on him to play every minute is probably asking for trouble. Callejón, meanwhile, is out with coronavirus. While Christian Kouamé, Patrick Cutrone, and Dušan Vlahović can all theoretically play out wide, none of them have ever looked natural near the touchline. Giacomo Bonaventura probably doesn’t have the pace for that job anymore either, and using Cristiano Biraghi and Pol Lirola would lead to more problems farther back. Despite Prandelli’s declared interest in using a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, a knock for Franck would throw everything out of whack.

Fiorentina, then, are pretty much stuck playing a pretty narrow formation. 4-3-1-2, 3-4-2-1, 3-4-1-2, or 3-5-2 are the only real options. While those look different on paper, in practice, they’re all fairly similar. And, although nobody wants to hear it, a 3-5-2 is probably the best way to get the most from this team right now, not least because Prandelli has already coached a Genoa team that lined up in that shape.

The Viola have a wealth of talent in central midfield, after all: Gaetano Castrovilli, Sofyan Amrabat, Erick Pulgar, Alfred Duncan, Jack Bonaventura, and Borja Valero are all more than capable Serie A players. To get the most out of them, Prandelli likely needs a midfield three; otherwise, he’s mismanaging the club’s expenditures. While Castrovilli or Bonaventura could play as a 10, they’d probably be redundant in that role with Ribery moves deep, leaving the striker as isolated as we’ve become accustomed to this season. Empowering a central midfielder to charge forward as the Frenchman drops in would restore some balance, and that only works if there are another couple of guys to cover that space.

So a midfield three feels necessary, both to counterbalance Ribery’s tendencies and to support the remaining striker. If you’re playing without wingers, the only real question remaining is a back three or a back four. Despite the clamor for the former, the latter is probably a better option right now for three reasons.

The first is that both Biraghi and Lirola (as well as backups Antonio Barreca and Lorenzo Venuti) are quite good going forward but a bit suspect on the back foot. Having an extra defender in there to cover for them would help solidify a unit that’s leaked in a lot of goals. Part of that is not having Germán Pezzella, of course, and part of it is a midfield that can’t progress the ball, but nobody’s mistaking Biraghi or Lirola for lockdown defenders.

Next, with outside central defenders in Nikola Milenković, Martín Cáceres, Lucas Martínez Quarta, and Igor, Fiorentina has lots of good passers who can step into midfield and keep moves going, which in turn allows the wingbacks to push higher up. There are obvious risks here—Cáceres brain farts leading to quick breaks the other way haven’t helped anyone—but this sort of dynamism at the back can deform opposing defenses and lead to opportunities as they try to recover.

Next, wingbacks play higher than fullbacks. In a 4-3-1-2, the fullbacks have a massive burden to get all the way forward to provide width. In a back three system, they’re naturally higher up, allowing them to offer support in the final third without having to cover as much distance. Remember when I mentioned Prandelli’s love for width in attacking transitions? That’ll be much easier to provide with a back three letting those wide players push on. We’ve actually seen Fiorentina do exactly this in the win over Torino, and it was fantastic. Hopefully Cesare took notes.

In short, the primary focus needs to be providing more runners in attack. With three defenders, two deeper-lying midfielders, and a striker who likes to drop in, that’ll require the wingbacks and the remaining midfielder to fly upfield as soon as the Viola win the ball, offsetting Ribery’s natural inclination to abandon his striking partner. That verticality will give Amrabat the chance to start quick breaks with long balls to the wings, thus allowing Fiorentina to attack an unsettled defense rather than one that’s already in position.

I’m not advocating for a return to #BeppeBall. Formations are not tactics despite what Football Manager may tell you. Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 looks nothing like Iachini’s. Prandelli will probably be best keeping the basic framework of the team intact; making any massive changes would be a mistake, given that he’s stepping down at season’s end. A few judicious tweaks to the system, however, could be enough to see this team finish comfortably in the top half, even if it requires sticking with a formation that the fans are understandably sick of.