Fiorentina have showed the vaguest of improvements since swapping Giuseppe Iachini for Cesare Prandelli on the touchlines, but a home loss to recently-promoted Benevento and a comprehensive defeat at AC Milan don’t paint the picture of a team on the rebound. It’s tough to say whether the defense, the midfield, or the attack has been more woeful (call it a three-way tie for worst place), but it’s clear that this team desperately needs a shakeup, especially as some of the more established players struggle mightily to find form.
Prandelli has experimented with how he sets out his team so far, using a variety of shapes. He started off with a 4-3-2-1 against the Stregoni but moved to a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2; against the Rossoneri, it was a 4-3-3 that morphed into a 4-5-1 and then a 4-4-2. That sort of flexibility is a step forward from the Beppe days, but also indicates that San Cesare is still trying to find his best approach.
It’s obvious that he wants to use wide attackers to stretch the opposing defense, which would leave more space through the middle and force the opposition to sit deeper. The problem is that the only two wingers on the team are Franck Ribery and José Callejón, who have a combined age of 70 and have both dealt with injuries over the past few years. Expecting them to start or even play, ever match is asking for trouble, especially without any natural wide attackers (aside from the waifish but gifted Tòfol Montiel) on the roster. Giacomo Bonaventura, Gaetano Castrovilli, and Christian Kouamé can theoretically work on the wings, but they’re all central players and don’t work near the touchlines very well.
The solution, for me, is a 4-3-1-2, similar to what Prandelli used with Italy in Euro 2012. While most people recall them getting obliterated by Spain in the final, it’s worth remembering that they surpassed all expectations and played some sparkling football despite some key injuries. Stuck with a team boasting no wingers, lots of good central midfielders, and energetic fullbacks, he picked a diamond midfield, as Zonal Marking (RIP) discussed at the time. The current edition of Fiorentina doesn’t quite mirror that version of the Azzurri, but there are enough similarities that a long look seems quite worthwhile.
The most obvious difference, for me, is the lack of an Andrea Pirlo at the base of midfield to build the side around. The regista was brilliant for the whole tournament and the Viola obviously don’t have a similar player. However, Prandelli packed the middle with bodies, with Riccardo Montolivo, the nominal trequartista, pressing high up and then dropping deeper in possession as Daniele de Rossi and Claudio Marchisio burst past him with the fullbacks (Cristian Maggio and Federico Balzaretti) providing the width and the strikers drifting around to work the channels or combine in the half spaces.
In Cristiano Biraghi and Pol Lirola, Prandelli has two fullbacks who can get forward and offer width; the former is an excellent crosser, while the latter is more of a dynamic ball carrier (more on that later). Dropping Erick Pulgar into the holding role offers defensive cover for both spots without replicating Pirlo’s influence. Sofyan Amrabat and Alfred Duncan as the shuttlers would add balance as well, as Amrabat’s energy and passing range would help mitigate Pulgar’s clunkiness in possession, while Duncan’s wicked shot from distance and directness would provide some progression; they’re both also capable defensively and happy to sit deep or get forward as necessary.
While nobody would compare Gaetano Castrovilli to Montolivo, moving him further up could pay massive dividends. He’s brilliant at pressing, so deploying him where he could win the ball closer to goal and disrupt passing moves from their source should help farther back. He could also drop deep as Amrabat and Duncan move forward, which would give him the space to receive the ball, turn, and drive forward. While he’s not the creative passer that you usually see in that role, his skill set in addition to the other pieces here could work perfectly.
There’s also not an Antonio Cassano on this team, so sorting out the forwards wouldn’t quite follow the Azzurri template either. Kouamé feels like the best bet for that roaming role, holding up play and bringing the midfielders into the game while also having the freedom to work the channels and offering an aerial threat in the box. Either Patrick Cutrone or Dušan Vlahović, who both like trying to get in behind but don’t offer as much in the buildup, would make for a good partner.
This approach would force Ribery and Callejón into bench roles or shoehorn them into positions that neither’s entirely used to, and that’s not optimal. You don’t want your two highest-earning players riding the pine. However, with five subs available per match, Prandelli could use them to completely shake up his team, presenting opponents with an entirely new set of questions. Lorenzo Venuti, Antonio Barreca, Borja Valero, and Giacomo Bonaventura all offer solid depth options at fullback and in the midfield, which would prevent the team from relying on any one player too much.
The knock on effect of moving Ribery and Callejón to the bench is increasing the pace that Fiorentina can deploy going forwards. Franck, for all his skill on the ball, doesn’t offer a lot of speed on the counter, and Callejón’s slowing down a bit as well. Lirola’s made a significant impact three times as a substitute under Prandelli, using his pure athleticism to offer an outlet on that side. The lack of quickness on the wings has made the Viola extremely predictable, as opponents know they can simply wait for the ball to shift wide and shuffle across, as nobody’s going to go burning through the defense before they can adjust.
Instituting a diamond would add some natural rotation to the middle of the pitch and allow the fullbacks to get forward. That sort of dynamism is what’s been lacking from a static and stodgy buildup that sees very few players moving off the ball. There are obviously still massive issues with this team—the finishing, the discipline, the overall attitude—but finding a system that would offer more solidity at the back and in the middle, and more movement in the middle and going forward, probably wouldn’t hurt.
That Italy 2012 side was a lot more fun than everyone remembers, largely because of the result in the final and their catastrophic World Cup campaign two years later. Without guys like Pirlo, Casino, and a prime Mario Balotelli, these two squads aren’t analogous. But there are enough similarities that it behooves Prandelli to go back and try to replicate that success. Modeling a team around a template most famous for a letdown in the last game of a tournament may feel like a self-defeating choice, but if Fiorentina could capture even a bit of that old Azzurri essence, they’d likely be miles better off than they are now.