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Looking to the Advanced Stats for Help

Can the underlying numbers make sense of anything?

Einstein’s blackboard used at the second of three Rhodes Memorial Lectures Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

This season has been rough. In fact, this whole calendar year has not been kind to Fiorentina or its supporters. A managerial switch to Cesare Prandelli perhaps provided a brief moment of optimism, but so far any improvement has yet to truly materialize on the field. Watching this team, both this season and beyond, is to ultimately be left frustrated. Not simply for the lackluster quality of play, but, all the more maddeningly, for the sense this group of players, despite certain limitations, should not be sitting two points from the relegation zone with a quarter of a Serie A season in the books.

No one expected Fiorentina to be world-beaters this year, but pre-season projections at least saw them in the top half of the table and there can be no argument the club is being outperformed by rivals with far less resources. Plenty of blame has already been apportioned (most of it not unjustly falling on the lack of scoring), but is there a deeper, statistical answer to be found? And, just as importantly, could these advanced numbers provide some kind of roadmap forward?

It’s worth noting first off that Fiorentina has, at least according to the expected goals/expected points metric, been unlucky this season. This table places the club firmly in the middle of the pack, which is likewise where it sits in most statistical categories. There are, however, a few that really stand out:

As a team, Fiorentina barely ever shoot from outside the box

At just 2.6 attempts per game from beyond the area, the Viola rank last in Serie A. Prandelli addressed this, if somewhat indirectly, following the Milan match when he said the real issue in attack was getting more players in and around the box, and not relying solely on the strikers to carry the load.

It’s undeniable Fiorentina have lacked basically any form of effective pressing and sustained attacking presence this season, as glaringly evidenced by its league-worst one shot attempt created from a defensive action, i.e. a pass interception or dispossessing an opponent. The team is also in the bottom three in both successful dribbles leading to shot attempts and shots that lead to a follow-up shot attempt.

Prandelli went on in his comments to say the key to remedying this was getting the pair of Franck Ribéry and José Callejón back to top form, and we saw perhaps a glimpse of his plan this past weekend with both in the starting lineup either side of Dušan Vlahović. But is this really the answer? Can Fiorentina rely on two aging, albeit certainly talented, players to shoulder the attack? On recent evidence the answer is no, especially in the case of Callejón.

Fiorentina lose possession more than any team in the league

Fiorentina is an above-average team in terms of possession and pass-completion percentage. However, as a group they are stripped of that possession at the alarming rate of 15.2 times a game, the most in Serie A by a decent margin. The biggest culprits so far have been Ribéry (3.6 per game), Sofyan Amrabat (2.6) and Vlahović (2.5).

This again points to a lack of support and attackers being too isolated up top. Yet more than anything it speaks of a team without a clear plan, one decent enough at keeping the ball, but ultimately few ideas as to what to do with it.

The overall lack of production at the forward position was a major concern coming into the season and should surprise no one. But rather than continue to harp on this issue and cast individual blame, Fiorentina should focus on and amplify the things the statistics show it does particularly well:

Fiorentina are really hard to dribble past as a team

No club has been dribbled by fewer times than the Viola this season, having been beaten just 7.2 times per game. The side’s tackle success rate of 40.9% also lands in the top four. What’s strange is, despite these impressive numbers, Fiorentina has the second-fewest attempted tackles in all of Serie A, a passivity further underlined by being in the bottom two in terms of interceptions.

What all this implies is a very solid one-on-one defensive team, which unfortunately has been discouraged from playing in these more high-risk situations.

Fiorentina gets a lot of crosses into the box

Only Inter, at 3.8 per game, has to date managed more completed crosses into the penalty area from open play than the Viola at 3.4. The problem, obviously, has been finding a reliable target for these crosses and converting them into meaningful scoring opportunities.

Still, it does speak highly of the capacity of both Cristiano Biraghi and (usually) Pol Lirola to get forward, and overall to the team’s ability to find some joy down the flanks.

So where does this leave us? It is by no means a rosy picture, however, at the same time, there are certainly elements to be positive about and which reveal some hints at a way forward:

1) Build the team around Gaetano Castrovilli, not Ribéry and Callejón

It makes sense Prandelli would focus on Ribéry and Callejón; they are, after all, the club’s two highest-paid players. But the reality is the former has not been overly effective while the latter has arguably been a liability. What’s more, by instinctively drifting out to the left and right flanks respectively, they often take away space from Biraghi and Lirola.

Instead the focus should be on getting Castrovilli, the team’s leading goal-scorer and all-around best player, into more dangerous attacking areas. Prandelli has experimented with a few different formations so far that have even morphed as games have gone on, but regardless of the setup, the Viola number 10 should play as a number 10. Considering the team’s ability to cross effectively, but not capitalize on these opportunities, secondary runs into the box and support behind the striker(s) is absolutely vital.

2) Play with three central midfielders

This team has a lot of good central midfield players, but really no true midfield wingers, so why force it? Prandelli should instead look for width from the fullbacks, who so far have provided the vast majority of balls into the box, with Biraghi and Lirola leading the way and together completing more accurate crosses (20) than the rest of the team combined (19).

Given the depth at the position, there would be numerous combinations to work with, but it seems natural to have a more defensive holding player, flanked by two “mezzale” with more license to roam. A deeper-lying player would also lend cover for the fullbacks to get forward more and the trio as a whole would provide a solid base behind Castrovilli, allowing him greater freedom and less defensive responsibility.

(For more on this see The Tito’s article in favor of using a 4-3-1-2, which makes a lot of sense.)

3) Let the defense be more aggressive and get involved in the attack

The importance of the fullbacks getting up the field is obvious, but as a unit the Viola rearguard should play higher up the pitch and more on the front foot, looking to create opportunities in transition. The numbers clearly show a tough team to break down individually, but also one that’s far too unassertive. Indeed, despite their proficiency, as a group they rank dead last in combined tackles plus interceptions.

It should come as no surprise the top teams in this category are Lazio and Atalanta, two clubs unafraid of any of their defenders pushing forward to create a numerical advantage in midfield. (And, not for nothing, perhaps the two sides to have overachieved the most in recent years.) This strategy would also serve to open up the field by stretching the opposition defensively and creating more lanes to attack.

These are, at the end of the day, just statistics, and they of course can tell many different stories while, more importantly, solving nothing. One thing that should be beyond question, however, is something needs to change and quick, and the answer does not appear to be to wait for Ribéry and Callejón to start magically dribbling past everyone and scoring goals. Playing more of a counter-attacking, transition style and looking to attack down the flanks and get crosses into the box may not be the most entertaining approach, but it appears the one best suited to this team. Fiorentina may ultimately have far loftier aspirations than a relegation battle, but right now should not be about imagining what this team could be, but rather what it is, and what it isn’t.

Stats from and