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Prandelli is doing some strange things with his defense and they’re working

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Over the past two games, San Cesare has used the men at the back in some creative ways.

AS Roma v AC Fiorentina - Serie A
I love this photograph so much.
Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

One of the things that’s stood out to me about Fiorentina’s past couple of outings is how the defenders have played. In both games (vs Hellas Verona and at Juventus), Cesare Prandelli deployed a back three of Nikola Milenković, Germán Pezzella, and Igor. That’s three large humans who are all very strong and seem to be developing a good rapport to cover each other’s backs.

What I’m really interested in, though, is what they’re doing in possession. Both Verona and Juve (after the red card) played with a lone striker, which meant that keeping three at the back left the Viola a man light further forward. You’d expect one of the defenders, then, to step up and add another option in midfield, which in turn allows a midfielder to push higher up, and generally just makes the extra man count. As both Milenković and Igor have spent lots of time as fullbacks and are thus quite composed on the ball, you might expect them to take it in turns to step up.

That’s not quite how it worked, though. Unfortunately, the heat maps don’t really help illustrate my points here because they also reflect a player’s defensive actions; since I’m looking at what they’re doing when Fiorentina has the ball, I’m using stills from the games instead. I’ve got about 30 photos to choose from, but you’re going to have to trust me to a certain extent that the images I include reflect trends rather than just a couple of isolated incidents.

Hellas Verona

Against the Mastini, it was indeed the Mountain who spent a lot of time higher up than his colleagues. It often looked like he was more of a defensive midfielder than a defender, given his willingness to close down up the pitch and to step forward with the ball. He was often 5-10 meters ahead of Pezzella and Igor.

Truly weird spacing, but Nicky’s way up there. Sorry about the blurriness in this and all the other ones.

This wasn’t just an outcome of the Serbian pressing higher up, although that was part of it. When Fiorentina had the ball and were looking to pass forward from the back, the big man’s position was generally farther forward than the other defenders’.

Again, slightly weird spacing with Igor pinched all the way in, but a little more traditional on the Y-axis at least.

He really did look like a holding midfielder sticking to a right-of-center spot.

Directly following a turnover of possession, it almost seems like a back four with Nikola as the holder in front of them.

Facing a 3-4-2-1, you’d think that Mattia Zaccagni, who was nominally stationed in half space on that side, would’ve always been on hand to press Milenković high there. Instead, though, his positioning pushed his opponent deeper as Ivan Jurić demanded his team stay very compact and central. That meant that Nikola had the freedom to step up. Because Igor started deeper on the other side (although he often carried the ball forward to end up fairly high as well), my conclusion was that Prandelli wanted the number four operating as a de facto extra midfielder.

Juventus

Here’s where things get a lot more interesting to me. While having one of the outside defenders step up to make up the midfield numbers is a pretty common tactic, it’s pretty rare for the central defender to perform that role because he’d leave a massive gap in the middle of the field. Given that Pezzella is probably the least technical player in the back line, it makes a lot of sense. But against the Bianconeri, it was the captain who continually stepped up ahead of the other two.

Not just even with or ahead of the other defenders, but charging forward with the ball to get there.

It wasn’t just carrying the ball forward; his initial position was frequently 5-10 meters ahead of Milenković and Igor.

Way, waaaaaaaay up there.

It wasn’t just in open play. At goal kicks, Igor and Milenković always set up near the by line for the shot pass; Pezze would stand 25 meters from the posts and then stay there as his colleagues and Bartłomiej Drągowski built things up.

This is just weird.

He even got higher up at throw ins.

So what the heck was going on here? I can come up with a couple of solutions. The first is that, with Fiorentina up a man and Juve’s main goal threat coming from C*******o R*****o cutting inside from the left or Federico Chiesa jetting down the right, the center of the pitch wasn’t all that threatened.

The other possibility, and one that’s fascinating to me, is that he was being used to disrupt Juve’s press. By pushing a defender high up and into the middle while leaving two deeper and wider, Prandelli was essentially giving Milenković and Igor more time on the ball as the Bianconeri had to commit a man to Pezzella, freeing up one of the other two to progress the ball. Since Pezze’s not as good a passer as the guys to either side of him, it makes sense to use him as a decoy.

Conclusions

These are two different approaches from just two games, but there are a few things we can extrapolate from them and maybe some general inferences about what Prandelli wants from his team in the buildup we can draw as well. Because I love a disclaimer, I’ll remind everyone that this is a very small sample size (remember when I thought Beppe had completely changed how he was using his wingbacks?). Too, against Juventus, the man advantage probably skewed a lot of stuff.

However, it’s pretty clear that San Cesare wants his back three to be a lot more proactive than Iachini ever did. That means keeping a much higher line (with Milenković and Igor possessing pretty good pace, that works fine), but it also means having the defenders try to do more with the ball. Prandelli’s always preferred a four-man defense so that he can have more players higher up, so it makes sense that he’d adapt this 3-5-2 to ensure one of the guys at the back is always filling in ahead of the other two, allowing another midfielder freedom to push forward as well.

Part of what that requires, of course, is having defenders who are good on the ball. Milenković has spent the past two years growing into a real ball-playing defender, which is such a common phrase now that Alan Smith has probably had to say it for FIFA by now. Igor is an absurdly good dribbler and decent passer. Martín Cáceres is nearly as good, bar the occasional and inexplicable lapse in concentration. If anything, this bodes well for Lucas Martínez Quarta’s future under Prandelli, as the former midfielder has long been remarked for his excellent qualities in possession. Don’t be shocked to see the Argentina international work his way into the rotation, especially if Milenković is sold in January.

More than anything, though, it shows that Prandelli is willing to tinker and shape his tactics to specific situations in a way we haven’t seen since maybe Vincenzo Montella’s first tenure. By tweaking which of his defenders steps forward, he can pose questions to the opposing defense by forcing them to decide who’ll mark the defender moving forward. That flexibility will only help the Viola build up attacks with less predictability, as Igor could well be the auxiliary midfielder against Bologna.

It takes a lot of time to get a full team on the same page. Everyone needs to know what everyone else is doing and what they’re going to do. Instituting an approach that varies from opponent to opponent, as Prandelli seems to be doing, can take even longer than a more rigid, Iachini-esque system. The dividends that these seemingly minor tweaks can pay, though, are often enormous, and Fiorentina’s finally got a mister willing to make them.