Giuseppe Iachini set Fiorentina out in what looks like his first choice XI. AC Milan boss Stefano Pioli went with Matteo Gabbia and Andrea Conti in defense with Hakan Çalhanoğlu as the number 10 and ex-Viola attacker Ante Rebić on the wing. It’s worth mentioning that Pioli received a very warm welcome in his return to the Stadio Artemio Franchi, complete with banners and cheers offering respect.
Fiorentina came out looking very scrappy, barely able to string passes together, but Milan weren’t much better; the only dangerous player was Samu Castillejo, but Dalbert and Martín Cáceres mostly kept him under wraps. The first chance fell to the hosts, though, as Federico Chiesa took the ball from Antonio Donnarumma on the wing and fed Gaetano Castrovilli, who fired high. 5 minutes later, Rebić had a golden chance on a header from a Castillejo cross but Bartłomiej Drągowski made a fantastic save, then made another one on an Erick Pulgar header that the Chilean bulleted towards his own goal. He was helpless, though, as Zlatan Ibrahimović bulldozed 4 defenders to slot home, but a VAR check saw the goal ruled out for the slightest of handballs. There wasn’t a lot else in the half, which was more choppy and cagey than anything else.
The visitors emerged much the stronger, turning 2 efforts on goal in the first 5 minutes, but an injury to Donnarumma halted their momentum, and Chiesa forced replacement goalkeeper Asmir Begović into a save with a sharp header immediately. It was at the other end where the wheels came off, as Cáceres tried to chest down a cross for Germán Pezzella to clear, leaving the ball bouncing in the box until Rebić smashed it into the Argentine, from whence it bounced into the back of the net. Moments later, Dalbert earned a straight red for tripping up Ibrahimović as the last defender, which seemed to secure a loss, but some smart adjustments from Iachini saw the hosts look stronger with 10. Chiesa looked excellent and Dušan Vlahović missed a gilt-edged chance before Patrick Cutrone won a soft penalty off Alessio Romagnoli which Pulgar converted. Cáceres nearly atoned for his mistake at the death, but Begović made a desperate kick-save and Pulgar’s follow-up was deflected wide, resulting in a point apiece and a feeling that it could have been better or worse for both sides.
Drągowski—7: That stop on the Rebić header was spectacular and he made a couple of other good saves as well. The goal came from terrible defending he was powerless to stop. The only knock on him was a bad giveaway in the first half that a more clinical team than Milan would have turned into a problem.
Milenković—7: Did a good job on Rebić, keeping him quiet aside from a badly misplayed offside trap that gave the Croatian a free header that Bart saved. Offered a threat stepping forward on the ball as well.
Pezzella—6: Solid work on a difficult assignment in Zlatan, although he was lucky to be rescued by VAR on the big Swede’s goal and seemed frozen to the spot for the goal, although there’s perhaps not much he could’ve done in the situation. Still, you’d like to see a mistake-free 90 minutes from the captain, and it feels like months since we got one of those.
Cáceres—5: Had a bit of trouble wrangling Castillejo early and needed some great work from Dalbert to save him, but settled in a bit. Never looked all the way there, and his decision to chest the ball down in the box on the goal is simply indefensible. Covered a lot of ground defensively after the red card but also borked several decent opportunities in possession. Not a great day for the veteran.
Lirola—6.5: Was fantastic early on, tracking the ever-dangerous Theo Hernández down the wing while still skipping past the odd challenge to contribute in attack. As Fiorentina gave up on keeping the ball, though, he simply didn’t have the chance to influence the play as the game wore on.
Castrovilli—6.5: Absorbed a brutal kicking from the Rossoneri midfield that probably deserved more punishment. Did some Tanino things in slithering past would-be defenders a few times and played one dangerous cross to Chiesa but didn’t actually create much in the final third. Really should have scored after Donnarumma’s giveaway.
Pulgar—6.5: Çalhanoğlu is still probably trying to find his way out of Erick’s pocket. Took the penalty with typical aplomb. Wasn’t especially good in possession and seemed to stall out attacks with slow decision-making a bit too often.
Duncan—7: Even when he didn’t get things to work out, he always seems to have the right idea. Constantly looking to move the ball forward, either passing or dribbling, and showed a willingness to close down up the pitch. Not always flashy, but a deeply functional and necessary player whose influence should only grow as he settles in.
Dalbert—4: Offered nothing in attack and got sent off for a stupid foul, but made 2 tremendous last-ditch interventions in the first half to save Fiorentina’s bacon so you can’t say that he was uniformly bad.
Chiesa—7: Even though he didn’t get on the ball often enough, showed his quality throughout. Constantly involved in the sporadic attacks, finding spaces to shoot or finding his teammates in dangerous positions. Really showcased some vision and technique with his passing, although the woeful finishing makes you wonder if he’s going to start trying to go it alone again if his fellow forwards can’t seal the deal.
Vlahović—5: Starved of service early on but grew into the proceedings. His finishing remains unsteady and he’s still often a step slow to hit his mark, but his confidence and physical ability are unteachable. Once he sorts out the two issues previously mentioned and stops giving the ball away as often, he’s going to be unstoppable. Getting to that point, though, requires matches like this one in which things just don’t come off.
Cutrone—6: I’m still not convinced it was a penalty, but he put himself in the right place at the right time. Did venture offside frequently and didn’t contribute much to the buildup, but that’s par for the course with him, especially given the circumstances.
Igor—5: Did well getting up and down the wing and helped nullify Castillejo after his introduction. Hard to do anything too outstanding in just 15 minutes, but he was solid enough in an unfamiliar wingback role.
Three things we learned
1. Fiorentina needs an underdog mentality. For the second straight week, the Viola looked better with 10 men than with 11. While it’s easy to make the jokes about starting matches a man down and then throwing on an extra striker or defender late, this does seem to fit in psychologically with Beppe Iachini’s tactics. The deep block and reliance on the counterattack are obviously suited to a weaker team trying to smash and grab against a stronger. When they’re down a man, it seems like this group buys into that identity even more. It’s this, more than anything else, that has me convinced that Beppe’s the right man for the job at the moment, but that the moment shouldn’t last longer than the end of the year. We need to see a team with some confidence in all situations, not just when it’s pinned back and facing long odds.
2. There has to be a better way to use the bench. Just like Vincenzo Montella before him, Iachini seems reluctant to turn to his bench; he only used two of his substitutions yesterday. That’s the 5th time so far he’s made just 2 changes, and he’s yet to turn to his third sub before the 80th minute. Part of it may be that he trusts his starters to dig in despite exhaustion more than he trusts a fresh player to catch the rhythm of the match, but it’s weird to have guys like Cutrone, Riccardo Sottil, and Kevin Agudelo—all apparently tailor-made for that energy-sub role—manacled to the dugout no matter what.
3. Germán Pezzella needs a vacation. The captain remains one of the best defenders this club has seen in the past decade, but he’s been slumping for awhile. Whether it’s the weight of leadership that comes with the armband and his status as the ranking veteran on the pitch, the unforgiving nature of BeppeBall, or, as Chloe pointed out, some very understandable physical trepidation after having his face broken twice in the past year, it may be time to let him have a break for a week or two and rest his mind a bit. He’s still a fantastic player and I’m in no way suggesting that he should be benched, but giving him some time to relax, especially since Igor looks more than capable of stepping in, could be in everybody’s best interest.