Helenio Herrera, the legendary coach of ‘La Grande Inter’ that dominated world football in the 60s and pioneer of the catenaccio tactical philosophy that would go on to dominate Italian football, remains both loved and reviled for perfecting the defensive, counter-attacking style that calcio to this day is known by.
However, Herrera claimed that most of the managers inspired by him, copied him copied him wrongly, having focused entirely on the defensive side of his tactics including what was typically a 5 man backline, and not on his attacking principles. And La Grande Inter certainly could attack - it’s just the focus was on quality not quantity. “Vertical football at great speed, with no more than three passes to get to the opponent’s box.” Herrera’s Inter had no problem letting the opponent dictate play, knowing that at any moment they could punish turnovers with blinding speed and a few well placed passes.
Giuseppe “Beppe” Iachini, the new-ish, baseball cap loving manager of Fiorentina, could be described as a disciple of catenaccio himself, at least in its variety that has come to dominate Italian football. Unlike Herrera however, who arrived to Italy following a successful spell at Barcelona, and who at Inter was provided a generous enough budget to make the original Luis Suárez the most expensive footballer in the world, Iachini arrives in Florence with the reputation as an emergency manager, the kind you bring in to get your side promoted to Serie A or to avoid relegation if you’re already there, before moving on to bigger and better things.
As a result, Iachini has spent his two decade coaching career as something of a journeyman, the kind hired by respectable clubs fallen on hard times to steady the ship. His most notable achievements have been to lift Chievo Verona, Brescia, Sampdoria, and Palermo to Serie A - in all cases he was sacked less than half a year later. At Palermo, where he replaced Gennaro Gattuso after a disastrous start, he was fired by Maurizio Zamparini in November 2015 the following season, only to be (briefly) hired again in February 2016 after Zamparini made his way through 4 other coaches.
A defensive or a direct manager?
A hard working defensive midfielder as a player who spent 5 years at Fiorentina, his management style is a reflection his own play style as well as the kind of 90s Serie A managers he played under - hard work, discipline, and organization are all appropriate descriptions of the teams Iachini has coached so far.
Based on his first month in Florence, it’s clear Iachini is sticking to his philosophy- which means industrious, structured football without any risks, which means letting the opposing team control play. The Fiorentina of Iachini seems almost allergic to possession - since Montella was dismissed, the most la Viola has possessed the ball has been 46% in the recent snoozefest against Genoa’s hapless attack. In the promising victories against Atalanta and Napoli, the team barely averaged over 30% possession. This iteration of Fiorentina plays with a deep backline is indifferent to controlling the midfield, happy to sit back and wait for the counter.
However, if you were to ask Iachini, he would likely echo Herrera’s complaints that everyone is ignoring what he is trying to do in attack. Just before being hired by Fiorentina, Iachini dismissed the label of being a “defensive coach” to La Gazzetta dello Sport, pointing out his role in launching the careers of forwards including Icardi, Dybala, Belotti, and Eder, and of turning recent Fiorentina link Politano into a prolific goal scoring winger. Iachini points out that he plays with two strikers, an increasing rarity in Serie A.
Perhaps a better word for Iachini is “direct” - it’s not that he doesn’t want his side to attack, is that, like Herrera and his many disciples, he doesn’t want to waste time with horizontal passes that could lead to turnovers. Like a less polished version of La Grande Inter, at its best, Beppeball means any turnover gets immediately handed to charging fullbacks or booted forward to give the forwards an opportunity to get a shot off before the opposing team can get players back; as a result, except against the true grindfest against Atlanta, Fiorentina has been able to get plenty of shots on goal off while only controlling about a third of the time on the ball.
Iachini’s favorite formation is a 3-5-2 that easily shifts back into a 5-3-2, a compact system where most of the width - and most of the attack in general, comes from mobile fullbacks able to get forward or long balls directly to the lone sources of consistent creativity, an increasingly important Gaetano Castrovilli or to Federico Chiesa, hypothetically Franck Ribéry would also serve this role.
With improvisation limited to Castovilli and Chiesa, the players who have benefited the most from Iachini restoring order and simplicity following Montella’s aimless second spell have been the direct players who need such a focused role. Pol Lirola has gone from looking completely lost to the promising wingback that Prade wanted from Sassuolo - with a disciplined game where his runs forward are selective, Lirola has quickly dispelled the early fears that he was a bust with a strong defensive game and opportunist bursts forward, an ideal complement to Dalbert on the other flank.
In the central midfield trio, Iachini favors industry over finesse - good news for Pulgar, perhaps less so for Badelj, but the biggest winner so far has been Marco Benassi, a liability in a more open system. Benassi has been an enigma in his three years in Florence, capable of brilliance out of nowhere while being essentially useless for 85 minutes a game. Under Montella he was a liability, getting in the way of more talent in the central midfield; since Beppe has taken over, he has once again shown some of the flashes of brilliance he had under Pioli’s passive system - he’s still invisible most of the time and I remain skeptical he’s someone you would want to build around, but on a side dependent on opportunism, his ability to create or score a goal out of nowhere from around the box remains valuable. Without any real focus on keeping possession, Benassi’s positives may outweigh his negatives.
Although all of this would still be what I’d consider defensive football, perhaps the players who best stand to benefit from Beppeball are the forwards, in particular Dusan Vlahovic and especially new guy Patrick Cutrone, who will benefit from Iachini’s tendency to play two central forwards at the same time. Cutrone especially, as a promising young Italian striker with an inconsistent goal scoring record, he is known for the kind of off the ball movement that make him pose to be the next forward to break out under Beppeball. And the evidence so far is encouraging.
The limits of catenaccio
As of today, Fiorentina remains undefeated in 2020, and the squad has clearly responded to the new regime of focus and discipline. However, the recent draw against Genoa was a major red flag, the 0-0 stalemate against a seemingly relegation bound side with the worst defensive record in Serie A was as bad as it sounds. Genoa was, in a way, saved by its own haplessness -without the confidence to beat Fiorentina, Davide Nicola played cautious, and as a result La Viola never really found its attacking footing.
This year, Fiorentina has only been as good as the opposing defense has let them be - the three wins in 2020 so far, in different ways, have shown the sort of opportunism that will help them tread water in Serie A, but leaves them unable to control their own fate. Against SPAL, another relegation candidate with a league worst attack, Fiorentina was content to let them tire themselves out and only really threatened at the end. Against Atalanta in the Coppa, La Viola were thoroughly outplayed - enabling them to sneak in an 84th minute goal solely by how many players Atalanta was able to send forward after German Pezzella was sent off. And the most convincing display has been against a talented but imploding Napoli side that has been exposed in the back all year - Gattuso’s Partenopei has really only shown any signs of life since the humiliation against Fiorentina.
The problem is, Iachini isn’t the only child of Herrera in Serie A. Although the league’s defensive reputation remains exaggerated, there are a lot more Genoas than Atalantas to play, and the real league heavyweights this season that Fiorentina is about to face - Juventus and Lazio in particular, are a lot more solid defensively. Fiorentina hit this wall in their test against Inter - they were solid enough that the game was never out of hand, and even found an equalizer for a brief stretch, but they rarely were a serious threat to Inter’s defense. Holding on is admirable, but a team like Inter has too much depth to catch off guard with a counterpunch more than once or twice. As a result, unfair expectations are placed on the Fiorentina backline when every mistake they make could put the game out of reach. The best counter-attacking teams are able to increase their aggression and take control of a match in bursts, and we haven’t really seen that from Fiorentina. To be fair, we weren’t seeing much of that under Montella.
Beyond the pragmatic questions, we also need to ask ourselves - what is our identity anymore? Fiorentina is not Barcelona - we don’t have the resources to be fundamentalists about our style of play. Some of the best Viola sides of all time had defensive minded coaches - Bernardini and Trapattoni are just two of the many catenaccio masters to pass through the Stadio Artemio Franchi. Of course it helped that their defensive formations were balanced out by world class attackers and playmakers. But Fiorentina, like Florence in general, should pride itself on doing things its own way, and as flawed as this squad may be today, survival should never be good enough. If our capped maestro wants a longer stay in Florence than at his last few jobs, stability isn’t going to be enough.