It was a rather surreal scene at the Studio Friuli, which was closed to fans and even much of the press (hence the lack of pitch-level photographs). Joe Barone led a small Fiorentina delegation, but the only sign of supporters was the massive Udinese flag draped across the multi-colored seats in the Curva. The stadium announcers continued to play music and announce substitutions and extra time—which was a bit odd but sort of sweet—but hearing the players and managers yelling was interesting in its own right.
We predicted a scruffy match between these two and they delivered in the early going. Udinese had a few decent chances, notably a Rolando Mandragora rocket that was just a bit high and wide a Ken Sema cross that Stefano Okaka headed over after shaking free of Martín Cáceres, but didn’t put a single shot on Bartłomiej Drągowski’s goal. Fiorentina came closer with Nikola Milenković hitting the woodwork with a splendid volley just before the half, but some really poor passing from Milan Badelj and Alfred Duncan combined with an energetic press from the Zebrette to keep Fiorentina from ever constructing anything good.
Badelj nearly played in Rodrigo de Paul directly from the restart but, after dancing past 4 defenders, Germán Pezzella blocked the Udinese 10’s shot. From the subsequent corner, Bart and Badelj nearly got tangled up on the line and let in a routine shot. De Paul had another try that went wide. The Viola barely threatened but did come close to an own goal after Sema almost turned a Vlahović cross into his own net, but Udinese countered with Seko Fofana nearly breaking the deadlock with 10 seconds of subbing on in an absolutely comical series of errors and Drągowski had to parry a Kevin Lasagna drive. Duncan had a chance to be the hero but a heavy touch rolled the ball straight to Juan Musso when the Ghanaian was clean through; moments later, Badelj wasted some nice work from Patrick Cutrone by refusing to shoot from 8 yards out. Chiesa forced a good save from Musso late, but the scoreless draw was the eventual and correct scoreline for this dry fart of a match.
Drągowski—6: Made a few saves but none were the type you’d expect him to miss. A miscommunication with Badelj nearly resulted in catastrophe but that looked like Milan’s fault more than his. Just not much for him to do.
Milenković—6.5: Nearly played hero with that cracking volley before halftime. Swallowed Nestorovski whole but had a bit of trouble sticking with the pacier Lasagna, although Nikola was mostly up to the task.
Pezzella—5.5: Another slightly uncertain performance from the captain, although in fairness to him he never slipped up enough to let an attacker in or need a teammate to rescue him. He just seems to be overthinking things right now instead of playing more instinctively.
Cáceres—6.5: Maybe the man of the match. Let Okaka in for that header in the first half but was quite good otherwise, shutting down his side of the box and striding forward in possession. Still had a couple of touches that could have ended up a lot worse but got away with them.
Lirola—5.5: Quiet and steady throughout, mostly battling Sema to a draw. Looked less comfortable out on the left, which isn’t entirely his fault. Stout enough defensively but didn’t really offer anything going forward.
Duncan—4.5: Bit of a nightmare for Alfred, who consistently got simple passes wrong in the first half, completely ending some promising opportunities before they got started. Had he scored late on when through on goal, we’d be singing a different tune, but instead he pulled a Cholito.
Badelj—4: Holy smokes. To his credit, hit a couple of really magnificent switches of play that showed his quality, but almost everything else was bad, bad, bad. Consistently lost possession in dangerous areas, failed to connect short passes, and lost track of de Paul and company in the midfield. If it’s true that he was playing for his Viola future, he’s surely en route to Lazio again in June.
Castrovilli—5: This was the sort of match in which you expect Tanino to spark to life and do a magic or two from nothing, but it never happened. He wiggled out of pressure a few times but never had any influence in the final third. Also delivered a series of truly miserable corner kicks. Not sure what happened, but it wasn’t good.
Igor—4: The grade feels a bit harsh for a guy forced to play wingback instead of his more familiar spot on the left of the back three, but it was a horror show for the Brazilian. Felt like every pass he hit was either backwards or to someone wearing a black-and-white shirt, and he never muscled past anyone on the dribble either. Should be better when he returns to a deeper role.
Chiesa—6: He tried. Ran like a maniac for 90 minutes, as usual, and put in a few good balls for Vlahović, although they didn’t ever quite connect. Took to a wingback role for the final half hour with relish, but it meant he wasn’t high enough up the pitch to influence the match at that point. The midfield’s struggles meant that he just didn’t get on the ball enough to influence the result, which is a shame, as he was far and away the most dangerous attacker on the pitch.
Vlahović—5: Won a couple of aerial confrontations and tried a couple of shots, but never looked like scoring. Still not sure where to go when a defense sits deep and still loses the ball too much. I hate to sound like an old man yelling at a cloud, but when you’re that tall, you need to get in the box sometimes and try to get on the end of crosses.
Cutrone—5.5: Offered a more central presence to complement Dušan’s drifting around and set up what would have been the winner had it been anyone but this version of Badelj on the other end. Would love to see him from the start with Chiesa, as his movement is generally more intelligent than Vlahović’s and he stays more central to provide a target, which is crucial when the other forward is a converted winger who likes to pull to the wide areas.
Pulgar—n/a: Came on about 86 minutes later than he should have.
Three things we learned
1. This is a feature, not a bug. We all already knew it, but it bears repeating: Giuseppe Iachini is a good short-term manager but may not be more than that. The punishing nature of his football, both aesthetically and tactically, is designed to grind out results while minimizing goals for anyone. While his teams are good at taking points off opponents who want to push high and dominate possession, Beppe still hasn’t shown any ability to get his charges to break down a deep block. For Fiorentina to return to its spot as a Europa League regular and occasional Champions League competitor, that has to change. Rocco Commisso has spent the money on some players who can move the needle. Vincenzo Montella couldn't get the best out of them, and Iachini probably can’t either. Finding a manager has to be this club’s top priority in the summer.
2. The midfield is still a problem. Gaetano Castrovilli, Erick Pulgar, and Alfred Duncan are, at bare minimum, adequate cogs in a Europa League midfield. Sofyan Amrabat should make a difference next year as well. If Fiorentina want to play with a midfield three, though, that’s not enough. Part of it is a problem of skillset: none of those four really break the lines, particularly with their passing. Castrovilli and Duncan can occasionally manage (Amrabat too from what we’ve heard), but that’s not enough. Particularly without much width in attack—the wingbacks are quite reserved in their positioning, so it’s either forwards or midfielders pulling wide up the pitch—there needs to be a link between the forwards and everyone else. Nobody on the roster is that player.
3. The substitutes still aren’t working. Once again, Iachini’s use of his bench is deeply suspect. Badelj was quite bad but didn’t come off until the last 5 minutes when Pulgar could have shored up the midfield and shut down de Paul. I’m less upset about his decision to leave a passenger version of Vlahović on the pitch—if you’re going to develop young players, this is what happens sometimes—but this Udinese was ripe for the plucking with some more width in attack to either stretch the back three or push the wingbacks deeper. Riccardo Sottil is perfect for these situations. Alternatively, dropping Duncan into the holding role and bringing on a chaotic goal threat (Marco Benassi) or a dribbler (Kevin Agudelo) would have made sense. There’s no reason to have a bench if you’re not going to use it.