One of the biggest disappointments of this season on the pitch for Fiorentina is that we only got to see a fully-operational Franck Ribery for about two months. At the start of the season, he was working himself back to game fitness; a 3-match suspension for shoving an official and his eventual ankle injury—from which he would have likely returned next week—meant that he only made 9 starts and only played the full 90 minutes once.
His 2 goals and 2 assists in 714 minutes (a scoring contribution every other match) were a good return, but it left fans wondering what would happen if he weren’t shackled to Vincenzo Montella’s ramshackle system? While he’s still got his short-area quickness and the string-pulling ability that made him a star, his lack of long-range sprinting makes him a tricky fit in Giuseppe Iachini’s 3-5-2 system, which is predicated on lung-busting fitness and quick transitions. As I see it, there are only two ways to fit him in and neither is ideal.
As a striker
We’ve already seen this movie. Montella’s deployment of Ribery as one of two roaming forwards (along with Federico Chiesa) against Juventus was the one clever coaching move he made this year. By dropping deep to pick up the ball and play in midfield runners (primarily Gaetano Castrovilli and Dalbert) as Chiesa stayed high and wide, the system left the opposing centerbacks slackjawed: whom were they supposed to mark? While the match finished scoreless, the Viola had clearly won the tactical battle and looked miles better.
In subsequent weeks, though, the system only worked against teams looking to push high up the pitch, leaving space for Ribery to play those runners in behind. Against opponents looking to defend deep and keep their own midfields compact, he simply added to the congestion in that area; his struggles against Udinese, Brescia, and Hellas Verona stand in stark contrast to his performances against Atalanta and AC Milan.
If this sounds familiar, well, it’s because that’s exactly how Fiorentina have looked against everyone this year (and for nearly half a decade). Without space to attack behind, the attack falls apart. As Ribery isn’t going to make those runs over the top, he needs other players—usually his fellow striker, a central midfielder, and a wingback—to do the running for him while he drops into space and acts as more of a 10.
While this might work sometimes, it doesn’t do anything about the lack of goals scored by Viola forwards. Pulling a striker away from the goal only provides a larger goal threat if that striker is someone like Leo Messi, and Franck ain’t that at this stage of his career. The former Bayern Munich man has also shown a hesitance to pull the trigger from distance which further impedes his scoring, too. In a Iachini system predicated on long passes into the channels for the forwards to chase, Franck Ribery is almost the exact wrong type of forward. Without a lot of rejiggering by the mister, it simply won’t work.
As a midfielder
Since Franck was basically playing as an attacking midfielder anyways, it may make more sense to move him to the engine room permanently. By dropping him deeper on the pitch, the Viola could add another runner at forward in Dušan Vlahović or Patrick Cutrone and give Ribery the task of setting the table for them.
In a vacuum, this is a good solution. While he can still bamboozle a tackler with his close control, Ribery’s previously-mentioned lack of speed means that he’s probably at his best in a pure playmaking role anyways. By tilting the midfield triangle a bit, Iachini could set out a variation of his 3-5-2 that would leave a double pivot ahead of the defense and set Ribery as the 10, thus relieving him of the defensive duties that aren’t a good use of his energy anways.
The knock-on effect, though, is two-fold. First of all, the wingbacks in Iachini’s system are generally very reserved, with the central midfielders given much more license to go forward. By relegating another midfielder to a more defensive role, using this 3-4-1-2 would eliminate another runner (likely Castrovilli, who doesn’t bring much as a burly body protecting the defense) and leave the attack as undermanned as ever. Giving the wingbacks more license to push on—think of Gian Piero Gasperini’s system—might be a solution, but it’s doubtful whether Iachini is willing to sacrifice the defensive solidity that a back five provides; seeing as how that deeper starting position has improved Pol Lirola’s performance substantially, he may be right in this context.
As I see it, there are only two ways to get the best out of Franck Ribery in Florence. The first is to play him as a number 10. Under Iachini, that almost certainly means a 3-4-1-2, which in turn shuts out Castrovilli in favor of the solid but unspectacular Alfred Duncan. Basically, a 3- or 5-man defense means that either Ribery or Castrovilli has to sit out, and neither is an option.
A change to a back four is the only solution that works, with the caveat the Viola were miserable using 4 defenders at the start of the season (although that may have been more due to Montella than anything else). Either a 4-3-3 with Ribery nominally on the left but drifting infield to combine with Castrovilli and allow Dalbert forward on the overlap feels like the most organic option, especially since it allows Chiesa to return to the right wing. A 4-3-2-1 with Ribery and Chiesa moving more central could also work, or even a 4-2-3-1 with Ribery on the left wing and Castrovilli as the 10, although I think that would also curb Tanino’s signature line-breaking runs with the ball.
This is by no means an attack on Iachini; he’s done nothing but exactly what he advertised, bringing stability, discipline, and coherence to an outfit desperately lacking them. It’s tough to adapt what you know, especially when it’s what works. That said, he has occasionally used a back four in his career, so there’s a slight chance that he’ll use the extended layoff here to scheme how to deploy Fiorentina in a 4-3-3.
Most of those back-four instances, however, have come at clubs where he’d been brought in as an emergency stop-gap and decided to maintain his predecessor’s formation; for example, he rolled out a 4-3-3 at Sassuolo after Eusebio di Francesco left. However, it seems like all his dalliances with an even-numbered defense have come as the successor to a long-serving coach who used the system; Iachini’s only used it under duress, and the Viola don’t have a legacy of any real shape from the past few seasons.
There’s no way to know what’s brewing under Beppe’s ballcap. He’s generally pretty cagey with the media and it’s no surprise that he hasn’t opened up about his plans for how to use one of the most decorated players of this millennium yet. But seeing how he changes his approach, if at all, to accommodate Franck Ribery will be one of the most fascinating tactical developments of the next season.