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The what-if XI

Here’s your lineup of players who joined Fiorentina to the highest of expectations and, for whatever reason, never lived up to them.

FC Sevilla v ACF Fiorentina - UEFA Europa League: Semi Final Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

One of the quirks of soccer is that sometimes, talented players just don’t work out. Whether it’s failure to adapt to a new set of tactics, to settle into a new city, or just a complete miscalculation of talent, sometimes it seems like the majority of transfers underwhelm, even those that seem most certain to work out.

Since Fiorentina is far from immune to this phenomenon, here’s an XI of guys who, when they signed, seemed like they were tailor-made for the Viola, only to fall flat. I’m not going back past the mid-nineties since I can't even pretend to remember farther, so some of the old-timers may have some additions, but here’s the best I can do. Because I’m too young to remember some of the big ones, you won’t find dudes like Predrag Mijatović or Domenico Morfeo, but feel free to slot them in if you can.

GK: Alban Lafont

Despite the fact that he still gets plenty of (well-deserved) guff from some sectors of the fanbase, I remain convinced that Lafont is going to be a top class goalkeeper for a long time. Stacking up two full seasons as the starting goalie in Ligue 1 as a teenager is crazy, and he’s got every physical gift you could imagine, plus an inexhaustible supply of confidence. All those mistakes with the ball seemed more like a youngster testing his boundaries than anything else. Still, though, when he signed on amidst reported interest from Champions League clubs, I was convinced that Fiorentina had their new Sebastien Frey. While Lafont may indeed reach that rarefied air someday, it sure won’t be in Florence.

RB: Kevin Diks

Touted as the best teenage fullback prospect in Europe, I was ecstatic when he signed for Fiorentina for a paltry €2.8 million from Vitesse in 2016. Here, finally, was the rightback we’d been waiting for lo these many years (Lorenzo de Silvestri was adequate but you have to go all the way back to Tomáš Ujfaluši to find a good one). When Diks didn’t settle at first, it was fine. But loan moves to Feyenoord, Empoli, and now Aarhus have seen him consistently fail to make the match day squad, much less the starting lineup. Turns out “the best teenage fullback prospect in Europe” is very different from “a fullback who can contribute to a Serie A team.”

CB: Felipe

Oh, Felipe. Now that he’s settled into the second act of his career as the captain and leader for SPAL, it’s not quite as painful, but blowing €9 million on him sure looks very stupid. In fairness, he was excellent for those irritating Udinese sides of the early 2000s and looked like a perfect foil to Alessandro Gamberini in the heart of the defense for years. He wasn’t.

CB: Manuel da Costa

The €4.5 million Fiorentina paid for him isn’t that much, relatively speaking, but I really thought da Costa was going to be excellent. He was just 21 years old and had been called up for Portugal’s Euro qualifying campaign (although he never actually got his cap and eventually ended up representing Morocco). He was supposed to spend a year getting up to speed and then replace Dario Dainelli, who everyone thought was getting too old to play—of course, Dario still had another decade in the top flight. Anyways, da Costa managed one (1) competitive appearance for Fiorentina before leaving on loan to Sampdoria and then to West Ham United for less than half his initial fee. More than that, though, he was a total scumbag and has convictions for slapping a woman in the face in a nightclub (after reports that he groped her were found unprovable, but come on) and drunk driving on his record too. Good riddance.

LB: Mattia Cassani

Remember Italy in the 2012 Euros? Cesare Prandelli designed a brilliant, fluid team built around a midfield diamond and the talents of the mercurial duo of Antonio Casino and Mario Balotelli up top. The width came from the fullbacks: Cassani and fellow Viola washout Federico Balzaretti, who were utterly tireless and provided consistent targets for Andrea Pirlo to switch play to. The Cassani had a good first year with the Viola in 2011 after standing out with Palermo for years, and then looked slow, uncertain, and bad after the tournament. I’d hated facing him with the Rosaneri for so long, and when he made the switch, he was just a bust. Huge bummer. And yeah, I know he primarily played on the right, but he was used on both sides, and there also wasn’t a leftback who really fit the bill for this exercise.

CM: Mario Suárez

Maybe I was just trying to talk myself out of the sadness at losing Stefan Savić, but Suárez seemed like exactly what Fiorentina needed in 2015. Vincenzo Montella had been forced out, taking his beautiful possession-based style with him; his mainstays David Pizarro and Alberto Aquilani followed him to the exit. New coach Paulo Sousa was supposed to install a more muscular, physical approach, and who better to set the tone in the middle than a former Atletico Madrid hard man with a wealth of Champions League experience and even a few caps for Spain? Pretty much anyone, it turned out; Suárez never looked settled and earned the ire of fans for his truly abysmal passing, forcing the Viola to flip him to Watford for a mere €5.3 million.

CM: Sebastian Cristoforo

I know, I know. But when he arrived, I thought he was a really exciting player, a dynamic ball-winner in the middle who could run for days and spray passes out to the wing; I thought he was going to be somewhere between Sofyan Amrabat and Erick Pulgar. In 2016, though, he was coming off two straight cruciate injuries that clearly derailed his development and he never recaptured the form that had put him on Óscar Tabárez’ radar. I still think that he’s a not-useless player, as he remains a good ball-winner in the middle, but his clumsiness in possession pretty much torpedoed his value and led to him being judged surplus by each of Paulo Sousa, Stefano Pioli, Vincenzo Montella, and Giuseppe Iachini. Despite his sporadic usefulness over the years, he hasn’t been anything like what I thought he would be.

RM: Savio Nsereko

I genuinely thought he was going to be a superstar. With his slight frame, it wasn’t too surprising that he hadn’t taken to life with in the burly Premier League. What he lacked in muscle, though, he made up for in excellent dribbling and, more than anything, absolutely searing pace. He looked perfect for attacking older, slower Italian defenses. He just never settled in, though, and was loaned out to a succession of weirder clubs as he frequently went missing—literally missing, as the police frequently got involved. Honestly, it sounds like he had some really serious mental and emotional problems, so it’s maybe not a bad thing that he’s now, aged 30, a player-coach with an amateur side in Munich and can just enjoy his football a bit.

LM: Marko Pjaca

This is not a reflection on Pjaca, who’s been cursed by bad luck with injuries for most of his brief career. His willingness to stick in Florence and fight for his place rather than take the easy out to Genoa showed character, at least. But oh my god, I thought that he, Federico Chiesa, and Giovanni Simeone were going to form this insanely potent counterattack that was going to terrorize the rest of the league all year. Instead, he looked hesitant and slow and timid and got benched for a clearly-washed Kevin Mirallas. You’ve got to feel for the kid, who clearly wasn’t fully over the cruciate issues, but yikes was he hopeless in Florence.

CF: Ante Rebić

I thought he was going to be somewhere between Stevan Jovetić and Khouma Babacar: technical and lethal with the ball, but with a powerful physique as well. I don’t think it’s wholly his fault that he never figured it out in Florence; coming of age under Sousa ruined a lot of good young players. The irony of Fiorentina finally selling him the same transfer window that they brought in his countryman Marko Pjaca isn’t lost on me, even though Rebić never really clicked on in Florence. He would have fit perfectly under Pioli’s blood-and-thunder tactics with his directness and work rate, but oh well.

CF: Mario Gómez

Yeah, duh.


GK: Gustavo Munúa

CB: Carlos Salcedo

LB: Maxi Olivera

CM: Rafał Wolski

AM: Ianis Hagi

RM: Jakub Błaszczykowski

ST: Haris Seferović