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What worked and what didn’t about the 4-3-3

The Brescia result was obviously suboptimal, but there were was a lot to learn from the new formation the Viola deployed.

ACF Fiorentina v Brescia Calcio - Serie A
This guy figures prominently.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

In Fiorentina’s teeth-grinding draw against Brescia under the Monday night lights, Viola boss Giuseppe Iachini did something that nobody really expected: he fielded a 4-3-3. It wasn’t entirely his choice, you wouldn’t think, but was an effort to cram top-earner Franck Ribery into the lineup alongside Federico Chiesa and a striker (Dušan Vlahović in this case). The result didn’t quite work out, but we got lots of food for thought in the 70 minutes that Fiorentina played with all 11 men.

Beppe has used a 3-5-2 for nearly all of his career as a mister and has turned it into a tremendous defensive weapon. His teams play a deep, compact block that’s nearly impossible to play through, a puzzle box of interlocking lines that forces opponents into torturous paths to find a sniff at goal. The other side of that, of course, is that his teams tend to sputter in attack—although the likes of Paulo Dybala and Andrea Belotti came into their own under his tutelage—and play almost exclusively direct, counter-attacking football that’s designed to bypass the midfield zone entirely.

Fiorentina fans have always had a sense that their team should play a more attacking style, and owner Rocco Commisso seems to agree, emphasizing his desire for a more forward-thinking identity. Iachini, while expert at steadying the ship, hasn’t ever been that sort of manager. His attempt, then, to make it work against Brescia deserves praise—it’s never easy to change your calling card—and offers glimpses of what this team could do. As Iachini grows as a coach, we could see some interesting stuff.

What worked

Let’s start with the obvious one: Fiorentina created a whole lot of chances in a variety of methods. The primary area of creativity was the left side, where Ribery drifted infield to combine with Gaetano Castrovilli and Dalbert to overload the Brescia defense. This approach usually involved Ribery cutting onto his stronger right foot and looking for a through pass, Castrovilli attacking the box from unusual angles with the ball at his feet, or Dalbert overlapping and crossing. Those three are clearly the creative fulcrum of the side, and everything else revolves around them, especially when Chiesa switches sides to further overload things.

Something the Viola did a few times to good effect was suck the Leonessa defense into that left wing, then quickly switch play across to Chiesa on the right to quickly attack 1-v-1. He generated a few excellent chances this way; shortly after the penalty, for example, Erick Pulgar took possession and lobbed a pass over the top for Chiesa running in behind as Brescia were caught watching the other wing. The winger, without any targets in the middle, was forced to shoot from a tight angle and missed, but the idea was exactly correct.

And, of course, the counterattacking game occasionally worked. Brescia played so deep that there was rarely enough space to counter into, but the combinations still worked. With the pace of Chiesa, Vlahović, Dalbert, Lirola, and Castrovilli as runners and Ribery or Duncan pulling the strings, the Viola should devastate on the break, and they sure enough created some opportunities, although poor finishing, poor choices, or pure bad luck kept them from scoring.

These three routes of attack came from a balanced side. Ribery on the left wing tracked inside but Dalbert and Castrovilli moved into the wide spaces to keep the Brescia defense stretched. Chiesa usually stayed wide on the right, so Martín Cáceres didn’t need to get forward as much, as he simply would have run into Fede’s space rather than attacking an empty area of the pitch. While lopsided, this dynamic led to a balance in the final third that we haven’t really seen from Fiorentina this year.

I was also interested in how Fiorentina progressed play down the left. Dalbert was frequently the out ball, with the other defenders frequently switching play to him in space. From that area, he could either play a square ball to Pulgar or Castrovilli in midfield, play the ball forward into Ribery’s feet, play the ball in behind for Vlahović, or carry it forward himself. He was fantastic at getting the ball forward from the defense and was certainly one of the key players in the first half. Pol Lirola, perhaps because he was playing on left rather than the right, wasn’t quite as natural, but still did the job well.

These previous attacking themes only worked because of Ribery. Since Chiesa and Vlahović don’t tend to drop deep and show for short passes to feet but rather try to get in behind, the combination play in that inside left space just doesn’t happen when they’re in the team. Rachid Ghezzal would theoretically do this well too (less so Riccardo Sottil, which is maybe why Iachini hasn’t used him much), so perhaps that’s why we’ve seen him used so often, but he hasn’t really shown much. Ribery is really the only attacker in the squad who’s demonstrated an ability to slow things down, which presents a completely different challenge to opponents than the uniformly direct style of the other forwards. That’s the big difference.

Defensively, the role Federico Ceccherini played was interesting and very effective. With Brescia striker Alfredo Donnarumma often dropping very deep to help the buildup, Cecche fearlessly ranged up the pitch, sometimes nearly to the Leonessa penalty area, to harass him or other forwards, secure in the knowledge that he wasn’t leaving a threat and that Germán Pezzella was sweeping up behind him.

What didn’t work

The most obvious shortcoming was in defense. With Dalbert given free reign to attack and basically do the running down the left for Ribery, the backline had to shift over considerably to cover. When Martín Cáceres stepped forward on the right, though, it meant that there were only two players back instead of the usual three. As a result, Brescia had 50% more space to attack on the break, forcing the Viola defenders into bad situations, which is why 75% of them were in the book after half an hour.

Alfred Duncan’s role was also a huge letdown. As a cultured midfielder who can both play forward passes into attackers’ feet and carry the ball forward himself, you’d expect him to have been quite a bit more involved. When he got the ball, he was pretty useful, bursting past defenders and moving the ball well. However, he only had 28 touches in his 67 minutes; that’s 0.42 per minute, compared to 0.92 for Castrovilli and 0.72 for Pulgar. That’s entering Marco Benassi territory, which is a concern, especially because he was often pulled wide to the right to offer (never utilized) support for Chiesa and to effectively act as a decoy to stretch the Brescia midfield and leave space for Castrovilli and Ribery to exploit. Theoretically, this would have kept Cáceres deeper (although Martín still bustled up the pitch fairly frequently) and given Duncan more space to work in. In practice, though, it left him mightily scarce on the field.

A lot of that, though, was that he was used as a dummy a lot of the time. When Chiesa started moving to the left wing to overload Brescia there, Duncan was pushed wide to the right to provide an option on that wing. Nobody ever found him with a pass out there, though. He also rarely dropped deep to receive the ball from defenders, which both Pulgar and Castrovilli frequently did. I’m not sure if that’s due a specific instruction, but it’d be nice to see him drop deeper and let Tanino stay higher up the pitch.

The other issue that was especially visible in the first half was the lack of movement in the box when the Viola had the ball, particularly wide on the left. Vlahović was either slow or static in the opening period; I marked down 3 separate times in a 5 minute stretch in which he was either tardy getting into the box at all or simply didn’t move even when the ball was about to be delivered.

Not to knock Duśan too much, because he was tremendous in the second half, but he also focused too much on running in behind early on. Given how deep Brescia played, there wasn’t much space there. In the second half, the Very Large Young Adult Man showed an ability to receive the ball to feet, hold off a defender, and either turn or combine with an onrushing teammate. It would have been nice to see him doing that more often early on, although again, that may have been his specific tactical brief.

Finally, there’s the issue of Ribery’s importance. While nobody doubts his class or his desire—check him out running back in the 75th minute to help defend a Brescia counter—the man is 37 years old and simply doesn’t have the legs to contribute for 90 minutes twice a week; after an hour or so, he was clearly gassed, as demonstrated by his peripheral involvement and various poor touches. As previously mentioned, there’s no like-for-like replacement in the team, so when Franck’s out or off the pace, a lot of the system collapses.

How to fix it

What I took from this was that Fiorentina needs to continue cultivating that Ribery-Castrovilli-Dalbert troika on the left while utilizing the rest of the pitch as well. Relying on someone with the age and injury profile of Ribery is mighty dangerous, so finding a similar player who can play on the left wing is perhaps the most important job in the transfer window. For now, it could be worth trying out Sottil in that role and seeing if he can fill in; Ghezzal is so one-footed that he’s not as comfortable drifting inside from the left and Chiesa’s simply too direct. Kevin Agudelo or maybe even Benassi can more or less replicate Castrovilli’s role in the final third and Lorenzo Venuti or perhaps Aleksa Terzić can fill in for Dalbert, but Ribery is irreplaceable.

Other than that, ordering Vlahović to show for passes to feet more often would be excellent. It would keep Dušan more involved and give him a chance to turn his man and attack space, which are both things he’s good at. It might also generate more space for his fellow attackers, as a centerback stepping out to challenge him would leave space that Ribery and Castrovilli can attack.

While Chiesa did have some chances when he switched sides, his jaunts to the left eliminated any threat of a quick switch of play. Keeping him wide on the right and looking for that crossfield pass from Pulgar or Castrovilli more often would give him more opportunities to attack a single defender rather than a group. Having Duncan occupying that central space would also make it easier to switch play by using him as a relay man to shift possession over quickly.

To fix the defense, I see more of a two-step solution that would address the midfield. The first is to push Pulgar further back the pitch so that he’s just in front of the defenders in possession. That would allow them to push wider and cover more of the pitch, particularly when the fullbacks bomb forward. To compensate, Duncan would have to play a more central role and show for the ball more often rather than lurking out wide as a pure decoy, more like he did at Sassuolo. He’s clearly capable of doing what Pulgar did in terms of progressing the ball on Monday, so letting Pulgar sit deeper (where he’d have more space to hit long passes to the wings) seems like a perfect solution. It’d also give Lirola more space to attack and support Chiesa, especially with Nikola Milenković’s pace sweeping up behind.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the opponent here was Brescia, who’ve been without question the worst club in Serie A this year, so the conclusions may not be widely applicable. Too, we’ve only seen this shape once, and we won’t see it with this personnel for at least another week due to Federico Chiesa’s BS suspension. But this move to a 4-3-3 seems like it’s brought the best out of some of the squad’s most important players, so it’s impossible not to see it as a positive step.