Faced with a bit of a selection crisis in midfield, Giuseppe Iachini went for a 3-4-3 to limit the number of guys he had to use in the middle. The big news, though, was that Federico Chiesa started on the bench again, with Riccardo Sottil preferred on the wing and Christian Kouamé making his first Viola start up top.
Simply dreadful. The Fiorentina defense continually let runners in behind despite playing in a relatively deep block, forcing Germán Pezzella to make a few desperate last-man tackles. He clean missed the big one, though, when Marco Faraoni ran right through the middle unchecked and acrobatically volleyed home a delightful Sofyan Amrabat chip. The real issue was Amrabat and his midfield colleagues; the Hellas Verona midfielders, facing a massive numerical advantage, kept the ball almost without being pressured and had time to pick passes, none more impressively than the Moroccan. The Mastini had a hatful of half-chances but couldn’t score a second to highlight their dominance. And it was utter dominance: the Viola’s only attacking outlet was long balls to Kouamé, who battled away impressively against 3 rugged defenders, but the hosts offered nothing. It was as bad a 45 minutes as we’ve seen all year.
The introduction of Chiesa for Sottil (along with Patrick Cutrone for an ineffective Franck Ribery) energized the team a bit, and the hosts began showing the occasional sign of life going forward. Gaetano Castrovilli made a couple of trademarked surges forward and Kouamé continued to impress, but the visitors maintained control by physically overpowering any obstacles they encountered in midfield. Despite a blatantly obvious handball from Mattia Pessina in the box (referee Daniele Chiffi remains clueless as ever) and an open goal begging for Cutrone to head home when he smacked the ball well over (in fairness, the ball took the tiniest touch off a defender before it reached him and he couldn’t adjust), Verona looked more likely to snatch a second on the break. The Viola didn’t record their first shot on target until stoppage time, when the real drama hit. Chiesa picked up the ball about 30 meters from goal, jinked forward, and then slipped a naughty little pass through to Cutrone, who’d ghosted past Kumbulla and clipped a perfect finish over Marco Silvestri to snatch a draw at the last possible instant.
Drągowski—6.5: Somehow only faced one shot on target, which he didn’t save, but was active coming for crosses and made a couple of really good stops on play that were called back, particularly a Darko Lazović fast break. As good a shot-stopper as there is in Italy right now.
Milenković—5.5: Really struggled with Lazović early on, losing the battle of the Serbians. Grew into the game a bit but looked half a step off the pace. Given that the whole defense seemed off, it might not have been just him, but it also may be time to give him a break.
Pezzella—5: Made a couple of really impressive last-ditch interventions early, but had a few serious miscues later on, including a shanked clearance that he hit off his own arm in the box. The trouble at the back wasn’t wholly his fault, as the midfield didn’t track runners through at all, but he’s got to be held partly responsible.
Igor—6: Probably the pick of the defenders as he kept Faraoni pretty quiet, although he and Pezzella failed to step up to keep the goalscorer offside. Still needs to iron out some of his positioning, but his strength and surprisingly quick feet mean that he’s got all the potential in the world.
Lirola—4.5: Lost his battle with Federico Dimarco and struggled in defense, at transitions, and going forward. Lost the ball a lot and misplaced some pretty simple passes. He’s had a rough time since the restart, which is a bit of a concern after he’d shown real growth in Iachini’s early days.
Pulgar—5: Completely invisible in the fist half as the Gialloblu midfield overwhelmed him. Looked a bit better in the second half but Amrabat and company had him chasing ghosts all evening. That he was basically all alone in the middle at times was a bigger problem than him as a player, at least.
Castrovilli—4.5: Seemed very hesitant to get forward, probably because he didn’t want to abandon the middle to Pulgar alone. Still not the sturdiest on the back foot and clearly not as useful in a double pivot. Did his hamstring late on, so hopefully isn’t out for any length of time.
Dalbert—6: Held up pretty well defensively, which is rare, and won his individual battle with Faraoni (the goal had nothing to do with him). Put in a Manuel Pasqual-esque 14 crosses and actually caused some trouble with a few of them. Led the team with 84 touches. One of a very few bright spots.
Sottil—4: Completely invisible. Barely got on the ball due to the midfield’s struggles (just 13 touches) and didn’t do anything when he had it. Committed several fouls chasing long passes and looked desperate to impress in his brief chance but simply didn’t get the opportunity.
Kouamé—7: Lost the ball a bunch and didn’t impress with his shooting, but his holdup play was heroic. Battled away and won a bunch of duels both in the air and on the ground. Showed intelligence in his movement and the dynamism to both drop deep (and the skill to spread play to the wings when he did) and get in behind. When he’s fully fit and recaptures his shooting, he’s going to be an unholy terror.
Ribery—4.5: Skipped past a couple of defenders and won a couple of free kicks, but lost the ball a lot and seemed out of ideas. The man is 37 years old and has played a lot of minutes over the past month, so it’s probably pure exhaustion more than anything else.
Chiesa—7: Once again, Fiorentina looked helpless without him and borderline competent with him, which isn’t a coincidence. Carried the ball down the wing a few times, put pressure on the defense, and then played that lovely little pass for the winner. Made a real effort to defer to his teammates rather than soloing the whole game and slotted even in at wingback for half his minutes.
Cutrone—7.5: The only player to score from open play for Fiorentina in the past 4 games has now struck twice in that span. His holdup play can leave something to be desired and he’s not a great passer, but he times his runs through the defense extraordinarily well and has a sense of where to be in the box, even if the finishing lets him down sometimes. A year or two out from being a top-notch poacher but still a more than useful player.
Vlahović—4: Didn’t seem to have any real role other than to run around and make something happen. Lost the ball a few times, including once by his own corner flag, and generally looked enthusiastic but clueless. Probably more context-based than anything else, but the maturity hasn’t quite caught up to the technique yet.
Three things we learned
1. Iachini’s not afraid to bench his stars. We’ve all been hard (maybe too hard) on Chiesa of late, and Beppe got the memo. Chiesa’s started on the bench in two of the last three and hasn’t played more than 45 minutes in any of those. Castrovilli’s been less than fit and might not have played nearly as much in this one had there been other midfielders available. Vlahović and Pol Lirola have dropped down the pecking order. This is very good news for a team that obviously lacked discipline under Vincenzo Montella. Making players earn their spots is important for a team both on and off the field. He’s likely not long for Florence, but at least Iachini is showing that he’s got enough character to push his will through.
2. Castrovilli can’t play in a double pivot. Tanino’s greatest quality is his ability to burst past a defender and carry the ball into the final third. He does that as well as any midfielder in Italy. The problem is that, when the ball turns over and he’s way up the pitch, his midfield colleague is left alone in a big chunk of real estate through the middle. Alternatively, if Castrovilli is instructed to maintain his position in the middle, he loses what makes him special, as his passing is average and his defensive work is not great. Again, I’m not blaming Iachini here since he didn’t have any other options (although bringing on Milan Badelj in the second half might have stabilized the middle a whole lot and where the hell is Kevin Agudelo, anyway), but this game offered pretty definitive proof that if you want to get the best out of Tanino, he’s got to be in a midfield three.
3. Amrabat is going to make a difference next year. And hey, speaking of midfield threes, how about that Sofyan Amrabat? He was the Man of the Match for me, controlling the game from start to finish with his excellent passing. He’s nearly impossible to dispossess and has so many little shimmies in his locker to shake free of a marker. The assist was an absolute Hollywood pass, but it was everything he did in the buildup that impressed. In a more possession-oriented side, he’s going to form an axis of horror for opponents with Castrovilli and Alfred Duncan or Erick Pulgar through the middle next season, and that can’t come soon enough. The preview here was fun, but the feature film’s going to be a whole lot funner.