Gretzy baby Antonio Conte didn’t do anything unexpected with his Inter Milan. Giuseppe Iachini, on the other hand, made some big changes, none bigger than Federico Chiesa starting from the bench with Lorenzo Venuti preferred on the right. Patrick Cutrone, Alfred Duncan, and Dalbert (against his parent club) all returned to the XI, while Pietro Terracciano and Milan Badelj entered in relief of injured or fatigued starters.
Also worth mentioning is that the weather was oppressively hot, only interrupted by a brief but torrential downpour that resulted in staggering levels of humidity and a very slick pitch.
The hosts controlled things from the word go, nearly getting on the board in the first few minutes after Venuti and then Castrovilli nearly turned the ball into their own net as it pinballed around the area, with only Terracciano saving their blushes. He also repelled a venomous Barella effort but was helpless to stop Romelu Lukaku as the big Belgian got onto an Ashley Young cross after beating Dalbert, only to see it smash off the upright. Terracciano got the better of the striker not long after, denying him at point blank range with a phenomenal stop. Fiorentina’s only chance came when Franck Ribery lofted a free kick onto Germán Pezzella’s head at the back post; despite having no one near him, the captain airmailed his header well over the bar.
Matters resumed as they had ended: Inter pushed Fiorentina very deep—the Viola often had their entire team closer to their own goal than their opponent’s—and Alexis Sánchez rattled the upright with a fierce drive not long after the restart. Despite referee Piero Giacomelli swallowing his whistle and allowing the Nerazzurri defense (Andrea Ranocchia in particular) to hack the visitors into oblivion, they forged a few chances on the break, with Gaetano Castrovilli, Pol Lirola, and Christian Kouamé wasting fantastic opportunities on the counter as Inter threw bodies forward. With a bit more composure, the Gigliati could have executed the perfect smash-and-grab. As it is, they’ll be pleased to take a point while playing pretty well.
Terracciano—8.5: Holy smokes was Pietro incredible today. The double save on his own defenders, the parry on Barella, the straight denial of Lukaku; they were all absolutely superb saves. He’s fearless coming off his line, albeit a little too happy to punch the ball out for a corner, and is everything you could possibly want in a backup goalkeeper. Unquestionably the man of the match.
Milenković—7.5: Don’t let yourself get numb to what Nikola’s been doing since the restart. He was utterly fantastic in this one, both defending in space and anticipating balls into the box. Used his size and strength to stonewall Lukaku, Sánchez, and Martínez all night. I still can’t believe how damn good he’s become since moving to Florence. Enjoy it.
Pezzella—7: Inspirational as he battled with Lukaku and Sánchez, putting his body on the line time and again. Always popped up in the right place to deny the Inter forwards, highlighted by an absolute banger of a tackle to take the ball off Lukaku in stoppage time. I’m pinging him a bit for whiffing on a completely free header to take the lead, but the captain was excellent.
Cáceres—6.5: A bit more ragged than his running mates but still very good. Struggled at times with Lukaku’s freakish size/strength combo, but so has every defender in the world at some point. Had a couple of “Eek” moments, but, taken all together turned in a very good performance.
Venuti—6: Mostly erased Ashley Young from the proceedings with some tight marking and fearless challenges. Made a couple of poor choices—none more so than a skewed early clearance that, but for the grace of Terracciano, would have been an own goal—but held his own despite getting beat up without any sympathy from Giacomelli.
Duncan—7.5: A genuine star. Uses his strength and silky touch to hold off tacklers and his technique to move the ball where it needs to go, be that by clever passing or superb dribbling. Picked up possession with a man on his back numerous times and kept things ticking. Needs to start every game he can. Just an obscenely talented player.
Badelj—4: Hoo boy. The best you can say for him is that his brain still knows what to do but his body simply can’t keep up. Turned inside out by dribblers several times. Only touched the ball 29 times in 75 minutes, which is not a good return, and still gave it away several times. Nothing but respect for him as a professional, but he can’t play the holding role at this level anymore.
Castrovilli—6: Drifted in and out in possession and wasn’t the catalyst we’re used to seeing. Still needs to learn how to finish simple chances, as he could’ve won this one. On the other hand, made more tackles than anyone on the pitch and produced a really good defensive contribution, although his penchant for fouling in bad spots remains a problem.
Dalbert—5: Completely beaten for Lukaku’s header off the post but was otherwise decent defensively, although he did need to make a bunch of last-ditch tackles that relied on his sheer athleticism more than his sound positioning. Didn’t do much of anything going forward. Popped his calf just after halftime and could be looking at a lengthy absence.
Cutrone—5.5: Put in a fantastic shift, dropping behind Ribery in defense and then sprinting ahead in possession. Battled a big, physical back three without much support or service and did his best to hold up possession and bring in teammates.
Ribery—6: Produced his requisite moments of magic but peppered them with some mistakes as well. His inability to threaten space in behind the defense allowed the Inter back line to push high and choke the Viola; it’s no coincidence that the introduction of Chiesa and his blazing speed meant that Fiorentina created more. This just isn’t Franck’s kind of game, even if his sheer talent means that he’s still fairly impactful.
Lirola—5.5: Could’ve been the hero had he turned home a point blank chance that Chiesa made, but shot straight at Handanović instead. Dug in pretty well otherwise and held Victor Moses at bay.
Ghezzal—5: Did produce a couple of good moments going forward, but was really shaky in possession when deep in his own half. Trying fancy flicks at the edge of your box is a bad idea in any game, much less one like this.
Kouamé—4: Never got in the swing of things and lost the ball a bit too often. Completely biffed a chance on the break by trying to play a pass instead of shooting with his first touch. Still love him.
Pulgar—6: Picked up all the pieces that Badelj left lying around. This kind of game is where he shines.
Chiesa—6.5: Even played as a striker, which is far from his best role, he looked dangerous. Created at least two decent chances and could’ve scored himself if not for some hesitation. You can tell that the criticism about his selfishness has gotten through, but now he seems a little too anxious to get his teammates involved. Poor guy.
Three things we learned
1. Beppe remains a very reactive tactician. Even with the defensively suspect Ashley Young in the XI, Iachini chose Venuti rather than Fede and rolled with that decision until the last 15 minutes, opting for a slightly more dependable defender over an attacker who could cause serious headaches for the Inter defense. More than that, though, it was his shape that betrayed his inherent negativity: the wingbacks were anything but, spending most of the game level with the defense in a back five.
The central midfielders usually closed down Inter’s wingbacks in possession, leaving at least two spare men at the back. While the system did result in a clean sheet, you can’t say it worked, as the Biscione was only denied by the woodwork and a divinely inspired Terracciano. That’s not going to cut it most days, even if it did this time.
2. A team that sits this deep needs more pace. A major feature of Iachini’s strategy against bigger sides that want to keep the ball is to counterattack with pace, particularly by hitting long balls to a target man who can hold it up for teammates breaking in behind. The problem is that the starting XI had no pace outside of Dalbert, who rarely ventured forward. There were at least four counterattacks that fizzled out when Cutrone or Ribery simply didn’t have close enough support to stress the opposing defense; when you’ve got that space, you’ve got to attack it rather than pulling up and waiting for help. Ribery’s probably the main culprit, as he isn’t going to get in behind these days, but it’s not like you can drop him either.
3. Ribery doesn’t run a whole lot and that’s mostly okay but not today. I’m really not trying to knock Franck here because he’s a phenomenal player and has been the best player on the team since the restart. But I’m doubling down on the previous point: a lot of Fiorentina’s tactics today were built around not making him work much in defense. For example, here’s where Cutrone touched the ball.
Here’s where Ribery touched the ball.
The heatmaps bear this out too, as Cutrone was often playing as almost a central midfielder more than a striker. Franck was frequently the highest player on the pitch as Patrick and then Christian dropped deep to help the defense. While his ability to dribble out of trouble continues to astonish, leaving Ribery up top alone just doesn’t work in attack, as he has to go sideways and backwards to keep the ball, which in turn allows the opposing defense to recover its shape. His desire to slow things down means that Fiorentina, on those rare occasions when they had the ball in the final third, were facing an organized defense rather than a discombobulated, retreating one. This is what removing Chiesa from the starting lineup does. Iachini’s probably satisfied with the result, but there’s an obvious structural issue here that needs to be addressed.