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Fiorentina 0-0 Cagliari: Player grades and 3 things we learned

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A blunted attack and a brilliant goalkeeping display are enough for a point, yes, but not for anything else.

ACF Fiorentina v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A
Good lord is that lovely.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Pre-match

Giuseppe Iachini made an interesting change to the formation, shifting to a 3-4-3 with a midfield anchored by Milan Badelj and Alfred Duncan. Bartłomiej Drągowski returned between the posts, while Federico Ceccherini stepped in for the suspended Germán Pezzella in the center of defense, while Lorenzo Venuti continued on the right of midfield, pushing Pol Lirola to the left. Dušan Vlahović worked up top, flanked by Federico Chiesa and Franck Ribery. Walter Zenga, on the other hand, made just one unexpected move: Walter Birsa came into the midfield.

First half

Ribery nearly handed the visitors a lead before a minute was gone, passing straight to Radja Nainggolan just outside the box, but the Belgian’s attempt whistled just wide. Viola loanee Giovanni Simeone got the ball in the net after getting in behind, but was correctly ruled offside. It took Fiorentina about 20 minutes to grow into the game, but they eventually began controlling things very impressively, completely shutting down Cagliari’s attack while keeping the ball in the opposing half. For all the dominance in possession and position, though, there weren’t many good opportunities. Ribery played Lirola through down the left, but the Spaniard’s shot deflected straight to an already-airborn Alessio Cragno. Duncan smacked a shot off the upright that went back across goal. Ceccherinho struck a venemous volley that fizzed just past the post after a corner. Chiesa crossed for a Ribery shot that Cragno tipped away, and Venuti’s followup was cleared off the line. At the half, though, it felt like a matter of time until the breakthrough arrived.

Second half

Beppe gave the uneven Chiesa the hook at the half in favor of Rachid Ghezzal, but it turned into the Drągowski Show for about 10 minutes. First, he stopped and held a shot from Nahitan Nández from close range when the Uruguayan was alone in yards of space. He then made an incredible double save on Nández again and then Cholito before repelling a missile from Bambis Lykogiannis. Iachini introduced Erick Pulgar and Dalbert to add some energy and it worked decently as the Viola slowly pushed the visitors back. However, there weren’t many more chances; Nikola Milenković narrowly headed a free kick over and Christian Kouamé (making his debut after a 248-day layoff from competitive soccer) bulleted a header that forced Cragno into a miracle. Patrick Cutrone brilliantly flicked on a front-post corner that flashed across the face of goal and right under Cáceres’ outstretched leg, but the whistle went with a point apiece feeling like a fair reflection.

Player grades

Drągowski—8: Made three absolutely world-class saves and another very good one. Not sure there’s a better goalkeeper in Serie A right now, at least as a pure shot stopper. Did well on crosses and was rarely called on in possession. New haircut looks sharp, especially with the beard left untouched.

Milenković—7: Erased Cholito and especially João Pedro from the match with his really excellent reading of the game and his terrifying physicality. Also did a really nice job of positioning himself in possession after the first 20 minutes, stepping forward to help relieve pressure on the outnumbered Viola midfield. He’s really good, yall.

Ceccherini—6.5: Looks like a whole new player since the restart without any of the hesitation or mental lapses that have plagued him in Florence. Very impressive closing down high up the pitch and excellent timing in his tackles. Also a very underrated passer in the back, which helped the Viola keep the ball neatly. Did lose the ball once by overdribbling at the back, but spotless otherwise. Perfect bench guy.

Cáceres—6.5: Kept himself in the right places, didn’t make any terrible decisions, and generally looked like the steady veteran we want him to be. Did well stepping forward on the left without getting too far up the pitch to recover. Would’ve been awesome if he’d won it right at the end, but can’t blame him too much.

Venuti—6: Definitely won his battle against Mattiello, mostly by running like an absolute madman for 90 minutes. Swung in a couple of decent crosses but didn’t offer too much going forward. Like Cecche, showed that he’s the exact kind of player you want in every squad.

Badelj—5: Not a great game for Milan. Had a couple of poorly considered passes and further demonstrated that he simply doesn’t have the legs to cover as much ground as a midfield two requires him to cover. Not utterly useless, but not particularly helpful today either.

Duncan—7.5: Best player on the pitch after Bart. So unlucky not to score a beautiful, outside-of-the-boot drive, but was way more impressive than just that. His 105 touches show you that he was central to everything the Viola did, and he also went on a couple of slaloming runs forward to spark attacks. Also did his defensive duties impressively. Can’t wait to see him in a midfield three with Amrabat and Castrovilli next year.

Lirola—5: Doesn’t seem as comfortable on the left, which isn’t a knock against him. Still, he lost his battle against Nández and didn’t influence the game going forward, largely because he had to pause and cut back onto his right foot instead of crossing when he got loose down the line.

Chiesa—4.5: Out of sync with the rest of the team, highlighted by a moment in which he ran smack bang into Ribery as the latter knifed through the box. Misplaced a couple of passes too, but also carved out a brilliant chance for Ribery late on. Biggest concern is his body language; he seems frustrated with the team and with himself and needs a goal or two to get himself untracked.

Vlahović—4: Barely touched the ball and didn’t do much with it when he did. His movement seems very predictable, as he’s always looking to get on the back shoulder of the defender and sneak in behind. Like Chiesa, seemed frustrated with his teammates at times, occasionally throwing up his hands when he could’ve run into the box and had a chance.

Ribery—6.5: Started as brilliantly as ever, torturing defenders with the ball at his feet and winning free kicks, but didn’t create very many scoring chances for all his industry and clearly faded later on, misplaying a number of simple passes and borking simple touches. The man needs a break.

Ghezzal—5: Didn’t really do much of anything positive, but did once again take a beating. Went up for a header with Milenković with predictable results (looked like he was out cold and probably shouldn’t have been allowed to continue), then suffered a cramp late on. Returned to the pitch so the team wouldn’t be short a man, which is commendable, but simply didn’t offer a change of pace.

Pulgar—6: Just his set piece delivery created several opportunities, and his mobility shielding the defense allowed Duncan a bit more freedom going forward. Remains a very good player, albeit one the Viola still haven’t quite seemed to unlock yet.

Dalbert—5: Did Dalbert stuff going forward but couldn’t get any of his crosses quite right. Was actually quite good defensively, which was a pleasant surprise.

Cutrone—5: Didn’t really create any chances or get any shots, but his movement changed so much. Times his runs excellently and seems to link up with his teammates in a way that none of the other strikers do. Also, the way he ran and hugged Kouamé after the latter’s bullet header was really cool.

Kouamé—5: Showed an absolutely astonishing leap for that header, which should ease some fears about the loss of explosiveness his knee injury might have caused. Looked very dynamic up top, alternately dropping deep to show for the ball before spreading it wide and darting into the channels. This is going to be so fun when he’s fully up to speed.

Three things we learned

1. Even when he’s bad, Chiesa changes the game. Fede has gotten a lot of grief for his performance here, but it’s worth noting that Cagliari’s best stretch came after he left. The threat of his pace in behind means an opposing defense can’t step up too much and compress the midfield. While Ghezzal has some useful applications, pace isn’t one of them. Without Dalbert out there either, the Viola simply didn’t have any pace to threaten on the break, allowing the Isolani backline to step up and push Fiorentina very deep. I’ll also submit that we should take it a little easy on Fede: he’s still just 22 and playing in some bizarre circumstances. Nobody doubts his ability; it’s just his decision-making that’s questionable. Even when he’s bad, though, he’s capable of moments of brilliance (that cross for Ribery) that win games, and more than that, he’s so quick that he scares opposing defenses in a way that no other player on the roster does.

2. The team is too reliant on Ribery. This isn’t exactly a hot take, but tjwGOblue may be onto something with the observation that the team defers to Ribery too much sometimes. The most glaring example was just before Chiesa hit that perfect cross to him: Vlahović was between defenders and desperate to get the ball in space, but Fede held up to find Franck instead. Moreover, Fiorentina spent fully half its possession on the left per WhoScored. That can work, but it requires someone to quickly switch play to the right once the opposition is sucked into that flank. Given that the rest of Fiorentina’s forwards are all very direct, it’s fair to wonder if there’s a stylistic clash here. Ribery is obviously Fiorentina’s best attacking player so I’m in no way saying he should come off; I’m wondering why things looked more balanced and fluid when he did. Unfortunately, that feels like it’s probably on Iachini.

3. The two-man midfield can work, but things need to change if it’s going to. Iachini’s move to a 3-4-3 has helped put Ribery in his preferred area of the pitch, but it’s clearly wrecked the midfield. A Pulgar-Duncan pairing is probably the only one with enough stamina, pace, discipline, and passing to make it work, and that’s not workable with 2 games a week. If Badelj or Castrovilli is going to play, Iachini has to loosen the reins on his outside defenders to step forward, especially since Milenković, Cáceres, Igor, and Ceccherini are all quite good on the ball. That will prevent opponents from overloading their midfields and overwhelming the Fiorentina engine room in possession, as happened at the start of this one. Having Lirola on his wrong foot didn’t help either, as he often tailed off inside and left his wing bare. In short, this system is good for Ribery and not great for anyone else as currently constructed.