Fiorentina produced a very good display to hammer Torino 1-0 in the Serie A opener and should have had at least a couple more goals as well. It was very encouraging to see the team keep up the form they found at the end of last year: they’ve only lost once in their past 11 matches (and that loss was a referee-inspired penalty away from a draw) and taken 21 points over that span, which is a very impressive record indeed.
Even so, there were a lot of questions about whether Giuseppe Iachini possessed the tactical nous to turn this team into a potent attacking force, especially without a proven striker. While nobody doubts Beppe’s ability to organize a defense—remember, Fiorentina had the best defensive record in Serie A after he took over last year—that solidity seemed to come at the expense of fluidity going forward. The real question was whether he’d be able to shake enough goals out of the squad to push for Europe this year, and if he’d change his approach to do so.
The answer, after the win against the Granata, is yes, although it comes with two enormous caveats. First, the sample size here is obviously miniscule. It’s dumb to extrapolate too much from 90 minutes (although that’s never stopped us before). Second, Torino looked just as bad under Marco Giampaolo as they did under Moreno Longo last year. Despite keeping the ball reasonably well at the back, they offered nothing going forward; their best chances came from disastrous backpasses from the Viola.
One of the biggest complaints I had with Iachini’s system last year was the positioning of the wingbacks, largely because they weren’t wingbacks at all: they stayed level with the defenders pretty much all game, forming a back five. That meant that the central midfielders had to shuffle across as a unit to close down opposing fullbacks, which left Fiorentina very wide open to switches of play. One of the strikers usually had to drop in as well, which meant that the Viola generally looked like a 5-4-1 without the ball. While that meant that they were very difficult to play through, it also meant that they had trouble winning the ball near the opponent’s goal and that they had trouble getting enough bodies forward on the counter to threaten.
Here are a few examples of what I mean. Against Torino late last season, here are the heat maps for the Viola wingbacks.
Here’s what those heat maps for the wingbacks looked like on Saturday.
Look how much more time they spend closer to the Torino goal they both are, particularly Federico Chiesa. While they both spent time dropping level with the defenders, that was mostly when the Granata were keeping the ball at the back. When the Viola had the ball or when Torino pushed forward, both Fiorentina wingbacks had license to press the opposing fullbacks man-to-man rather than sitting deep and letting Torino work the fullbacks forward and create overloads in the wide areas.
The higher positioning, then, disrupted Torino’s attack significantly. Chiesa and Biraghi were both happy to charge forward whenever Christian Ansaldi or especially Armando Izzo had the ball, safe in the knowledge that they weren’t abandoning that space to a winger. Gaetano Castrovilli and Giacomo Bonaventura were happy to slide into the wide areas behind them to provide a bit of reinforcement, but it was mostly the wingbacks getting forward and forcing Torino to thump the ball long to Andrea Belotti and Simone Zaza.
This also paid dividends for the Fiorentina attack. When a Viola wingback pressed up and Torino passed long, that meant that the pressing wingback was thus higher up. If the Viola won the ball, that left the wingback as another attacker to use on the break or, more often, the target for a long diagonal pass that would force the Torino defense to scramble across the field to get set for an attack from a completely different direction.
You could argue that this was because Giampaolo’s 4-3-1-2 left a lot of space on the wings open so that both Chiesa and Cristiano Biraghi could push on. You could also argue that Torino’s general haplessness made it easy. Either way, you’d be right. However, this was obviously an intentional tactic from Iachini. While I can’t track it with the stats I have, remember how often Fiorentina built play down the left the switched it (usually via Castrovilli) to Chiesa on the right, or did the same (usually with Alfred Duncan) to Biraghi on the left? It was a lot. That was clearly something the team had practiced.
Letting the wingbacks stay high up the pitch was obviously the right decision here. Chiesa, despite a wretched first half, assisted the winner with a lovely bit of athleticism and threatened Torino’s rearguard for the final 45 minutes. Biraghi was a constant source of danger and was the first half’s outstanding attacker; he put in 4 crosses that Christian Kouamé should have headed home (one clean miss, one mistimed jump, two that would have ended in the net had Salvatore Sirigu not performed miracles). Given their revamped roles, this isn’t a surprise. They were both put in fantastic positions to succeed and did just that.
Let’s compare their output to what the wingbacks did in this fixture last year. I’m interested in the total touches and total crosses. Touches indicate how involved the wingbacks were in the buildup. Crosses can indicate how often they got into typical wingback attacking positions, although Chiesa’s propensity to run with the ball from wide areas skews this a bit. I’m less interested in defensive numbers for this exercise, since Torino rarely moved the ball into threatening positions in either fixture, so let’s skip those for now.
The crossing accuracy is night and day, obviously. A lot of that is because in the more recent game, the wingbacks received the ball closer to the end line, which is generally more advantageous for crossing. The increase in touches (not a perfect comparison due to the substitutions, but roughly comparable across both matches) shows that the rest of the team was more focused on finding the wingbacks in the more recent game as well. That’s largely because they were generally in larger amounts of space higher up the pitch, making them more useful progressive options.
Elsewhere on the pitch
There were other benefits to pushing the wingbacks higher. Having options out wide meant that the central midfielders, as previously mentioned, could target them with long switches to isolate them against a defender. Instead of having to play vertical passes into the channels, which is a really hard thing to do, they could spread play into space, which is difficult but a whole lot easier.
The forwards also prospered in this system. With the wingbacks higher, Kouamé didn’t need to work the channels as much and could stay more central. He was actually very quiet in the buildup—just 21 touches—but caused problems with his movement and leaping ability in the box from those crosses. As we saw through the first half of last year, Fiorentina desperately need a striker who can stay central and finish the chances that the team produces from the wings. While it didn’t happen in this game, at least one of those headers would’ve produced a goal on most days. Ribery, on the other hand, combined with Biraghi much like he did with Dalbert last year and also targeted Chiesa with those delayed chips across the box to great effect.
The only part of the team that suffered a bit was the defense. Torino figured out that the wingbacks were higher up and pushed Belotti and Zaza into the wide space more, stretching the Viola back line across the pitch and looking to flick the ball either in behind for the other or knock it down for Álex Berenguer to run onto. They had some success early on isolating Belotti against Nikola Milenković (although the striker’s diving was pretty repugnant) but the Serbian eventually adjusted. Martín Cáceres shut Zaza down completely. Bringing back Germán Pezzella, who’s much stronger in the air than Federico Ceccherini, will likely help.
To repeat my previous warnings, it’s probably a little bit absurd to infer too much from this single outing against a poor opponent. Still, this game demonstrated that Iachini has the tools to adjust his system to fit his players and the situation. By pushing his wingbacks higher up, Fiorentina dominated play. While they ended about even in possession, that was because the Viola were constantly looking for long outlet passes to the wingbacks, favoring a high-risk, high-reward strategy that put the Torino defense under constant pressure. The high temp also allowed the Viola wingbacks to counter-press and win the ball back higher up, which feels reminiscent of how Jürgen Klopp or Diego Simeone often view possession.
The questions that I have going forward are mostly defensive in nature. While Chiesa performed really well defensively—4 successful tackles out of 8 attempts (both more than any other player on the pitch), an interception, a clearance, 3 blocks—I’m not sure he can keep that up for a whole season. Biraghi wasn’t tested at all, given Izzo’s shortcomings as an attacking force, and also made a really bad mistake in possession that handed Torino one of their two shots on target.
The real question, though, is what happens when Fiorentina face a team that plays with wingers. Pushing Chiesa and Biraghi so high up will open a lot of space in behind them that opponents will look to exploit. That means that the defenders will be have to cover considerably more ground and will often be matched up against quicker attackers in space. While Milenković and Cáceres (and Igor) all have the athleticism to hold up, that’s still risky. A few games against quick wide forwards could see Iachini abandon this new approach in favor of his usual back five. On the other hand, getting Sofyan Amrabat, who’s very comfortable moving into wide areas due to his training as a winger, could offer a good counterbalance as well.
Still, this was an overwhelmingly positive display from Fiorentina’s wingbacks. Iachini clearly spent his summer working out how to improve their attacking output and was rewarded with an excellent couple of performances. The only question is what happens if/when Biraghi needs a break. Lirola has proven time and again that he’s below par on the left, while Igor doesn’t have Biraghi’s crossing ability to threaten defenses either. While Lirola could fill in for Chiesa in a pinch, there’s no insurance currently on the roster if Biraghi goes down. Finding some should be the top priority in the remainder of the transfer market. Now that Beppe has a good template for what he needs in that spot, it shouldn’t be too hard to find one.