Fiorentina’s defense hasn’t been the problem this year. It hasn’t been good (31 goals conceded is good for 12th-best in Serie A, which matches their position in the table) but hasn’t been awful. The timing of those goals remains a huge problem—9 allowed in the final quarter hour—but the defense itself is full of talent right now, particularly players who look best on the outside of a back three.
The problem, of course, is what happens next year. Nikola Milenković has already refused a contract extension and will likely be sold this summer to turn at least a small profit. Germán Pezzella hasn’t extended his deal either, apparently thanks to Daniele Pradè not offering him one, and could be on the way out as well; his recent hiccups in performance make him a good candidate for a sale as well. That would leave the Viola with Igor, Lucas Martínez Quarta, Luca Ranieri, and Christian Dalle Mura, assuming that Martín Cáceres rides off into the sunset.
While any incoming DS and manager would likely add a starter to that inexperienced group, let’s have a hypothetical look at those guys. With the rumors linking a number of coaches who like using a back four to the job in Florence, let’s conduct a thought experiment (and Hesanka, this one’s for you): How would Igor and LMQ look as a partnership?
Let’s start with the positives. They’re both extremely comfortable on the ball, both carrying it forward and passing through the lines. They’d likely fit perfectly under a manager who wants to build from the back, as they’d be particularly difficult to press. They’re also both quite athletic and have the pace to turn and run with attackers getting in behind. That they’re both very versatile—Igor can play at leftback as well, while Martínez Quarta can fill in at rightback or defensive midfield—doesn’t really apply in this case but is worth noting.
Take a look at how much more often Igor and LMQ do stuff in the middle and attacking thirds than Pezzella and, especially, Milenković. The fact that the former pair are much more active in the middle and attacking thirds than the Serbian shows how much more proactive they are, always trying to stay on the front foot rather than sitting deep and reacting to what the strikers do like Nicky and Pezze.
Conversely, take a look at how much Igor and LMQ struggle in the air. While very few players in the world can match Milenković’s aerial dominance, even Pezze’s been much more involved in the air; it’s no secret that he’s been a bit iffy this year, which explains why his win percentage is so low. Last year, he was at 68.9%. Putting Igor and and LMQ together would leave the Viola even more vulnerable to aerial bombardment than they have been this year, when they’ve given up the 2nd-most set piece goals in Serie A.
Getting similarity is what I see as a problem. A balanced defensive pairing usually features one player who sits back and one who steps forward. That ensures that, if the player charging forward gets shaken off, there’s still someone back to cover the space. If both defenders want to chase opposing attackers around, a lot of space can open between them. A smart opponent would take advantage and tear them apart.
That’s why I think, despite their individual talents, that they probably aren’t suited to play next to each other in a back two. I love the idea of them on either side of a back three, as they’d effectively provide an extra creative presence from deep and possibly allow another midfielder to push higher up into the attack.
If Milenković and Pezzella do indeed leave, the club will need to bring in a starting central defender, either to play in the middle of a back three or to pair with one of Igor or Martínez Quarta in a back four. While it’s always possible that one or both could alter their play styles—they’re both quite young and have plenty of room to grow—if both Milenković and Pezzella leave in the summer, the club will need to bring in a more conservative partner for them.
Even if Pezze stays, it’s probably worth bringing in someone who can take over for him by the end of 2022; Ranieri probably isn’t ready for a full-time role and looks more comfortable on the left of a back three and Dalle Mura definitely needs another year or two of seasoning, although both look like solid squad players in the immediate future. If nothing else, this team isn’t devoid of very good players at the back even if the two most heralded guys in that department depart at season’s end, and that’s good news for whoever takes over this outfit in June.