It is not very insightful to say that Fiorentina are very different this year under Vincenzo Italiano compared to last year under Giuseppe Iachini and Cesare Prandelli. The Viola have become one of Serie A’s funnest clubs en route to 5th place in the table after 7 games; only one of those 7 games has featured fewer than 3 goals. If you like a good time, you like this team.
One of the biggest differences to me has been Fiorentina’s willingness to take shots from distance. Last year’s inability to score from range became something of a meme; they didn’t get one from outside the box until the 19th game, when Giacomo Bonaventura’s wonder volley beat a despairing (and hobbled) Alex Cordaz. With Jack, Alfred Duncan, and Erick Pulgar all capable of striking the ball well, one of them should net one pretty soon.
As always, these aren’t explanations of what has changed; they’re symptoms of that change through which we can better understand the change. The other caveat is, as ever, sample size. We’re just 7 games in, so there’s a lot of statistical noise in here. The numbers themselves come from the excellent FBref.com.
In 2020-2021, Fiorentina’s average shot came from 16 yards out, good for the 3rd-shortest average distance in the league. In 2021-2022, they’ve got the 3rd-longest average shooting distance at 18.5 yards. Generally, we think of shots closer to the goal as being better shots because it’s a lot easier to score a tap-in than a thunderbastard.
Where this goes sideways is in the outcomes. You’d expect the side that shoots from close to score more goals. That’s the exact opposite of what happened. Last season, Fiorentina averaged 1.16 goals per game, or 14th in the division. To add another wrinkle, last year’s xG per 90 was 1.19 (14th), while this year it’s sunk to 1.12 (16th). To summarize, this team is taking worse shots but scoring more of them. What the heck is going on?
Part of it is certainly penalties. Fiorentina are averaging 0.29 PKs per 90 this year, more than doubling last year’s 0.11 per 90. That’s part of why they can blast shots from distance, where they’re unlikeliest to go in, and still score more goals. As long as they’re winning spot kicks, the Viola have a buffer that keeps them reasonably productive.
Part of it is style of play, too. Since Fiorentina see so much of the ball, they often face defenses that are sitting deep and denying space between the lines or to work the ball into spots close to the goal. Last year, since they were playing exclusively on the break, there was more space for them, allowing them to get closer before pulling the trigger.
The other part, I’d guess, is the quality of opponent that Fiorentina have faced. AS Roma, Inter Milan, Napoli, and Torino are all top five in goals conceded and top six in xG conceded, so they’re all clearly good defensive teams. They’ve also forced the Viola to chase games for long stretches, which often leads teams to take on shots from distance rather than patiently probing for an opening. That might explain the lower xG number this year, although it’ll be worth seeing if that number increases as the season wears on.
Is it sustainable to keep firing away from distance and counting on gimmes for the actual goals? The eyeball test certainly shows that Fiorentina under Italiano move the ball into threatening areas much better than they did under Iachini, but they aren’t really making it count yet. Is this something that we ought to worry about?
I don’t think it is yet. For one thing, the players are still adjusting to a new system. Dušan Vlahović’s struggles from open play seem to be coming from his not being on the same page as his teammates, for example. That’s just what happens when his partners in attack are all either new to the team or playing completely different roles from last year. Nico González didn’t even get to train with the team over the summer due to his Copa America commitment. The boys will start to figure out each other and Italiano’s system.
Playing a few relegation candidates will also help. It’s a lot easier to carve open, say, Spezia or Salernitana than the best defenses in the league. That should allow the team to work the ball closer to the net rather than thumping in prayers from distance, which should, in turn, help unlock Vlahović.
Those shots from distance could wind up working in Fiorentina’s favor. If a few find the back of the net, opponents will be forced to close them down higher up, which will in turn open more space for the forwards or for runners from deep. It could even be that the threat of a shooter from outside the box is enough to make a difference. Maybe long shots are one of the ways that Italiano wants to force defenses to react.