When Riccardo Sottil was sent off in the 77th minute against Venezia, I had two inital reactions. The first, perhaps more natural one, was that Fiorentina’s chances of getting a result from the match had dwindled significantly. The second reaction was one of dread. No Sottil next game meant that old man Josè Callejon will have to start next match, with converted midfielder Riccardo Saponara as the only winger option off the bench.
Just from the eye test Callejon has been atrocious. When I looked at his basic statistics on fbref, the stats backed that conclusion up. Callejon is in the 1st percentile for non-penalty expected goals (1st as in the worst possible). He’s in the 4th percentile for progressive carries and 63rd percentile for passes attempted, agreeing with the fact that when I watch him, he hardly seems to move forwards with the ball and is content to pass the ball sideways. It’s safe to assume now that Callejon is past it, and we shouldn’t expect him to every contribute positively for the Viola again. A player like Callejon, whose game relied on him being smart with his pace to create chances, just isn’t the same once a players loses that change of pace.
It is worth asking, however, why Callejon is being put in a position where he is forced to feature so prominently. Assuming he starts next weekend against Cagliari, that will be the 8th match of a possible 9 he’s started this season. This is despite not having a single match which was above average all season.
The reason is necessity. Who else is Vincenzo Italiano supposed to put at the right wing? It’s tempting to say Riccardo Sottil (the only other real option), but Ricky still looks a ways away from unlocking his potential as a top Serie A winger. Sottil needs to drastically improve everything in the final third, but at least is in the 85th percentile for progressive carries. While I would start Sottil every match, Vincenzo Italiano does see him in training every day and still prefers Callejon, which says a lot.
After the Moena retreat in July, Italiano specified his one major want from the mercato: “I need five wingers,” he said. At the time, my biggest question was whether this meant one or two wingers would be brought in. Riccardo Saponara, while likeable, is not a natural winger and should be at best a 5th option. Instead, Daniele Pradè and Joe Barone brought in none. They’re around the team every day, and must know that Callejon is past it, that Sottil is still growing, and that Saponara is more suited to a midtable side than one that aspires for Europe. Yet, they did nothing, in full knowledge of the fact that due to Conmebol’s world cup qualifying schedule, Nico Gonzalez would not be able to start any match after an international break this season.
It’s easy to blame Dušan Vlahović for scoring just goal from open play in eight matches, but where is his service? No Gaetano Castrovilli certainly hurts, but only having one real threat on the wing is catastrophic, and as seen against Venezia the offense is stagnant without Nico on the pitch. As a sidenote, even if Dušan is misfiring, there is no suitable option off the bench to replace him. Moving Nico Gonzalez to striker creates the same problem on the wings.
Luckily, an extra winger is the easiest position to add in January, and Pradè and Barone should be hard at work to fix this issue with the squad. Still, This has been such a glaringly obvious issue for months, and an outcome like that against Venezia was utterly predictable. It’s issues like our winger situation that make me wonder why both are still employed by a club that says it wants to reach the next level both on and off the pitch.