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Fiorentina is the worst dribbling team in Serie A and it’s on purpose

When you’ve got so many guys who can beat a man and almost never do, it’s time to look a little closer.

ACF Fiorentina v Spezia Calcio - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

While Fiorentina have been wildly inconsistent this year—6 wins, 6 losses, and no draws—Vincenzo Italiano has earned a fair amount of praise for turning the moribund club into one of Italy’s most watchable. The players constantly press like maniacs, and, at times, zip the ball around the pitch brilliantly. You might expect that such an aggressive approach, paired with guys like Nicolás González, Gaetano Castrovilli, and Riccardo Sottil would result in one of Serie A’s most devastating dribbling attacks. And you’d be dead wrong.

This year, Fiorentina attempt 11.4 dribbles per 90 minutes (the stats here are from the wonderful Fbref). That’s good for 18th in the league. It’s not a matter of picking their spots, either, as they’re also the worst dribbling team in the division, completing a miserable 47.4% of their attempts. Last year, under Giuseppe Iachini’s drab instruction, those numbers were 14.2 and 59.3%, good for 14th and 11th. That’s a huge change and deserves a much closer look.

González, Castrovilli, and Sottil should all be fantastic dribblers, but the numbers sure say otherwise. Nico’s attempting 4.14 dribbles per 90 and completing just 29.2% of them, which is the 15th-worst mark in the league. Sottil is at 2.45 and 41.7%, which are way down from the past couple years (over 3 attempts completed at over 75%). Ditto Castrovilli: after completing the 2nd-most dribbles of anyone in the league in 2019-2020, he’s trying just 1.22 this year. For context, that’s just 9th on Fiorentina; league-wide, it’s even with hulking Bologna centerback Kevin Bonifazi.

So why can’t Fiorentina dribble anymore? Have these fantastic players just forgotten what to do when the ball finds their feet near a defender? Well, kind of. Part of what’s happening is systemic. Italiano’s approach is clearly predicated on quick passing. He doesn’t seem to want players taking on their opponents as much, emphasizing instead that the ball should do the work.

Such a focus on passing is obvious from the basic statistics: Fiorentina average 56% possession, which is 4th best in Serie A. If they hadn’t spent so much time with 10 players, they’d likely be even higher. A look at the secondary numbers, though, is even more revealing than team possession or dribbling numbers.

I’m talking about carries. A ball can only move in two ways. The first is a pass, and a carry generally sums up the remaining options. What’s interesting to me is that Fiorentina’s players carry the ball as often as they do: they’re in the top four in total carries, progressive carries, carries into the attacking third, and carries into the opponent’s area. So, to sum up, they never dribble but carry the ball all the time, which seems deeply paradoxical.

The solution to this paradox is fairly simple. Italiano has clearly told his players to keep shifting the all around until someone has enough space to motor forward on the ball with no opponent anywhere near them, which means they rack up carries without actually having to dribble. This is more apparent from the central defenders: both Igor and Lucas Martínez Quarta rank in Serie A’s top 50 for carries per 90, and Nikola Milenković is 53rd.

So. Italiano’s system seems designed to get players on the ball in space and frequently puts them in position to charge forward unopposed. However, against defenses that are generally packed in because the Viola have the ball, those charges forward usually culminate with either a smash into a brick wall or a simple pass backwards or sideways. Either of those outcomes are more than acceptable for the defense.

The question, then, is “How can Fiorentina turn these carries from trivial statistics into useful situations?” There are a few options. The first is having those ball carriers simply put their heads down and, once they’ve reached a run, try to beat their marker. Having some momentum behind you generally makes you harder for a defender to stop, and with the dribblers Italiano has at his disposal, simply creating some more mayhem by encouraging more dribbling at times could make the difference. Getting González, Sottil, and Castrovilli on the ball in deeper positions and letting them build up that head of steam is the obvious fix here.

Alternatively, the players could spend some time practicing these situations and having the ball carrier look to slide in a teammate. That would require practicing specific movements and building patterns, which can be really useful as a way to initiate moves but can also lead to a team going very stale. I get the sense that Italiano wants his players to be unpredictable, which puts opponents under a lot of pressure but can also mean that guys aren’t always on the same page. Having a couple of basic patterns that start with a centerback coming forward could help, although I’d guess that the team has worked on some of those.

The final option is to weaponize that space. Instead of bursting into empty areas of the pitch, Fiorentina could slow down the ball and try to tempt opponents forward, which would in turn leave more spaces for runners to exploit. While that can work well, it also doesn’t really fit into Italiano’s mantra of speed on the ball, so it’d probably be deployed as a tactic only sporadically.

I really don’t want to sound condescending to Italiano here. His understanding of the game surpasses mine by orders of magnitude and I would guess that he’s looking at some of the same things that I am here, so he’s certainly thinking about how to turn these carrying situations into more positive ones. The long and short of it, though, might be empowering some of his players to take more risks on the ball rather than counting on collective passing to break through an engaged defense.