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Analyzing Fiorentina’s relegation prospects

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For the first time this year (and probably not the last), we’ll take a look at how close the Viola are to the trapdoor.

Probably not quite time to sell those stocks.

When a team has 22 points from 22 games and sits in 16th place in the standings with a -13 goal difference, it’s fair to consider that team unsafe from the drop, if not locked in a relegation struggle. When it’s Fiorentina, of course, that consideration is both expected and jarring, the result of a fanbase that’s seen the club plummet from the toast of Europe to a laughingstock in 6 years. Leaving the emotional impact aside for a moment, though, let’s ask the question here: Is Fiorentina in genuine danger of relegation?

First of all, let’s look at those standings. Here’s the bottom half of the table. 10th-place Sampdoria, with 30 points, is probably too far ahead to worry about going down, but the rest of the teams can certainly imagine it.

Not great, Bob.
Google

What the past can teach us

Let’s start with history, which doesn’t repeat itself but does often rhyme (thanks, maybe, Mark Twain). Over the past 20 years, the average point total for the 18th place team has been 35.2; although the relegations of Juventus in 2005-2006 and Fiorentina in 2001-2002 skew those numbers a bit, it’s a pretty safe baseline. The highest total from that span is Bologna’ 42 points in 2004-2005. Every other team has ended up under the mythical 40 point mark. That, then, means that Fiorentina needs to earn 18 more points to be almost certain of salvation.

Since that’s not likely to happen, let’s glance back at the current standings. Those 22 points look mighty slim, but are still more than Cagliari’s 15, especially with Torino adding an extra buffer between the Viola and the Isolani. That pair would need to make up 7 and 5 points respectively to put Fiorentina on the trapdoor, and that doesn’t look particularly likely based on the season thus far; the Sardinians and il Toro have been even more disappointing than their Tuscan comrades in deflated expectations neither has won in the league for 7 and 14 (!) games, respectively. While a late surge from either is possible, neither team has shown any ability to do so.

xG Jiggery-Pokery

We can also have a peek at the xG numbers, which certainly aren’t everything but do help paint a picture of a team’s success. As a very quick explainer, xG (expected goals) tallies up how many goals a team should score based on where they’re shooting from, where the defense is in comparison, and the quality of the shooter and the goalkeeper. xGA (expected goals against) does the same thing but for the defense. If you subtract a team’s xG from its actual goals scored, do the same with its xGA with its actual goals conceded, the sum of those two numbers can help indicate how unfortunate a team is. A team with a positive xG+xGA is outperforming expectations and could fall back to earth, while a negative xG+xGA indicates room for positive regression.

Per fbref, Fiorentina are the second-unluckiest team in the division after Udinese; an xG of 28.7 and an xGA of 32.7, compared to the actual numbers of 22 and 35, show a team that’s been cursed by ill fortune and that could easily turn that around at any given moment. A -10.4 xG+xGA difference in goals scored and conceded should provide some reason for improvement down the line.

Torino, meanwhile, are at xG 28.8 and xGA 31.6 compared to their actual 32 and 41 for a total xG+xGA difference of -6.2, which says they’ve also been a bit unlucky. Cagliari are at xG 25.4 and xGA 43.7 compared to their actual 25 and 40 for a total xG+xGA difference of +3.3, which makes me think that they’ve played about how they’re going to play.

Digging into the teams the Viola are chasing a bit, Hellas Verona, Spezia, Benevento, and Genoa have all been outperforming their xG+xGA a bit, which could point to one or more of them hitting slumps in the second half of the season. Hellas bucked their xG+xGA pretty hard last year, so they’re probably safe enough, but Genoa, Spezia, and Benevento all look like teams that could crumble, especially as the latter two don't have a lot of top flight experience.

Trends

It’s easy to look at Fiorentina under Cesare Prandelli and think that the team hasn’t progressed beyond where it was under Giuseppe Iachini. Indeed, you could even argue that it’s regressed, although I really don’t think that’s the case. Under Prandelli, the Viola have mostly lost to the teams you’d expect them to lose to and beaten the teams you’d expect them to beat. There are obviously some outliers there—hi, Juventus—but he’s mostly got Fiorentina playing like the sort of team that finishes the season between thirteenth and sixteenth place.

That’s obviously not nearly good enough for a team with this sort of history and levels of investment, but that’s not the article I’m writing right now. What does interest me a lot more is that the dynamics of this team on the pitch are still rather up in the air. For example, Sofyan Amrabat went from a Bidone d’Oro candidate through the first couple of months to the team’s best midfielder. Dušan Vlahović was almost hilariously bad through that stretch as well before turning it around and scoring 7 goals in his past 11 games. Igor, Lucas Martínez Quarta, Giacomo Bonaventura, and Lorenzo Venuti are all blossoming into key players.

After all, San Cesare has only been the coach for less than half a season. It was always going to take awhile for the players to fully absorb his principles, and we’re seeing flashes of increased understanding, especially going forward. As they get accustomed to playing together more under Prandelli’s principles, they’re going to get more cohesive and more productive.

For the relegation rivals, that cuts both ways. Torino, Cagliari (pour one for Alfred Duncan), and Parma all made some big additions in the winter window; whether they can get those players to improve the team in a short amount of time. Bologna, Benevento, and Genoa have been quieter and should be a bit less volatile. You can make a case for any of these teams improving or falling off from this point out.

Disclaimers

This being Serie A, you can never rule out something absolutely, gob-smackingly idiotic happening. Whether that’s the Grifoni getting popped for financial doping (the perfectly symmetrical €18 million swap of Nicolò Ravaglia for Manolo Portanova and Elia Petrelli with Juve is laughably thin) or Torino owner Urbano Cairo decides to hire his dog as the new manager, you can’t follow this league without cuing up the Benny Hill music.

That said, Fiorentina is as vulnerable to absurdity as any other team out there. The midfield and attack are laughably thin, and any injury to a key player in those zones could hamstring Prandelli and send the team tumbling (as much as one can tumble just two places) into the drop zone.

Too, there’s no shortage of dissatisfaction among key players. Captain Germán Pezzella, despite publicly calling for a contract renewal, remains unsigned past next year. Nikola Milenković has already turned down an extension, setting the stage for his exit this summer. Aleksandr Kokorin has a reputation for shenanigans at his previous stops (and that’s without getting into the actions that got him sent to prison). Any sort of rift in the dressing room could provide the curtains on the top flight next year.

Conclusions

With all that, though, it’s tough to imagine Fiorentina actually going down next year. The sputtering attack (second worst in the league) is definitely a cause for concern, but there are too many good players in the team and too many bad clubs behind the Viola in the standings to feel too much pressure yet. Anyone who’s watched Cagliari and Torino this year can say with some certainty that neither looks like sprinting past Tuscany’s finest, and the current point-per-game pace should be enough to ensure a future (however unsteady) in Serie A.

Now that I’ve written 1300+ words on the subject, I can’t tell you how excited I am to helm SB Nation’s first Serie B blog next year. It’s an honor and a privilege.