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How has Fiorentina’s defense changed under Prandelli?

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BeppeBall was pretty effective at times on the back foot, so let’s have a look at the numbers to figure out how the new mister has followed up.

ACF Fiorentina v FC Internazionale - Serie A
Really, though, everyone should be masking up like San Cesare.
Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Fiorentina originally brought Cesare Prandelli on board for two reasons. The first was to offer a more attacking approach than Giuseppe Iachini ever produced. The second was to offer an avuncular, nurturing presence to a fragile group of players until season’s end. We can argue all we want about how well he’s done fulfilling those initiatives, but for now, I’d like to focus on how he’s changed the Viola defense while maintaining the same nominal shape as his predecessor.

The precedent

Last season, Fiorentina boasted the league’s best defense after Beppe took over from Vincenzo Montella, conceding just 17 goals in 20 games. This season, however, it seemed that opponents rather figured his schemes out, with the result that the Viola shipped 12 goals in just 7 outings.

Iachini’s approach to defending is fairly simple, conceptually (although it takes diligence and intelligence to implement): everybody plays very deep. To elaborate a bit, the wingbacks both dropped in to form a back five with the midfield trio shuffling across to close down opposing fullbacks and one of the strikers retreating to cover the backside of that shape, resulting in a genuine 5-4-1 shape out of possession.

He generally played with a very deep defensive line, relying on the intelligence and aerial prowess of Germán Pezzella and Nikola Milenković to keep opponents out of the goal. With five players sitting very far back and very narrow, there was rarely any space for opponents to exploit through the channels. To regain possession, the midfielders would wait for an opponent to venture too close to a couple of defenders and then pounce, dispossessing them and charging the other way.

There was very little effort to close down up the pitch, as he instead preferred to allow opponents to push their own numbers forward, leaving spaces into which his charges could break. He also rarely looked to press on losing the ball, instead instructing his players to get back into a defensive shape immediately. It’s basically the Italian version of Tony Pulis and his (in)famous 4-4-2: superb at grinding out results with lower-table sides but not very well suited to a bigger, more ambitious club.

What the numbers say

Because, as y'all know, I’m a nerd, I like to make charts to help me figure stuff out. In this case, I decided to tally up Fiorentina’s pressures, tackles, pressure success rate, interceptions, and clearances under Iachini last year, under Iachini this year, and under Prandelli. None of these are especially large sample sizes and all thus all contain a fair amount of statistical noise: different opponents, different personnel, different game situations, et cetera. Still, we can see some general trends coming together.

As always, the point here is not to look at the stats as conclusions in and of themselves, but to see how they reinforce or contradict what we actually see on the field. Unfortunately, Fbref (which is maybe my favorite website right now) doesn’t track everything as much as I’d like. For example, it won’t tell you tackle success rate in specific areas of the pitch, which would illuminate some other stuff; that’s the domain of StatsBomb and other paid services, which are a step too far for me. I’d also add that I’m as guilty of anyone as bending the data to fit my own narratives, so it’s reasonable and valid to reach very different conclusions. I’m happy to defend my work but have no interest in tearing down anyone else’s, because I’m struggling to figure all this out as much as everybody.

Prandelli’s numbers are current only up to the Sampdoria match on 14 February 2021.
Fbref

A lot has stayed the same

The first thing that jumps out to me is how Iachini changed between last season and this. His team’s defensive actions decreased in its own third and increased in the attacking third, which indicates to me that he’d clearly gotten a directive to defend more proactively. The decrease in clearances reinforces this conclusion, as the team clearly focused more on playing out from the back instead of just thumping it long and resetting the defense.

Moving onto Prandelli, none of his numbers are too starkly different from BeppeBall, particularly v2.0. That makes a lot of sense, as it’d be wildly counterproductive for a mid-season coaching appointment to install an entire new defensive system on the fly, especially with his team already struggling near the danger zone.

Fiorentina push higher up now

That said, he’s clearly got his charges defending higher up the pitch. That’s evidenced both by the increased defensive actions in the attacking third (pressing opposing defenses) and the decrease in the defensive third (a higher line means there’s less going on close to the Viola goal).

A pretty clear deviation, though, is the number of tackles in the defensive third compared to pressures. Prandelli’s defenses make a lot of tackles deep in their own territory despite not pressing there as much. That could indicate a number of things: teams are playing into space behind them, forcing them to make last-ditch interventions at a much higher rate; rather than challenging every ball in their own half, they’re trying to contain before converging on the ball-carrier en masse; the additions of Igor and Lucas Martínez Quarta to the XI under Prandelli has tilted the tackling numbers higher, as they’re both pretty active in that department.

The eyeball test, for me, says that all three are mostly true. The heavy but well-oiled machinery of a Iachini defense has switched to a slightly more fluid approach which emphasizes standing off unless there’s a very good chance of winning the ball, which makes sense for a manager like San Cesare, who’s always liked a team that can attack quickly at transitions. Making sure that when his teams do try to win the ball, they’re doing so in situations that give them a chance to go the other way rather than merely obstruct opponents seems pretty logical to me.

The midfield tangle

I’m also interested in the difference between the midfield pressing numbers. On the face of it, there’s a simple answer: Iachini preferred Erick Pulgar in the middle, while Prandelli has settled on Giacomo Bonaventura. The Chilean is an absolutely superb defensive midfielder whose pressing numbers are always very good, while Jack, despite his other talents, isn’t exactly a defensive force.

That’s the obvious answer, anyways, but I think it also points to a deeper issue: the Viola midfield is quite disorganized at times. Some of that is that Bonaventura, Gaetano Castrovilli, and Sofyan Amrabat are all very mobile players who tend to charge around quite a bit rather than stolidly occupying a single zone, as Pulgar does.

That means there are a lot more spaces through the center for opponents to exploit, often without really being harried at all. It’s odd, though, that with Amrabat and Castrovilli, who were both in the top 15 in midfield pressures last year, that the Viola aren’t closing down the well in the center of the park. Adding Pulgar, who ranked second in that department last year, should mean that Fiorentina are ideally suited to clog up the middle.

That’s clearly not happening if you watch the games. Fiorentina get ripped apart, particularly after turning the ball over as they try to advance, on a fairly consistent basis by teams at all levels in the standings. Perhaps Prandelli would be well served by instructing his midfielders and forwards to sit a tad deeper and only begin the press when the ball gets passed out of the opposing defense rather than closing down the defenders themselves. That extra structure could provide a good middle ground and let Amrabat, Castrovilli, and Bonaventura or Pulgar dominate that zone.

What the heck are these interceptions

The other big difference is in the interception numbers, and I have no idea what exactly is going on there. Part of this might be personnel-based: Amrabat, Igor, and LMQ are all very proactive defenders and love stepping in front of an opponent to pick off a pass, so it could just be that there are different players with different approaches to the game, which would be a simple and elegant explanation.

This could also indicate a reliance on more zonal marking concepts through the middle rather than the tight marking advocated by Iachini. Allowing intelligent players to freelance a bit, standing off rather than immediately challenging an opponent receiving the ball, feels very Prandelli; he’s always seemed to give players a decent amount of autonomy on the pitch, whereas Beppe demanded almost robotic precision in all aspects of his defense.

Maybe that explains some of the midfield pressing issues as well. With Prandelli’s aforementioned desire to hit quickly on turned over balls, it makes sense that interceptions would be more an area of emphasis than tackles, as the former allow players to pick a pass a bit more quickly than if they’ve gotten tangled up with an opponent while tackling. Again, this is me grasping in the dark and I could be completely off base, and this could just be a meaningless quirk in the data, but it’s given me something else to watch for in games.

Conclusions

While it may feel like Fiorentina’s defense has taken a big step back under Prandelli, it’s actually just about on par with its earlier returns under Iachini. In Beppe’s 7 games, it averaged 1.4 goals against, while that’s increased to 1.5 under San Cesare. If you take the singular, outlier result against Napoli out (those kinds of games are more acts of god than anything else), the new setup seems to be working out just fine.

That said, it’s not that new of a setup, is it? The team’s defensive numbers under Prandelli have tilted a bit towards a more modern, high-tempo pressing approach, but he hasn’t drastically altered anything because he knows that he’s only a stopgap and isn’t trying to rock the boat too much. The changes to the defense feel like they’re more the result of him trying to squeeze a more coherent and consistent attacking output from the team rather than making changes just for the sake of making changes.

Looking forward, though, you can see a spine of Igor, LMQ, Pulgar, Amrabat, and Castrovilli creating an outrageously good core for a manager who wants to press in the midfield and deploy a transition-based attack. That could be quite enticing to a certain cigarette-chomping Tuscan, true, but if Rocco Commisso and company want to search outside of Italy, there should be a lot of managers from the German school in particular who’d give this project a long look.