Fiorentina were as abject as they’ve ever been for the first 45 minutes on Friday. The defense was constantly under pressure, the midfield had vanished, and the attack was isolated. None of them were capable of advancing the ball, much less hang onto it. They managed 3 shots, all off target, and all from wingback Cristiano Biraghi.
At the half, on came Valentin Eysseric in place of Christian Kouamé. The Frenchman has been an afterthought for most of his Viola career. He’s scored once (back in 2018) and has been on loan the past couple of years. This season, he’d managed just 7 appearances and 312 minutes. No goals. No assists. No real appearance of achieving either. He looked like he was running in molasses.
And of course, he turned around the Spezia game. He wasn’t too present in the first goal, but he created the second with a lovely cross-field pass to a sprinting Biraghi in stride before following up into the box for the return and creating the confusion after Dušan Vlahović’s dummy that allowed Gaetano Castrovilli to slam home. He scored the third, albeit with a laughably simple tap-in after Castrovilli dispossessed Nahuel Estévez way up the pitch and fed in Vlahović, who squared it for the open net finish.
It was a genuinely shocking performance and it’s hard not to wonder where it came from. Has Eysseric, at age 28 and having 36 minutes per Fiorentina appearance, suddenly found a new level of play?
Well, no. Probably not. There are a number of factors that can help us explain what happened here, and most of them involve looking at the context of the game rather than Eysseric himself. The most notable aspect of this little episode, for me, was how Cesare Prandelli changed his approach at the half. In the first half, Fiorentina’s entire approach was to bypass the midfield and thump aerial balls at Christian Kouamé, who won 4 headers in the opening period but wasn’t able to control enough of them to justify the volume.
In the second half, with Kouamé’s leaping ability absent, Fiorentina focused more on playing along the carpet. That suits Castrovilli and Vlahović as well as the earthbound Eysseric, so those three were able to connect higher up the pitch with quick interchanges rather than trying to guess where a lofted ball from the defense would bounce. By focusing on one-touch exchanges and finding runners in space rather than just bludgeoning the Aquilotti through the air, Fiorentina would have always looked better. That Eysseric was in there instead of Kouamé helped a bit, perhaps, but the Ivorian would’ve likely improved there as well.
Secondly, the switch in emphasis probably took Spezia by surprise. Think of the Sunday league or school games you played. If the other team spent the first half thumping balls upfield, your defense, after the first 10 minutes or so, was ready. Most teams that play that way don’t really change it up. When the Viola emerged after the break and began looking to attack in a completely different manner, you could see the Spezia defense grow confused. That’s part of how Biraghi found acres of space on the backside on the first two goals with nobody near him. Had Fiorentina played that way from the jump, the alteration in style wouldn’t have discomfited their opponents so much, and thus Eysseric wouldn’t have had as much room to shine.
Thirdly, Castrovilli makes a massive difference. When he’s on, Tanino’s as difficult to slow down as any midfielder in Serie A. Against Spezia, he was very much on. Kouamé didn’t get to play with him; Eysseric did. Sometimes, shifts in tactics and approach matter way less than one player kicking the ball more good than other player.
So is it just the context? Did Cesare Prandelli see the perfect mix of circumstances to deploy Valentin Eysseric to devastating effect, a mix of circumstances that we may never see again? Maybe and partially. It seems to me, though, that these moments of unfettered brilliance from otherwise pedestrian players are what make sports so interesting.
Even in the age of analytics and increasingly esoteric algebra, nobody can predict when Michele Camporese is going to pocket prime Zlatan Ibrahimović for 90 minutes, or when Marcelo Larrondo is going to score a peach of a goal, or when Nenad Tomović is going to slalom through three defenders before slotting home. These are all outlier results, yes, but that’s the point. Soccer is a game in which goals are so rare that, when one occurs, it’s usually the result of something very unexpected, even if hindsight means we can explain it afterwards.
Valentin Eysseric just played a nearly perfect 45 minutes. That’s bizarre, but not as bizarre as almost every thing that happens in every game. Enjoy it, but don’t expect a redux.