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We don’t see the progress

It’s easy to look at the team and see everything falling apart even when things are actually coming together.

ACF Fiorentina v FC Internazionale - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The winter months stretch out. The cold weather and the grey skies have lost their novelty. You know that spring, with its attendant joys of outdoor activities, will arrive eventually, but for now it’s just an empty promise that the frigid wind rattles outside your window. The magic is gone, and now you have to dig in and hold out for the end of the grey part of the season.

That such cycles perfectly match Fiorentina (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) only makes this time of year even worse. The January transfer window has opened and shut. The players have had time to build understanding with each other and with the coach’s schemes. This should be when the momentum starts building, reaching a crescendo that finishes with the team in or around the European places.

Instead, we’re into the back half of another lost and meaningless season. The Viola sit 15th after 21 games, having earned 22 points (the worst start the club’s ever had to a season) and a -12 goal difference. With 7 points separating them from Cagliari and the final relegation spot, nobody sensible believes this team is going down. That doesn’t mean the rest of the season won’t be tense and often unwatchable, and not just because this is the second-lowest scoring team in Serie A.

One of the joys of following a team (especially one that’s not going to offer any trophies) is tracking what changes, and hopefully improves, from one year to the next. The problem with that, of course, is that teams don’t always improve. Sometimes they stagnate. Sometimes they go backwards.

There’s no shortage of evidence that Fiorentina are one of those teams that’s not improving. At this point last season, the team had just been held to a scoreless draw at home by last-place Genoa. While that was disappointing, it could have been worse. Giuseppe Iachini seemed to be removing the pall that Vincenzo Montella had cast over the team, leading the players to 4 straight without a loss, and a surge into 11th place with 25 points. After a miserable few months, you could see the progress.

It didn’t really last. The Viola under Beppe posted the league’s best defensive record, but that came at the expense of any fluency going forward. It didn’t take a mastermind to see that such a style came with a ceiling that would stunt any growth. While Rocco Commisso deserves some credit for rewarding Iachini with another year to prove himself, the result—more BeppeBall—was predictably stale, and a few bad games meant that away went last year’s savior, replaced by Cesare Prandelli.

Under Prandelli, the team has been, in many ways, worse. There’s no way that a 6-0 loss should ever happen, but it’s not just the outlier result against Napoli that highlights the Viola struggles. Since taking over, San Cesare has posted a record of W3 D5 L6, which is good for a point per game. Iachini had produced a slightly better return of 8 points from 7 games. He’d also led the team to score 11 goals and concede 12; under Prandelli, those numbers ballooned to 10 and 21. Therefore, we hear, Beppe was clearly a better option and Fiorentina should run to him with outstretched arms, begging for another chance.

That’s obviously a ridiculous narrative because it ignores all the context at play. It’s often hard for a new manager to instill his ideas into a team, particularly one as listless as the Viola were (are). You can easily argue that, aside from his first match against Benevento, Prandelli hasn’t lost a game that he should have won (although it’s fair to say he’s drawn a few that should have been victories).

More than that, though, he’s brought the best out of some of the squad’s most maligned players. Under Beppe, Dušan Vlahović and Sofyan Amrabat were probably the least impressive members of the team. Under Prandelli’s eye, both have blossomed into key performers; the young striker’s bagged 6 of his 7 goals since the manager switch, while the Moroccan has quickly grown into the best midfielder at the club. Igor has also taken massive steps forward, and Lucas Martínez Quarta seems to be on the cusp.

This is not to say that every player has bloomed of late. Germán Pezzella and Cristiano Biraghi haven’t been as good as they were in years past, while Erick Pulgar and Christian Kouamé remain inexplicably glued to the bench when they could offer solidity and dynamism, respectively, to an XI badly in need of both. The defense has regressed as a unit, and Franck Ribery looks increasingly out of place in a group that wants to get up and down quickly.

Zoom out and look at the team as a whole, though. There’s an emphasis on passing out from the back that agrees with Igor and LMQ. There’s more movement in the midfield as Gaetano Castrovilli and Giacomo Bonaventura try to whirl around Amrabat’s gravity. Biraghi and Martín Cáceres (!) have offered glimpses of useful attacking from the wingback spots, although neither has really put together a string of impressive matches. Vlahović looks like a legitimate 15-goals-a-season forward despite having only turned 21 last month. You can see the bones of a good and exciting team under all the skin and gristle.

The results haven’t caught up. They may not this year; sometimes that’s just how the cookie crumbles. Every xG model I’ve found says that Fiorentina have been very unlucky this year, particularly in attack, and should be considerably higher in the standings. Maybe this is just one of those seasons in which the Viola underperform for myriad reasons and the stat nerds need to refine their algorithms.

But again, that’s missing the point. We like to imagine progress as a straight line that starts in the bottom left corner and rises as it moves to the right. We like to imagine that line as mostly straight, or as a bell curve at the very least. That’s how our brains are wired: we want patterns and correlations, clear indications of why X is happening and Y isn’t. Once we’ve forced events into a framework, we can pretend we understand them.

The universe, however, is completely indifferent to our carefully constructed frameworks. Take a look at Vlahović this year for proof: for the first two months of the season, he was probably the worst player on the team. Then, out of nowhere, he flipped the switch and has now scored in 6 of his last 10 games. It’s not just the goals, either. He’s battling in the air, holding up play, getting the ball out from his feet more quickly, moving sharply through the channels and in the box. There wasn’t a slow buildup in which he progressively figured out each of those items. From where we sit, it was a matter of him being woeful one week and superb the next.

That sort of explosion, though, isn’t really what happens either. Dušan didn’t wake up one mid-December morning with previously unsuspected abilities. He’s been working outrageously hard for a decade to be a world class striker, and for whatever reason, it happens to have started paying off. Maybe he could explain it, but if my experience with high-level athletes is anything to go on, you don’t think too hard about stuff like that. You just accept it and keep working to improve yourself.

For me, that’s what we’re seeing with Fiorentina. Just like Vlahović in November, you can see the flashes of what this outfit could be with a few tweaks, even though those flashes are largely cloaked in an almost comical inability to not hit itself in the crotch with an ice pick. Right now, this team is putting in the work in training, in the gym, in the film room.

All we can really hope for is to see that work translate into wins for the rest of this season and into the next one. We’re not there with the team. We don’t know what’s clicking, what’s falling into place, and what’s completely broken. We can try to chart it from the outside, but the fact is that, for all the understanding we have, it may as well be a miracle if Fiorentina finds its feet.

We can make charts and debate causes and explain symptoms and make predictions. Just like any meteorologist, though, at a certain point, there are so many factors at play (most of which we have no access to), that the answer to, “Why is winter dragging on so long this year?” is simply, completely, and mystifyingly, “Because.”