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What Fiorentina’s flirtation with a back 4 showed us

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For the first time in months (or years), we saw Fiorentina in a formation other than a 3-5-2.

Benevento Calcio v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Danilo Di Giovanni/Getty Images

At about the 64 minute mark in the big win over Benevento, Fiorentina did something we haven’t seen in months, and maybe years: they switched to a 4-4-2. Lucas Martínez Quarta shifted from the left side of the back three to the right side and Martín Cáceres went from right wingback to left fullback, with Lorenzo Venuti advancing to a left midfield role from left wingback and Valentin Eysseric shifting outwards from his central midfield position to a more conventional wide role.

Defense connected by yellow lines and midfield connected by red lines; it’s very clearly two banks of four with two forwards ahead, although Ribery did drop in enough that you could argue it was a 4-4-1-1 rather than a 4-4-2.

As always, I’ll start with the qualifiers. This was a very specific situation: Fiorentina were already up 1-3 against the second-worst attack in Serie A and trying to coast through the final half hour. That means that Prandelli may have just been adjusting to a very particular set of circumstances rather than workshopping something he’s interested in trying out for the rest of the year. With all the absences (Gaetano Castrovilli, Sofyan Amrabat, Igor), this may also have been a way to cover for his lack of depth, solidifying his team without having to actually make any subs.

Even so, it’s fascinating that he’d try a new formation when trying to defend a lead rather than sticking to the one that the team has, presumably, spent most of its time on in training. I’ll point out a few interesting wrinkles here and then extrapolate wildly about what this could mean for the Viola going forward, both this season and beyond.

Why the change?

As I mentioned earlier, this was probably Prandelli addressing a specific situation. In this case, Benevento had, since the introduction of Roberto Insigne, begun to find a lot of space through the wide areas. The Stregoni weren’t really looking to play through the middle and were instead trying to flood the wings, then hit high crosses into the back. With Insigne and Gianluca Caprari drifting wide to combine with Riccardo Improta up from leftback and midfielders Perparim Hetemaj and Artur Ioniță, it was pretty obvious that Fiorentina were being overrun on the flanks.

Benevento’s heat map (attacking from left to right) shows that they weren’t subtle in trying to build attacks from the wide areas, particularly down their right.
WhoScored

By redeploying his charges in two banks of four, Prandelli doubled the number of defenders he had in the wide areas. It made extra sense to double up with Cáceres and Venuti on the left, as they were better able to contain the dangerous Improta; on the other side, Federico Barba (more of a central defender) offered little threat to the defensively-suspect Eysseric. While normally this would have left Fiorentina very light in the middle with Giacomo Bonaventura offering more activity than effectiveness in screening the defense, Benevento weren’t looking to use that area anyways.

Again, the Stregoni were pretty obviously de-prioritizing the center of the pitch.

The other consideration was Lucas Martínez Quarta. The Argentina international has broken out in the past couple of months and looks fantastic. He’s a bundle of energy and is always looking to get forward, both with and without the ball, to create chaos. While that’s certainly a useful quality and has made him a key part of the team, his lack of discipline was Fiorentina’s greatest weakness; indeed, he conceded the corner from which Benevento scored by losing track of Hetemaj and had missed a tackle on Caprari leading to a shot and another corner that resulted in the Cáceres handball incident. By shifting him to the right, where he wouldn’t be dragged around as much, Prandelli may have been trying to mitigate his urge to chase the ball like a madman.

There was a purpose to the change going forward as well. With two wide midfielders, Fiorentina now had a lot more width higher up the pitch, particularly in transitions. That in turn meant that there was generally an extra runner to support Franck Ribery and Dušan Vlahović, as both Venuti and Eysseric had more freedom to gallop forward when the ball turned over. Indeed, it was Venuti’s high pressure to win the ball and slip it to Ribery that led to Eysseric’s goal.

Fiorentina break quickly with 5 players: two forwards, two wide midfielders, and a central midfielder making a late run. Having that width at transitions opens a lot of space for the late runner and is harder to do in a 3-5-2, when the wingbacks are often starting deeper.

What’s it mean for this year?

The short answer is, “Probably nothing.” Fiorentina have played a 3-5-2 all year except for a couple of experiments with a 3-4-3 that were so obviously unsuccessful they were immediately scrapped. With so few games left and safety likely but not assured, Prandelli will likely get his guys focused on staying disciplined and doing what they’ve done all season, rather than trying something radical that could blow up in his face and lead to a late drop down the table.

That said, this 4-4-2ish approach could be an excellent change of pace when opponents begin to figure out the Fiorentina attack. Being able to change formations completely without changing any players is a really useful trick, especially since there are numerous defenders on the roster capable of playing multiple roles: LMQ and Igor can both play in central defense or out wide; Cristiano Biraghi can play at fullback, wingback, or even left midfield; and Venuti can fill in pretty much anywhere outside of striker and central midfield.

It would likely take a bit more work in training to get really good at these shifts (see the moment at about 65’ when Eysseric realized he was in the wrong place as Venuti charged past him to close down), but a new formation does pose opponents an entirely different set of questions. For a team like the Viola, which has often looked predictable and clunky, that’s a significant advantage worth pursuing.

You can’t see it in the still, but watching Eysseric sprinting forward and then slow down when he realizes Venuti’s there and he’s in the entirely wrong place was pretty funny.

What does it mean for next year?

Here’s where things get a lot more interesting. An incoming manager who likes using a back four (Maurizio Sarri, Luciano Spalletti, Fabio Conceição, et cetera) will be very interested to see Fiorentina’s current personnel in that system. Again, Prandelli will probably only deploy it in fits and starts, largely because there aren’t many competent wide attackers on the roster, but that could be enough for prospective misters to develop some schemes this summer.

What’s even more interesting is how this could change various players’ roles. Gaetano Castrovilli feels like a natural on the left of a midfield four with a fullback overlapping behind him. That would allow him to focus less on defending and more on finding space between the lines, especially with Ribery not operating in similar spaces. Tanino could also work as a straight swap for Ribery here as the withdrawn forward, especially if he continues to improve his shooting. Alternatively, keeping him in midfield would make it a lot easier to swap back and forth between a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-1-1.

This would also allow for a double pivot of Erick Pulgar and Sofyan Amrabat, which is a dream pairing for any manager who wants an engine room that applies furious pressure. Pulgar’s discipline and intelligence allow him to hold his spot in front of the defense, while Amrabat’s incredible athleticism and stamina would let him chase the ball all over the middle third and break up play. Bonaventura would make for an excellent substitute or alternate option, either backing up Castrovilli or in central midfield when chasing games.

Of course, this would still necessitate some big moves in the transfer market. A pacy, left-sided player who can fill in at fullback, wingback, or winger (Junior Firpo, anyone?) would be a must, as Biraghi’s lack of pace and defensive work would render him less useful in this scheme. Someone who can play as a winger or a wingback on the right would also be key, as neither José Callejón nor Eysseric seem to be the right candidate there.

Conclusions

Look, I know that this is a lot of stuff to project out from the final half hour of a blowout win over a newly-promoted side. It might well be that this sort of system-switching only worked because Benevento isn’t very good and not because it was a tactical masterstroke. Against a more competent attacking team, it could prove as catastrophic as, well, a lot of stuff this cl

There’s obviously a lot of work to do both on and off the field to make Fiorentina capable of playing a back four even part-time; this club has been all about three at the back since Stefano Pioli left town. If we’re being realistic, a lot of the possibilities I’ve listed out here are impractical for various reasons.

That said, you don’t have to squint too hard to see how this could work fantastically well next year. Fiorentina has a lot of players whose skillsets allow them to perform different roles very effectively. A creative and flexible manager should be able to take advantage, and even Prandelli, whose job is to keep a steady hand on the tiller rather than to innovate, may be cooking up something to help the Viola finish the season strong.