By now, everyone has heard the rumors that Fiorentina is considering a new contract for Franck Ribery, whose current deal runs out at season’s end. The conditions, as reported by Gazzetta dello Sport (via FiorentinaNews), would be one more year in Florence, albeit with a diminished status: his €4 million salary would be halved to €2 million, and he wouldn’t be guaranteed a starting spot.
After Rocco Commisso, Daniele Pradè, and Joe Barone discussed the matter with the French veteran, it sounds like they’ve all agreed to wait on a decision until this thrice-accursed season has run its course. That makes sense, as Ribery probably wants to make sure the Viola won’t drop to Serie B. It sounds as if he’s got a fairly robust market, with Monza (blech) and Freiburg both registering interest; you’d imagine that a host of clubs in the Gulf States (where Ribery has connections), China, and maybe even MLS would jump at the chance to sign him as well.
For the moment, not even Fiorentina manager Giuseppe Iachini knows the next step, although that’s not too surprising considering that he’ll be gone in 5 games. However, this kind of uncertainty is exactly the sort of distraction that a mentally fragile team like the Viola can’t afford right now. For the good of the team, Pradè and company ought to make a determination on Ribery’s future right now, and that determination should be to earnestly and profusely thank him for his service and wish him the best on his next step.
1. He can’t play any single position.
Nobody can doubt that Franck Ribery is an absolute peach of a player. His technique is exquisite, and even at 38, he can wiggle past defenders. He’s shown an impressive attitude and admirable professionalism. His ability to thread passes through a defense is second to none. However, he doesn’t score goals (5 in 47 appearances), he doesn’t win in the air, and he doesn’t play well off another forward. Since he’s probably incapable of putting in a shift on the wing for 90 minutes (look at how gassed he’s been by the hour mark these past couple of years), he’s confined to a central attacking role; he could conceivably play as a 10, but that comes with its own problem that we’ll discuss in a moment.
2. He’s hampering the development of the most important players.
Fiorentina’s two most important outfield players are Dušan Vlahović and Gaetano Castrovilli. The former has exploded into Serie A’s best young striker this year (not up for debate), but that’s more in spite of Ribery than because of him. Vlahović is constantly isolated up top because Ribery insists on dropping deep, retrieving the ball, and spending as much time as possible on it. The Serbian international has spoken about how much he enjoys playing with Christian Kouamé, who stays up and supports him rather than retreating into the midfield. Fiorentina need to build around Vlahović, and partnering him with someone who’ll bring out his best is the top priority.
Castrovilli, on the other hand, has regressed this season. He’s been peripheral to the action and constantly makes the wrong decision. He’s always looking to defer to Ribery rather than grab things by the scruff of the neck and impose himself. The result is that his development has stalled. Too, he tends to occupy the same sorts of spaces that Ribery operates in, frequently drifting into the left half space. With Franck there, Tanino’s often rendered redundant. Referring back to the previous section, if Fiorentina line up in a system with a number 10 next year, that needs to be Castrovilli, which means Ribery would be the most luxurious of luxury players.
3. He doesn’t fit with the rest of the team either.
Vlahović and Castrovilli don’t work with him particularly well, but the rest of the Viola roster indicates the need for a whole different style of play. Igor, Lucas Martínez Quarta, Lorenzo Venuti, Erick Pulgar, and Sofyan Amrabat are all suited to an energetic, press-heavy style of play that prioritizes quick forward passes. Ribery wants the ball between his feet for as long as possible while runners surge forward around him. These two styles simply won’t mesh; if there’s going to be a luxury player in this team, it has to be Castrovilli. While a creative manager could maybe figure out how to use him next year without hampering the other 10 players out there, it’s not worth the risk.
4. That salary is better spent elsewhere.
We’ve talked at length about Dušan Vlahović’s absurdly low pay grade compared to the rest of the team. It makes a lot of sense to funnel a good portion of Ribery’s current salary to the Very Large Adult Man. However, the Viola’s current wage structure is already ballooning out of control, with José Callejón and Alexandr Kokorin earning money this team simply can’t afford to spend on them. Even at half the price, Ribery remains too expensive. That €2 million could go a long way towards adding a player who’s more of a long-term solution than a year-long rental.
5. The team needs to grow without him.
I’ve already mentioned Castrovilli’s deference to Ribery, but the rest of the team is just as guilty. All too often, the plan going forward seems to be, “Give Franck the ball and stand back, maybe he’ll do something cool.” That he occasionally does is a testament to his ability as a player, but it’s not good enough. The rest of the team needs to be a lot more proactive going forward rather than ceding all creative responsibility to one guy. That’s just kicking the can further down the road; at some point, Ribery will retire, and the rest of the players will have developed bad habits that will take too long to unlearn by then.
6. This is an unwanted distraction.
Iachini said after the Juventus game that what Ribery needed and deserved was to focus on the remainder of the season rather than his future. That’s very true; while fans and media are often guilty of overplaying the distraction card, this has the potential to alter Ribery’s mindset going forward. The same goes for the rest of the team. While relegation remains unlikely, it is an outside possibility. The decision to restrict press access to help the team focus makes sense here, but letting a situation like this fester seems to run counter to the intended outcome.
I’ll repeat myself again: Ribery still has characteristics that make him an extremely valuable player. There are circumstances in which keeping him in Florence make sense: as a late attacking sub when facing opponents sitting deep, for example, he’d be extraordinarily effective to unlock a defense.
For what he’ll cost, both in salary and opportunity other players, though, it simply doesn’t make sense to keep him around. It’s still surreal that a guy like Franck Ribery has spent a couple of years with Fiorentina and produced some truly magical moments, but the worst way this relationship could end is to drag it on too long. Sometimes, it’s best to just walk away while it’s still good.