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Don’t forget about Cesare Prandelli’s impact this season

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The legend’s second tenure set the foundation for Beppe to end the season well, and now the Viola need to swiftly improve this summer.

ACF Fiorentina v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

It was just a week ago that I was giving Beppe Iachini a lot of grief for Fiorentina’s lackluster defending in their 3-3 draw against Bologna. However, I’m willing to eat some crow after last weekend’s performance against Lazio. The entire match was a Beppe masterclass. Fiorentina only held 29% possession and was outshot by the Biancocelesti, but never looked in danger of losing. The result is that the Viola have now notched eight points from their last four matches, and have practically earned a spot in next season’s Serie A.

With the Viola now practically safe with three matches to play, it’s fine to start daydreaming about next year, and the possibilities that Rocco Commisso’s checkbook combined with competent management could deliver to this Viola team. Of course, only the former is a certainty at this point, and with Daniele Pradè likely to stay at the helm there will be plenty of room for (deserved) complaining.

However, I’d like to reminisce about this season one last time before I dive headfirst into reporting transfer rumors and speculation for you all this summer. On Saturday, I saw a team that looked... not completely broken. That’s not to say this team doesn’t still need plenty of additions. Firstly, the club’s bench is paper-thin. Secondly, given even odds, I would only bet on five starters (Dragowski, Pulgar, Bonaventura, Castrovilli, Venuti) being with the club next season. Regardless, Beppe has this team playing its best Calcio of the season at the right time, and will rightfully be remembered as the man who saved the Viola from trouble not just once, but twice.

While it’s satisfying to see the team safe from the drop, it’s important to remember that all the credit can’t just go to Beppe for Fiorentina’s safety. While he brought back several of his favorites into their old positions (Cristiano Biraghi and Martin Caceres come to mind), he’s kept a surprisingly large percentage of Cesare Prandelli’s positional adjustments his second time around. I’m going to go over the three most important ones below and why they’ve helped the Viola, as well as offer some thoughts on the importance of this summer.

1. Erick Pulgar is the holding midfielder Fiorentina desperately needed

From the beginning of the season, it had always seemed obvious to me that Erick Pulgar should play a key role in Fiorentina’s midfield. However, Pulgar only started one of eight matches under Beppe in his first stint, who made the inexplicable decision to play Sofyan Amrabat as a holding midfielder in place of the Chilean. Once Prandelli arrived, Amrabat was finally allowed to play in his best position, but Pulgar did not find his way back into the starting lineup. Instead, Prandelli opted to have Giacomo Bonaventura and Gaetano Castrovilli act as dual #8’s next to Amrabat, filling in defensively for the Moroccan while he pushed to win the ball. That is, until the Sampdoria match on Valentine’s Day. Pulgar started in a grueling 2-1 defeat. Even if the team’s performance was lousy, Prandelli saw enough to start him the next match, and Pulgar hasn’t looked back since. He’s started every match for Fiorentina since then, even with the change in managers, and has regained the form which saw him be one of the best players on the team last season.

First things first, we have to talk about Pulgar’s set-piece ability. The goal against Milan is a stand-out, but what’s underrated is his corner-kick ability, and he’s picked up assists in his last two matches. His average positioning against Lazio below (he’s #78) gives a good idea of how well he’s performing his job shielding Pezzella.

Compare this to the squad’s average positioning in the 0-2 defeat against Roma last fall, a match which may have been Beppe’s worst in charge. Amrabat (#34) is pushed forwards far more than Pulgar, a nod to the Moroccan’s tendency to roam rather than any tactical change by Beppe. By slotting in Pulgar instead, I must say Fiorentina now has a slightly more imposing midfield. (Although, I would still take Lucas Torreira in a heartbeat).

Fiorentina’s average positioning against Roma last November.

2. Lorenzo Venuti is a solid Serie-A wingback

To be fair to Beppe, this move may be due to Daniel Pradè’s horrible roster management moreso than Prandelli’s tactical prowess. After all, would anyone trust Kevin Malcuit after his shocking performance against Parma? Regardless, Venuti has given Beppe little reason to drop him, and Lollo has blossomed the second half of this season. At this point, I wouldn’t be too upset with him being the starter on the right-flank next season, even if Pol Lirola not returning would mean further investment in the position is necessary.

After starting 10 matches last season, Venuti’s 19 starts this season means he’s almost doubled that tally, and expect him to get three more. That’s after starting just one match during Beppe’s first stint this season. It was Prandelli who gave Lollo a real opportunity against Atalanta in December, and Venuti took it wonderfully. While not the flashiest player, Lollo’s strongest attribute is his consistency. There isn’t another player on the team who guarantees a 5.5 or 6 in post-match ratings moreso than Venuti, and I mean that in the best way possible. Add in the fact that the 25-year-old is the only long-time academy player on the team, and it’s pretty awesome to watch him represent Firenze for the Viola.

3. Dusan Vlahovic is the biggest reason for Fiorentina’s survival.

I’ve saved the best for last. There are so many positive things to say about Dusan’s breakout season, and the 21-year-old is already the best #9 the Viola have seen since prime Gilardino.

However, what’s impossible to understate is just how horrible Dusan was at the beginning of the season. Does anyone else remember the (justified) rage we all felt after watching him miss a sitter and then defend horribly to cost the Viola three points against Inter last fall. Seriously, take a look through his rating and the comments section here.

While no one was questioning Beppe at the time for not playing the Serbian, it’s clear at this point that he didn’t understand how to nurture a personality like Dusan. I can’t speak to what exactly Prandelli did to unlock his potential, but it was clear very early on that San Cesare had changed his mentality, just from the way he took his penalty against Sassuolo in December for his second goal of the season.

Since that match, he’s scored 19 more, more than half of the goals of the entire team since then (35). His value has soared well into eight figures, and at this point he may be the best prospect the club has seen since teenage Stefan Jovetic. Without him, it’s very difficult to see this Viola team staying above the drop this season, so even if he leaves this summer it will hard for me to be upset at him (Thank God for Juve’s debts). Enjoy him while he’s here, folks, and don’t forget to thank Cesare for not just improving Vlahovic, but also Pulgar and Venuti. I can’t wait to watch the standing ovation San Cesare will receive at the Franchi next season.

Finally, I don’t want to forget about Beppe. I already touched on this above, but Beppe deserves major plaudits for retaking a job in March that no one else would touch. Since then it hasn’t always been pretty, but Beppe has steered this club to safety for the second time, with nine points in seven matches. While this was probably already assured, Beppe has now guaranteed himself a job in Serie A next season with his work in Firenze. When he returns to a packed Franchi as the visiting manager next season, hopefully he can understand all the appreciation us fans feel for him for scraping this club out of several messes, as well as being manager throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

So, what now?

Fiorentina is nearly guaranteed to reach mathematical safety tomorrow, although whether it comes from a result against Cagliari or Benevento losing to Atalanta is anyone’s guess. Now, it’s time to put this season behind us and focus on the next one. As I’ve said before, due to Covid-19 I’m willing to be extra nice and grant the Viola management a mulligan for this season. However, I fully understand any fans who already feel aggrieved, and with that I want to issue a challenge to the upper brass of the Viola this summer: Show us your ambition. Even without the Federico Chiesa transfer, the Viola’s net spend is surprisingly modest since Rocco took over. With Chiesa, that number is actually positive. While Financial Fair Play and Covid-19 are fair excuses, this summer the excuses end.

While the early signs are not good (how in the hell is Pradè keeping his job), I’m going to wait until next fall until I cast my verdict. Regardless, Rocco, Joe Barone and Pradè should feel lucky that they haven’t had to face a full Franchi to explain their actions so far. Soon, they will, and Fiorentina’s ownership will face its biggest test yet. The city of Firenze, and most importantly the fans, deserve a better team, and next year is when the lower mid-table mediocrity must end.