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What to expect from Gattuso’s Fiorentina

It’s way too early to predict how Ringhio will approach this Viola conundrum for next year, but that won’t stop us from making some guesses.

SSC Napoli v Hellas Verona - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

By now, everyone knows that Gennaro Gattuso is Fiorentina’s new manager. While some folks are more excited than others, the fact that the Viola went out and got their man the day after the end of a disappointing season can only inspire confidence amongst the supporters.

So how will Rino line up the side next year? That’s the trillion lira question, especially since the word is that club owner Rocco Commisso and sporting director Daniele Pradè promised some serious movement in the transfer window this summer. With Nikola Milenković almost certain to leave and a host of other important players—Germán Pezzella, Bartłomiej Drągowski, Dušan Vlahović, Erick Pulgar, Franck Ribery—looking at uncertain Viola futures, it’s hard to predict what exactly the team will look like.

We’ll obviously have a much better idea once the preseason camp opens, of course, but Gattuso’s recent history does give us a few decent ideas of what to expect. With the eternal caveat that the mercato could change everything, here are five things that we’re pretty sure we’ll see from this group next year.

1. The return of four at the back.

Under Vincenzo Montella and Giuseppe Iachini, Fiorentina have mostly played a back three. Cesare Prandelli switched that for a moment, but we haven’t seen four defenders since Stefano Pioli was in charge. While Gattuso initially favored 3-defender systems, he’s used 4 almost exclusively since late 2015, when he was in charge of Pisa.

Assuming he continues that 5-year trend, Fiorentina have a lot of really interesting combinations in the heart of defense. Germán Pezzella looked washed for much of this year, but he’s only 29 and should have plenty of good years left. He’s always looked most comfortable as the deeper of a pairing, struggling a bit when asked to step forward to track a deep-lying striker.

Lucas Martínez Quarta complements that approach perfectly, as his energy and proactivity both with and without the ball could allow Pezze to focus on sweeping up. Igor’s another great option, as he’s left-footed and also great on the ball while offering a bit more discipline than LMQ. The Brazilian might be even better as a leftback, where he and Cristiano Biraghi could alternate on a game-by-game basis. On the right, Lorenzo Venuti’s solid enough but may be better suited to a backup role, although he may have earned the right to spend a year as the starter. While there’s certainly room to expand the options at the back, the cupboard is far from bare for Gattuso.

2. A high-intensity approach without the ball.

While Gattuso’s far from the blood-and-thunder, death-or-glory maniac that his detractors have accused him of being, his teams are quite active without the ball. Napoli were first in 2019-2020 and third in 2020-2021 in attacking third pressures, indicating a desire to hunt the ball in the opponent’s half. Their pressing numbers are much less impressive in the middle and defensive thirds, largely because they 1) had the ball so often themselves that they rarely needed to go win it back, and 2) because they recovered it so frequently due to their own high press.

In 2019-2020, Fiorentina were actually sixth in attacking third pressures, but they dropped to just sixteenth in 2020-2021. A lot of that is Iachini’s influence, as he’s always wanted his teams to sit off and maintain their shape rather than counterpress. Especially this past year, when such a passive approach didn’t solidify the defense, it makes sense to try the opposite thing.

The squad also suits a high-energy approach. Gaetano Castrovilli, Sofyan Amrabat, and Pulgar are all superb at pressing; all three have placed in Serie A’s top 10 for pressing actions in the past 2 seasons. Igor and LMQ have the pace to play a high line as well (although Pezzella’s always looked more anxious the farther from goal he gets), and Venuti’s occasionally brilliant at closing down up the pitch. This squad has the players to attack opponents without the ball, and that should suit Gattuso just fine.

3. Wingers, which will be crazy to see again.

It’s weird for a club that’s produced Federico Bernardeschi, Federico Chiesa, and Riccardo Sottil in short order, but Fiorentina haven’t used real wingers in years. Both Montella and Iachini favored a 3-5-2, which left wide attackers shoehorned in as either wingbacks or strikers. Chiesa never looked quite natural at either, while Sottil was obviously miscast as the former.

Gattuso, though, likes width up the pitch. While he’s occasionally whipped out a 4-3-1-2 system, the vast majority of his games have involved wingers. He seems to particularly like inverting them to allow their fullbacks to overlap, which feels very modern and thus very out of place for Fiorentina these days; take a look at what he did with Lorenzo Insigne and, more importantly, Chucky Lozano in Naples, turning the Mexican into a genuine menace after a rough start to his Italian career.

The Viola, however, really lack those kinds of players. Sottil feels like a natural fit here, assuming he returns from Cagliari, and should be just the sort of player Gattuso’s gotten the best from before. Castrovilli could also start on the left wing, where he played with Cremonese for 2 years. Beyond that, though, the squad lacks wingers outside of Tòfol Montiel, who’s clearly done something unforgivable and won’t ever play in Florence. That should be the biggest area of focus for Fiorentina’s recruitment this summer, with at least a couple of new faces incoming.

4. A united and cohesive squad.

I put this point in the least impressive spot in a 5 item list for a reason: it’s just extremely reductive. Gattuso’s proven to be more than just a shouty motivator. While he was, at the start of his career, a pretty limited tactician, he’s shown some nous recently, making some clever in-game adjustments for the Partenopei.

Too, it’s often a hallmark of lazy journalism to accuse players of not trying or of quitting on a manager. Unless you’re watching their daily interactions, it’s a bit absurd to psychoanalyze these professionals whose careers have revolved around giving maximum effort at all times for decades. However, the reports of the players having some sort of issue with Prandelli sure seems like the natural result of years without any organizational accountability, with players and personnel seeming content to coast.

Gattuso was originally a bit of a pushover at AC Milan, refusing to criticize management for failing to provide him with reinforcements. At Napoli, though, he’s come into his own, reportedly locking horns with Aurelio di Laurentiis as he demands backing in the transfer market. He’s also shown a willingness to bench underperforming stars, most notably Dries Mertens. That sort of forceful enthusiasm should help him reshape the culture at Fiorentina considerably, and that’s perhaps the most important thing he could do.

5. More flexibility than you might expect.

I’ve mentioned it a couple of times previously, but Ringhio isn’t just some rube who’s stumbled into well set up teams and told them to keep doing what they do. Sure, he’s kept the basic principles of his predecessors intact, but that’s more due to the fact that the squads at his disposal were suited to those tactics. Napoli, for example, are designed to keep the ball ticking around the park quickly, combine in the half spaces, and shoot from distance.

It makes sense that he’d encourage his players to do what they’re used to and what they’re good at, but it’s also worth pointing out that he’s got a trick or two up his sleeve. Whether that’s having a central defender take goal kicks short to the goalkeeper to provide more options when building from deep; rotating his tridente to form a 4-3-1-2 with Insigne as a striker; or tilting his midfield between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3, he’s demonstrated a willingness to adapt both in training and in games.

It’s hard to predict how that’ll shake out with Fiorentina, largely because we don’t know how he’ll view Castrovilli and any new signings. Gattuso’s increased tactical flexibility, though, is encouraging. It makes sense that he’d get better at managing a team as he does it longer, and that’s largely been his trajectory so far. It’s also encouraging that he’s willing to look at what other teams are doing (that goal kick tactic) and follow suite if it makes sense. He’s not going to be Pep Guardiola and change shape for every opponent, but he’ll be a lot more adaptable than Beppe ever was.