Three times on Sunday, Fiorentina took the lead at Bologna, a mid-table club saddled with injuries and discontent from its coach. Three times, the Felsinei equalized through 39-year-old Rodrigo Palacio finishing off an Emanuel Vignato assist. While the point was useful, it wasted the team’s highest-scoring performance in a month and a half; this team isn’t set up to score three goals in ninety minutes, so letting the advantage slip three times is extremely disappointing.
As painful as it is to admit, captain Germán Pezzella was probably the biggest reason for the collapse. The 29-year-old Argentina international was constantly out of position, playing opponents onside or stepping up and leaving gaps in behind. He’s looked out of sorts for a few months now, but this is certainly the lowest point for a player who knows he’s capable of being much, much better.
As always with these pieces, I’d like to add a few caveats, especially before everyone piles on to Germán for being a bad player (which, again, I don’t think he is). The first is that, since we aren’t working with the team in training, we don’t know how much of this is on him. It could be that Giuseppe Iachini has instructed him to stay very deep, and it’s really Nikola Milenković and Martín Cáceres who are stepping too far forward; without first hand knowledge, some jackass like me who’s working with screenshots can’t really determine anything on the post mortem.
The second caveat is that Pezzella’s judgement on how to be a very good defender in Serie A is exponentially better than mine. He’s been eating, breathing, and living soccer for two decades. I have not. He’s forgotten more about the game than I, or any of the people reading this, will ever learn. Even so, he’d probably agree that he was far from his best in this one. Let’s take a look.
Here we are in the 8th minute. As you can see Musa Barrow has tucked in from the left wing with Lorenzo de Silvestri pushing high up on the overlap, so Lorenzo Venuti can’t track Barrow too closely. Nikola Milenković has stepped up instead, although he maybe could’ve stayed a hair deeper since Erick Pulgar is there to cut the passing lane. Martín Cáceres, meanwhile, has gotten a bit too high up and has to turn and chase Riccardo Orsolini. The real problem here, though, is that Pezzella is way behind the action, leaving Rodrigo Palacio onside; if Orsolini gets the ball, he can play it across first time and Palacio will have a very good chance. If Pezze took a step further forward, though, Palacio would be clearly offside and the Viola line would be a lot straighter; look at how Venut, Milenković and Cáceres are all about even and Germán’s depth is even more noticeable.
Just a couple minutes later, here’s Pezzella 2 meters behind everyone again. It almost looked like he was afraid that Palacio, who’s fully a decade older, was so much faster that he needed a big cushion to keep from getting skinned.
Here’s another one from the first half. You could argue that Cáceres has once again stepped up too high and that Cristiano Biraghi has completely switched off and let Orsolini run by him, but they both may have assumed that Pezzella was even with them. Instead, Danilo hoofed the ball over the top, Orsolini tracked it down, and only a fantastic charge from Bartłomiej Drągowski kept the Bologna winger from scoring.
For a change of pace, here’s Pezzella (and Milenković, and Cáceres) all stepping way too high up. Venuti, Amrabat, Pulgar, and Biraghi form the offside line with all three defenders well in front of it. While you could argue that Venuti let Palacio through too easily, Pezze and his fellow centerbacks are all wildly out of position, not marking anyone and in no position to close down Emanuel Vignato, who has the simple job of slipping his striker through for the hosts’ first equalizer. This isn’t all on Germán, but he’s as culpable as his mates.
Moments later, it was Biraghi who was slow to step up; look how far behind everyone he is as Barrow has time and space to cross this one. While we can certainly acknowledge that’s an issue here, the more pressing question is why is Barrow so alone in the box? Giacomo Bonaventura is desperately trying to close him down, but Pezzella isn’t marking anyone and is making no effort to get there. With Cáceres behind him ready to clear anything that’s underhit, you’d expect Pezze to be tearing straight into Barrow’s path instead of passively waiting for the ball.
Here’s another one. It’s hard to tell if this one is on the Viola 20 or if it’s Cáceres and Milenković who’ve let Orsolini and Palacio, respectively sneak behind them. As is, though, it’s way to easy for Danilo to stride forward and play a simple pass through; it ended with Palacio getting the ball out wide and eventually crossing waywardly, but this is, quite simply, a terrible defensive line. Since Milenković, Cáceres, and Biraghi are all more or less on the same line, you have to think it’s Germán who’s in the wrong here.
This one’s tight, at least, but Pezze again keeps Palacio onside. This passage of play ended with Palacio crossing for Vignato, who barely missed after slight tangle with Venuti that wasn’t enough for a PK but was still a big problem. Lollo shouldn’t have let his man get in front of him, but this fairly innocuous position became dangerous because Pezzella didn’t step up quickly enough.
5 meters behind everyone again. At least this time there aren’t any other runners taking advantage, but look at how much space he’s left between Cáceres and Milenković if Palacio works back towards the ball or Vignato or Svanberg want to drift into that area.
Here’s Pezzella way behind everyone as Vignato gets time and space to process what’s happening and pick his pass. You’ll never guess what happens next.
He’s too far back. Every. Single. Time.
Who’s sprinting in behind to make sure Orsolini’s onside? Yep, it’s Pezzella. This one ended with Matias Svanberg lashing one home, but he obviously handled it so it was ruled out. Still, the fact that Pezze was even with the line and hustled to get behind it illustrates the point here.
Hey, Pezze’s in the right place! Good job, Germán.
Oh. Right. Dammit, Nicky.
These aren’t just cherrypicked moments to make a point. These are pretty good representations that Pezzella was constantly deeper than his fellow defenders, which allowed Bologna to easily play passes in behind for runners. Honestly, it’s a wonder they didn’t score more, considering that Barrow and Orsolini are both quick enough to meet through balls; against a better side, this could’ve been even higher-scoring.
I really don’t like picking on Pezzella here (or any player, other than maybe Cyril Théréau). My first thought was that maybe he’s carrying an injury that makes him doubt his recovery speed, so he’s dropping a little bit deeper to compensate. If that’s the case, though, he’s being a very irresponsible leader. He really shouldn’t play hurt when there’s a more-than-capable backup available in Lucas Martínez Quarta; part of being captain means knowing that sometimes you have to sit the bench, especially if you’re not at 100%.
My next thought was that he was worried about Palacio’s speed. As much as I dislike him as a player, the retired Padawan is about as cagey as a striker can be when it comes to working the offside line, and he’s always been excellent at playing on the shoulder of the last man. However, he’s also 39 years old and doesn’t have the speed he used to. It’s also a lot easier to take a step up to push him offside than it is to turn and run with him, although keeping a tight defensive line certainly isn’t as simple as that.
The final thing I’d like to note here is that, even though Fiorentina constantly got burned by Pezzella’s deep positioning, he kept on sitting behind everyone else. That lack of adjustment might be because Iachini wanted Pezzella playing as a sweeper, staying behind everyone else in order to snuff out any problems. If so, Germán doesn’t deserve any blame for following his coach’s orders, even if those orders required him to play a role that went out when Arrigo Sacchi took AC Milan to continental glory. Instead, we need to be questioning the very foundations BeppeBall, heretical though it may be.
Without talking to the players and coaching staff, nobody outside the team can figure out what went wrong at the back against Bologna and why. However, it’s pretty clear that most of Bologna’s chances came from Germán Pezzella sitting 2-3 meters behind the rest of the Fiorentina defense, and that’s a very worrying sign for a club desperate to avoid relegation and under the direction of a manager famed for his ability to organize a back line.