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Fiorentina’s problems in defense have a simple solution

After re-re-watching the past couple of games, we have even more reasons for optimism.

ACF Fiorentina v US Sassuolo - Serie A
The Large Boys.
Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Following an upset win in Bergamo, it’s very easy for Fiorentina fans to feel like this could be their year to make some noise in Serie A for the first time in half a decade. New manager Vincenzo Italiano has taken 3 games to do what the team couldn’t manage all last year: win back-to-back matches in the league. There’s obviously a lot of talent in Florence. Some of last year’s powers (Inter Milan, Atalanta, and hahahahahaha Juventus) look diminished. It’s time.

So what’s the next step? Well, how about a clean sheet? Despite posting 6 points from 3 matches (including away at AS Roma and la Dea), Fiorentina have leaked 5 goals as well. While some of that is down to Bartłomiej Drągowski’s sending off against the Giallorossi, it’s also worth noting that only 5 teams in the division have conceded more.

Atalanta BC v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
All too frequent.
Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Fortunately, though, it’s early in the season and Italiano looks like a very intelligent manager. He’s had to institute a back four after the team played the past two years with a back five and also with an entirely different style; the high tempo, high line, high pressing scheme the current mister has installed is almost the perfect opposite of Giuseppe Iachini’s preference for sitting deep, soaking up the pressure, and focusing on GIOCA GIOCA GIOCA. It takes time to change those habits; let’s give Italiano a full season before we judge too harshly.

Italiano also lost the vocal leader of the unit in Germán Pezzella; despite some wobbles in the past couple seasons, the Argentina international is a very good player and his leadership and traffic-directing abilities have been sorely lacking. A rotating cast of Igor, Lucas Martínez Quarta, and Matija Nastasić is still trying to gel with the Mountain; as they develop a better understanding, the defense will doubtless tighten up.

And fortunately for us, it’s pretty clear what needs to tighten up. I’m mostly looking at the Torino and Atalanta games here, as the season opener is pretty wonky due to an early sending off, but I’ll also bring the Roma game into things a bit. I’m ignoring the Coppa Italia tilt against Cosenza because c’mon. All numbers here are from FBref, and all the usual caveats about small sample sizes and the inherent deception of statistics are very much in play here.

The stats

Let’s start off with the really ugly one. Fiorentina’s xG against is an atrocious 5.7, good for 3rd-worst in Serie A. Sure, that’s against the current capolista in Roma and last year’s top attack in Atalanta, but it’s still hardly a ringing endorsement. My goal here (and, I imagine, Italiano’s as well) is to figure out what’s been going wrong.

The first thing that really leaps out at me is shot distance. Fiorentina’s opponents have been shooting from, on average, just 12.2 yards out. That’s shortest distance in the league, more than 3 yards closer than second-place Napoli. The algebra here is pretty simple: shots from closer to the goal tend to have a higher percentage of going in, so the defense should try to prevent them.

AS Roma and ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
Let’s keep people a little farther away from the Fun Dad Energy, please.
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Despite the point blank attempts, though, the Viola defense hasn’t conceded an alarming number of shots or shots on target, coming in middle of the pack in both categories. What’s more impressive to me is that they’ve limited opponents to just 47 shot creating actions (an imperfect stat but still useful); that’s the fourth-best mark and shows just how comprehensive this team defense is at limiting opponents trying to create chances.

To sum up, then, Fiorentina let opponents shoot from very close range, but not all that frequently, and don’t concede too many chances despite allowing a very high xG. What that says to me is that they’re letting opponents create very good chances in promising positions, likely on the break given the low frequency. Since opponents will likely finish those at a higher rate in the future, the goal needs to be preventing space against counterattacks and focusing on either regaining the defensive shape quickly at transitions or at least limiting opponents to more difficult shots.

The not stats

To figure out what’s going wrong, let’s turn to the film. What jumps out at me is Nikola Milenković and his relationship with the deepest midfielder. One of the things that makes the Mountain such a brilliant defender is his willingness and ability to track opposing forwards up the pitch or into wide positions, not allowing them any space to turn and build up a head of steam. Particularly when playing against two strikers with a back four, though, that kind of pursuit into wide or high areas requires someone to drop in and cover to prevent acres of space from opening in the heart of the defense.

Against Torino, Erick Pulgar started at the base of midfield. The Chilean’s defensive awareness is genuinely world class. Combined with his familiarity with his defenders, he’s so good at dropping into the backline for a moment to cover for a colleague when necessary. This has been perhaps the most impressive feature of his play in Florence so far, and against the Granata, he was as quietly excellent as ever.

It was most noticeable in the second half, as Torino, facing a two-goal deficit, were forced to chase the game.

Milenković (yellow circle) chases a striker high up while Pulgar (teal) drops in to the defense.

Even after Dušan Vlahović doubled the lead, Milenković stuck aggressively close to Torino’s forwards.

This time Milenković (yellow) has charged out ahead of his own fullback on the wing because he knows that Pulgar (teal) has him covered.

Even trying to protect a slender lead in the last minute, Italiano clearly wants these guys to push forward without the ball.

Venuti (red) closes down high up and Belotti tries to exploit the space down the wing, but Milenković (yellow) can pursue him knowing that Reliable Erick (teal) is on the case.

Want to know what happens when Pulgar isn’t in a position to plug holes back there? It’s the Torino goal. In fairness, it was following a really bad giveaway that left everyone out of position and disoriented.

Milenković (yellow) chases Pjaca down the right even though Venuti is there. Verdi (red arrow) takes advantage of the space Milenković vacates because Pulgar (teal) is higher up and can’t catch him.

Against Atalanta, it was a very different story. Part of that, of course, is because Atalanta are a whirling storm of midfielders knifing into spaces, while Torino can call it a good day if a midfielder gets within 15 yards of a striker. But part of it was that Lucas Torreira clearly hasn’t built that understanding with Milenković (or Igor) yet.

Both Torreira (teal) and Milenković (yellow) have tracked Pessina (right in front of Milenković) from left to right, leaving a huge hole in the back line for Pašalić (red arrow) to attack, especially since Duncan switched off and let him go by.

I don’t want to pick on Nicky too much, so here’s one where it’s Torreira and Igor getting mixed up.

Igor (yellow) has chased Miranchuk way upfield. Torreira (teal) hasn’t recovered to drop in, leaving Pessina (red arrow) so much space to run into.

The conclusions

Again, the quality of opposition makes a huge difference here, so I don’t want it to seem like I’m picking on anyone; Milenković and Igor’s (and Lucas Martínez Quarta’s) dynamism in closing down very far forward creates chances going the other way and Italiano clearly encourages it.

Torreira, while a fantastic player, hasn’t ever really had the task of dropping into the back line with as much regularity as Pulgar—who remains tremendously underappreciated for this—so it’s going to take the Uruguayan some time to adjust. Some of that will be learning his role and some of it will be understanding how his teammates approach these situations and responding more quickly.

As problems go, this isn’t a bad one at all. More repetitions in training and in games will go a long way to fixing it, and if Torreira can’t get on the same page (which is unlikely, because he is, again, a good player), Pulgar is ready to step in and do the job. Another solution could be using Matija Nastasić in defense, as the Serbian veteran doesn’t push as high and thus wouldn’t leave as many gaps.

Still, this is part of Italiano’s system, so we should get used to a few heart-in-mouth moments of this ilk, particularly if the Viola are playing a team whose strikers can drop deep and whose midfielders can get forward. Fiorentina have players with the attributes, intelligence, and overall talent to make it work. The defense just requires some fine tuning in its relational positioning and communication; those are exactly the shortcomings that a smart coach like Vinnie can fix.