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Using the numbers to unravel Fiorentina’s midfield tangle

With seven players competing for three midfield spots, Vincenzo Italiano has a puzzle on his hands.

Juventus v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
Winning combination?
Photo by Filippo Alfero - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

For the first time since Borja Valero, David Pizarro, Alberto Aquilani, and Mati Fernández were running the show, Fiorentina has numerous good midfielders. Gaetano Castrovilli, Lucas Torreira, Erick Pulgar, Giacomo Bonaventura, Sofyan Amrabat, Youssef Maleh, and Marco Benassi all bring useful attributes to the table, but they’re fighting for just three spots in Vincenzo Italiano’s engine room. So how can the mister get the best from them?

Part of the answer, of course, is rotation. Italiano’s relentlessly hard-charging style requires his midfielders to cover a lot of ground; even without the extra burden of European competition, these guys are going to run a lot and get tired, which means we should see a lot of chopping and changing to keep things fresh; at Spezia last year, Italiano handed starts to 10 different midfielders, which demonstrates how important rotation is for him.

Figuring out how and when to rotate, though, could get tricky because there aren’t really any like-for-like options. Swapping out one midfielder for another could completely change what Fiorentina does on the pitch. While getting the balance right is certainly going to be difficult, Vinnie’s a smart coach and we’re pretty confident that he’ll figure it out.

Just in case he wants some help, though, I’ve put together a list of statistics from last season (or 2018-2019 for Benassi since he was hurt this past year). They don’t quite compare apples-to-apples, since the returning Viola players were locked into Giuseppe Iachini’s dreary deep block, while Torreira worked under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid. You’ll also notice that Maleh’s absent; FBref, while wonderful, doesn’t track Serie B, so I didn’t have sufficient data for him.

I’ll also lay out why I chose the statistics I did. First of all, I opted to use only per-90 rather than per-game or overall numbers to try and level the playing field. I wanted to track pressing, ball-winning, passing (short is anything under 30 yards), dribbling, shooting, chance creation, and movement (hence touches in the opponent’s penalty area), as those seem to be what Italiano’s most interested in from his midfielders. The 13 categories I picked were, for my money, the best way to track those things, although I’m always open to criticism of methodology here. Feel free to ask me in the comments if you want a deeper explanation.

The usual caveats about statistics applies here. Sometimes they contradict what we see while watching. Sometimes sample sizes throw everything out of whack. Sometimes they misrepresent the action. Stats are not the conclusion to an argument; rather, they’re a tool to better understand players and games.

The stats

All numbers from FBref

Observations

Going alphabetically, let’s look at Amrabat. His defensive work is superb: he constantly harries opponents and wins the ball well. He’s also better at spraying the ball around than anyone else on the list, and he’s very good at carrying the ball forward. The downside is that he offers almost nothing in terms of creating goals. He isn’t a threat to score, doesn’t get into the area, and really doesn’t do much of anything in the final third. Still, that’s the profile of a very useful player, especially when you consider that Iachini didn’t let him off the leash to tear around the middle of the field and wreak havoc.

Next up is Benassi, who’s basically the anti-Amrabat. While they both press well, the Italian isn’t nearly as good at winning the ball, carrying the ball, or passing. He also doesn’t get very involved in buildup. On the other hand, he’s a goal threat and he isn’t scared to get himself into the box. Despite his abysmal passing numbers, he does create a fair number of chances; I think that’s because he’s purely an agent of chaos, but it could be because he’s more of a moments player than a full 90 player. Some of that could also be the stains of Stefan Pioli and Vincenzo Montella’s style.

Bonaventura is perhaps the best all-rounder, which I wouldn’t have expected. He wins the ball really well without pressing that much, which makes me think he’s very smart about staying in place until he sees a chance to turn someone over. He gets forward well, is a danger when he shoots, and can beat his man on the ball. He’s even a decent passer, although he’s definitely at his best keeping it fairly tidy rather than going long.

Castrovilli didn’t take the step forward we’d all hoped for, but he was still the most dangerous midfielder around goal for this team last year. He doesn’t get on the ball enough but works hard without it. I’ll cut him some slack on the poor passing numbers because he was often trying to play the killer ball and those passes have an inherently lower completion percentage, but his poor dribbling really sticks out; he completed almost three times as many in 2019-2020, so let’s hope this past year was an outlier. If he can rediscover that guile, he’ll be a lot closer to becoming a complete player.

Nobody will ever mistake Pulgar for a complete player. He provides zero influence in the final third in open play, whether by passing or shooting (although his set piece ability partially offsets the lack). He excels at sweeping up behind his midfield colleagues, though, and clearly knows how to hold his position: he rarely bothers carrying the ball forward.

Torreira’s also interesting. Clearly a regista, he’s excellent at screening the back line. He’s more of a tempo-setter than a playmaker back there (so no, he’s not going to be the second coming of Pek) and he’s not going to score many himself, but he’s clearly a creative passer who can fashion chances for his teammates with incisive passing. It’s also worth noting that his numbers are from a pretty small sample size with Atleti last season.

Conclusions

We’ll start with the easy one. Marco Benassi is surely at the bottom of the hierarchy. He’s a liability on the ball and not good enough defensively to make up for it. Barring a mid-career renaissance, he’s the guy you chuck on for the final ten minutes when you’re chasing a goal and otherwise leave glued to the bench.

Out of Amrabat, Bonaventura, Castrovilli, Pulgar, and Torreira, though, the permutations are nearly endless. It seems safe to assume that the latter pair won’t play together too often, as they both occupy the deepest role. That means Amrabat will play further forward, where his lack of goal threat could place an even greater attacking burden on whichever of Jack or Tanino rounds out the midfield.

On the other hand, starting Jack and Tanino has its own pitfalls. While they should hold up defensively, I’d worry that neither is a natural passer of the ball; they’re both more interested in putting their heads down and getting forward. That could place too much of a burden on Torreira/Pulgar behind them and lead to a team in which the front three comes unmoored from the the back, which is far from what Italiano wants.

The solution is likely to tailor the midfield to the opposition. When solidity is needed, Castrovilli or Bonaventura can drop to the bench so Amrabat can offer some extra protection. If the mister’s expecting a real slog, we could even see Amrabat, Torreira, and Pulgar fielded together to operate as spoilers.

A lot of this will depend on how Vinnie wants his teams to play. If a goal threat from midfield is the most important thing, Amrabat might not see the field. If, on the other hand, Dušan Vlahović and Nicolás González can provide sufficient scoring punch, Amrabat’s busyness in the middle could make him indispensable. And of course, Youssef Maleh will have to play some minute as well, likely as a more attacking option behind Castrovilli and Bonaventura.

This is the kind of puzzle that could completely hamstring a manager, leaving him chopping and changing every week and keeping his players from finding a rhythm with each other. If, however, Italiano can figure out how to get the most from this group of midfielders, we could see the engine room become the real strength of this team. If nothing else, it’ll serve as a brainteaser for the mister and the fans over the first couple months of the season.