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Fiorentina 2-1 Başakşehir: Player grades and 3 things we learned

Growth is always a good thing but it’s rarely a linear thing.

ACF Fiorentina v FC Internazionale - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Player grades

Pierluigi Gollini—3: Another game against Başakşehir, another glaring error. In fairness to Gollorious, the defense leading up to the goal was simply atrocious, and Danijel Aleksić was offside anyways. Still, his decision to rush out left him looking like a fool yet again. He didn’t make another save and was so-so with his distribution, but he simply can’t be used right now.

Dodô—6: Played a weird wingback/midfield hybrid role, rarely dropping all the way into the back line and instead staying wide as an outlet and not really doing all that much in defense at first, all though he got more involved against Mounir Chouiar later on. Had a couple of nice bursts forward but didn’t really impact the proceedings that much.

Nikola Milenković—6: Was solid against Chouiar and Stefano Okaka. Often pulled very wide to the right as Dodô sat higher up, leaving the middle a bit open, and was forced to cover a lot of ground. Did make a couple of minor mistakes in possession but nothing too wretched.

Igor—5.5: Almost man-marked Okaka at times in a 1-v-1 battle in the middle of the pitch and largely won, although he did have a couple of nervy moments. Not sure what he was doing on the goal; while he was stuck to Okaka, he has to turn his head and see that runner, calling Milenković to slide across with him.

Aleksa Terzić—6.5: Bombed forward well at times, showing some good chemistry with Saponara on the overlap and a couple of decent crosses, and mostly shut down Deniz Türüç at the other end. Forced off the pitch after Jović of all people blundered into him, but hopefully it’s not serious. Showed signs of being the vice-Biraghi this side needs.

Sofyan Amrabat—6.5: Battled away against Okaka in particular in several entertaining duels, including a late one which saw the Italian literally rip his shirt off (bizarrely, Sofyan got whistled for the foul). Took about 20 minutes to find his rhythm but dominated the center of the park, rarely allowing Başakşehir to build anything there. Hit some good passes, including vertical ones through the lines; if he can keep that up, he’ll be just about perfect.

Rolando Mandragora—5: Still not quite sure what his function is. Completely lost Aleksić running from midfield on the goal and didn’t produce much of anything going the other way. Has looked best as a midfield runner from deep, but doesn’t have as much freedom to get forward as part of a double pivot.

Christian Kouamé—8: Man of the match. Set up the first goal with a gorgeous low cross and the second with an acrobatic volley that forced Muhammed Şengezer into a desperate save, allowing Jović to pounce on the rebound. Aside from a missed volley early on, was just about flawless. Beat his man with and without the ball, attracted defenders, ran like there was no tomorrow, and nearly scored a 45-yard lob, forcing the goalkeeper to tip the ball over the bar. Looks like a foundational part of the team.

Antonín Barák—5: Once again, was mostly invisible. Operating as more of a second striker than a central midfield, the hope was he’d get more freedom to find space and create chances, but he didn’t impact play all that much. Had a nice exchange with Saponara ahead of the second goal and his movement was decent throughout, but he still hasn’t found his feet in Florence.

Riccardo Saponara—7.5: Not super involved but showed up when it mattered. Created a few really good chances with clever crosses, including with his left at times, and used the overlapping Terzić well. Almost played as a wingback at times, allowing his fullback to move central to form a back 3, but that probably won’t work against teams that don’t want to defend with 8 or 9 at all times.

Luka Jović—8: Very odd performance. Scored 2 goals, which was great, but they were both tap-ins. While that displays his predatory instincts, he missed at least 3 more fantastic chances with some poor finishing. Was much more involved in the buildup and out of possession than he has been, so maybe he’s getting himself back into shape, and the finishing will come with that.

Arthur Cabral—6: Created a wonderful opportunity for Ikoné with a perfect run through and lovely cutback, then missed a glorious chance of his own later on when he had support to simply square it to for an open-net finish. His hustle was, as ever, exemplary.

Giacomo Bonaventura—5: Narrowly missed the follow-up to Ikoné’s miss and didn’t have much else to do.

Jonathan Ikoné—4.5: Uh oh. Looks like old Jon is back. Scuffed a shot from 7 yards out that the defense cleared off the line. There was no one near him and the goalkeeper had already admitted defeat. Really, really bad.

Cristiano Biraghi—5.5: Stood up Bertrand Traoré to set Cabral away for that late chance. Didn’t have any other moments, but good defending and a good pass in the final third are always welcome.

Three things we learned

1. The attack isn’t necessarily broken. Numerous commentators have pointed out that, despite sitting 14th in Serie A and having scored 11 goals in 11 league matches, Fiorentina’s xG indicates that the team isn’t quite as bad as all that. Depending on the model you use (Understat or fbref have slightly different ones), the Viola have the 9th- or 10th-best attack by xG and should have somewhere around 14 goals this year. While xG can be misleading, it’s useful for providing context and it backs up the eye test, which says this team is more guilty of underperformance than simple badness.

It was the same in this one. Fiorentina took 2 goals from an xG of about 3, per @AnalyticsSerie. Jović is the obvious culprit: he took 5 shots from 8 yards or closer, including 4 that I’d consider to be of the “wide-open” variety, and scored 2. Kouamé, Ikoné, and Cabral all missed pretty simple chances from pretty close range too, so I’m not accusing Luka of being the problem here so much as being a representation of the rest of the team. Weirdly enough, Ikoné is the only guy who’s way out in front of his xG; Jović, Cabral, Biraghi, Barák, Riccardo Sottil, Youssef Maleh, and Lorenzo Venuti are all well under, while Nicolás González is about even.

What this indicates to me is that Vincenzo Italiano’s system is creating opportunities. Finishing is an inherently streaky thing (waves hello in Krzysztof Piątek); creating this many chances against a defense of Başakşehir’s quality is a very good sign. After all, the Grey Owls have allowed just 4 league goals in 10 matches this season. While the Süper Lig isn’t as good as Serie A, it has some very strong teams; if Fiorentina can generate this many golden chances against the best defense in Turkey, it should be fine in Italy.

2. Italiano is becoming more tactically flexible. For the second time this year, Fiorentina didn’t win the possession battle but dominated the shooting stats. The first time was against Hellas Verona earlier this year, when the Viola had their lowest share of possession ever under the mister. As you might recall, the good guys won that one 2-0 behind a dominant performance in which they created some good chances with Barák stationed as the number 10 ahead of an Amrabat-Mandragora double pivot.

While I think it’s a very good thing that Cousin Vinnie is becoming more comfortable ceding possession so that his team’s excellent pressing structures can snap into action, what’s more interesting to me here is the structure of the defense. While this looked like a 4-3-3 on paper and a 4-2-3-1 in practice, without the ball it was something much stranger. Terzić tucked in on the left to form a back 3 as Milenković slid across to pick up Chouiar, leaving Igor all alone in the middle against Okaka. Dodô stepped forward and Saponara dropped back, leaving a very clear structure of 3 defenders and 4 men—2 wingbacks and 2 midfielders—in front, with Barák sometimes dropping in to offer more protection and sometimes joining Jović and Kouamé (playing more as a front two) to press the defense. It was very much a 3-5-2.

That can definitely be a risky approach. Having Igor mark Okaka 1-v-1 in the middle is okay because the big Italian doesn’t really offer much pace in behind, but with Terzić and Milenković setting up very wide, there were a lot of spaces for runners to exploit. That’s exactly how Aleksić got his goal, for example. This also won’t work against quicker strikers or against teams playing a front two, but these kinds of adaptations to neutralize specific opponents make me think that Italiano is improving as a tactician, and that’s only going to make Fiorentina stronger.

3. The negativity is becoming a real problem. Luka Jović’s performance was, as mentioned, confusing, and his celebrations only added to that. He’s been doing the ear-cupping thing all year, and he added a fingers-in-the-ears gesture after his second one. Considering that he’s been the subject of lots of criticism during his time at Real Madrid and for Serbia (some of it fully warranted and some of it not at all), you can see why he feels that it’s him against the world.

However, the Curva Fiesole has been nothing but supportive of him, cheering him through misses and goals alike. Celebrating with what could be construed as gestures antagonistic to the fans isn’t a great look there, even if it’s certainly not Jović’s intention. The last thing he, or anyone in the squad, needs is the weight of a pissed-off Curva, so maybe Luka should mention that he’s not attacking the supporters for a lack of belief.

And that’s where the negativity comes in. The season thus far has been so awful that every little thing gets cross-sectioned and put under the microscope. I do it. You do it. We all do it. That’s life when your team is bad and ought to be better. It’s part of being a professional athlete. It’s part of running a club. It’s not great, sure, but it’s basic human nature. If people are going to get amped up about the team, those emotions are going to carry over. As much as we like to pretend that we can compartmentalize those feelings, we can’t because they’re messy and leak all over everything. And that’s fine.

But when a meaningless moment like a goal celebration threatens to eclipse what should be a triumphant comeback win in Europe to secure advancement to the knockout rounds, well, it’s pretty clear that there aren’t nearly enough good vibes around the club. The only real solution is more wins, so let’s hope this is the start.