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Cristiano Biraghi is quietly having an extraordinary season

Despite serving as the favorite whipping boy for large portions of the fanbase, the Viola captain has been fantastic.

ACF Fiorentina v Hellas Verona - Serie A Photo by Lisa Guglielmi/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I’ve been watching back some Fiorentina games this season since there’s nothing else on, and one of the things that’s stood out to me is Cristiano Biraghi. Specifically, how good he’s been. Reading back what I’ve written about him in the match reports and what the comment sections say, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the Viola number 3 gets more hate than he deserves.

Biraghi is probably somewhere between the 5th and 8th best LB in Italy. Theo Hernandez, Mario Rui, and Federico Dimarco are for sure better. Leonardo Spinazzola (at least after the injury), Alex Sandro, and Tomasso Augello are all around the same level. Destiny Udogie, Fabio Parisi, and Andrea Cambiaso are all really good but probably aren’t quite there yet, although they will be in the next year or two.

It’s easy to ignore Biraghi, too. He’s 30 years old, so the tantalizing specter of potential doesn’t come into it. He’s only got 13 caps and doesn’t look likely to add to that number with Udogie, Parisi, and Cambiaso waiting in the wings. He’s a little bit of a prickly character at times—I’ll defer to McMike on this as he’s got the first-hand experience—and he’s not afraid to dive or complain to the referees. His year-long return to Inter rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way, although I can’t say it bothered me: the dude grew up Nerazzurro and you can’t deny someone the opportunity to play for the team he supports. What I’m saying, though, is that I get why so many people seem inclined to dislike Captain Cris.

ACF Fiorentina v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

And I have my complaints about him too, mostly based in his defensive work. He’s often too easy to beat and is a liability when matched up in space against quick attackers. He’s very slow to turn and track opponents and he’s got a tendency to lose track of runners in the box; in particular, he and Igor constantly seem to let forwards get in between them to meet crosses without any resistance.

Still, we’re talking about, quite possibly, the most technical fullback in Serie A, and it’s baffling to me that we, as Fiorentina fans, just ignore him, much like the wider calcio world. I mean, the guy’s scored 9 goals in a little more than 4 years as a fullback, and who’s scored some damn bangers. Of those 9 goals, 5 have been direct free kicks, and 2 were in the same game against Genoa; although Dani Verde did the same thing on the same match day, which sort of cheapened the achievement, nobody had scored a brace of free kicks in the league in years, and nobody’s scored more in Serie than Biraghi since the 2020-2021 season, when he started taking them full time.

Here are some more numbers for you. He leads the team in minutes played in the league this year with 1142 and was tops last year with 3153, which was 3rd among all outfield players in Serie A. He’s not shirking his duties, either, as he’s covered the 10th most distance on average per match. Feels to me like we should be way more impressed with a guy who’s probably the first name on the team sheet, who plays every minute, and who never stops running. He’s not just running, either. He leads the team in touches and is 4th in the league in that category, too, so he’s clearly contributing to the buildup.

Statistically speaking, he’s contributing at the back too. He’s got the 15th-most tackles in the league (Lucas Martínez Quarta’s in 2nd, by the way), and his 76% successful tackle percentage is good for 22nd; while that might be a bit of a noisy statistic, given how often he’s not in position to make a tackle, it’s still really impressive.

The real highlight with Cris, though, are his attacking numbers. He’s second in Serie A in shot-creating actions with 63, trailing just Gerard Deulofeu. Deulofeu is a creative number 10. Biraghi is a fullback. That’s wild. To be fair, I’m not always sure what counts as a shot-creating action—Opta has an explainer but at a certain point this stuff is subjective—but that’s a good indication of a guy who’s really helping his team in the final third. He’s not just shooting from those set pieces.

He’s creating chances as well, even if his teammates aren’t really converting them. He’s got just 2 assists this year and just 3 goal-creating actions—same thing as before on what exactly that means—which indicates that he’s been a good waiter, getting the plates to the table, but the diners—in this metaphor, I guess the forwards? Maybe the center backs at set pieces?—are ignoring the food.

And the crosses. My god, the crosses. Biraghi’s pinged in 156 of them already this year, 50 more than 2nd-place Federico Dimarco. Hell, Lazio have only played 26 more crosses this season as a team than Biraghi has as a player. He’s on pace to finally take the crown as the crossingest player in Serie A after losing out to Antonio Candreva the past couple of years. And again, he’s a defender. Not a winger. Not even a wingback. A fullback. It’s not just Italy he’s leading there, by the way. He tops the chart in the big 5 European leagues, 26 ahead of Kieran Trippier.

And you know what? As much as we all mock Biraghi’s crossing, he’s not actually that bad at it. Sure, he isn’t completing a very high percentage of his crosses, but that has more to do with the context, I think. He’s mostly been walloping the ball into a box packed with defenders who know what’s coming, and he’s usually only got one target to aim at. The recent move to a 4-2-3-1 means that now there’s at least an extra runner getting in there most of the time, and having González back to attack the back post or Kouamé on that side again will help even more.

I don’t think it’s fair to condemn him for missing some crosses (which he does; he definitely misses some crosses), given that everyone badly misses some crosses sometimes. It’s just more noticeable for Biraghi because he’s spamming them in at a higher rate than literally anyone in Europe.

That’s not just because he wants to, by the way. He’s definitely following Italiano’s orders, given that Fiorentina crosses more than anyone in the big 5 European leagues. Again, some of that is contextual: Fiorentina have a lot of the ball, so their stats for every type of pass tend to be pretty high, and that leaks down to Biraghi’s crossing numbers. It also helps that he takes set pieces, which count as crosses.

I think that, all too often, we want to see prime Juan Manuel Vargas back there, rampaging past would-be defenders like a bowling ball and uncorking goals from 35 yards out, but there are maybe 3 fullbacks in the world who can do that. Biraghi isn’t physically impressive and he can sometimes lose a runner, yeah, but there isn’t a team in Italy that would turn down his services. His playmaking, work rate, and set piece ability are all in the very tippy top for guys in Serie A, and the defensive work is probably better than average.

So what I’m saying is that, while Biraghi has his limitations, he’s a marvelous player who’s doing stuff that no other fullback in the league does. Teams like Fiorentina, which sit outside of the richest 25% of the league, usually have to figure out how to cobble together effective systems from players with very odd tactical profiles. That’s not something to bemoan, in Biraghi’s case. It’s something to celebrate.