As Fiorentina faceplanted out the blocks this year, one of the constant refrains for fans was, “Don’t worry, Gaetano Castrovilli will be back in January.” The lack of dynamism in the middle of the pitch meant that we saw a lot of the dreaded donut, resulting in a lot of turgid and inspired soccer through the first couple months of the season as the team begged for someone to offer something through the middle.
Credit Vincenzo Italiano for tilting his midfield from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, because the addition of another player whose primary duty is to drop between the lines and offer a central option for progressing that ball has completely changed Fiorentina’s fortunes this year. Giacomo Bonaventura and Antonín Barák, the guys deployed in that number 10 spot, have been excellent. Their onslaught—4 straight games on the scoresheet—has catalyzed the Viola’s strong run heading into this accursed break.
Castrovilli’s addition to that pair should only improve the attack, then. Right? He wears the 10 shirt and will be playing the corresponding position. He’s probably Fiorentina’s most naturally gifted midfielder. He’s one of Serie A’s best dribblers. Getting a budding star closer to goal should make this team better. Right?
The bad part isn’t great...
Yeah, here’s the bit that isn’t very fun. Castrovilli is an outrageously talented player and I genuinely love watching him. But this isn’t FIFA, and shifting Tanino into that 10 role isn’t guaranteed to work just because he’s a higher-rated player than Jack or Tony. In some ways, in fact, he looks like a worse stylistic fit.
The primary area which looks like a problem is his off-ball movement. Dating back to his breakout in 2019, my biggest criticism of Castrovilli has been his reluctance to get into the box. Under Giuseppe Iachini, it made sense, as BeppeBall demanded that the midfielders never stray too far forward. Under Italiano, though, he’s remained mostly the same.
This isn’t because he’s bad or stupid. It’s because his primary attribute is his ability to carry the ball through the lines. While he grew up as a 10 in the academy at Bari, he’s spent his entire professional career either on the wing (at Cremonese) or as a box-to-box player. In both of those roles, he’s been tasked with receiving the ball with a defender on his back, turning away from that pressure, and motoring forward.
As a 10, though, he’ll be much higher up, which means there won’t be as much space to motor into, as he’ll usually have a holding midfielder or two specifically marking him. More importantly to this system, though, is that Tanino’s always preferred to lurk outside the box rather than getting into it. Where Bonaventura and Barák have excelled recently is in making those late runs from unexpected angles, catching defenses off guard. Castrovilli has never shown that to be part of his game.
The other concern is that, while he’s a very capable passer and occasionally flashes outstanding creativity, he’s definitely more of a dribbler than a passer. As previously detailed, that plays against his instincts, which has made him an awkward fit at times for a team that prioritizes quick passing over taking multiple touches.
While Bonaventura and Barák’s primary brief has been linking up with the striker and making those late runs into the box, they’re both good and decisive passers as well, capable of threading the ball through to the center forward or spraying it wide to the wingers. That’s never been Castro’s game, so there’s a concern about figuring out how to make him fit stylistically with a team that’s been built around guys in the same position playing quite differently.
...but the good part is pretty good...
There are reasons for optimism here, though. The first is that Castrovilli is, again, a marvelous player, and he can probably adapt to a new role, even if it takes him some time to figure out how to consistently pop up in the area as a goal threat. After all, he’s occasionally looked more than capable of doing that job, such as when he scored 4 goals in the first 5 matches of last season, largely by bursting in with the strikers.
Of course, he only scored once for the rest of the season, but there’s reason to hope he can replicate that kind of movement, especially if he starts higher up. Too, this more advanced role means he won’t be as involved in the buildup from deep; normally I’d think that’s a bad thing, but that wasn’t one of his strengths last year, so I’m viewing it as a positive. Maybe a new position will prevent us from wondering what’s gone wrong with him.
The underrated aspect of fielding Castrovilli as a 10 is what he does out of possession. Because he’s a twinkle-toed dribbler, folks tend to forget that he’s also an extremely hard worker in defense, consistently among the league leaders in pressures. Unleashing him to help win the ball higher up will result in Fiorentina winning possession in good places and attacking a short field. Attacking those short fields will help unlock his dribbling, too, as Castrovilli driving at a backpedaling, disorganized defense isn’t something that any opponent wants. His penchant for a needless foul near his own box will be hidden as well, since he’ll be further away from the danger spots.
So, to sum up, Castrovilli’s a really good player and is more than capable of adapting his game, as he’s already demonstrated by his growth from a willowy dribbler to more of an all-rounder who can contribute without the ball. With Bonaventura and Barák modeling the off-ball movements he needs to learn, he should cotton on pretty quickly, and his unique athletic gifts (don’t forget that he’s handy in the air) should make him a very good second threat in the area, especially if he can maintain the goal scoring prowess he’s previously flashed. I mean, he is him.
...or it will be, once he’s ready.
Here’s the rub. While he’s back and training with the side, Tanino’s going to play a minimal role in the friendlies this December. That indicates that Italiano wants to ease him back in, and why not? With Jack and Barák holding down the fort, there’s no need to rush Castrovilli back before he’s ready. We’ve already seen what that can do to an explosive player: it nearly destroyed Christian Kouamé’s Viola career before it started. The fact that our beloved 10 has resumed training so soon after the injury strains credulity, but it doesn’t mean he’ll immediately be his old self.
I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of Castrovilli until mid to late January to make sure that he’s got a good grasp of his new duties and trusts his body to do what he needs it to do, and that’s fine. There’s plenty of depth in that position, since Riccardo Saponara is more than capable of filling in there as well. As fans, we’ll need to give him plenty of time to work his way back into form and fitness, especially with the added burden of learning a role.
Even so, he should improve this team pretty quickly. He’s just that good. Because he’s such a hard worker defensively, too, Italiano will be able to deploy him as a 10 or an 8, tilting that midfield triangle around at any given moment and forcing opponents to adjust on the fly. While it may take him a month or two to really get back to his best, his technical and tactical attributes should give Fiorentina another dimension. If he can adjust his play to fit the new paradigm, he could be all the difference after the break.