This is something I touched on the other day in the Three Things We Learned from the Atalanta game, but I want to dive into one of the fans’ biggest irritations with this iteration of Fiorentina: the almost suicidally high defensive line that never, ever, ever drops deep. I think a lot of the discourse about how Vincenzo Italiano deploys his back line misses the point, so I’d like to explain some of my thinking on both the tactical and the psychological sides of the game.
Why play a high line?
This might seem like a question with a very obvious answer: You play a high line because it squishes space for your opponent when they have the ball, making it harder for them to play out from the back.
This allows you, in theory, to better control the game. If you force your opponent to either play through a lot of players in a small area or hit passes over the top, your opponent’s options to get the ball forward are limited. For a manager like Italiano who’s all about controlling tempo and territory when his team has the ball, it makes sense to control those variables as much as possible when his team doesn’t have it either.
You also have to play a high line if you want to press. Since pressing is one of the primary tenets of Italiano’s philosophy, he needs his whole team to stay vertically compact to minimize spaces for opponents to pass through: if they can’t find space between the lines (compare those pictures again), the ball can’t move as quickly and it’s easier to press them. That requires the defenders to stay as high up as they reasonably can so the forwards can begin the pressing.
What this requires of the defenders, especially the centerbacks, is communication, reading of the game, and athleticism. Stepping up in line to force opponents offsides is critical, but understanding where long balls are going to come from and being able to run with strikers in space are just as important. Nikola Milenković is perfect for this. Lucas Martínez Quarta’s a good fit as well, although he’s iffy in space sometimes. Igor has the potential to fit the scheme as well once he improves his positioning. Matija Nastasić, bless him, lacks the pace to make it work.
This isn’t a new theory, since it’s how Rinus Michels and Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Arrigo Sacchi created juggernauts. What is a bit newer, though, is the contribution of Jürgen Klopp: the idea that if you lose the ball in the final third, you should try to regain it as quickly as possible because that’s when opponents are at their most disorganized and thus most vulnerable to a quick attack. The counter-pressing or gegenpressing, an approach that’s dominated tactics over the past half decade or so, is also something Italiano wants his players to do. And to do that, you need a lot of players high up. Including the defenders. Which means you need a high defensive line.
Does Fiorentina’s high line work?
As frustrating as it may seem at times, Fiorentina’s high defense largely works. After all, the team’s allowed 2 fewer league goals this year than at the same juncture last year while also scoring 16 more; given how a high-pressure, high-line system connects defense and attack, it’s pretty clear that Italiano’s improved the team tremendously, not just in the standings but also by pretty much every metric, including the aesthetic ones.
Let’s look at some of the numbers, courtesy of Fbref. The first one that jumps out at me is offsides caused, since when you play a high line, one of the defense’s best weapons is using the offside trap. Fiorentina have excelled at it this year, forcing the 2nd-most offsides per 90 minutes in Serie A with 2.78. Only Sassuolo (an absurd 3.96) forces more.
If you force lots of offsides, though, you aren’t necessarily a good defense. What makes you a good defense is not conceding. Fiorentina have conceded 33 goals this year, which is the 8th-best mark in Serie A. Since they’re the 8th place team in the standings, their defense clearly isn’t what’s holding them back.
Digging a little deeper, Fiorentina stand out in a few categories. Most notably, they concede the fewest shots per 90 minutes in the league. We talk about how having the ball means you can’t be scored on, but it’s also very difficult to be scored on if nobody gets to shoot at your goal. Italiano’s deployment of the high line has been fantastic at limiting opponents’ chances to score, which is exactly what you want a defensive tactic to do.
One of the problems, of course, is that number of chances doesn’t necessarily correlate to quality of chances. Fiorentina’s a good example of this, as they allow just the 5th-fewest shots on target per 90, which indicates to me that opponents’ are shooting on target at a higher frequency than average, which could indicate that, once that high line is breached, opponents are able to place their shots on target more often than they do against other teams. I’d guess that indicates that Fiorentina concede on average higher quality chances than most teams.
And sure enough, Fiorentina concede the highest xG per shot of any team in Serie A. Basically, opponents get very few chances to shoot against Fiorentina, but those chances they get tend to be very good. That leads to a much higher variance in results on the defensive end, or, if you’d rather think of it this way, magnifies the importance of each chance conceded. For a manager like Italiano, whose primary concern is controlling the match as much as possible, events like this that have a massive impact on the outcome and are largely outside of the team’s control are a real problem.
The psychological side
The game isn’t just played on paper or pixels, though. As we all know, players are human beings and are thus heir to all the quirks that the human condition entails. While the idea of team culture has gained prominence in recent years, everyone—players, coaches, and supporters—have known for a century that the collective mental and emotional state of the players can create a massive advantage.
For the past couple of years, Fiorentina’s mindset was a mess. The team’s dominant approach of defending with nine and relying on Franck Ribery and/or Dušan Vlahović to do something cool for a goal at the other end. As anyone who’s played at any level can tell you, sitting back and defending for most of the game can take a toll on you. The fear of conceding comes to outweigh the joy of scoring. You stop trying to impose yourself on all phases of play and only focus on defending.
That’s how you get fragile teams, like Fiorentina has been for the past few years. It sure looked like the players quit on Beppe last year towards the end, and the clashes between Cesare Prandelli and some of his players don’t happen in an environment in which everyone feels good and confident. I don’t think that play style and psychological state are intrinsically linked—if so, Diego Simeone wouldn’t have a job—but I also think there are some links.
When Italiano took over at Fiorentina, he inherited a team with a dire psychological state. It’d put two managers out of work and seen Gennaro Gattuso ditch them over the previous 12 months; that kind of stuff puts pressure on a team. Instead of trying to drill them on staying stalwart at the back, though, he decided he wanted them to be proactive and exert control over the game in a way none of them ever had for Fiorentina. I’ll quote what I wrote in the Atalanta analysis:
“The conventional wisdom is that when you’re winning or have a draw away, you drop deeper and deny space in behind. Fiorentina, however, stay just as high when nursing a 1-goal lead in the 90th minute as they do when chasing a deficit. Italiano’s too smart not to have noticed this, so it’s clearly a thing he’s doing on purpose.
My guess is that it is, in part, a mindset thing: he wants to instill in his charges a desire to control the game at all times. Since so many of these guys have been stuck in Giuseppe Iachini’s more passive system for years, this is an effort to reshape his players’ psyche. By empowering them to play this way and ignoring the negative results while emphasizing the positive ones, he’s turning Fiorentina into the sort of team that will always try to play on the front foot. The tactical tweaks—dropping deeper, defending narrower, reacting to the situation—can come later. Getting these guys to play the way he needs them to play is of paramount importance, and this is part of how they get there.”
I don’t want to come across here as saying that everything’s perfect, because it’s not. Even after a huge win, there are some significant flaws in this system. In terms of personnel, Milenković is a great option in this (or really any) system. LMQ and Igor fall short on the mental side at times, and Nastasić just isn’t physically up for it. A good coach should tailor the system to the players and it feels like that might not be what’s happening here, although again, the high line is part of the pressing and the attack, so blowing that up would blow up everything.
The issue, then, becomes a matter of mitigating the dangers of a high line. The easiest way to do this is to put more players on the back line. Since Fiorentina’s fullbacks both constantly bomb forward and nominal regista Lucas Torreira is often presses higher than his midfield colleagues, the centerbacks are often left completely exposed. With just two players tasked with covering the entire width and depth of the pitch, they have to remain hyper-vigilant and completely connected.
The obvious way to attack Fiorentina, then, is working the channels and forcing the centerbacks to pull wide and chase quick forwards. Since the fullbacks pushing on is so crucial to the attack, it’s unlikely that they’ll both be ordered to sit deeper. The simplest solution as I see it is to keep one fullback (likely Lorenzo Venuti) back while the other pushes on. Having Torreira drop deeper and fill in the gaps in the defense could work too.
Because Italiano is trying so hard to instill the desire to control the game in his players, I’m fine with the team keeping the line high up no matter what. At the start of the season, the general consensus was that this team should aim for the top half and maybe squeak into a European spot. That’s what’s happening, and many of us are suddenly fixated on making Europe. I’m not necessarily criticizing that. Knee-jerk reactions and bombast are what make being a fan fun and what make the Curva Fiesole such a potent weapon. It’s what we do.
As a coach, though, you can’t get tied up in these changeable goals. You have to focus on improving your players every day, and that involves improving their mentality. That means allowing them the freedom to test their limits and figure out what works while staying within the team structure. If that means playing a high line when you’re nursing a one-goal lead away from home in the 9oth minute, so be it. You’re less concerned with results. You’re worried about the process, which will lead to the results.
Italiano’s process is working. Just look at the standings. Look at Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia semifinals. He’s refining that process constantly, as you’d expect from someone who’s in just his second year as a Serie A coach. But for now, even the frustrating parts serve a long-term purpose.