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What’s eating Gaetano Castrovilli?

On his 25th birthday, it feels like the Viola number 10 is at a crossroads.

SSC Napoli v ACF Fiorentina - Coppa Italia Photo by Franco Romano/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Amidst all the optimism surrounding a resurgent Fiorentina side right now, fans have still found any number of problems with the team. Perhaps the most mysterious is the form of Gaetano Castrovilli: The midfielder, touted as the future of Italy’s midfield as recently as two years ago, has fallen down the pecking order and may not even be a part of Vincenzo Italiano’s first choice XI. So what happened?

Let’s hop in the time machine and look back at Tanino’s breakout season. In 2019-2020, a 22-year-old Castrovilli caught the eye with some impressive preseason performances. He’d spent the previous two campaigns on loan in Serie B with Cremonese, often operating on the left wing, and showed some promise. In Florence, however, manager Vincenzo Montella dropped him into central midfield and gave him free reign in central midfield.

Castrovilli responded with a breathtaking debut campaign in the top flight. He was Serie A’s best-dribbling midfielder, showing a fearlessness to take on opponents from anywhere on the field that was matched only by his technique. He finished in the top 10 for players dribbled past, fouls won, and pressures. Although he was inconsistent in the final third—just 3 goals and 2 assists—he clearly had all the tools and just needed a bit of time at the top level to put it all together. The sky felt like his limit.

Year two was a bit frustrating, though. While he scored 5 and assisted 3, it felt like his influence waned considerably, as he fell off in every dribbling and passing category. He also started to draw criticism for constantly fouling in dangerous spots and for vanishing for long stretches, often deferring to Franck Ribery instead of taking responsibility. When he missed the initial cut for the Azzurri Euro campaign, nobody really questioned Roberto Mancini, although Castrovilli eventually snuck in as an injury replacement for Stefano Sensi. While his talent was never in question, his fit in Giuseppe Iachini’s ultra-defensive scheme was clearly stifling him.

The switch to Vincenzo Italiano should’ve shot him back to stardom. After all, this here was a manager whose two principles—high pressure and direct attacking—mirrored Castrovilli’s greatest strengths. Instead, Tanino’s made it past the halfway point of this season with 1 goal and 1 assist in league play. Only about half of his appearances are starts, and he’s yet to play the full 90 minutes. Alfred Duncan and now Youssef Maleh seem to be bypassing him. There’s even been a call to try him on the wing instead in his usual midfield role. What’s going on?

First, let’s all take a moment to remember that this has been a really difficult year for Tanino. Even though he didn’t play much at the Euros, a summer full of trainings and tense games doesn’t allow for the same sort of recovery as a summer of real vacation. He came into the season playing catch-up. Add into that a genuinely frightening injury against Genoa, where he slammed at speed into the goal post and spent the night in a hospital and missed more than a month, as well as another ankle injury, and it’s likely that he just hasn’t been right physically this year at all.

That’s likely a big part of why he’s looked so tentative, but it feels like there are other problems as well. The main one is that he’s been visibly hesitant to pass the ball, often leaving teammates frustrated when he misses their runs. He’s gone to ground far too easily and it seems that referees have cottoned on, as they frequently ignore his protestations after a challenge and leave him crumpled on the grass as an opponent hares off the in other direction.

In short, it feels like Castrovilli hasn’t really evolved beyond the player he was in 2019 and that opponents have learned that he can be stopped with a bit of rough treatment, especially since he doesn’t find the killer pass often enough. He’s always been more of a dribbler than a passer and Italiano wants his midfielders to release the ball quickly rather than dally on it.

I don’t have any solution to propose here. Maybe it’s just a matter of waiting for Tanino to get fully healthy and trust that his body can do what he needs it too; after all, injuries aren’t always just physical, but can also take a mental toll. But it does feel like he needs to look for quick passes in midfield rather than running into corners, to figure out when he ought to try something audacious and when he ought to play one-touch passes.

Fortunately, there’s no question that he’s technically capable, because he’s still outrageous on the ball. And even a diminished Tanino can produce some great moments; against Spezia, for example, it was his pass that put Youssef Maleh through for the assist, and his little scoop over the top for Nico González to cushion down for Krzysztof Piątek was delightful.

But the real takeaway of that game for Tanino wasn’t either of those positive moments. It was Álvaro Odriozola screaming at him to pass as the fullback overlapped him and burst free down the right. Castrovilli instead held the ball, and held the ball, and held the ball, and held the ball until he got tackled off it, leaving the Real Madrid loanee looking like his head would explode.

That’s how a lot of fans have felt too. There’s no question that Castrovilli is an outrageous talent. He still shows flashes of quality, and reports of his demise are exaggerated. But it’s equally clear that he needs to work on his game a bit as well. Trying to keep his feet and power through contact would be a good start. Looking to ping the ball around a bit more (which we know he can do, even if he doesn’t try it often enough) would help immensely as well.

Maybe the solution is to let him work through the issues himself for the rest of the year and enjoy his resurgence after a full summer off in 2022-2023. However, he recently changed agents, which always feels ominous, and there’s a chance that he feels the staleness as well and wants out. It’d be a crying shame to lose him at his lowest, so let’s all hope he gets back to his best and, like il unico diece, wears the 10 shirt in Florence for the rest of a glorious career.