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How Fiorentina’s defense stifled Atalanta

While la Dea weren’t at her strongest, the Viola’s scheme clearly left the visitors bamboozled.

ACF Fiorentina v US Sassuolo - Serie A
This is a lot of humanity.
Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Fiorentina were very impressive in their win over Atalanta on Sunday, earning their third victory over la Dea this season in a controlled 1-0. Because Nicolás González ran the defenders ragged, Riccardo Sottil created some gorgeous moments, and Krzysztof Piątek came away with the goal, a lot of the talk after this one has been about the Viola attack. But for me, it was the defense that was most impressive.

Part of that is a bit of luck. Fiorentina certainly created the better chances; aside from Bartłomiej Drągowski’s brilliant 1-v-1 stop on Teun Koopmeiners in the first half and the goal ruled out in the second half, Atalanta created nothing against the Viola rearguard. They managed 7 shots and only the Koopmeiners one was on target. The rest were either blocked or pretty well off target, as reflected in a meager 0.6 xG for the visitors.

Let’s put those numbers in context. Atalanta average 14.8 shots per game and put 4.4 of them on target en route to 1.72 goals and 1.66 xG per game. While their lack of forwards was pretty obvious at times, as there was little incision from the tridente, you have to give the Fiorentina defenders an immense amount of credit for the hard work, focus, and intelligence they displayed over 90 minutes.

Because I’m a big old nerd, though, I think it was more than just outstanding individual performances. While Nikola Milenković, Igor, Álvaro Odriozola, and Cristiano Biraghi were all very good and won most of their individual battles, a lot of that success started with manager Vincenzo Italiano, who put them in the right place to succeed. And a big part of how he did that was by tweaking his usual defensive approach.

Last week, I wrote about Fiorentina’s very high defensive line and how it often leaves the central defenders isolated. The solution I proposed was ordering one of the fullbacks to sit deeper while the other pushed on, leaving an extra body to slow down counterattacks. You cannot imagine my astonishment, then, when that’s exactly what Fiorentina did: For the first hour or so, Odriozola constantly bombed on, while Cristiano Biraghi sat much deeper.

This is seconds after Biraghi won possession and played it back to Igor to build from deep. Milenković is hustling to get even with him to form that back three. Odriozola isn’t even bothering to come back.

This wasn’t just a one time thing. It was constant.

That’s definitely a back three in the buildup from deep.
Again, Igor in the middle of the back three with Milenković and Biraghi flanking him.
Yeah, it’s a theme.

So. Here’s Fiorentina constantly dropping into a back three when they win the ball or build from deep. While Odriozola certainly had a defensive job and dropped in as a fullback at times, he was usually a line or two higher up than his colleagues, leaving Igor in the middle of a back three. So what was the thinking here?

There are probably a bunch of reasons Italiano opted for this approach. The first is that it messed up Atalanta’s pressing. When Fiorentina play with 4 across the back, they usually spread the centerbacks out very wide and push the fullbacks higher up. Atalanta press with a narrow front 3, which prevented Fiorentina from finding simple passes to feet from defense to midfield in the previous meeting.

The CB in possession passes the ball to either side and the attackers can press. Because the attackers are so narrow, they make it hard to play simple passes forward into the midfield, which forces the defenders to either clear it or go back to the GK.

This time around, though, Fiorentina changed it. By playing with three at the back, they forced Atalanta to spread out the front three. Gasperini opted for the former, which left his tridente spread out and gave the Viola defenders much easier lanes to work the ball forward to their midfielders, allowing them to bypass the press quite easily. When he tried to adjust and push the attackers back to their usual narrow configuration, the Fiorentina defenders could simply work it down the line to Odriozola, Nico, or Sottil.

The second thing I really noted about this approach is that it put a lot of trust in Riccardo Sottil. With Biraghi not doing fulfilling his usual overlapping role, Ricky was basically isolated against Rafael Tolói. Given how often Fiorentina tried to get the ball to him, it felt like Italiano was telling his young winger, “I trust you to make something happen, even up against an Italy international.” And it worked: Sottil responded by creating the best chance of the first half for Nico González and nearly scored a banger himself.

And, while we’re talking about Nico, let’s talk about what happened on the right side. Since Nico is pretty left-footed, he’ll always turn inside onto his stronger foot, dragging his defender with him. That leaves a lot of space for Odriozola to bomb into, and if there’s one thing Álvaro will always do, it’s bomb into space. He caught the Atalanta defense out several times by simply sprinting in behind to latch onto a ball over the top.

The other fun wrinkle about pushing Odriozola so high is that it allowed Nico to drop deep and carry the ball forward from the rightback zone, which he did 4 or 5 times. While it may seem smarter to have your most dangerous attacker stay as close to the opposing goal as possible, getting Nico these kinds of easy touches helps keep him in a rhythm. It also gives him the chance to win fouls, put defenders on cards, and break the pressing structure to generate quick breaks.

Let’s stop looking at the knock-on effects, though, and get back to the defense here. While Odriozola defended admirably here—one sequence where he stayed in front of Davide Zappacosta as the veteran jinked this way and that before authoritatively blocking the wingback’s shot stands out—he’s not a great defender. Putting him up against a demon dribbler like Jeremie Boga felt like it was asking for trouble; after all, it was Boga who created the most chances from his inside left position in the previous meeting between these two.

Instead of a defensively-suspect, floppy-haired fullback, then, why not neutralize the opponent’s best attacker with 196 cm of a geologic formation that can run? That was clearly the plan all along; go back up to those photos and note how Milenković is always matched up against Boga in case Fiorentina lose the ball and Atalanta can break in behind. He ate the Dutchman’s lunch, too: Boga didn’t have a shot, lost the ball 6 times, and was pretty ineffectual.

While the idea of a back three may conjure memories of BeppeBall levels of passivity, this one was very different. One of the other benefits of having three defenders at the back is that one of them can chase an opposing forward deep, safe in the assurance that there’s adequate cover. For example, this was the moment I realized something crazy was going on with the Viola defense.

Central defenders aren’t supposed to be pressing level with their own strikers, and yet here we are.

This wasn’t a one-off deal, either. He did it again not long after, and several times throughout the game.

Terminator-walking towards Boga again.

By letting Odriozola just run back and forth with Zappacosta while neutralizing Boga himself, Milenković ensured a massive advantage for his team: Odriozola is faster than Zappacosta and will always win that challenge of speed and endurance, while Boga was obviously put off his game entirely by this treatment.

Once Milenković was subbed off, Italiano reverted to a more traditional back four with Odriozola dropping into the defense again, so the heat maps aren’t quite as revelatory as you might think. However, this kind of tinkering is the sort of move that wins games, and it worked perfectly here. Atalanta were never able to figure out how to get past this unexpected defense and Fiorentina walked away with the win.

Since there are a lot of other Serie A teams that play with a front two, this could be really good way to solidify the back line against them. Milenković will generally dominate his side of the field, leaving Igor and Biraghi less space to track. Biraghi’s actually a pretty good passer when he’s not pressured, so he provides a nice out ball, and Igor’s incisiveness is well-documented; in the middle of the three, he’ll usually have more time to pick his passes and break the lines. Even if the offense wasn’t quite dazzling in this one, let’s all tip our hats to Italiano, who out-generaled Gian Piero Gasperini in this one and deserves all the credit for recognizing a weakness and turning it into a strength.