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It’s pretty weird that Fiorentina can’t beat other mid-table teams

The Viola have been fantastic against the top six and the relegation stragglers. It’s the teams in between that have given them trouble.

ACF Fiorentina v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Because the international break usually means we have a lot (maybe too much) time to think about the minutiae of Fiorentina, I’ve been wondering how the team can improve. One of the first things I thought about was how many points the Viola have dropped against their mid-table peers. To see if that was actually the case, I did what I often do in these situations: made a chart.

And, since it’s not very helpful looking at those numbers in a vacuum, I decided to compare Fiorentina’s performance against various segments of the table. For this exercise, I decided to break the standings into three groups: the top six (European qualifiers), the middle seven (mid-table with aspirations), and bottom seven (relegation strugglers). While this breakdown isn’t quite reflective of the league this year—there are probably closer to 5 tiers than 3—I think this makes the information easier to digest.

The usual caveat applies: some of this is just random statistical noise and probably doesn’t mean anything. A few lucky bounces and we’re looking at different results in half of these games, and I’m writing a completely different article. Still, three-quarters of a season is probably enough to give us some ideas, and these numbers are aberrant enough to be worth considering.

I also decided to look at points per match rather than total points, since there are a number of teams dealing with postponed games that would have thrown the total off. Serie A, if you’re reading this, here’s your cue to quietly figure out what the hell is going on with the Udinese game. Anyways, here’s what I came up with.

Hey look, a chart

A lot of it looks about as you’d expect. AC Milan are the capolista because they’ve been superb against their scudetto rivals, dropping very few points against them. Napoli have struggled against the top level of competition (which may explain their struggles in the Europa League as well) but mopped up against everyone else. Inter Milan and Juventus have bullied he small teams, while AS Roma and Lazio have massively underperformed against top sides. Atalanta have dropped winnable points as well.

And then there’s Fiorentina. I was surprised to see how well the Viola have fared against the top third of the table; only the Milanese clubs have done better. Similarly, Fiorentina have been quite good at winning the games they’re supposed to win; that Venezia defeat stands out, but they haven’t lost to any other bottom-seven opponents. So they’re beating the teams they should and going toe to toe with the giants. Why, then, is Fiorentina in 8th place instead of pushing for the Champions League?

The middle is always the problem

As you probably figured out, it’s that pesky middle of the table. Losses against Lazio (twice), Empoli, Torino, and Sassuolo are the main culprits. Combined with draws against Hellas Verona (twice) and Sassuolo, it paints a poor picture indeed. Of the other 7 teams in the middle third of the standings, Bologna (twice) and Torino are the only teams Fiorentina have beaten so far. What gives?

Well, the bottom half sides simply don’t have the ability to work the ball through the Viola press, even when they try. Most of them are more interested in sitting deep, soaking up pressure, and trying to counterattack at speed, hoping to grab a goal on one or two good chances. Fiorentina are perfectly equipped to beat this approach with their non-stop pressure and willingness to fling bodies forward, overwhelming a deep block with energy and numbers, as seen by their return against these types of clubs this year.

The top sides present a different obstacle. Competing for the Champions League places means that a team has to take the initiative in most games. Fiorentina’s intensity both with and without the ball, on the other hand, tends to open up games, instilling a level of chaos that gives the Viola a puncher’s chance against anyone. Again, as the chart above bears out, it’s probably as successful an approach as anyone in Italy has developed this year; when you’re the underdog, you want to introduce as much randomness as you can to the proceedings and just wait for the dust to settle.

It’s those sides that don’t quite fit either category that throw Fiorentina off. An opponent who doesn’t necessarily expect to control the game but has the quality to, at least sometimes, play through the press and reap the rewards on the break has been a really difficult proposition for Italiano this year. He can’t rely on his team’s sheer quality to see things through like he does against bottom sides and he can’t rely on mayhem like he does against the top ones. He’s still trying to find that middle ground.

There’s no obvious fix (and that’s fine)

And that’s okay. He’s in just his second year as a Serie A manager and has already turned the club around completely. An unbalanced squad and years’ worth of losing mentality are obstacles enough without focusing on some of the wrinkles in his coaching. He’s shown flashes of tactical brilliance that will likely become more and more frequent as he settles in; perhaps the next step is the ability to sit off for 10 minutes at a time or so, tempting opponents forward, before resuming the full throttle pressing and attacking again.

To my mind, it’s a matter of balancing control and chaos. Against worse teams, you want to control the game and suppress randomness as much as possible, as the better team with better players will generally win. Against the big teams, you want to introduce as much mayhem as possible without compromising yourself too much; increasing randomness means that, even with worse players, you increase your chance to win.

Against roughly equivalent competition, though, you can’t really do either. Lazio, Sassuolo, Hellas Verona, Torino, Bologna, and Empoli are all have too much quality for Fiorentina to really control proceedings, but aren’t good enough that you want to play every joker in the deck. In some ways, these are the most difficult games to plan for: you don’t get a huge advantage in talent like you do against bad teams, and you don’t get the lightening of expectations like you do against good teams (you know, those games you’re expected to lose anyways).

To me, this is where pre- and in-game tactical adjustments are most important. Figuring out what an opponent wants to do and working to overcome that in training is crucial, as is reacting to game state and whatever the opponent changes during the match. While Italiano has shown flashes of that type of nous, it’s still not natural to him. And that’s fine. He’s in just his second year as a Serie A manager and in his first leading a side that isn’t an underdog ever game. He’s done a hell of a job turning this club around. If we see progress in this department next year, it’ll just confirm what he’s already demonstrated: that he might be the best young coach in Italy.