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Juventus 2-0 Fiorentina: Player grades and 3 things we learned

It’s tough to win when the deck is stacked against you. It’s even tougher when you don’t get everything exactly right.

Juventus v Fiorentina Italian Cup football match Photo by Isabella Bonotto/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Player grades

Bartłomiej Drągowski—5.5: Made a couple of fantastic saves in the first half, but whiffed badly on the cross for Federico Bernardeschi’s goal and ended up looking pretty bad as a result. Had little to do later on and wasn’t at fault for Danilo’s goal.

Lorenzo Venuti—5: Clearly targeted as the weak link in possession by Juventus, who only pressed when he got the ball. Occasionally caught too high up when the Bianconeri tried to counter, including on the first goal.

Lucas Martínez Quarta—6.5: Did a nice job on Álvaro Morata, keeping the Spaniard well under wraps, and made a couple of good interventions. Showed athleticism on the break to keep up with Juve galloping in behind.

Igor—6.5: Battled Dušan Vlahović to a standstill and left the striker flat on his back a few times. Continues his ascendance into the upper echelon of defenders in Italy.

Cristiano Biraghi—5: His odd clearance compounded Drągowski’s mistake, dropping right to an unmarked Bernardeschi; he could’ve just let the ball out for a corner. Burned by Juan Cuadrado for the final goal as well. Came very close to goal with a free kick and put in a couple of decent crosses.

Jonathan Ikoné—4.5: Thrust into an unfamiliar role in central midfield and looked very out of place there. Lost the ball too easily, leading to a succession of Juve counters, and didn’t offer anything in the final third. A big windup to kick nothing but air on a nice layoff from Cabral summed up his day.

Lucas Torreira—6.5: Deeply unlucky not to score after Mattia Perin spilled a corner early on (his shot hit Cabral on the line). Buzzed around nicely enough but got a bit too high up at times, vacating the space in front of the defense. Went down with an abdominal injury just before halftime and left at the break.

Alfred Duncan—6: Misplaced a few simple passes early on but covered a lot of ground and constantly put himself into the right places to keep the ball moving or cover for his teammates’ jaunts forward. Didn’t offer as much incision as we might’ve wanted but didn’t do much wrong.

Nicolás González—5: Invisible for long stretches after Ikoné shifted out to the right wing, pushing Nico into a central role in which all he did was compete for headers in the box; as you’d expect against Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci, it didn’t go very well for him. Beat Alex Sandro a couple of times but needed to keep working against the fullback.

Arthur Cabral—6.5: The only bright spot in attack. Created a few half chances all on his own, showing off his strength and hunger. Dropped deep to help build up attacks, encouraging runners to attack the space he’d vacated. Didn’t get nearly enough service but showed well enough in his limited opportunities.

Riccardo Saponara—5.5: Had a couple of clever touches but didn’t get a whole lot going. Didn’t stretch the defense out wide and couldn’t find any passing or shooting angles. Might’ve been interesting to see him deployed in a more central role, but he clearly stuck to the left wing.

Sofyan Amrabat—6: Did a pretty good job in relief of Torreira. Bustled around and snuffed out several counterattacks. Kept the ball moving well but mostly passed sideways in the final third rather than looking for runners. Still, did everything we could’ve hoped.

Riccardo Sottil—4.5: Brought on to offer some more pace, but with Juve sitting so deep and so narrow, it just meant he was sprinting into the corner instead of sauntering like Saponara. That’s not entirely his fault, and he did have a couple of neat moments, but there wasn’t any real impact.

José Callejón—4: Brought in as a fullback (!) and immediately conceded a goal (which VAR determined was incrementally offside) with some slack marking. Curled in one good cross but didn’t do anything else.

Youssef Maleh—5.5: Ran hard, won fouls, and showed a bit of ambition with his passing, even if it didn’t come off.

Krzysztof Piątek—4: Completely invisible, although he didn’t get any service and isn’t really suited for this kind of situation.

Three things we learned

1. The Ikoné gamble was worth trying, but it didn’t pay off. Before kickoff, we were all puzzled by Vincenzo Italiano’s decision to put Saponara in midfield, hinting at a 4-2-3-1. It soon became clear, though, that it was a 4-3-3 with Ikoné on the right of a midfield three, where he offered almost nothing. It’s very easy to accuse Italiano of losing this game with a strange tactical decision, but that’s missing the point. His thinking was sound enough, even if it didn’t work out in practice.

Without Gaetano Castrovilli or Giacomo Bonaventura, Fiorentina didn’t have any capable of carrying the ball through the middle. With Juventus’ plan obviously to park the bus, that loss of dynamism through the center looked like it could have destroyed the attack. Trying Ikoné, who’s an excellent dribbler, to replicate some of what Tanino and Jack bring to the team was a fairly intelligent gamble, especially considering that the only other option was to completely rearrange the rest of the team. That’s the problem with a gamble, though: sometimes you don’t win it.

Missing his two most creative midfielders and needing a goal against a team that’s very good at defending very deep, he tried something weird. Desperate times, desperate measures. While he might’ve moved off the idea a bit sooner, pushing Ikoné to the left and having Saponara operate as a 10 so that Nico could attack the clearly overmatched Alex Sandro, but the initial scheme was logical and worth a try.

2. Italiano might trust his players a bit too much. Let’s begin this by saying that Italiano is a fantastic coach and has singlehandedly reversed Fiorentina’s fortunes. Even so, we as fans love to pick at him, and one of our biggest complaints has been his substitution patterns: specifically, he often waits to introduce his changes for about 10 minutes after we’d like. Why, though?

I think it’s because he trusts his players and wants them to know it. It’s why he wants them to always attack, always press, always play a high line. If he removed guys as soon as they made a mistake, he’d likely damage their confidence; given that so much of his work this year has been building these guys’ mentality up. He wants them to feel like they can express themselves without fear, and being too active with the hook would be very counterproductive, even if throwing on an extra striker for the last 20 minutes would have a short-term benefit. As he develops relationships and reputation and understanding (again, he’s a very young coach), he’ll get better. But for now, I can understand what he’s doing.

3. There isn’t a Plan B. One of the problems with being a club with such a distinct tactical identity as Fiorentina has—high press, vertical passing—is that, when an opponent spends the entire game defending in their own penalty box, there’s no quality Plan B. Traditionally, it’s a big striker who can serve as a target for lobs into the area, but a long-range shooter or extraordinarily clever passer can serve the same purpose. Especially without Castrovilli and Bonaventura, the Viola clearly didn’t have the creativity to break down the 9 players stationed in the Bianconeri area, and didn’t have a distinct alternative after an hour or so of banging their heads against that wall.

Here’s where team size comes into play. It’s really hard to convince players who are good enough to impact a game in this situation to play a secondary role, called upon only when their very specific skill set is needed. Fiorentina simply doesn’t have the clout, financial and otherwise, to make that work. Look at the benches: both teams had a number of absences, but Juve could still still call on Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado, established international stars. Fiorentina had Krzysztof Piątek and José Callejón. That’s just the economics of the game. They don’t dictate every result, but they do shrink the margin of error for smaller clubs.