While I’m far from a calcio expert, I’d like to think when it comes to Fiorentina I know more than most. After listening to and reading a variety of English language Serie A season previews, I heard almost entirely surface-level analysis of the Viola. Thus, I’ve decided to put together a brief preview of the squad for both newer and seasoned fans alike to enjoy before the season begins. Also, this can hopefully be a reference for newer fans who want to become more familiar with the entire squad during the campaign. Without further ado, let’s begin.
What happened last season?
After three seasons of flirting with relegation, Fiorentina took a gamble and hired Vincenzo Italiano from Spezia in June 2021. Despite only two major additions (Nico González and Lucas Torreira) to the same squad that had amassed just 40 points the season before, Italiano overhauled both the side's tactics and mentality in short time. Even with the loss of star striker Dušan Vlahović to Juventus in January, Italiano steered the Viola to 62 points and 7th place. A win against Dušan and Juventus on the final day to secure European football for the first time in six years was sweet indeed.
Remember the days when Serie A was seen as the most defensive top-5 league? That’s certainly not the case anymore, and managers like Italiano are a major reason why such opinions are now antiquated. Italiano’s goal is to control every match, even if that means taking risks that one wouldn’t associate with a stereotypical Italian manager. He plays a 4-3-3 with the midfield being an inverted triangle. You’ll rarely see the Viola hoof the ball from the back. Rather, the team will build cautiously in their own third before looking to link quick vertical passes through the middle of the pitch and sharp combinations in the final third. Players are not allowed to dribble passively or slow the game down. With Italiano, once the ball is played into the midfield, he wants vertical movement from a lot of players. It’s not uncommon to see both wingbacks playing almost like wingers in his system, with only the two center-backs and maybe a midfielder back to defend. Yes, it’s as risky as it sounds and did cost the Viola at times last season, but it did get results and sure is fun to watch.
As I said before, Italiano wants to control the match, even without the ball. When the opposing team has the ball near their own goal, Italiano looks to pressure the opponent into a misplaced pass or rushed clearence as soon as possible. The defensive midfielder pushes the furthest forward, oftentimes even ahead of the striker. You’ll find the other two midfielders shortly behind, ready to close off the opposing wingbacks should the ball reach them. Meanwhile, the two wingers drop back, looking to block off any passes down the wings. This system can expose the defense, and relies on the athleticism of both the midfielders and center-backs, who have a lot of ground to cover and must be good with the ball in the build-up.
While Bartłomiej Drągowski was expected to be the starting goalkeeper last season, some rash red cards and his inability to play the ball out of the back led to 32-year-old Pietro Terracciano taking the starting role and Bart’s sale to Spezia. While Terracciano has always been a solid goalkeeper (remember when he stole us a point against Inter two seasons ago), goalkeeper was never a strength for the Viola last year. His blunder against Milan last May stands out as a poor moment. That’s why Fiorentina acted quickly and brought in 27-year-old Pierluigi Gollini, who was Atalanta’s starter during La Dea’s 2019-2020 Champions League run. A rough spell on loan at Spurs last year devalued him considerably, but the Viola shrewdly acquired him on loan with a €8 million option to buy. While most expect him to start over Terracciano, Italiano has split their time in preseason so it’s not a given. Still, given Gollini’s European experience and skill with the ball at his feet, I expect him to win the starting job. The third goalkeeper continues to be 39-year-old Antonio Rosati, who’s loving life in his third spell with the club. Be sure to follow his Instagram (@rosati) for Fiorentina-related posts that are genuinely hilarious.
The starting left-back is the captain, 29-year-old Italian international Cristiano Biraghi. While his relationship with the fans had been tumultuous, last season his splendid performance as captain earned him respect throughout the fanbase. On the field, he’s one of the Viola’s weaker starters, with a tendency to get turned too easily and the least amount of athleticism of anyone on our backline. However, he’s still dangerous going forwards and is great from dead-ball situations. A major worry with the squad’s current build is what would happen if he were injured. 22-year-old Aleksa Terzić looked shaky in limited minutes last season, while 23-year-old Luca Ranieri wants to leave in search of game time after a good season on loan with Salernitana last campaign.
Moving to the center-backs, Fiorentina have a top-5 pairing in Serie A. 24-year-old Nikola Milenković has a case to be the best overall player on the roster. He’s tall, fast, and good with the ball at his feet. In short, he’s the perfect center-back for Vincenzo Italiano’s system, and the fact he just signed a contract extension until 2027 with no release clause is the best news of the summer. However, don’t sleep on his partner, 24-year-old Igor. Igor was the Viola’s most-improved player last season, as he blossomed into being one of Serie A’s best center-backs after the winter break. He’s proven he can handle any striker in Serie A, and similar to Milenković possesses a rare combination of strength and speed. He’ll need to improve on his aerial ability to take the next step, but if he continues on his current trajectory I wouldn’t be surprised to see him earn a place in the Brazilian national team as well as a big-money move. The first option off the bench is 26-year-old Lucas Martínez Quarta, who has not adapted to Serie A as well as I expected in his first two years in Firenze. He’s prone to a dumb mistake and doesn’t have the athleticism of Milenković and Igor, but is still excellent with the ball at his feet. With the addition of European football, he’ll feature heavily this season and needs to take a step forwards. 29-year-old Matija Nastasić rounds out the center-back department. Unfortunately, he’s not the player he was, with a disaster-class against Lazio last season his lowlight. An upgrade in the mercato would be very useful.
The most exciting summer signing is 23-year-old Dodô, purchased for €14.5 million from Shakhtar Donetsk. He should be the best right-back the Viola have had in over a decade, with a frightening combination of speed and skill which Italiano will love to utilize by throwing him forwards. His backup is native Florentine and fan favorite, 27-year-old Lorenzo Venuti. While not the flashiest player, he’s more than serviceable as a backup. All in all, as things stand the defense is Fiorentina’s best and most proven department, which is strange given Italiano’s emphasis on attacking.
I’ll start with the regista role. With Torreira gone, all his 2,500 minutes from last year are up for grabs. Expect there to be a healthy competition between 25-year-olds Sofyan Amrabat and Rolando Mandragora (aka Roland Mandrake). Amrabat was the club’s record signing back in January 2020, when he was purchased for around €20 million, but has failed to reach expectations. Mostly used as a backup last season, he will likely be the first choice tomorrow against Cremonese. In some ways, he’s a great fit for Italiano’s system. He’s one of the best athletes on the team and a capable presser. However, he is prone to making mistakes with the ball at his feet and isn’t as dynamic a passer as he’ll need to be for Fiorentina to succeed. Signed from Juventus this summer for €8.2 million, Mandagora perhaps has the opposite qualities. While he’s known to be an excellent passer, he’s not the most athletic and will be burned a few times as he adjusts to Italiano’s system. Not to be dramatic, but for Fiorentina to have a successful season it is imperative that one of these two step up and excel. This position is critical for Italiano’s success, as Torreira showed last season, and is my biggest worry heading into the season.
Moving forwards, veteran 32-year-old Giacomo Bonaventura is the Viola’s best midfielder. There aren’t many weaknesses in his game, as he’s been a pleasant surprise since moving from Milan on a free two years ago. His biggest weakness is his age, as he turns 33 in a week and can’t be expected to start twice a week consistently. With the silky 25-year-old Gaetano Castrovilli not expected to recover from his ACL injury for at least two more months, who substitutes for Jack is an open question. 24-year-old Szymon Żurkowski could be that man after an excellent season on loan at Empoli last year, but also may be heading back to the Castellani in a swap deal for Nadim Bajrami. 19-year-old Alessandro Bianco is the club’s top youth prospect, but a season on loan in Serie B would suit him better. And yes, 27-year-old Marco Benassi is technically still here.
The left-side of midfield is another tossup. On the one hand there is 29-year-old Alfred Duncan, and on the other is 23-year-old Youssef Maleh. While both players have great engines, there’s a reason Vincenzo Italiano is requesting Bajrami as a reinforcement. Neither player is a great passer or ball carrier, and the Viola’s midfield needs more creativity, especially without Castrovilli. In summary, the midfield is by far the weakest part of the squad. Whoever starts between Amrabat/Mandragora and Duncan/Maleh are the two weakest starters on the squad in my view, and Bonaventura is getting old. At least one reinforcement is necessary before the window shuts, and Bajrami would be an excellent pickup.
24-year-old Nico González is Milenković’s main competitor for the title of best player at the club. While he had a good season last year, with seven goals and six assists, all the potential is there for a breakout season from the Argentine. González’s strengths play right into Italiano’s game. He’s quick, direct, smart without the ball, and versatile enough to play across the frontline. He needs to work on his finishing and decision-making in the box, but he has all the tools for a 15-goal, 10-assist season. 24-year-old Jonathon Ikoné is similar to González in his ability to dribble but suffers even more than Nico from a lack of composure in the box. He has the talent to be an everyday starter alongside Nico, but has to start finishing to do so. Still, expect at least one goal due to a crazy Ikoné dribble this year. 23-year-old Riccardo Sottil is a similar player to Ikoné. The first one between them who figures out how to finish will be a €30 million player. Rounding out the winger corps is veteran 30-year-old Riccardo Saponara. The Cheese has had a career revival under Italiano, and while he’s the least athletic of our four wingers, he’s certainly the best decision maker in the final third. He’s due for one or two beautiful curlers this season as well, and is a great squad player to have.
As for the strikers, 24-year-old Luka Jović is the flashiest signing of the summer despite being a free transfer from Real Madrid. It’s now been four years since his 27-goal breakthrough campaign with Eintracht Frankfurt, but there is clearly still a lot of talent there for the two-footed striker. At his best Jović can do it all, and it will be a big test for Italiano to get the best out of a striker who has had motivation issues in the past. Fiorentina has had its fair share of reclamation projects, and Jović has the potential to be as good as anyone in Serie A. Despite only scoring two goals last season, I’m a big fan of 24-year-old Arthur Cabral. The Brazilian is an all-around great player, and better at combining in the buildup than Jović. With a full preseason under his belt, I expect him and Jović to have a healthy competition for the starting spot. Both will be better off for it. While 24-year-old Christian Kouamé is likely to leave on loan, I hope he stays. He provides excellent depth on both the wing and as a third striker, and still has the potential to be a great Serie A player. There aren’t many players his size who move as fluidly as he does.
So, having gone through the squad, what should we expect from the Viola this season? By far the biggest worry for me is the state of the midfield, but Bajrami coming in would alleviate those fears. Once again, one of Amrabat or Mandragora taking that next step and filling Torreira’s shoes guarantees an improvement on last season.
While writing this preview, I was surprised by just how many players we have in the 23-25 age range. While players can reinvent themselves later in their careers (see Saponara), a 24-year-old is getting close to being the player they will be for the rest of their career. Thus, it’s a big season for players such as Nico, Cabral, Ikoné, Maleh, Amrabat, Igor, and more. All of these guys have the tools to be absolute studs, but still have room to improve. Thus, it feels like if most of these guys do break out, Fiorentina could really surprise this season and push for the Champions League. Just to be more realistic, I think the above group will be hit-or-miss, and a Europa League finish is more plausible. As for the Conference League, I think this Viola squad is just as good as the Roma side that won it all last fall. While we would need a bit of luck to go very deep, making the quarterfinals should be a reasonable objective. All in all, this season could go a lot of different directions, but the talent is there to improve upon last season. Now let’s sit back, try to relax, and enjoy the Viola’s 2022-23 campaign.