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Fiorentina 2-1 Twente: Player grades and 3 things we learned

A very Jekyll-and-Hyde performance overshadows some of the good vibes, but it’s sunny as the Tuscan skies after the Viola returned to European play with a win.

ACF Fiorentina v FC Twente - UEFA Conference League Play-Off
Big Nicky loves little Arthur. For context, little Arthur is bigger than about 90% of people on earth.
Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Player grades

Pietro Terracciano—6: The World’s Funnest Dad barely had anything to do. Twente only got 5 shots away and the only one on target was the goal, on which he didn’t have any chance. His pinpoint pass to Biraghi from a goal kick set up the second goal and he was completely unremarkable otherwise, given that he had nothing to do.

Cristiano Biraghi—7: Was simply unplayable going forward, creating at least half a dozen very good scoring chances from both open play and dead balls, and probably deserved more than just the one assist. That relationship he demonstrated with Sottil against Cremonese is definitely a thing, as they linked up brilliantly time and again. Don’t sleep on his role in the second goal, either; to control that pass, turn, and ping a perfect ball over the top isn’t easy. Not at fault on Twente’s goal, as Cérny was definitely offside.

Matija Nastasić—6: Despite everyone’s anxiety prior to kickoff, he was perfectly adequate. Played the sweeper role so that Milenković could step up. Had a wobbly moment or two but was generally anonymous in the best possible way. Still don’t think that he’s a fit for this team and its tactics, but he can at least do a job for 90 minutes in a pinch.

Nikola Milenković—7: Gobbled up Ricky van Wolfswinkel in the first half, erasing him entirely from the proceedings, and was pretty good after the break, too, albeit a bit more ragged. Just too powerful for Twente to cope with. Would’ve liked to see him targeted more on attacking set pieces, but them’s the breaks.

Lorenzo Venuti—6.5: Played a slightly reserved role by design, holding his position to allow Biraghi to push on, and did that unglamorous job quite well. Still found time to surge forward well a couple of times, winning a handful of free kicks as he showed some juice on the ball. Also was the first person to celebrate the opener with Biraghi and Nico, which shows just how gassed up he was. Seemed to fade a bit after the hour mark, but that was a problem for the whole team too.

Youssef Maleh—5.5: Really impressive first half out of possession as he furiously closed down Twente’s defense high up the pitch, creating a couple of half-chances strictly through the intensity of his pressing. Didn’t do much in possession and showed little guile on the ball, though, and seemed to contribute to the frantic nature of the second half. At this point, he’s a tactically useful but deeply limited player.

Sofyan Amrabat—6.5: In keeping with the theme, was marvelous before the break, turning the center of the pitch into no man’s land for anyone in a red shirt. Physically overwhelmed the opposing midfield, bouncing them around and leaving them shellshocked. Was tidy in possession more than anything else, constantly dropping into defense to pick up the ball and set the tempo. Faded after halftime (noticing a theme?) and seemed to overplay at times, but was, on the balance, quite above average.

Alfred Duncan—6.5: Hit a moonshot from a neat layoff by Cabral but otherwise hardly put a foot wrong. Won the ball well but wasn’t as full-throated as his colleagues in the middle, instead sitting off a bit and mopping up anything that slipped by them. Created a nice chance for Cabral with a clever little touch and hit some very neat switches of play. Still not convinced that he isn’t the most system-proof midfielder on the roster.

Riccardo Sottil—8: Felt like everything good came down his wing and that he was in the middle of all of it. The flick to put Biraghi through on the first goal, the run and cross for the second, the constant beating of his man, the decisiveness on the ball, the continual running in behind...I could go on, but it’s safe to say that Ricky is turning into the superstar we’ve believed he can be for years. There’ll be rocky moments, certainly, but this is the long-awaited apotheosis. Enjoy it.

Arthur Cabral—7.5: Did a lot of the dirty work, occupying central defenders so his wingers could exploit isolated fullbacks, and did it quite well. The goal was a pure striker’s finish, exactly what we want from him, and he had a couple more looks from crosses. Still holds the ball too long at times, but didn’t drop as deep as he did last year and brought his usual boundless enthusiasm.

Nicolás González—7.5: Scored a gorgeous header and came close a couple other times, particularly off a free kick that Lars Unnerstall flapped at, catching him off guard in front of an open net. Constantly fouled but didn’t actually do much from open play, serving as more of a late runner into the box than a creator until Sottil was subbed off; that might be the perfect job for him, so it’s exciting that he’s got teammates who can take advantage.

Jonathan Ikoné—4.5: Never got into the rhythm of the game and mostly just lost the ball, whether dribbling into the corner or hitting lazy passes. Very much still shaking off the rust after missing the past couple weeks with an injury, so this performance shouldn’t set the alarm bells ringing.

Rolando Mandragora—4.5: Brought on to control the game and didn’t really do that at all. Mostly invisible. Definitely needs some time to figure out his role when played next to Amrabat.

Luka Jović—4.5: Looked a bit sluggish and barely had a touch, although that’s how it generally looks for him; poachers seem to be floating on the margins of the game until they strike. Unfortunately, he never really had the opportunity to strike.

Dodô—n/a: Still working his way to match fitness, and you can’t really rate him on 5 minutes of play time.

Christian Kouamé—n/a: Ditto, although he did produce a lovely touch that Maleh wasted and looked lively as ever. The reclamation project is fully underway.

Three things we learned

1. The second half is a problem for this team. For the second time this week, Fiorentina dominated the opening 45 minutes, went into the break with all the momentum, and emerged like a headless chicken. Part of it is understandable: without chemical assistance, nobody can press for 90 minutes the way that Italiano teams do in the opening period. As the season continues and the guys play themselves into fitness, they’ll be able to go longer, but there’s still clearly no coherent approach for when the legs get heavy.

The obvious complementary approaches are either to keep the ball for long stretches at the back, wearing out the opponent while conserving energy, or defending in a deep block and hitting on the counter. Instead, it looked like a mix of those strategies, leading to chaos which let Twente (and Cremonese before them) back in. We saw these magnificent starts followed by abject finishes last year too, so this isn’t a new problem. It is, however, one that Vincenzo Italiano needs to sort out very soon.

2. There’s still no midfield creator. Part of the previous issue is that, if you’re slowing the game down, you need someone to serve as the triggerman, a guy who can play the killer ball. Giacomo Bonaventura sort of is that, although he’s more of a dribbler and shooter, but none of Maleh, Duncan (although he shows flashes of it), or Amrabat are midfield creators. Mandragora might, but he’s always been more of a sporadic creative force than a consistent one. Gaetano Castrovilli can maybe do it, but he’s out for another few months. While, to paraphrase Jurgen Klöpp, the gegenpress is the best number 10, the gegenpress is also a 10 that can only play for an hour at most. Finding that missing piece in the middle may well determine just how far Fiorentina goes this year.

3. I’ve missed European matches. In some ways, this tie is terrible. It gives Fiorentina two more midweek games in difficult spots; now they’ve got short rest before the Derby dell’Arno against Empoli, a trip up to Enschede on Tuesday and then down to Napoli on Sunday, and then another midweek fixture against Udinese before hosting Juventus. That’s a very tough schedule for anyone, and I worry that it could lead to a very slow start for a team that’s not very ready.

My concern about the schedule was compounded by the torrential rain before and during this game. And the idiocy of not having VAR in the Conference League until the final (which could prove Fiorentina’s undoing, given that Cérny was obviously offside for his goal and that Sottil won another PK that got ignored). And the incompetence of the commentator, who spent the entire match mispronouncing “Biraghi” and displaying his ignorance about Fiorentina’s players, recent history, and calcio in general.

And you know what? Those things aren’t great. But fuck it. Fiorentina’s back in Europe and has a lead going into the away leg. It’s a great time to be a fan. Let’s just soak it in.