Fiorentina are undefeated to start the season, but you’d never know it to listen to some sectors of the fan base. While some of the griping is pretty unjustified—after all, things are going fine and it’s literally 2 games into the Serie A season—there’s one aspect of it I’d like to investigate: why do the Viola struggle when they’re up a man?
Since Vincenzo Italiano took the reigns, Fiorentina have played in 4 games in which they spent at least 20 minutes up a player: a 1-0 win over Bologna, a 1-0 win over Empoli, a 3-2 win over Cremonese, and a 0-0 draw at Empoli. All the usual caveats about sample size apply, but there are certain patterns that could be instructive.
What happens when Fiorentina goes up a man
The pattern in all of those games has been pretty similar: the opponent retreats into a very deep block, usually a 4-4-1 or a 5-3-1, happily allowing the good guys to knock the ball around neatly and build play down the wings that usually leads to the winger either trying to beat a man and running into a crowd of defenders or pulling the ball back and restarting the attack; it’s no coincidence that, in every game in which they’ve had a numerical advantage, Fiorentina have won by just a single goal.
Let’s look at the numbers first. I’m using information from the 2021-2022 Serie A season as the baseline since there aren’t enough games from this year to create a sample. What interests me is how Fiorentina’s style of play changes when an opponent has been sent off. I’m getting my numbers from WhoScored in this one since they show when certain events occurred in the match, allowing for a better comparison of advantage state compared to regular state, and comparing them to the season averages on Fbref. It’s not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison, but does give a pretty good impression of what we’re talking about.
These statistics illustrate pretty clearly that Fiorentina is doing a lot of stuff right when they’re up a man, even if it doesn’t look very easy. They’re shooting at more than twice the rate than they do when the numbers are even and putting those shots on target at approximately the same rate. Despite the knee-jerk reactions about never crossing the ball (and I’m very guilty of this), they’re spamming it in more than three times as often as they do regularly. Rather than just working the ball around the perimeter of the penalty area, they’re getting into the box, making twice as many touches there as they normally do. These are all good numbers.
What’s not working
One of the stats that I couldn’t track was accuracy of crossing; putting the ball in the mixer does nothing if there aren’t capable targets waiting. Since I don’t have data, this analysis is purely observational and anecdotal, but Fiorentina doesn’t have many aerial targets going forward. Luka Jović and Arthur Cabral are both strapping young men who are decent in the air, and Nicolás González has an unbelievable leap, but that’s pretty much it so far. Against a defense that’s dropped 7 or 8 players into the area, that’s not enough targets.
The decrease in dribbling success doesn’t bother me too much in and of itself. It’s easier to dribble in space, where if you get past a defender, you have room to recover the ball and then keep going. Against a packed in defense, you can beat that first guy but there’s a second one right behind him to mop up, making it much harder to actually succeed in a dribble.
What worries me is that Fiorentina attackers are just putting their heads down and running into a wall. While that can occasionally pay off, whether by getting into a shooting or crossing position (which forces the defense to deform and creates space for others) or by winning a penalty (and if Ricky Sottil’s experiences this year are any indication, that’s not a winner), it all too often allows the defense to get in a tackle, clear, and reset, letting the opponent off the hook too easily.
Finally, the difference in shot difference is a concern. Specifically, it’s the lack thereof. Against a very deep block, it’s relatively easy to squeeze off shots from distance; for example, Empoli are very happy to let Lucas Martínez Quarta try his luck from 30 yards out. Since Giacomo Bonaventura and maybe Rolando Mandragora are the only threats from distance, a defense will happily play the odds with other players popping off from the parking lot. The fact that the Viola still take a lot of long shots plays into the defense’s hands.
I basically see two issues with how Fiorentina attack with a man advantage: the lack of targets in the box for crosses and a lack of runners to deform the defense. That first one has a couple of simple fixes: either get more midfielders hurling themselves in there or add another striker.
Since none of the Viola midfielders are particularly aerially imposing, adding the second striker makes more sense to me, especially since that third midfielder isn’t as necessary to press and keep possession against an opponent that’s going to bunker back and attack with 1 or 2 players on the counter. Having two of Jović, Cabral, and Christian Kouamé would provide Cristiano Biraghi and the other crossers another big target and would force the defense to account for another aerial threat. Even if the extra forward doesn’t head in a goal, he’ll draw more attention, freeing space for a winger attacking the back post or a midfielder darting in unmarked.
The second issue is a lack of runners, and I don’t have any statistics to demonstrate anything here; this is strictly opinion, so feel free to disagree. However, one feature of Italiano’s attacking system is that the mezzale often push very high and wide, allowing the wingers to drive inside. This is a tough motion for defenses to mark, as they’ll leave space in front of the defense if they track the wingers running through, but that’s not an issue for a team sitting in its own box.
What I’ve seen from this team in these 4 games (and against deep defenses in general) is the typical, modern 5 up front approach. The striker, the wingers, a fullback, and a midfielder generally stand even with the defensive line, waiting to chase a ball in behind or attack the space when a defender is forced to step forward. It generally works better against a higher line but can work against a deep one if all the movements are perfectly synchronized.
When the defensive line is 16 yards from goal, there’s no space, and the result is a static attack. By pulling at least one or two of these guys back and having them start their runs from deeper, they’d force the defense to react more. That’s part of what made Álvaro Odriozola so devastating last year: the Spaniard constantly started his runs from deep and hit the overlap perfectly, catching opponents off guard. Getting the timing right on these attacks is really difficult and requires a lot of practice, but it could wind up being a solution.
Fiorentina is at its best playing against a high defensive line, since that allows its pacy wingers to run in behind and wreak havoc. Against a deep defense, they tend to struggle. That’s a big part of why the Viola often seem competitive against the big teams and listless against the small ones. Figuring out a way to break down deep blocks more effectively is probably near the top of Italiano’s to do list. If he can get it right with a man advantage, he’s more likely to get it right in normal game state as well.
Returning to the subject of a numerical advantage, though, the numbers demonstrate to me that, more than anything, Fiorentina have been a bit unlucky not to score more when after an opponent has been sent off. They’re getting the ball into the right areas and simply not taking advantage, but the sample size is so small that I’m inclined to think at least some of that is just statistical noise, even though a couple of tweaks could likely fix some of the issues.