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

The Viola made some systemic changes that paid off in a big way.

ACF Fiorentina v Hellas Verona - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Player grades

Pietro Terracciano—6.5: Made one very good save late on against Yayah Kallon, but that was his only notable stop, although he did make a slightly terrifying headed clearance way outside the box, too. Was good with his distribution in the first half but weirdly dropped off after the break, putting his defense under unnecessary pressure.

Cristiano Biraghi—5: Despite leading the team in touches, the only real chance he created was from a corner. Was decent defensively but had a bit of trouble with Fabio Depaoli, particularly later on, but didn’t provide Ranieri with enough support at the back, allowing Hellas Verona to consistently attack the youngster. And boy howdy should Captain Cris not take any more PKs, as he’s now converted just 40% of them in his professional career.

Luca Ranieri—5: Never seemed solid and struggled a bit with Thomas Henry’s strength, but held up well enough and didn’t make any crippling mistakes. Still probably not comfortable in a back two at this level, but probably can serve as the emergency option.

Lucas Martínez Quarta—7.5: Had one bad pass that let Verona in, but more than made up for it throughout the game with a succession of fantastic tackles in space; after a certain point, the Mastini forwards seemed resigned to being halted by the flying Argentine. Would’ve scored in his second straight match if not for a miraculous save by Lorenzo Montipò. Definitely needed that goal last week, as it seems to have restored his swagger.

Lorenzo Venuti—6.5: Really should’ve scored a first half goal but hammered it straight at Montipò instead, then came close with a long range effort soon after. Held up defensively against the perennially-underrated Darko Lazović, mostly bottling the speedster up. When he’s not asked to do too much, he can look very capable and even add an unexpected threat going forward.

Sofyan Amrabat—6.5: Didn’t have a lot to do, given that Verona pretty much ignored the middle third of the pitch, but bowling balled around nonetheless. Hit a few raking passes to the wings and offered some defensive cover, although he could have maybe dropped in a bit more to help the defenders. Picked up a minor knock that hopefully won’t have any impact.

Rolando Mandragora—6.5: Was pretty poor on the ball, missing a number of passes, but came up with the right one when it mattered. Threw himself around despite an early booking but was mostly pretty invisible as the grease man more than the star pilot.

Riccardo Sottil—7: The creative force in this one. Should’ve had an assist on an early ball to Kouamé that the striker got lost under his feet and had several more incisive moments. Looked to find his fellow forwards quickly rather than putting his head down and shooting. Took a real beating out there and probably came off to preserve his health as much as anything.

Antonín Barák—5: Maybe it was the burden of playing against his old team for the first time, but the Czech creator didn’t look involved or incisive, although his movement off the ball was as clever as ever.

Jonathan Ikoné—7.5: Well, now we know he can shoot. Was decisive on the ball and a constant nuisance to the Verona defense. The run and the goal were certainly the highlights, but he cracked off another that sent Montipò sprawling, set up a golden opportunity for Venuti, and played the pass leading to the penalty. This version of Jonny is positively lethal, so let’s hope he sticks around.

Christian Kouamé—7.5: Had a couple of good chances to score but couldn’t get his feet out of his own way. Even so, he won a penalty, got two defenders booked by beating them off the dribble, competed for every ball that came his way, darted in behind, dropped deep, drifted wide, and generally combined with the wingers fantastically. While he can still look a bit clumsy (and some of that is deceptive, as he produced at least two nutmegs), he’s clearly the best fit of talent and mentality for the number nine role right now.

Giacomo Bonaventura—5.5: Unloaded a wicked shot from range that forced a save but didn’t do much else other than hunker down with the rest of the team.

Nicolás González—7: Offered a huge emotional lift to the team and the crowd when he came on but looked pretty ragged for most of his time, losing the ball and making shaky decisions. Looked like he’d missed a month or so until it really mattered, showing his intelligence and effort to score a scrappy goal and open his account this year. Welcome back.

Riccardo Saponara—5: Didn’t do a whole lot, frankly, outside a couple of neat touches.

Arthur Cabral—5.5: Involved in the buildup to the second goal, holding the ball up patiently rather than forcing the issue. Has the athleticism to play more like Kouamé, which means it’s a case of figuring out how to match his game to the Ivorian’s; if he can do that, he can definitely be a big deal for Fiorentina.

Alfred Duncan—5: Like Nico, missed several basic passes and looked very rusty until it counted, when he delivered a gorgeous pass to Mandragora. Still might be the most versatile midfielder on this team.

Three things we learned

1. Italiano is willing to change the team’s shape. It took a miserable winless streak and a lot of negative energy in the press and in the stands, but Vincenzo Italiano finally switched his shape around. Specifically, he ordered Barák to play as essentially a second striker; the playmaker frequently made runs past Kouamé and often served as a decoy, forcing a Hellas Verona defender to track him and thus freeing up the striker and the wingers or leaving them in 1-v-1 situations against slower opponents. Further back, Mandragora played a much more reserved role, often staying even with Amrabat in a double pivot, which offered a bit more security to a makeshift back line.

While this approach worked perfectly in the first half, things fell apart after the break, largely because Amrabat’s injury and replacement with Bonaventura meant that the midfield triangle tilted again. Barák dropped deeper and Jack played higher than Amrabat did, leaving Mandragora as the deepest midfielder. Verona didn’t have to track Barák’s off-ball runs and could focus on slowing down the 3 forwards. At the other end, Mandragora wasn’t able to cover as much ground on his own, which let the Scaligers pump the ball long more easily.

Shifting the midfield triangle to more of a 4-2-3-1 worked perfectly in this situation, as Hellas were set up to ignore the middle and concentrate numbers at the back and up front. Against other opponents, it may not work as well, so this is hardly a silver bullet to fix everything wrong with Fiorentina this year. What it is, though, is a new arrow in Italiano’s quiver, one he can knock and loose when necessary, and that’s a huge advantage.

2. Fiorentina don’t need the ball. Fiorentina had 44% possession in this one. That’s the lowest of any Serie A match during Italiano’s tenure, and just the 6th time they’ve had less than half. The team’s passing completion percentage was a woeful 65%. They went long more often than they went short. And you know what? They dominated the game.

We often think of dominance as requiring the ball—Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona is the archetype—but that’s not always the case. The Viola pressed really intelligently and forced Verona to do exactly what they wanted, then sprang forward as quickly as possible. With so much pace up front, a focus on counterattacking always felt like the right approach.

The Mastini are a weird opponent and like to press as much as Fiorentina, so they’re pretty easy to cut through on the break, so there’s no sweeping conclusion you can draw that Fiorentina should sit back and play BeppeBall at all times. But, as with the switch of shape, there’s a time and a place to shuffle the deck, and Italiano now has proof that his players can do something different.

3. A confident team looks very different from a nervous one. Fiorentina just haven’t ever looked confident this year, and it’s easy to see why: they’ve been quite bad. LMQ, Ikoné, and Venuti all looked anxious at all times, worried that they’d make another mistake after all the ones they’ve already made this year, and that nervousness led them to second-guess themselves and pile more miscues, further eroding their confidence. In this one, though, they were all decisive and assured and all turned in excellent performances.

It’s tough to be sure of yourself when you’re constantly getting beaten up. It’s not as simple as, “Go out there and be confident,” of course, but whatever Italiano told these guys clearly sorted their heads out a little bit. Hopefully he’s got plenty more of the same, but it makes an enormous difference to go into the international break on the back of a win rather than letting the negativity of a loss hang around the squad for two weeks.