Pietro Terracciano—6: Only made one save but it was a good one on Nicolò Cambiaghi. Not at fault for either goal (or the one that got called back). Decent enough on the ball. Certainly not the issue.
Michael Kayode—4.5: Befuddled by Cambiaghi and Matteo Cancellieri’s fluid interplay and looked to be chasing ghosts the entire time. Beaten by dribblers, had some nervy moments in possession, and caught badly out of position a couple times, and offered nothing going forward. First game this season he’s looked like a teenager, which just shows what a high standard he’s set for himself. He’s fine.
Nikola Milenković—4.5: Switched off on the first goal, albeit not as badly as LMQ and Duncan, then did the same on the second, albeit not as badly as LMQ. Was as physically dominant as ever but clearly didn’t communicate effectively with the other defenders and was uncharacteristically hesitant on the ball too.
Lucas Martínez Quarta—3: Had a brilliant dribble in the first half and nearly scored a ridiculous overhead kick, but the majority of the blame for both goals falls on him. Completely losing Alberto Grassi on the first and then taking a Brekalesque touch to send Empoli in for the second is obviously maddening, but this is just part of the Martínez Quarta rollercoaster.
Fabiano Parisi—5.5: Could’ve maybe been sharper on the first goal but can’t fault him too much. Was good driving forward and played in a couple of decent balls but didn’t quite have enough to make an impact in the final third.
Arthur—5: Unable to establish a rhythm in the first half, largely due to his teammates’ dedication to coughing up possession. Helped apply the screws after the break but was more metronomic than incisive.
Alfred Duncan—5: Nearly scored a banger and played in some excellent passes, particularly in the second half, but was a bit imprecise with his passing (acceptable) and his mixup with LMQ allowed Grassi to run clean through the back line on the first goal.
Nicolás González—6.5: Desperately unlucky not to score early on as Etrit Berisha made a double save and had another good look late unluckily saved as well. Drew his usual complement of fouls but also took a beating while keeping his feet, even when going down was the easier option. Can’t call him a diver.
Giacomo Bonaventura—5: Had a couple of neat turns and a few decent passes but dropped much too deep, especially in the second half, which left the striker very isolated. Still had a couple of moments where it looked like he’d manage his usual heroics to turn the tide but it didn’t quite come off for him.
Josip Brekalo—3: Played one nice cross to Nico at the back post but did nothing else good, and I mean nothing. Lost the ball in increasingly creative ways while doing nothing to stress the defense. I genuinely do not understand what he adds to this team.
M’Bala Nzola—4: Starved of service and got almost no opportunities to do anything in the box, but that’s only partly on the rest of the team. Very static in the area and continued to struggle with his touch. 23 touches in 72 minutes just isn’t good enough, especially since it felt like he had maybe half that.
Riccardo Sottil—5.5: Passed up a decent chance to score off a clear volley that he corkscrewed way off target but at least forced the Empoli defense to take him seriously. Won a couple of free kicks, beat his man off the dribble, and offered at least a vague threat, even if it was more theoretical than anything else.
Lucas Beltrán—5: Took a couple of shots, which nearly doubles his season tally (he’s now at 5 for the year). Nippy off the ball and nearly forced a penalty. Look, I’m really trying hard to find silver linings here.
Rolando Mandragora—4.5: Didn’t change the game in the slightest. Still not sure what he offers that Duncan doesn’t.
Christian Kouamé—n/a: Probably deserved more than 8 minutes but at least looked nippy and involved during his cameo.
Three things we learned
1. This is Fiorentina heritage. A number of commenters have already mentioned it, but it bears repeating: this was the most obvious trap game imaginable. Coming off an international break, on a Monday, in a local derby, against the worst attacking team in Serie A (did you hear that Empoli had only scored 1 goal in 8 previous league outings this season?), everything was set for Fiorentina to drop a stinker.
That’s how this team tends to go off international breaks. Since 2018-2019, the Viola are W5 D9 L8 in these fixtures. That’s an average of 1.1 points per match, which is half a point worse than their average per match over that same time frame. More anecdotally, I’d say that of the 22 matches following international breaks, fully half have been really underwhelming results, with just 4 good ones. Even if we didn’t expect this exact outcome, we should’ve expected something like it.
2. Italiano doesn’t trust his backup plan. Trailing at home to Serie A’s worst attacking team should be the perfect place to make an attacking change, and Cousin Vinnie didn’t try one until the 83rd minute. Giving the ineffectual Brekalo the hook at halftime was the right call, but bringing on Mandragora and Beltrán for Duncan and Nzola was baffling.
The more attacking option was to leave Nzola on with Beltrán as the secunda punta, with either Jack or Duncan making way, and getting another forward into the area. Empoli were never going to compete for possession, so it wasn’t a matter of controlling the play. It seemed like Italiano realized this too late, when he threw Kouamé into the fray, but I’m a bit concerned that it took him so long to see what seemed pretty obvious to a lot of observers.
3. Breaking down a deep block is really hard. I’ve noted in previous entries this year that Fiorentina is averaging a much lower share of possession this season than previously. The simple read is that replacing Sofyan Amrabat with Arthur is a huge upgrade on the ball, and that the Viola ought to bee seeing a lot more of it as a result. What’s the deal?
Well, it seems pretty simple to me. Vincenzo Italiano hasn’t figured out how to break down a low block, so he’s decided that the easiest way to beat one is to dismantle it completely. That means more high-risk passes, more turnovers, more opportunities for opponents to get forward and leave spaces for Nico and Company to attack. Transition is where the Argentine thrives, and guys like Jonathan Ikoné and Nzola have excelled in those situations as well. Tweaking the tactics to suit them is a good tactical decision.
The problem is when Fiorentina concedes early and the opponent can park the bus, ignoring opportunities to get forward and forcing the Viola to break them down. Nzola, for all his size, isn’t a great presence in the box, as he tends to be static, relying on his physicality to carve out chances instead of his movement. Nico’s a demon on the back post, but Jack’s tendency to drop deeper and the lack of another threat in the penalty area means that all too often, Fiorentina just doesn’t have any real movement up front.
It’s obviously comically reductive to say that the strikers need to move around more and the midfielders need to get into the box. The modern game is a lot more complicated than that, for one thing, and just running around like a headless chicken is probably the worst advice any team could follow. But finding a pattern of movements in the box other than González at the back post has to be one of this club’s top priorities right now.