By now, we’re all painfully aware of Fiorentina’s inability to wring production from center forward. Through 12 Serie A matches, only a single goal has been scored by a striker: M’Bala Nzola’s stoppage time strike against Cagliari when the Viola were already up by 2 goals. He and Lucas Beltrán simply haven’t delivered the goods.
What that got me wondering, though, was just how dire the situation really is. To get a better idea, I decided to compare Fiorentina’s goal production to that of the other teams in Serie A. My initial question was simple: How does the percentage of goals scored by Fiorentina’s strikers compare to that of its league counterparts?
Is it good if your strikers score a lot?
I grabbed the numbers from Fbref, as usual, with the caveat that positions aren’t always constant. For example, Ademola Lookman has 3 goals this year, but only one of them came when he was playing center forward (naturally, against Fiorentina). Although thinking of players in strict terms of position is restrictive and reductive, I’ve separated it out into total number of goals scored by strikers compared to non-strikers (data here), then plotted those numbers on a scatter graph. There’s still some room for noise (penalties, for example), but this should give us a pretty good snapshot.
Hover over the unlabeled points and a tooltip should pop up to identify the team.
It’s still pretty early in the season—we’re just under a third of the way through—but you can see some trends starting to emerge. The most notable one to my eye is that the top 5 teams (Inter Milan, Juventus, AC Milan, Napoli, Atalanta) are all clustered pretty closely around the trend line, with the Partenopei as the biggest outlier; that makes sense, given how dependent Napoli is on Victor Osimhen’s goal threat.
Conversely, the Juvenuts are the only one of the top five under the trend line, which also makes sense given Max Allegri’s penchant for 1-0 wins via a late set piece or counterattack. Inter, on the other hand, are notable for the sheer volume of goals from the strikers, which is pretty obvious when you look a bit deeper: the Nerazzurri are the only of the top sides to always play with two center forwards, and Lautaro Martínez is on an unholy tear right now.
Then there’s the 6th place team. Yep, that’s our Fiorentina all the way in the top left corner, scoring a good number of goals (joint-5th in the division) with just that one from a striker. Even with the godlike aerial prowess of Nico González, the presence of Jack “Only Scores Bangers” Bonaventura, and a defense that’s almost more of a threat to score than prevent prevent them, it’s hard not to focus on that one spot.
For the doom-and-gloom crowd, though, there’s another point of interest here: take a look at the teams getting the highest proportion of goals from their strikers. I’m talking about the group underneath the trend line and towards the left side of the first graph. Those are teams whose strikers score a proportionately higher number of the team’s goals, and they’re all relegation battlers or deeply disappointing. Fiorentina is getting fewer goals from the forwards than these teams but still banging them in.
Is it the strikers’ fault?
So what’s the problem? Is it just finishing? Except for truly elite players, that’s a skill that tends to flatten out over time. Players will go through periods in which they overperform and then drop into periods when the underperform. The last time Fiorentina had one of these magical creatures was Dušan Vlahović, and he papered over so many cracks in the attack due to his incredible efficiency.
I hypothesized that the best way to get strikers scoring is to consistently get them touches in the opposing penalty box. To test that, I plotted striker goals compared to striker touches in the box by team (data here), and found that there’s definitely a strong correlation. While there’s some variability that could skew the numbers (e.g. teams playing a front two), I think this is a helpful indication that getting your center forwards consistent touches close to the goal results in them scoring.
Bigger circles indicate more total team goals. Hover over the circle to get the team name and goal totals.
As you can see, Fiorentina’s strikers don’t get many touches in the area. This lack of opportunity strongly correlates to the lack of goals from that position and fits in very well with a lot of what we’ve seen on the field: Nzola and Beltrán are often isolated up front, making it easy for opposing defenses to smother them and prevent them from getting touches.
This isn’t just a matter of their teammates levering more balls into the box for the center forwards get onto, of course. Part of the problem has been Nzola and Beltrán’s inability to get themselves into space to receive passes. When they do, good things happen: take a look at Giacomo Bonaventura’s goal against Bologna. The problem, of course, is why the players don’t funnel more touches to the strikers. If you think this team is going the wrong way, this could be Exhibit A that Italiano’s system is broken.
Maybe it is, but not so broken that Fiorentina isn’t humming right along. The next 4 teams in the table—AS Roma, Bologna, Monza, and Lazio—all conform to the trend lines pretty well, and none of them are scoring nearly often as the Viola. The only other team that comes close is Frosinone, another team relying on a lightning quick Argentinean right winger with a golden left foot in Matías Soulé.
To sum up, there are two ways to look at this. The first is that Fiorentina’s attack is running outrageously hot despite the lack of a center forward to finish moves, and that it will eventually come back to earth. Per this line of thinking, the team is going to plummet down the standings as soon as that happens, and it will happen. Teams without a good number 9 just can’t consistently score goals in Serie A.
The glass-half-full crowd will argue the exact opposite: if this is how good Fiorentina is without getting any goals from the strikers, imagine how much better things will be when the forwards inevitably start contributing goals at the rate that last year’s crop did. Italiano is a good manager (bad managers don’t lead a team to a 22-point increase one season and then to a pair of cup finals the next) and will eventually scheme his strikers into more touches in the box, leading to steadier contributions from Nzola and Beltrán.
I have no idea which of those outcomes will come true, as both seem pretty believable to me. I worry that Nico and/or Jack’s hot finishing will cool off and nobody else will step up to replace those goals. However, we’ve seen Italiano switch up his tactics and get an under-performing striker to reach a level basic competence before with Arthur Cabral last year (and maybe Luka Jović, although your mileage may vary on that assessment of competence), so I think it’s likely he’ll figure out some sort of improvement plan for his center forwards.