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

A decent performance from the Viola, particularly after the break, meant they were pretty assured in hindsight.

ACF Fiorentina v KRC Genk: Group F - UEFA Europa Conference League 2023/24
Saint Nico blessing the crowd.
Photo by Andrea Martini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Player grades

Oliver Christensen—6: Just 1 save for the Dane, although it was a decent one on Joseph Paintsil. Did have one pretty poor kick out and wasn’t great with his long distribution, frequently going away from Nico’s aerial threat. Quick off his line to sweep behind the defense, though. Not at fault for the goal.

Fabiano Parisi—5: Probably should’ve gotten Alieu Fadera sent off after the Gambian fouled him thrice in 5 minutes, but struggled to stick with the tricky winger, getting blown past several times, and soundly beaten on the goal. It’s not entirely his fault, as he’s just not as good on the right, so hopefully he can return to the left soon.

Yerry Mina—6: He lives! Not a terrible debut for the big man. Created the first goal and always looked dangerous at set pieces. Wasn’t great in possession and looked a bit unnatural on the run, so might still be getting back into form after so many injuries. Perhaps that will sort out his positioning as well.

Lucas Martínez Quarta—7: Made a pretty poor attempt at a tackle on Joris Kayembe that the fullback danced past before scoring, but quenched his goal thirst with a poacher’s finish at the other end. Was pretty good otherwise, too, apart from that early Fadera strike off the post, and hoovered up every loose ball at the back during his time on the pitch.

Cristiano Biraghi—7: Beaten by Paintsil early and had a few defensive struggles in the first half but steadied himself and steadied the ship. Created numerous opportunities from set pieces and teased in some good crosses as well. His tackle in space on Paintsil late in the second half and subsequent fist pump was emblematic of what Vincenzo Italiano wants from his guys. Good to see the captain provide it.

ACF Fiorentina v KRC Genk: Group F - UEFA Europa Conference League 2023/24
His reactions to Fadera’s run of fouls was hilarious.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Maxime Lopez—6.5: Buzzed around and made himself a nuisance, including a couple of hilarious fouls (he looks like a Bichon Frise bringing down a moose sometimes). Looked better after Arthur came on to dictate the buildup play, leaving him freer to operate a bit higher up. Still not up to his Sassuolo levels but starting to figure it out.

Alfred Duncan—6.5: Steady and imperturbable as ever, getting the ball out quickly and filling in the gaps defensively. Truly the Milan Badelj of this Viola generation, in that you don’t always notice him because he does all the dirty work to ensure that every else gets to shine.

Jonathan Ikoné—6.5: Certainly had his #ChaosJonny moments but helped trouble the Genk defense at times, especially in the second half when the threat of Kayode’s overlapping forced the Belgians to defend wider. His backheel flick to put the youngster through on goal to win the penalty is exactly why Italiano believes in him despite his inconsistencies, and why he’s absolutely worth sticking with.

Antonín Barák—6: Had two very good headers saved by Hendrik van Crombugge and was very unlucky not to score. Floated around the penalty box and found space but didn’t combine especially well with the forwards. Given the difficult summer and fall he endured, he’s still clearly ramping up.

Nicolás González—7: Wasn’t as dangerous as a dribbler or a back post aerial threat as usual, but still contributed well with a few jinking runs. And let’s be honest, there wasn’t a soul in the world who thought he’d miss that penalty, was there?

Christian Kouamé—7: Won a game-high 5 free kicks as well as 6 of his 9 aerial duels. Dropped deep to defend at times, but was particularly impressive with his off-ball movement into the channels, attacking at angles that forced multiple defenders to track him, which in turn opened space for Nico and Ikoné. Only had 1 shot but his versatility and dedication were exemplary.

ACF Fiorentina v KRC Genk: Group F - UEFA Europa Conference League 2023/24
Effective without even touching the ball.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Michael Kayode—7: Shut down the right half of the pitch, won the penalty, and displayed so much exuberance that you can’t help but fall in love. His ability to get forward and stretch Genk’s defense changed the entire game, as the Smurfs had to respect his overlapping runs instead of pinching everyone infield as they did when Parisi was out there.

Nikola Milenković—6: Slammed the door on any would-be fightback in the second half, winning everything in the air and on the ground. Even got up in Andi Zeqiri’s face during a minor altercation, and watching the Switzerland international realize what he’d gotten himself into, with Mina looming in the background, was pretty fun.

Lucas Beltrán—6: Had a couple of miscued touches and misplaced passes but bustled about nicely. Looked good playing off Kouamé and showed some promising moments with Nico. It may take him the rest of the season, but he’s clearly got so much ability.

ACF Fiorentina v KRC Genk: Group F - UEFA Europa Conference League 2023/24
The start of a beautiful friendship?
Photo by Andrea Martini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Arthur Melo—6.5: Stepped into the regista role and Fiorentina immediately started playing in the attacking third exclusively. His understanding of how to run the game is incredible, and he’s the best deep-lying playmaker Florence has seen since David Pizarro.

Josip Brekalo—n/a: Tracked back, at least, but didn’t really have any opportunities to do much. I guess it makes sense to get him a few meaningless minutes just to ensure everyone sees the pitch, and this was a good spot to do it.

Three things we learned

1. Kouamé’s the best option at striker for now. After spending €40 million on strikers this summer, it turns out that Fiorentina’s solution was on the roster all along. Kouamé probably won’t ever be prolific, but his running off the ball and understanding of where he fits in the hierarchy make him extremely useful. He can hold up play, win free kicks, run the channels, and do all the little things that help a team going forward.

With Italiano prioritizing more direct play, he’s a good match for the other attackers, not due to his own talent (which is considerable), but due to his selflessness and intelligence. He’s basically the Alfred Duncan of forwards: smart, functional, and there to bring out the best in his teammates more than to shine himself, which ends up making him a star in his own right. I still believe in Beltrán’s long-term potential and I’m not even completely out on M’Bala Nzola, but Kouamé brings the best out of the team as a whole and deserves to be the first option up front.

2. Two up front looks encouraging. That said, using Beltrán as the second striker was really nice. Even when he wasn’t sharp, the fluidity of the front 4—Beltrán, Kouamé, Nico, and Ikoné—was revelatory. Look at their gorgeous linkup ahead of the penalty: el Vikingo drops deep, Jonny’s in the middle, Kouamé’s out right. The quick passing and positional interchanges are too much for Genk’s defense to handle and they’re torn open with 4 passes.

Going to this dynamic 4-4-2 shape could prove useful against sides that concede the middle (the extra midfielder isn’t necessary to assure control of possession) and sides that want to press high (the extra striker provides another outlet for bypassing the midfield). I don’t think this is a solution to every problem Fiorentina’s faced this year, but it could address some of them, depending on the situation.

Make no mistake: Giacomo Bonaventura is the 2nd-best attacking force on this team and needs to feature regularly. Barák could likely shift into the front line as a center forward in this system as well. I’m not saying that they need to go to the bench. I’m saying that Italiano has tactical solutions that don’t require them to be perfect, and that’s good for the whole team.

3. A real rightback makes all the difference. This isn’t really a brilliant assessment, but holy smokes is it nice to have Kayode back. Parisi’s an excellent player but clearly isn’t comfortable on the right, and it’s no coincidence that Genk constantly attacked him with both Fadera and Bonsu Baah, generating their two best chances of the night down that side.

ACF Fiorentina v KRC Genk: Group F - UEFA Europa Conference League 2023/24
Protect him at all costs.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

As soon as Kayode came in, he shut down everything on his wing. There was a moment around 74’ that summed it up: he immediately understood where Bonsu Baah was going for a pass in behind and turned to run with him, beat him to the spot, shielded the ball, and turned up the field to send an attack the other way. Parisi’s used to doing the same but reversed and hasn’t been able to adjust yet. Having guys play in their natural positions sure does make things easier for everyone.