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Braga 0-4 Fiorentina: Player grades and 3 things we learned

Maybe this team isn’t as doomed, doomed, doomed as we’d been led to believe.

Sporting Braga v ACF Fiorentina: Knockout Round Play-Off Leg One - UEFA Europa Conference League Photo by Diogo Cardoso/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Player grades

Pietro Terracciano—6.5: Made a really big save on Sikou Niakaté’s header during Braga’s first half flurry but didn’t have much else to do, facing no other shots on target.

Lorenzo Venuti—5.5: Neutralized the explosive Ricardo Horta really well, aside from a rather needless booking. Didn’t do as well going forward, where he seemed to overthink a few times and lost the ball needlessly, but it’s not as if incisiveness in the final third is what we expect from Lollo. Suspended for the return leg.

Nikola Milenković—6.5: Really solid. Kept Abel Ruiz and Andre Horta shackled with his pace and physicality. Put out fires before they arose, won everything in the air, and was generally a wall outside of a brief, odd stretch when Vincenzo Italiano switched him and Igor. Did have one badly-missed clearance to hand Ruiz a very presentable chance at goal, but the forward biffed it to let him off the hook.

Igor—7: Solid at the back and avoided the gaffes that have plagued him this year, especially judging high balls in behind. Imperious as ever on the ball. Provided a comedic highlight when Ruiz tried to shoulder him off the ball and got bounced into the turf for his trouble. Had a couple of wobbles when moved to the right, but that’s on the manager, not him.

Cristiano Biraghi—8: Kept Yuri Medeiros quiet at the back, but it was in the final third where he really excelled. Assisted the opener with a cross that was absolutely perfect, and had at least 3 others earlier in the half that could’ve resulted in goals as well. May not have deserved the second assist—a throw-in that Cabral did a madness with—but it was a good reminder that the captain is a fantastic attacking asset.

Sofyan Amrabat—7.5: Dropped very deep in the first half, forming a back 3, to help Fiorentina build out from the back, but also bullied Braga in the middle as is his wont. After the red card, almost seemed bored, unleashing stepovers on the wing in an unexpected manner. Played a peach of a ball for Saponara to square for the second goal. What a monster.

Rolando Mandragora—6: Came close with an early effort from distance but didn’t seem to do all that much otherwise. Missed a couple of passes that left González seething, but that was more about Nico’s quiet game than anything else. More on him later.

Riccardo Saponara—7: His assist to Jović was gorgeous and he had a few other typically smooth and Cheesy moments on the ball, tormenting the hosts with his swiveling hips. Did lose the ball cheaply a couple times after heavy touches, which was unlike him, but showed a willingness to drop deep and help the defense as an auxiliary fullback early in the second half that made up for the shortcomings.

Giacomo Bonaventura—6.5: Slightly odd game from Jack, who spent less time looking for space between the lines and more time dropping deep to help progress the ball. Had a couple of neat turns and won some free kicks but exerted little influence in the final third, although you get the sense that it was more by design than due to any shortcoming.

Nicolás González—5.5: Truly bizarre that Fiorentina scored 4 goals with Nico not contributing to any of them. Made some clever runs that his teammates, particularly Venuti and Mandragora, missed, but didn’t make anything happen when he got it. Played with his head down and dribbled into corners at times. Still served as an effective decoy, though, as Braga were clearly on high alert every time the ball came to his wing.

Luka Jović—7.5: Almost scored an outrageous scissor kick in the 3rd minute and had another good chance off a Biraghi cross before he opened the scoring, but his second was a really, really good finish under deceptively difficult circumstances. Held up the ball well and even showed a burst of pace; Vitor Tormena is going to have nightmares featuring the big guy for weeks.

Dodô—5.5: Barely tested defensively but still had a couple of nervous moments and didn’t contribute anything going forward. His penchant for flopping is straying dangerously close to parodic, and it seems that referees aren’t as willing to blow the whistle when he hurls himself turfwards.

Arthur Cabral—7.5: Scored a genuinely marvelous goal 4 minutes after coming on and added a clinical one 11 minutes later. His energy closing down is always exemplary, and his finishing seems to be approaching the levels it hit while he was in Switzerland, as he nearly completed his hat trick with a late header that almost looped in at the back post.

Antonín Barák—5: Didn’t really do a whole heck of a lot, honestly, although you get the sense that he was mostly out there to kill off the game.

Jonathan Ikoné—6.5: Had the most Jorko game imaginable. Lost the ball cheaply and got booked for a totally unnecessary shirt tug. Dispossessed Niakaté high up, drove at goal, and unselfishly laid it off for Cabral to finish. Darted into the box on a quick free kick to get himself 1-v-1 with the Matheus but couldn’t finish with his right. The man is pure chaos.

Christian Kouamé—5: Got a soft card for clattering into Víctor Gómez and tracked back as well as ever, but was a bit loose with the ball.

Three things we learned

1. Mandragora is doing something, even if we’re not quite sure what. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for and love of Alfred Duncan, so I’ve been frustrated that Italiano has clearly preferred the Blasphemous Mandrake this year. Alfred misses some passes, sure, but his pressing, ball-winning, and willingness to pass vertically make him such a good cog in the midfield machine. Mandragora, on the other hand, seems to just sort of vaguely exist out there, defying efforts to figure out what he’s done in any given match.

I made an effort to really watch him in this one and I might have a slightly better idea of why the mister likes him so much. Mandragora isn’t especially athletic, but he tackles well and generally makes the smart, simple pass. What sets him apart, though, is his appreciation of space. He’s not a 10, drifting between the lines into pockets of space. Rather, he’s reactive in his movements, quickly occupying space that his teammates have vacated to ensure the team’s shape remains balanced.

That’s most notable on the left side with the Biraghi-Saponara combination. Cris spends a lot of time very high up, almost as a winger, while Ricky drifts into the middle. That means there’s nobody in the leftback area, so opponents always have an out to start counters. Mandragora’s excellent at sliding into that space to slam the door. Conversely, when Biraghi stays deeper, Mandragora pushes high and wide to provide the width. He may not do much on the ball, but his off-ball contribution is very important to the system.

2. The strikers can, in fact, score. Look, this was an outlier game. Braga seemed out of sorts from the start and effectively waved the white flag after Tormena’s red card in a way that very few Serie A teams have done this year. But it was really nice to see Jović and Cabral combine to score 4 of their 7ish good chances in this one.

Sure, the Archbishops aren’t a top-notch outfit, but they’ve earned 3rd place in the league and boast the 3rd-best defense in the country. They were also on a run of 13 wins from 15 matches. This is a good team with a good defense, and Fiorentina’s strikers demonstrated that they can do the deed. What separates a fine player from a good one, though, isn’t that they can do a thing. It’s that they can repeat it regularly.

3. Fiorentina might be a better cup team than league team. One of the accusations leveled at Italiano’s tactics has been that they’re too predictable, especially going forward (full disclosure: I agree with this assessment to a certain extent). There are 38 games in a Serie A season, and the league is famously the most tactically demanding on earth. Other managers are going to figure out how to neutralize his approach after they’ve seen it a few times, and we haven’t seen him react well.

In cups, though, Fiorentina are a different animal. Part of that is the nature of tournament play: with the increased jeopardy, most teams want to sit deep and minimize their margins for error. Fiorentina, on the other hand, charge forward hell-for-leather at all times, which is a serious adjustment; I think that (along with a healthy slice of luck) is part of why they’re flying through the Conference League and the Coppa Italia.

What’s left for Italiano, then, is to ensure that his team remains unpredictable in tournaments; if he can do that and get the requisite lucky bounces, this squad could host Fiorentina’s first major trophy since 2001. The next step for Cousin Vinny as a manager is figuring out how to inject that unpredictability into Serie A.