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Is Fiorentina bad at set pieces?

It feels like the Viola never score from dead balls, but that feeling might be lying.

SS Lazio v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
This, but make it data viz.
Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

Every team’s fans believe that their team is terrible from set pieces, and Fiorentina’s are no different (especially since we got a couple years of Gianni Vio). I decided to see if my fury at watching corners fail to beat the first man was justified, so I took a look at the numbers from the ever-wonderful fbref to figure out if the Viola are as woeful from dead balls as we all seem to think.

The usual disclaimers apply: the definitions of “chance,” “set piece,” and a lot of the other terms here leave some wiggle room that the binary world of statistics can’t always encompass. This is also a pretty small sample size—I feel like anything less than a full season’s worth of statistics typically falls into this category—so there are all the caveats that come with that. Finally, the numbers don’t define the sport. They give us another way to think about what’s happening on the field, another angle to see the action. They aren’t the be-all, end-all, but a tool.

How many set piece does Fiorentina create?

This was a pretty simple thing to figure out. All I had to do was go to fbref’s Serie A page and have a look. What interested me, though, wasn’t just the volume of set pieces that a team creates. We’ve talked in the past about how Fiorentina is pretty good at creating chances, and that its strikers are basically all that’s keeping it from being a pretty good attacking side.

For this example, I wanted to see how the total number of chances the team creates from set pieces compares to its overall chances created. After all, a team that’s scored 45 goals this year will have scored more from set piece situations than a team that’s only scored 20, but if the first team has scored 7 set piece goals and the second has scored 6, I’d argue that the second team is better from dead balls, as they score a much higher percentage of their goals from them.

I therefore decided to plot every Serie A team’s set piece chances created compared to its total chances created. Fiorentina is the purple dot, but you’ll be able to see the other teams by hovering over them. The trend line is the theoretical average, so teams that fall below it create a lower-than-expected portion of their chances from set pieces.

And guess what? Fiorentina aren’t all that weird here. The team creates a very high volume of chances from set pieces, but it creates a very high volume of chances in general. Indeed, it’s astonishing that Fiorentina have created so many total chances (2nd most in Serie A); you’d think that would lead to one of the best attacks in the league, even in an off finishing year.

And hey, zooming back in on set pieces, would you look at that. Fiorentina have also created the 2nd most set piece chances in Serie A. Even when stymied in open play, they’ve been able to generate opportunities. That’s exactly the profile you want to see from an elite attacking team whose manager doesn’t look like he’s developing an ulcer.

Fiorentina v Torino - Coppa Italia Quarter Final Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Finishing and plot twists

So what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that the scoreboard doesn’t count expected goals. It counts actual goals, and Fiorentina has been very bad at scoring those. How bad, you ask? Well, you might expect that a side with Serie A’s 2nd best total chance creation record in Serie A and its 2nd best dead ball chance creation would have something like its 2nd best scoring record.

Instead, Fiorentina ranks a rather putrid 13th in goals scored. It doesn’t matter how many chances you make when nobody can put the biscuit in the basket, and nobody for the Viola has shown any real inclination to do so at set pieces (or anywhere else). Right now, though, let’s not worry about the overall scuffling for goals. Let’s worry about set piece goals.

I plotted set piece chances compared to set piece goals. As a quick explainer, teams below the trend line have underperformed from dead balls, while teams above it have overperformed. Put another way, I bet you that Fiorentina’s dot is farther down from the trend line than any other team in the division.

Wait. Wait. Wait wait wait. What’s this? Fiorentina’s been slightly worse at finishing their set pieces than you’d expect, but there are 7 teams in the league that have been even worse? Fiorentina’s set piece woes aren’t actually all that woeful? Just what the hell is going on here?

Hang on. Let’s try this again. The graph has to be lying somehow. how about I plot every team’s total percentage of chances from set pieces compared to its total percentage of goals from set pieces? That should give us a pretty good look at how well the Viola finish their chances in these situations, right?

Ah nuts. There are 8 teams that create a higher percentage chances from set pieces than Fiorentina, and 8 teams that create a higher percentage of goals from them. That means, that, uh, Fiorentina’s pretty much right where you’d expect them. That’s still not great evidence for the idea that the Viola constantly foul up their set pieces. Okay, fine. I guess it’s time to get to the bottom of this.

Getting to the bottom of this

Okay, there are a lot of things to think about here. The primary one is that Bad is Stronger than Good, as established by Baumeister, Bratslavsky, and Finkenauer back in 2001. It’s a landscape study in psychology that’s been reinforced time and again in the decades since, but the basic idea is that the human brain remembers unfavorable outcomes more regularly than it remembers favorable ones.

In a Fiorentina set piece context, that means that our impression is Cristiano Biraghi fizzing the ball directly into the noggin of the opponent marking the front post. Yes, that’s definitely happened more than once, but those memories have drowned out the positive ones, even though Biraghi gets it right more often than he gets it wrong (and take it easy on old Cris).

Teams score, on average, something like 3% of their corner kicks. That’s a really small percent! I don’t know what it is for free kicks, but I’d guess it’s similarly low. Fiorentina is a team with a very good set piece taker in Biraghi and one dominant aerial target in Milenković, then a bunch of average-ish dudes. That’s not the kind of setup that results in a ton of success.

Really, though, I think it’s about expectations being difficult to align with reality. In terms of volume, yeah, Fiorentina have failed at more set pieces than anyone in the league, but that’s because they’ve won more of them in the first place and convert at an unremarkable rate. It’s like saying that McDonald’s messes up more orders than any other restaurant on earth. You’re not wrong, but they’re also receiving more orders than any other restaurant on earth, so the rate of Quarter Pounders with Cheese in place of McNuggets isn’t anything wild.

So is there a set piece problem?

Problem? Nah. Fiorentina earns a lot of set pieces, just as you’d expect from a ball-dominant team, and converts those set pieces at something like league average. While employing an extra big lad or two to aim at in the box would help, the big lads aren’t always capable of doing all the physical and technical stuff that Vincenzo Italiano needs his team to do.

Put another way, adding prime Jan Koller would maybe lead to another headed goal or two from corners and free kicks, but would also probably force the team to play very differently, and in a way that would probably result in fewer set piece opportunities in general, which would in turn make redundant bringing in a guy whose primary value is at set pieces. And just like that, we’re stuck in a loop.

The first possible “solution” (and again, there probably isn’t even a problem) is one that I’m surprised Italiano hasn’t explored further, given his desire to control every aspect of every game. I’d expect him to want more corners and free kicks taken short, which forces opponents to react and opens space in the box for balls in from different angles. It feels like that’s a trick that a lot of teams try in major tournaments, and I don’t understand why it’s used relatively less frequently at club level.

The second solution is less tactical and more practical, in that it involves practicing set pieces more. More than a quarter of domestic goals come from set piece situations but teams rarely spend a corresponding amount of time on those situations in training. This isn’t a brilliant insight; it’s been out in the world for a long time. Still, it’s worth wondering if Fiorentina are prioritizing the dead ball, especially given how hard they work in possession.

In conclusion, I think we should stop worrying so much about Fiorentina’s set pieces. They’re fine. They’re great. Nothing is wrong. Everything is fine. It’s fine.

Now, rounding off those chances in open play. Well, that’s an entirely different topic.