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Cremonese 0-2 Fiorentina: Player grades and 3 things we learned

A routine win over a clearly-overmatched opponent isn’t what we associate with the Viola, but we’ll happily take it.

US Cremonese v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
This is the face of HYPE
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Player grades

Salvatore Sirigu—6.5: Didn’t have much to do, as 4 of his 5 saves were extremely simple and Cremonese’s forwards consistently failed to put their efforts on frame. His distribution was a bit scattershot, but that’s fine when he can still dig out a massive 1-v-1 stop against David Okereke. Good to know that the backup is entirely capable.

Dodô—6.5: Energetic at both ends, winning a couple of really good tackles and providing some nice thrust in the final third. Won the ball to create the second goal and is finally starting to look like a €15 million fullback. Still had a couple of dicey moments in defense but clearly on the right track.

Nikola Milenković—7.5: Absolutely immense. Started a little bit shakily but grew into the game and erased Cyriel Dessers and Okereke. Always on hand to put out fires (4 blacks, 7 clearances, 7/9 aerial duels won) and did all the dirty work. Nice to see he’s firing on all cylinders again.

Lucas Martínez Quarta—6.5: Nearly lost Dessers after 90 seconds and had a couple of other iffy moments but was mostly quite good, snuffing out danger and pressing high up. His love of carrying the ball forward, laying it off, and then sprinting in behind is a bit of a concern when Fiorentina turns the ball over.

Cristiano Biraghi—5.5: Didn’t do much going forward despite a team-high 91 touches, but didn’t have to. Had a couple of poor set pieces and a couple of poor crosses but was otherwise mostly unnoticeable. Completely stopped Leonardo Sernicola from getting anything, winning 4 tackles and holding up well in his own third.

Sofyan Amrabat—5.5: Seemed a bit off the pace, getting dispossessed a couple of times, missing a couple of passes he usually hits, and offering none of the control we associate with him. He’s still a world-class midfield general and there’s no cause for concern here; just an off day for a player who’s usually so consistent.

Rolando Mandragora—8: A goal and an assist make him the obvious man of the match. Mostly kept things ticking in possession although his passing wasn’t as crisp as it might’ve been. Really, though, this was all about moments, and he had those moments. His 1-2 with Barák was particularly nice to watch. Really growing into critical piece.

Marco Benassi—4.5: Just as invisible as ever, although he at least had a few shots, including one of which he put on frame, albeit very, very softly. Contributed well in defense with 4 tackles and an interception. Also had the funniest moment of the game, hacking down Amrabat and then trying to haul him back up by the hands and pulling the Moroccan over and dragging him backwards, eliciting a wry smile from Sofyan.

Jonathan Ikoné—5: Technically got an assist, although it looked like Mandragora just pounced on a ball that he happened to touch last, so it’s hard to feel like he deserved it. Made his usual succession of bad decisions, whether those were missed passes, inexplicable touches, or just plain weirdnesses. I want to like him but he makes it hard.

Antonín Barák—7: Crucial in both goals, hitting a lovely cross-field pass for the first and that 1-2 with Mandragora for the second. Always seemed to offer a simple forward pass and to move the ball in the right direction. He’s still a bit more peripheral than I’d like but he’s clearly got a lot of class. Understated excellence.

Riccardo Saponara—6: Involved in the buildup for the first goal but didn’t do much else. Felt like he had more to offer against the worst defense in the league but never got untracked.

Arthur Cabral—7.5: His goal was a tap-in, but his performance was generally good, especially without the ball. Ran to create space and led the press really well. Still looks a bit clunky in possession at times but offsets that with his work rate and hunger to score. Remains hilarious, too, gently tossing the ball off the back of Mandragora’s head after the midfielder opened the scoring and was roaring in celebration.

Josip Brekalo—6: Made an instant impact with his involvement for the second goal but wasn’t very good otherwise. Jinked onto his right foot several times and had chances to shoot but turned them down and instead lost the ball. Clearly knocking off the rust, but his role going forward remains cloudy given the 5 other wingers on the roster.

Nicolás González—5: Looked strangely jittery and didn’t really do much on the ball, but tracked back well and won a couple of headers. Odd to see him and not Christian Kouamé or Riccardo Sottil in this situation.

Luka Jović—4.5: Had a 1-v-1 saved, but the flag was up to spare his blushes. Should’ve gotten on the end of a lovely Venuti cross but didn’t make the run. His sluggishness can be so frustrating, especially when he doesn’t score.

Lorenzo Venuti—5: Completely lost Okereke on a pretty simple run in behind, but Sirigu saved his bacon with a box office save. Looked good going forward, surging up the pitch with the ball a couple of times and teasing in a perfect cross that nobody attacked.

Alfred Duncan—n/a: Good to see him, even though it was just 6 minutes. First time he’s played in a month, highlighting just how much Mandragora has seized that position.

Three things we learned

1. Italiano’s figuring out when to loosen up. Last year, Fiorentina played the same style no matter what: keep the ball, build from the back, work it down the wings, look for cutbacks, and press like crazy as soon as they lost it. No matter the opponent, that was the plan, and it frequently caught bigger teams by surprise. Earlier this year, that approach fell into a parody of itself, growing as stale as anything we saw under Paulo Sousa’s high-possession, low-penetration final season.

It felt like his desire to control as many variables as possible capped his team’s attacking potential, but now he’s found a middle ground. Against smaller teams, he’s more comfortable playing a much more open style. Instead of knocking the ball around the back, he wants his goalkeeper, his defenders, and his midfielders to get it forward quickly, often bypassing the middle third, to spring direct attacks.

That means ceding possession and leaving some space for opponents to break into at times, but against teams with a talent disadvantage, he seems more comfortable relying on his own players to just win the game. It might not work against the top 6 or so teams in Serie A—reverting to a more controlled style feels natural in those circumstances—but the variability makes Fiorentina much more difficult to plan against. He deserves immense credit for his adaptability.

2. The role players are finding their rhythms. Dodô, Barák, and Mandragora cost a lot of money this summer and really didn’t make much of an impact at the start of the season. Some of it was their fit in a 4-3-3, some of it was figuring out a new team or country, some of it was random variance, but they all looked like flops. Go back to some of the match threads from before the World Cup break if you don’t believe me; people weren’t happy with them.

Now, though, they’re all looking like really useful cogs in the Viola machine. None of them are the key players—that’s undoubtedly González, Milenković, Amrabat, maybe Cabral and Bonaventura—but they don’t have to be. They just have to do their jobs, win the majority of their battles, and do the little things that make the stars shine brighter. That’s exactly what they’re doing right now and it’s why Fiorentina looks like a very different side than it did in October.

3. The momentum is tangible. The cliche is that winning fixes everything, but that’s pretty much the case here. Fiorentina’s won 5 straight and is unbeaten in 7. Dodô, Barák, Mandragora, and LMQ all look like average-to-good Serie A players. Cabral’s got 6 goals in his last 7 games and looks like the predatory finisher he was at Basel. The defense is starting to shape up, keeping 4 clean sheets in that same stretch after keeping just 9 in its previous 30.

It’s more than that, though. It’s Cabral tossing the ball off the Mandrake’s noggin after a goal. It’s Nico, Igor, and Dodô dancing. It’s Gaetano Castrovilli hitting the crossbar with a whirling backheel flick after missing months. It’s Biraghi scoring from inside his own half. There’s a joy and a swagger and a warmth that the stats don’t pick up, and those are the things that turn a bunch of good players into a good team. And it’s happening at the exact right moment. And goddamn, is it fun or what?