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Fiorentina 1-0 Lecce: Player grades and 3 things we learned

Getting the win despite a sub-par performance is a fascinating new development for a team that’s so often underachieved.

ACF Fiorentina v US Lecce - Serie A Photo by Lisa Guglielmi/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Player grades

Pietro Terracciano—7: Only made 2 saves but one of them was a massive denial of Federico di Francesco from close range just after the break, and his stop on Gabriel Strefezza’s header wasn’t bad either. Pinged a glorious kick up to Kouamé to start a break too. Pretty relaxing day otherwise.

Dodô—7: Might’ve been his best game for Fiorentina. Very active and rarely beaten, adding in a goal-saving tackle in the first half. Very active in the final third, constantly overlapping, and carried the ball forward well. Still needs to get a bit stronger and improve his crossing, but he’s getting close to looking like a €15 million fullback.

Nikola Milenković—6.5: Never seemed all that troubled by Lorenzo Colombo and kept the youngster well in hand. Had a bit more trouble with Assan Ceesay late on but it was, overall, a very assured performance from the big man.

Igor—6: Switched off to allow di Francesco in just after the break and booked after Colombo turned him in the second half but didn’t make any other mistakes. Imperious in possession at the back against a ferocious Lecce press and really helped settle the tempo after the break.

Cristiano Biraghi—6: Really poor going forward in the first half, losing the ball too easily and muddling his positioning with Mandragora. Improved a bit in the second half but wasn’t ever really a force. On the other hand, dealt with the tricky Strefezza much better than expected.

Sofyan Amrabat—6.5: Got caught in possession once or twice by the onrushing Giallorossi but was mostly very good, bustling around the engine room and putting out fires out of possession. Was incisive with the ball as well, constantly looking to pass or carry it forward.

Rolando Mandragora—5.5: Looked off the pace for the first 45 but eventually settled in. Did his usual Milan Badelj cosplay, unfussily getting the ball forward while being surprisingly involved in the defensive phase. Just a bit imprecise.

Nicolás González—7: Would’ve scored had Antonino Gallo not done it for him. Clearly the dangerman all day, winning fouls and causing mayhem wherever he went. Continued his recent trend of looking like a very creative central playmaker as well. Analogous to Amrabat in some ways in that they’re both agents of chaos who look awful to play against.

Antonín Barák—6.5: Had a very Barák game in that he was classy and elegant but still peripheral. Combines so well with others in the final third but doesn’t demand the ball the way an elite 10 should. Enigmatic, perhaps, but still a really useful cog in the Viola machine.

Riccardo Saponara—6: His lovely cross created the goal but he wasn’t on song. Loose with the ball early on and seemed out of sync with his teammates. I’d still watch him bring down high passes all day long.

Christian Kouamé—6: Played an interesting role, often dropping very deep and allowing González to stay higher up. Battled admirably and never stopped running but looked a bit rusty, holding the ball too long sometimes. Still had a couple of wonderful moments, particularly that touch to bring down a Terracciano punt and lay it off for Nico. Functional at worst.

Arthur Cabral—5: Charged around in his typically endearing way and made himself a nuisance. Had a couple of half chances that he couldn’t finish but clearly worried the Lecce defense in a way that Kouamé didn’t.

Riccardo Sottil—4.5: Showed almost immediately that his athleticism remains top-notch, dusting the pacy Valentin Gendrey, and consistently surged forward on the ball. The problem was that he never figured out what to do when he got near the opponents’ goal, although he’ll get that back with more minutes. Just need to be patient.

Giacomo Bonaventura—5.5: Fired in a howitzer that Wladimiro Falcone had to punch into danger and looked energetic in his limited minutes.

Alfred Duncan—5: As ever, looked more of a hammer than an augur. Bowled around and made sure that Fiorentina closed out the game with minimum fuss.

Jonathan Ikoné—4.5: Not very involved during his brief cameo.

Three things we learned

1. Fiorentina is now a defense-first team. Vincenzo Italiano earned plaudits last year for his high octane, quick passing system that took Serie A by storm. After losing Dušan Vlahović, though, the goals dried up over the second half, and that drought continued into this year. While Arthur Cabral’s growth has provided some much-needed finishing, though, he’s not the centerpiece.

No, that’ll be the defense. The Viola have conceded 5 goals in their past 9 outings (0.56 goals against per game), keeping 5 clean sheets in the process. Compare that to 32 matches previous, in which they conceded 36 (1.13 goals against per game) and kept 7 clean sheets. Italiano and these players deserve immense credit for becoming one of the stingiest units in Serie A after coming into the year touted as an attacking juggernaut.

2. Winning without scoring is a good sign. This is the kind of game that the Viola have stumbled over for years. With Pantaleo Corvino and Sandro Mencucci at the helm for Lecce, with native Florentine Marco Baroni in the dugout, coming off an emotional win and a streak of good performances, and rotating the side heavily, I was halfway expecting a loss here.

And it nearly was. Fiorentina constructed a couple of half-decent moves but didn’t put Falcone under too much duress as the Salentini pressed them really well. Even so, the ball somehow ended up in the net and the good guys saw out a win. I don’t want to read too much into a single game, because that’s not how any of this works, but this feels like the crowning achievement of a recent trend: even when they’re not at their best, the Viola can still get wins. It’s been a long time since this club has consistently managed that.

3. This looks like a system rather than a collection of individuals. For years, Fiorentina has been less than the sum of its parts. The recruitment department deserves some of the blame, grabbing players that don’t fit with the rest of the team (e.g. Franck Ribery, Kevin-Prince Boateng, José Callejón, Aleksandr Kokorin, Matija Nastasić). The result has been talented individuals with playstyles that aren’t compatible. Part of it is certainly on the coaches, too, as they’ve been too rigid to alter their approaches to fit the guys on the roster.

Part of it, though, has been a pervasive culture of mediocrity. The good players know they’ll be bought soon enough and all they have to do is perform well enough to catch someone’s eye, while the middling players are just happy to be there. That’s the recipe for a disjointed roster packed with guys who aren’t willing to sacrifice anything for the good of the team.

Now, though, Italiano (with some help from Pradè/Barone) has found a system that brings the best out of his players. Amrabat can tear around and wreak havoc without having to find the penetrative forward pass because Mandragora’s there to do that without running too much. Biraghi can jet forward knowing that Mandragora and a quick centerback will cover him. González can sprint over the top because Saponara or Ikoné is dropping deep on the other side. There’s balance, and it’s allowing everyone to play to their strengths.