With the international break grinding to a halt and real games on the verge of restarting, I’m going to wrap this little A vs B series up with the last real selection question: Jonathan Ikoné or Riccardo Saponara? If you want to read the previous entries—Lucas Martínez Quarta vs Igor and Giacomo Bonaventura vs Antonín Barák—feel free. Otherwise, let’s dive in.
Your eligible bachelors
Riccardo Saponara is a player I genuinely love. Since joining Fiorentina from Empoli in 2017, he’s been loaned to Sampdoria, Genoa, Lecce, and Spezia. The modern game, with its emphasis on speed and industry, seemed to have left him by the wayside among the elegant, louche trequartiste of a previous generation, and I’ve made no secret of my longing for Saponara to fulfill that role.
Vincenzo Italiano reinvented him at Spezia, though, turning him into a smooth attacker who cuts in from the left wing to overload the channels, loft in delicious crosses, and score BANGERs. While he’ll never be quick, his outrageous first touch, insouciantly cheeky dribbling, and fantastic relationship with Cristiano Biraghi have turned him into a real weapon; he’s got 7 goals and 10 assists since Italiano took over and has been one of the team’s best surprises.
Jonathan Ikoné, in contrast, is a player I desperately want to love. He’s electric on the ball; blessed with outrageous pace, quickness, and technique; wants to involve his teammates; and can beat literally any defender in the world. The problem, of course, is that he’s maddeningly inconsistent. For every majestic solo run, every defender left clutching dust in his wake, there’s at least one driving run straight into touch or a shot that corkscrews into the corner flag. He’s so close to being world class. So close.
Let’s crunch some numbers (with a twist)
The Cheese and Jonny are weirdly congruent players in a lot of ways despite being about as different as can be. For this exercise, though, I’m not comparing them statistically. For one thing, they each operate exclusively as inverted wingers, Saponara on the left and Ikoné on the right, with Nicolás González (doubtless Fiorentina’s best and most important attacker) shifting back and forth depending on which one starts.
And that’s the rub. Statistically, they’re quite similar, per fbref. Saponara averages 0.39 goal+assists per 90 in Serie A, while Ikoné’s at 0.36. Ricky is doubtless the more dangerous as a goal threat due to his shooting, while Jonny’s the more dangerous dribbler, particularly in the final third. They’re about even in terms of chance creation, with Ikoné slightly superior, but Saponara’s defensive output cancels that out. There’s really very little to separate them in terms of numbers.
If you really want to pick a number to focus on, let’s do +/-, which basically measures how many goals a team scores and concedes when a player is on the pitch compared to off of it. I thought that Fiorentina was usually better with Saponara, but Ikoné’s actually leading the race by quite a bit here. I’m not going to go through all the nerd stuff here, but again, you can check it yourself on fbref (scroll down to Playing Time /90).
The caveats here, though, are numerous and forbidding. Maybe Saponara’s been more effective and thus plays against better opposition. Maybe Jonny’s come on when Fiorentina have leads and can counter and run up the score. Or maybe this is random variance rather than cause and effect. You can doubtless come up with your own cautionary lenses here, so I won’t list them all out. It’s interesting stuff but miles from being definitive.
No numbers, just vibes
If you’ve watched them, you know that these are extremely different players, despite the statistical similarities. Saponara starts on the left, stays high and wide, and works his way infield. Ikoné stays even higher and wider but often drops deep to act as an extra midfielder. Ricky’s fantasia is particularly useful against a team playing a deep block, while Jonny’s explosiveness makes him a lethal counterattacker.
That’s one way to solve this problem: use Saponara when opponents are bunkered back and use Ikoné when they’re more on the front foot. Perfect. We solved it. Great job all around, everybody. This is definitely the last paragraph in this article, then.
Okay, maybe some financial numbers
Except that it’s way more complicated than that. First, there’s the financial aspect. Saponara is 31 and has a contract running out at season’s end. While he’s certainly demonstrated that he can fulfill a function in Italiano’s system, he’s the finished product. Expect another year-long extension in June, but the Cheese has a ceiling: a good and useful and fun player, but not a superstar.
Ikoné, on the other hand, cost the club €15 million last January, and it makes sense to try and squeeze some value out of him. Even though he’s extraordinarily frustrating, those flashes of genius mean that, if he can hit his heights, say, 20% of the time rather than 10%, he’ll be a huge deal and could conceivably earn a transfer fee, especially since he’s only 24.
Muddying the waters further
Here’s where I add another wrinkle, one that doesn’t include either Saponara or Ikoné. I’m talking about Nico González, and here’s where I wish I could dive into some lineup numbers. Like I said, Nico is Fiorentina’s most important player, so it makes sense to ensure that he’s in a role that brings out his best. For the sake of this piece, let’s dumb that down a little bit: Is González better on the left or the right?
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to that kind of lineup data. I could go through every match and try to figure out if Fiorentina are better with him on the left or the right, but I don’t have access to that kind of time, either. I think this is very much an eyeball test that Italiano has to do; the fact that Ikoné has played 600 more Serie A minutes feels significant, but again, there’s a sample size issue, especially with the added complication of cup competitions.
There is, of course, another complication. 3 of them, in fact. They’re named Riccardo Sottil, Christian Kouamé, and Josip Brekalo. They’ve all played a bit this year and complicate those numbers even more, but the real issue is figuring out if any of them is a better option than Saponara or Ikoné. Sottil looked like a world beater before his back injury a month into the season. Kouamé came out red-hot as well, although he’s since cooled down. And Brekalo is the shiny new thing.
It’s a mess, frankly. The smart money is on Italiano easing Sottil and Brekalo into the XI, mostly as substitutes, while largely phasing out Kouamé’s minutes on the wing. It’s a conundrum and not one that’s got an easy answer for next year. With the fixtures coming thick and fast—twice a week for as long as Fiorentina remains in the Conference League and the Coppa Italia—Saponara and Ikoné will both get lots of opportunities, so maybe this whole thing doesn’t even matter.
Who’s the better fit in the starting lineup?
This poll is closed
Sottil, Kouamé, or Brekalo, even though none of the actually fit all that well right now due to injuries/rust/et cetera.