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Fiorentina’s buildup shape against Cremonese was bizarre and excellent

Vincenzo Italiano ignored the distinction between defenders and midfielders and the result is utterly fasincating.

FC Internazionale v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
This is a mad genius at work.
Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Fiorentina were always favorite against Cremonese in the Coppa Italia semifinal, and duly ran out as 0-2 winners. That’s the kind of result you’d expect from a competent outfit (Serie A’s most in-form, in fact) against the team at the bottom of the table. Nothing to see here.

But there was. There was. Because the Viola built up play from deep in a way I’ve never seen before, and it felt like watching something that could become a trademark for manager Vincenzo Italiano. If nothing else, it’s worth taking a long, hard look at how Fiorentina worked their way past the Grigiorossi press.

Fiorentina lined up, as usual, in a 4-2-3-1. For now, let’s focus on those first two lines. Cristiano Biraghi, Igor, Lucas Martínez Quarta, and Dodô comprised the back line, with Rolando Mandragora and Sofyan Amrabat operating as the double pivot in front of them. Normally, that would look something like this when goalkeeper Pietro Terracciano has the ball, whether on goal kicks or from open play.

A classic pattern when building from the back: the CBs spread, the fullbacks push on, and a midfielder drops in to form a back 3.

We’ve seen Fiorentina play like this before and do a good job of it, although it does make them a bit predictable. This move from 4-3-2-1 to something like a 3-3-3-1 is similar to how Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona used to operate. We’ve seen this pattern for a decade, which of course means that people have spent a decade figuring out how to stop it.

For Cremonese, playing a 3-5-2, the solution was relatively simple: the strikers stay central until the ball goes to one side or the other, then try to squeeze the space while a midfielder or the ball-side wingback close down the man in possession. The idea is that the team out of possession can trap the team in possession, forcing them to pump the ball long and possibly concede possession.

Italiano, though, knew that Davide Ballardini would be ready for that approach. So Cousin Vinnie did something radically different: he kept his fullbacks deep and wide, then ordered Martínez Quarta to push forward into the holding midfielder spot, which in turn pushed the defensive midfielders into wider areas.

Wait, what the hell is this?

Again, this is probably the first rotation I’ve ever seen like this. It’s a deeply risky pattern because, if you lose the ball at the back, there’s a lot of space through the middle and a forward matched up 1-v-1 with a single defender, with the other being too high up to help cover. It comes out looking something like this.

Igor and LMQ took it in turns to step forward, but it felt like the latter was usually the man going into midfield.

Because this is pretty abstract when it’s just diagrams, here are some examples of how Fiorentina actually applied this concept.

In the image above, Igor (yellow circle) has just passed Amrabat (teal circle), who’s temporarily swapped places with Dodô (out of picture). Biraghi (teal circle) is even with them to create a back 3, while LMQ (yellow circle) is in the holding midfield spot. Mandragora (above LMQ) and Dodô (out of picture below him) are even with him. This is from the 6th minute.

Here we are in the 12th minute, and the same pattern is very clear. Igor (yellow circle) has just received a pass from Terracciano. Dodô (teal circle) and Biraghi (teal circle) drop in to form a back 3, with LMQ yellow circle directly in front of Igor. Amrabat is wider to LMQ’s right, with Mandragora taking up a similar position a bit higher up the pitch and out of the frame.

Moments later, here’s the payoff. Igor (yellow circle) is all the way back, while nominal centerback Martínez Quarta has moved very high The fullbacks are in teal; Biraghi’s a bit farther forward with Dodô making the pass to LMQ. The midfielders are circled in pink; Amrabat’s dropped a bit deeper, while Mandragora and Barák are right next to each other away from the ball. With all 3 central midfielders on that same line and Ikoné (out of the picture at the bottom right) stretching the play, look at all the space LMQ has to receive the ball. Cremonese’s defenders clearly have no idea who’s supposed to be picking him up.

Half an hour in and Fiorentina has, if anything, embraced it even harder. The centerbacks are in yellow, the fullbacks in teal, and the midfielders in pink. As Igor receives a backpass from Amrabat, he has the quick lateral pass to Biraghi, who can then either carry the ball forward himself if nobody challenges him or slip a simple pass through the lines to one of Amrabat, Mandragora, or LMQ. Cremonese’s 3-5-2, designed to pack the middle and force Fiorentina to play down the wings, is failing to that because Fiorentina can add another central passing option.

Right around the hour mark, and here’s an example of the system not working. Igor’s forced to pass back to Terracciano, who in turn has to thump it long. What went wrong? Well, where’s Dodô? The rightback should be available for a quick pass to the side, but he’s higher up than Martínez Quarta, so Igor doesn’t have that option. Maybe LMQ should have pushed wide and deep to provide that option, but he’s right where he’s supposed to be in this system.

Again, this is an inherently risky approach, and Cremonse nearly capitalized on it a couple of times after the Viola turned the ball over. To make this work, both central defenders have to be really good on the ball, capable of receiving in tight spaces and with a defender on their back, which is a skill that very few centerbacks practice. Besides shielding the ball, though, they need to be able to actually do something if it comes to them; just passing safely sideways or back allows opponents to essentially ignore them and focus on the deeper players.

And hey, Igor and LMQ are two of Serie A’s most technically-adept centerbacks. Igor’s simply absurd physical strength and breadth mean that he can shield the ball from anyone, and his quick feet mean that he can turn and make a simple progressive pass to break the press and keep moves going.

Martínez Quarta, though, is a bit different. I’ve written about his hilarious thirst for goals in the past, so this feels like a natural step in his evolution as a player. Instead of anchoring himself in the middle like Igor does, he’ll rove forward, trusting his teammates to work the ball forward without his help and then use him running into space like a mezzala rather than a central defender.

Again, he has to offer some kind of threat if he’s going to play like this, and he did. Boy howdy did he. There were several distinct moments in which LMQ’s off-ball movement going forward made chances. The first was when he popped up in midfield and chipped a lovely ball in for Nicolás González, who cushioned it down for Arthur Cabral to volley just wide. Keep an eye on that number 28 in the buildup and see how much space he has because Cremonese’s midfielders don’t know who’s supposed to mark him.

He also cracked off a nice shot from outside the area when the Cremonese defenders backed off him, clearly uncertain about who was supposed to pick up this rogue element who’d appeared just outside the area. And hey, LMQ forced a save out of Fallou Sarr. He’s going to hit one of these Facundo Roncaglia shots at some point and we’re going to lose our goddamn minds.

I cannot emphasize how wild this is. I’ve never seen a system that creates overloads using a centerback pushing into midfield like this; the nearest examples I can imagine are Sergio Busquets with Guardiola’s Barcelona when he operated as a nominal centerback. Gasperini’s Atalanta does something sort of similar with centerbacks overlapping, and Sheffield United were similar in some ways in the Premier League a couple years ago. None of these maneuvers, though, involved a defender starting so high at the beginning of the buildup phase.

What makes it so weird is how most managers approach defense. Having a midfielder drop into a back 4 is, like I said earlier, a well-established move, as it allows the fullbacks to push on, creating a back 3 and more wide passing options. I cannot recall ever seeing a system in which a central defender in a back 4 regularly steps forward into midfield, though. Centerbacks just aren’t supposed to do that.

And, despite the inherent risk, I love it. Italiano is clearly thinking very hard about the tactical side of the game and looking outside the box. He’s not happy with following established patterns; he’s trying to figure out solutions to problems that nobody else has ever really posed. That kind of creativity is what makes him one of Italy’s most intriguing young managers, and it could help Fiorentina do some remarkable things under his guidance.