One of the more common tropes you’ll see online throughout the transfer window is the idea of a team’s hallowed “First XI.” The idea here is that there exists a set hierarchy, with starters and backups like you see in basketball. The starters play the big games and the backups fill in against lesser opponents. The function of the team remains unchanged either way.
The obvious subversion of that expectation
Yeah, you know my writing style pretty well. In theory, it’s a fine way to operate. In practice, things are a lot messier. Part of that is the nature of the modern game, which demands running at staggering volume and intensity. Even a world-class athlete can’t play 90 minutes twice a week without suffering injury, a dramatic decrease in effectiveness, or just sheer exhaustion.
It’s why Manchester United under Alex Ferguson was such an effective outfit: the Scot understood that a deep squad was better than a top heavy one, especially for a side competing on multiple fronts. Ensuring that every player was fresh increased the odds of success on both a per-game basis and over the course of a season. It’s why nobody’s ever sure what his first XI was. It changed weekly as players were shuffled in and out to ensure maximum fitness.
Even the most legendary teams in the world hardly had recognizable first XIs. The 2003-2004 Arsenal Invincibles, for example, are one of the more famous lineups in the sport. The accepted XI, however, started just 2 league games together in 2003-2004. If the myth of the first XI was ever true, it’s been gone for decades.
Vincenzo Italiano learned that lesson the hard way last year. Leading a team in Europe for the first time in his career and dealing with the extra compression brought on by a January World Cup, the Viola mister tried rotating 8 or 9 players between matches at the start of the season, leading to wildly uneven results. The loss of continuity and the dropoff in quality was simply too much for the team to overcome. It’s no coincidence that his side improved dramatically when he lessened the rotation.
Good fun times trivia questions
I’ll highlight this with a couple of trivia questions. The answers will be at the end of the article. The first question: Who was the only player in the matchday squad for all 60 games last year. The second question: Of the 5400 minutes available (60 matches, 90 minutes, simple arithmetic), who played the most minutes and what percentage of the available minutes did they play?
How the First XI concept does or doesn’t apply to Fiorentina
This year, Fiorentina have 22 players who could reasonably consider themselves in contention for a starting job. Goalkeepers Pietro Terracciano and Oliver Christensen; centerbacks Nikola Milenković, Lucas Martínez Quarta, and Luca Ranieri; leftbacks Cristiano Biraghi and Fabiano Parisi; rightback Dodô; defensive midfielders Sofyan Amrabat, Arthur Melo, and Rolando Mandragora; trequartiste Giacomo Bonaventura, Antonín Barák, and Abelhamid Sabiri; wingers Nicolás González, Jonathan Ikoné, Josip Brekalo, Christian Kouamé, and Riccardo Sottil; and strikers Lucas Beltrán, M’Bala Nzola, and Luka Jović.
That doesn’t mean things will settle into a first team and second team pattern. Players find and lose form and fitness throughout the season. For example, if Fiorentina advance to the Conference League quarterfinals, they’ll play the first leg the Thursday after traveling to face Juventus. Italiano won’t simply punt on one of those games and send out the backups. He’ll analyze which players are healthy, not too tired, performing well, and fit the specific tactical demands of each match, then send out about 7 so-called starters and about 4 backups for each.
That’s borne out by the minutes from last year. There were 5 outfield players who were clearly first choice when healthy: Milenković, Dodô, Biraghi, Amrabat, and González. The rest of the lineup rotated around them. With Fiorentina poised for another 60-game campaign, we’re going to see guys in and out of the lineup constantly.
Trivia answers that you hopefully didn’t scroll down for without actually trying to figure it out yourself first
Christian Kouamé is your ironman. He was in every matchday squad although he was only 14th in total minutes played. A yellow card in the final match of the Serie A season also means he’s suspended for the first round, so he won’t get to repeat that accomplishment.
Cristiano Biraghi was, not surprisingly, the clubhouse leader in minutes played. That’s the 3rd time he’s accomplished the feat in 5 seasons with Fiorentina; the other two, he finished 6th and 4th (5th and 3rd for outfield players). He played an incredible 4000 minutes, a feat matched by just 10 outfield players in Italy last season. Those 4000 minutes were good for 74% of the available minutes.
Some kind of conclusion
Those are both telling. Nobody but Kouamé even made every matchday squad, and Biraghi, who spent more time on the pitch than anyone else, only played 3⁄4 of the available minutes. That total is much lower for everyone else, and even the Viola brass recognized the need for a rotational option and shelled out for Parisi.
What those answers tell me, alongside just watching the games last year and getting a sense of how Italiano operates, is that there won’t be a first XI. There’ll be about 6 core guys around whom Italiano builds his sides, likely trying to feature at least 4 of them in every match.
The natural question, of course, is which guys comprise that core? Milenković, Dodô, Arthur, and González are the likeliest candidates, due to either their quality relative to other options or the club’s investment in them. Because of the depth available, I wouldn’t expect any other goalkeepers, centerbacks, midfielders, wingers, trequartiste, or strikers to fall into that category unless we see someone really outperform expectations, so Beltrán and Nzola, for example, will likely alternate quite a bit.
That alternation is going to lead to frustration for a lot of fans. “Why bench X,” we’ll ask, “When X is playing so well?” Well, because X needs rest and the other players need minutes as well, so there’s going to be some rotation, much of it based on sport science that we’re not privy to. Similarly, when we ask the opposite—“Why isn’t Y starting when he’s obviously better than Z?”—the answer is that Y is being rested to maximize his effectiveness.
None of these rules are written in stone, of course. My entire point—that an XI isn’t a set concept but rather a fluid one that varies game-to-game—suffers from its own existence: there may be times when Cousin Vinnie will rely on the same group of eleven players over and over. The lineup is dynamic, reacting to factors both inside and outside of the squad. The only certainty we have about a first XI is that it’ll be different every time.