The Midfield Question

Much criticism since Italiano has taken charge has gone to the defense, who frequently make high profile errors resulting in classic Fiorentina meltdowns. Martinez Quarta and Igor were supposed to be the second and third CBs after Milenkovic and after a very erratic season, the latter has already been jettisoned and it looks like the Argentine is set to join him. Both are immensely talented players who failed to find consistency. However, even Milenkovic was guilty of some brutal games and brutal errors, the result of Italiano's very aggressive high press that frequently leaves the defense expose.

Italiano is an attack minded coach, and unlike some of the great attack minded Italian coaches of today, such as Spalletti, Sarri, and potentially De Zerbi, who play an exciting but direct style that values possession and counter attacking in equal measures, Italiano, like Montella before him, plays a more "Spanish" game of the Barcelona mold. This values possession and tactical flexibility above fast aggressive attacks - Italiano's favorites have different profiles but tend to be good with the ball on the ground and capable of switching position. He favors a versatile 4-3-3 although had success switching to a 4-2-3-1 to better make use of Amrabat, one of the two most talented players on the squad last year but one who lacked some of the tactical flexibility of better midfielders - it Amrabat has one major flaw it's despite his skill he lacks the vision to be a true director and is best suited in a packed midfield where he can act more than think.

This style of play lives or dies by the midfield as much as the backline. To play so aggressively forward even if you dominate possession you will still inevitably be vulnerable to counters, which is why coaches like Pep Guardiola demand aggressive pressing from most if not all players, to regain the ball as soon as possible stay on the attack. Italiano's most curious feature as a coach is his relative lax approach to pressing - although he favors players who can be aggressive and his teams want the ball, even before Fiorentina, he seemed to tolerate more passive zone defending when out of possession, putting a significant burden on his defense. While the Fiorentina CBs deserve much of their criticism, it is not an easy job when frequently the midfielders and even fullbacks seen to take for granted that our defenders have a sweeper profile and are willing to roam and try and do everything themselves.

So far Arthur Melo is our marquee midfield signing and if he can stay healthy (a bit if), he is the model Italiano player. A central midfielder capable of playing in a more forward and deep lying role, he's willing and capable to contribute defensively and is very skilled at reading and breaking up plays, while not soft he's a very finesse and disciplined defender rather than an enforcer. This isn't a problem in itself - Montella's Fiorentina thrived with the midfield trio of Borja Valero, David Pizarro, and Alberto Aquilani, and Melon can certainly play the Pizarro/Badelj role, but in my opinion it's not the best use of him. At Barcelona his best spells were less as a replacement for Busquets and more for Iniesta, a player who thrived in a more floating role where he could retain the ball, drive through defenses, and make a killer pass. This is where Arthur thrived at Gremio and where he showed the most promise at Barcelona.

Now in a double pivot he might have more freedom, but Mandragora, his presumed partner if Amrabat leaves, has much of the same problems. The Mandrake has a bit more bite and his attacking contributions are more direct, but he's not really a pure DM either. The two can definitely play together as they have different skill sets, but if we don't get more defensive contributions elsewhere, in a double pivot we run the risk of crossed wires and in a 4-3-3 I wonder if either of them would he as uncomfortable play the Pizarro regista role as much as Amrabat does.

Speaking of Amrabat, although he wants out, he is professional and if the money isn't there on the market, there's still the chance he stays. This I have mixed feelings about - at his best he's far better than anyone who would replace him, but he's not the same player for Italiano that he is for Morocco or Juric's Verona - as stated before while he offers an elite combination of strength and skill, he's often uncomfortable with too much space and has never stood out in a 4-3-3, and in a double pivot if anything compliments additional muscle more than an Arthur type. If we sell the Moroccan and have time to get additional depth, the two in league names most mentioned as a replacement are Bologna's Nicolas Dominguez and Lecce's Moten Hojulmund - both would be welcome, as destroyers not hapless on the ball who are already good Serie A players, but both are relatively expensive and have other suitors. Corinthians' Fausto Vera is another link who fits the bill but he has only played in Argentina and Brazil so far in his career and will need more adaptation.

Fitting the midfield together will be a big test for Italiano. Even the more attack minded midfielders, choosing who to use where is challenging, especially when their commitment to helping win back the ball is all over the place which could complicate their use in a 3 man midfielder.

Bonaventura is probably the most useful overall, a cagey veteran who can do a bit of everything and one of the more clutch players on the team and one of the few who remotely resemble a winner, but he's not young and prone to mild injuries, and while he's a good opportunistic goal scorer is not a consistent long range shooter. Duncan can plug into virtually any role and is good at everything, but without consistency. The coach does not appear to be a huge fan and if he stays it will likely be as a sub. Barak is the best long range shooter we have, a skill we are otherwise sorely lacking, but as valuable as his goal scoring prowess is, he was otherwise mediocre last year and is prone to disappearing. Castrovilli, once the future of the midfield, will probably only still be on this team because his knees are too shot to sell.

The two new more attacking options brought in probably won't move the needle much although serve as a wildcard. Sabiri has looked great this preseason, and you can see why we signed him - he's smooth on the ball and has a sleek shot, and is willing to press and tackle, but his history is not particularly promising, as he was a non factor for both an attack starved Sampdoria and Morroco and not able to cement a starting role for either. Infantino is promising and will likely serve as an understudy for Jack, but even in Argentina he was inconsistent and will need time if he is able to put it all together.

Overall the depth is there - people are right our priority right now should be defensive improvement, but a quality CB alone won't be enough to keep us from being constantly exposed to counters. We need consistency from the midfield, and I question where that is supposed to come from. Compared to the slow decline of the midfield since the Sousa era, the midfield now has the depth and talent again, but without the coherent fit it once did. I honestly don't know what formation would get the most out of what we have and I am very curious to see what Italiano is thinking.