Just 5 minutes into what would wind up being a gritty but enjoyable 0-2 win at Udinese, Dodô went down in the corner while trying to shield Lazar Samardžić off the ball in the corner. There was barely any contact between them, making the episode even more ominous as the rightback was unable to get off the pitch under his own power, requiring a couple of the training staff to carry him. He clearly knew it was bad news, barely able to contain himself, and the doctors have confirmed what we suspected: it’s a cruciate ligament injury.
It sounds like he didn’t completely tear it but will still need a pretty serious surgery. The initial timeline is at least 6 months on the sidelines, but he may need more time to regain peak form. Looking at some other Fiorentina players who’ve recently suffered similar injuries and you can see that it’s a long road: Christian Kouamé needed more than a year to recapture his explosiveness, and Gaetano Castrovilli was pretty rusty as well.
It’s a serious blow to Dodô and we wish him a swift and easy recovery. For the rest of his team, though, it’s a serious blow to a season that looked to be turning around after a rocky start. Let’s try to figure out how Vincenzo Italiano might replace the Brazilian for the remainder of the season.
The club has already slammed the door on signing an out-of-contract player, which makes sense when you look at the available options: Fran Karacic is probably the best option in terms of age, ability, and familiarity with Serie A, but he’s been out of contract since Brescia let him go in July; if he wasn’t worth keeping for a mid-table Serie B side, it’s hard to imagine him excelling at a higher tier. The next best option is Kévin Malcuit, and nobody wants to replay that movie. So at least Daniele Pradè and company aren’t panicking like that.
The transfer window
Expect Fiorentina to start doing a lot of research on guys they could nab in the January mercato. Options like Genk’s Daniel Muñoz, Nice’s Youcef Atal, and Lecce’s Valentin Gendrey are all on expiring contracts and could be available for at a discount. With Dodô still likely seen as the long-term starter and Michael Kayode on the rise behind him, it may not make sense to splash a bunch of cash here, but finding someone for cheap, whether on loan (Álvaro Odriozola isn’t busy) or permanently, could be a fairly affordable option.
Until January, though, Italiano will have to piece things together from the options currently at his disposal. This obviously means an expanded role for Michael Kayode, which is very exciting: the 19-year-old has looked sharp in his first season with the senior side, but he can’t start every game, even he takes on a more prominent role in the coming months. The only other recognized option at rightback is fellow promising youngster Niccolò Pierozzi, but he’s dealing with an injury of his own that’ll keep him out for at least another month.
With the team competing on 3 fronts, that means Italiano will have to get creative. Of the players available to rotate with Kayode, Lucas Martínez Quarta looks the best-suited. He’s got the athleticism and the desire to get forward, but his lack of discipline could get him in trouble, especially against quicker wingers. There’s also the concern that he’s one of just 3 healthy centerbacks on the roster (until Yerry Mina’s recovered) and cross-training him at another position could leave the Viola very light in the heart of defense, but LMQ’s probably going to see some minutes out wide.
Let’s talk about some weird options. The first is moving a leftback to the right side. We’ve already seen Italiano test drive this one with Aleksa Terzić last year, and it almost makes sense, as both Cristiano Biraghi and Fabiano Parisi are starter-caliber players. The former is more likely to switch across, as he already had a cameo there against Atalanta last week.
Another option is Riccard Sottil. He’s played (albeit pretty unsuccessfully) as a wingback before and could maybe replace some of Dodô’s ball carrying ability going forward, but asking Handsome Rick to completely reinvent himself as a defender after spending his entire career as a winger might be too much.
Finally, Italiano could repeat the move he pulled against Udinese, switching to a back three for the first time in his Fiorentina career. With Ranieri, Milenković, and Martínez Quarta across the back, the wingback would have a lot of freedom to get forward and wouldn’t need to defend as much; Sottil or even Christian Kouamé, whose defensive work has always been stellar, could do a job in this scenario. Italiano does seem pretty committed to a back four, though, so I wouldn’t expect this to be a regular occurrence.
Wait, what does Dodô actually do?
One thing that Dodô does is play very narrow at times, almost as an extra midfielder more than a fullback. He eschews overlapping his winger in favor of darting infield. That’s clearly a tactical decision from Italiano, as Dodô was more of a traditional, stay-wide-and-cross fullback during his time at Shakhtar Donetsk, so why the sudden change?
It’s actually about Nicolás González in front of him. Dodô’s frequently narrow positioning means that he’s usually left free when Fiorentina passes out of the back and can thus carry the ball forward unmolested because opponents are so worried about Nico that they don’t want to leave their own defenders isolated against him. By dragging his marker inside, Dodô opens a path for the defenders to play quick passes out to González up against a single defender.
Another thing that Dodô does very well, like I mentioned, is jet inside with the ball. He usually does this deep in his own half and just outruns his marker inside, getting Fiorentina out of pressure before offloading to a midfielder to get the ball into the final third. Having that sort of outlet to beat the press is really important for a team that wants to control things.
What Dodô doesn’t do is defend deep. He averages just 1 tackle a game (14th on the team and fewer than M’Bala Nzola, for context). That’s because he’s frequently matched against the opponent’s fullback, stepping very high up to press so that Nico can move infield and press the central defender. Dodô not defending as deep as you’d expect is a good thing, too, as he’s a bit lightweight in that department and can look a bit like a turnstile at times, although he’s improved over the past several months in that regard. However, it seems like Fiorentina’s capable of surviving a rightback who isn’t a great defender in the traditional sense.
So who’s the right choice?
Italiano will choose his options on a game-by-game basis, likely trying to tailor his XI to match specific opponents. What I’m really thinking about, though, is what Dodô does for this team in terms of buildup and defense, and who’s best suited to replicate those things, even if it’s in a very different way.
Biraghi, as a left-footed player, will naturally move inside the same way that Dodô does. He’s also an underrated passer and should have space to hit some really nice long passes into the channels in a way he can’t when he plays on the left. The downside is that he won’t be available as an overlapping threat to cross, which is, of course, his calling card. He’s also not a great dribbler, but having Parisi on the other side could obviate that.
Martínez Quarta is also comfortable playing more centrally, as he’s usually in the middle of the pitch. He’s a good ball carrier but not someone you want dribbling out the back too much unless he can build up a head of steam before taking on his marker. His biggest strength going forward is as an off-ball runner through the channel (see his goal against Udinese), which could add an interesting wrinkle to the attack. On the other hand, his frenetic playstyle may not work as well in a spot Italiano wants precision.
Sottil is the wildcard here. He’s not a great defender, but neither’s Dodô, and he’s at least got the athleticism to turn and run with wingers. He’s also one of Serie A’s best dribblers, statistically speaking, and could be very useful replicating Dodô’s bursts infield. The real question is his decision-making: all that’s holding him back from being a monster is that he always picks the wrong pass in the final third, and that frustration could be magnified into catastrophe if he’s doing so in his own third.
In short, expect a lot of rotation as Italiano tries to figure out how to replace one of the first names in his XI. We could see reinforcements in January, but the mister will have to get very creative to keep the ship afloat until then. It’s not fun for the fans but at least it should offer some really interesting tactical stuff for the nerds. In the end, though, let’s all just hope that Dodô is back to his best ahead of schedule.