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Frosinone 1-1 Fiorentina: Player grades and 3 things we learned

A deeply frustrating match gives us a little bit of insight into the Italiano’s mental approach.

Frosinone Calcio v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A TIM
Find someone who holds you like Nihola holds Niholás.
Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Player grades

Pietro Terracciano—6: Made one decent save on a Luca Mazzitelli drive from distance but didn’t have much else to do.

Fabiano Parisi—5: Struggled a bit playing from the right but mostly did his job, although he did draw Vincenzo Italiano’s ire for dribbling sideways in the first half. Moving to the left after the break didn’t help at all, as he failed to slow down Matías Soule and lost him on the goal, although Kayode’s deflection on the cross certainly didn’t help him.

Nikola Milenković—7: Really good performance, outside a needless card for destroying Mazzitelli. Never gave Walid Cheddira or Marvin Cuni a sniff. Even came close to scoring with a piledriver off a cleverly designed free kick.

Lucas Martínez Quarta—6.5: Didn’t get forward as much as he’d have liked but did have some good moments, albeit more as a centerback than as a striker. Nice to see that he can do both.

Cristiano Biraghi—5: Lost Soulé a couple times and didn’t do a whole lot going forward, but kept the team moving. Hopefully his injury isn’t too serious, as Fiorentina really can’t afford to lose another fullback right now.

Arthur Melo—6.5: Excellent in the first half, keeping possession ticking over and screening the defense adequately. Much worse after the break, along with the rest of the team, and was unable to establish any rhythm.

Alfred Duncan—7.5: Man of the match. Played high up, joining the forwards in pressing Frosinone high, and won the ball constantly. Clever in possession and constantly looked to get the ball forward quickly, creating several chances with his direct passing, including the assist. Fell off a bit after the break, but so did everyone else. Looks like the most complete midfielder on the roster.

Nicolás González—7.5: Made the goal look deceptively easy and troubled Frosinone’s defense throughout. Could’ve had another goal had Sottil squared to him in the first half. Ran out of gas towards the end and didn’t impact proceedings as he appeared increasingly frantic; clearly needs some help up there.

Giacomo Bonaventura—6: Oddly quiet in the first half but showed his experience in the second, when he did his best to drive Fiorentina forward and looked likelier than anyone else to do something on the break.

Riccardo Sottil—3.5: Twice got in behind the defense, easily dusting Anthony Oyono down the wing, and made the wrong choice both times. His pace and dribbling mean he’ll always tantalize, but until he can consistently get it right in the final third, he’s never going to make an impact. Maybe he can take some lessons from getting everything wrong today, but that’s the silver lining; he got everything wrong.

M’Bala Nzola—3.5: Hustled and bustled, pressed really well, and threw himself about, but missed 4 or 5 good chances to score. Not sure what the deal is here, as he’s proven to be a competent Serie A striker, but he’s clearly got some kind of mental block. Credit to him for still getting to the right places and asking for the ball rather than hiding or sulking, but it’s getting a bit ridiculous now.

Michael Kayode—6: Energetic and positive as ever, but lacked precision in his passing and lost his man a couple of times. Did make one fantastic block sweeping in behind, but also tipped the cross that led to Soulé’s goal. Repeat after me: he’s still a teenager. It’s fine.

Jonathan Ikoné—5: In his first appearance of the year, #ChaosJonny was a bit subdued, although he did produce one of those twinkle-toed runs that always get the fans out of their seats. May well be a massive upgrade on the other wingers this year, and that’s a little scary.

Antonín Barák—5: Still working his way back to fitness and looks a bit off the pace, but managed to pop up with a header in the box late on. Really needs to find his feet soon to give Jack a break.

Rolando Mandragora—4.5: Brought on to help solidify the midfield and protect the lead and didn’t really do either.

Lucas Beltrán—5: Only got 10 minutes, but charged around energetically enough. Might be time to give him a bit more burn.

Three things we learned

1. The bus only idles but doesn’t park. One of the criticisms of Italiano’s Fiorentina I frequently see is that the team can’t protect a lead by sitting deep and soaking up pressure. This is one of the most calcio complaints imaginable, of course, and reflects the game’s heyday in the 1990s, when the defenses were good and goals were difficult to score. In 2023, however, I’d argue that things are very different, and particularly different for the Viola.

I’ve written before about how Italiano’s main psychological peg is instilling an active, rather than a passive, minsdet in his players. He wants them to dominate all facets of the game: passing and running off the ball, yes, but also defending (man-marking way up the pitch, playing a very high line, pressing maniacally from the front). Everything he does is based around this, and it’s why the players all love him. He empowers them to take risks most managers wouldn’t allow them to take, and he backs his players to the hilt.

It’s therefore completely antithetical to his approach to sit back and soak up pressure. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to toggle from his positive approach to, say, a Jose Mourinho one. This isn’t FIFA or Football Manager, where you can change change the team’s tactics with a click. Demanding a team that wants to press high, keep the ball, and score goals also be able to defend with 10 players in the box ignores everything that’s going into improving this team. The bus can’t go from 3rd gear to park.

2. Italiano trusts his guys. Spinning off a previous thing, Italiano does trust his players immensely and wants them to know it. It’s why he’s often slow to substitute underperformers and sticks with guys who are in poor form. It’s a pretty basic psychological thing: if the players know that their coach believes in them and believes that they can sort out their own problems, it takes a massive weight off their shoulders, which in turn increases the chances that they’ll play their way back into form.

It’s why he’s stuck with the fans’ favorite scapegoats like Luka Jović, Ikoné, and Mandragora, and it’s obvious that the players adore him for it; every single interview with them includes praise for Italiano for improving them, particularly mentally. Confident players are better players, and nothing destroys a player’s confidence like getting benched, even if their performances merit it. The problems arise when a player underperforms for an extended period of time (cough, Nzola, cough), but you can’t fault the mister for backing his guys to keep them confident.

3. Bad luck doesn’t last forever. We’ve seen this with every center forward who’s passed through Florence since Dušan Vlahović left. Krzysztof Piątek, Arthur Cabral, and Luka Jović all had stretches (albeit of varying lengths) in which they looked competent leading the line and finishing moves, and then had stretches where they look terrible.

Nzola and Beltrán have been pretty unlucky so far. The former in particular has missed a bunch of good chances. That’s probably just random noise, and he’ll get back to finishing at an average level by the end of the season. Heck, maybe he hasn’t even been that bad: both Understat and fbref’s models have him at under 1 xG in Serie A this season, although I think that’s a bit off base. The team’s scoring goals from other places; when one or both of the strikers lock it in, everything’s going to feel a lot better.