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Fiorentina’s buildup couldn’t beat Inter’s press this time, but gives us something to watch

The Viola didn’t get the execution right, but may be developing a unique way to build up from deep positions.

FC Internazionale v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A TIM Photo by Francesco Scaccianoce/Getty Images

Only Inter Milan fans will want to remember Sunday’s game, as it went about as poorly as possible for Fiorentina. Dealing with injuries throughout the squad and serious exhaustion after a grueling 5 games in 21 days meant the Viola just didn’t have the legs to compete with anyone, much less last year’s Champions League runner up. With only 1 outfield player changed from the XI that took down Rapid Wien the Thursday before, the result was a foregone conclusion.

Vincenzo Italiano has come under fire for the performance from a lot of fans and media. While I don’t think he deserves all the flak he’s caught, he certainly could’ve made a few changes to rest some heavy legs. Why would he send the same group out there to get massacred, when the players clearly weren’t up for the full 90 minutes?

My guess is that he decided to treat this game as an extended training exercise, largely because he implemented a very interesting tactical wrinkle to Fiorentina’s deep buildup play: he started pulling one of his central defenders very, very high from goal kicks and other situations in which Oliver Christensen had a lot of time on the ball in his own box.

The buildup shape

It’s not the first time Italiano’s tried this one, and to his credit, it worked fantastically well last time out. We haven’t really seen a redux since then, but it’s now safe to say that this is part of Cousin Vinnie’s toolkit. The commonality is that Cremonese was also playing a 3-5-2, just like Inter, and had to press high after losing the first leg in the Coppa Italia.

While nobody’s going to confuse the Nerazzurri and the Grigiorossi, the similarities in approach and the response to that approach are worth pointing out. The basic idea is that Fiorentina lines up in what we think of as a pretty standard 4-2-3-1: 4 defenders, a double pivot, a band of 3 attackers, and a single striker. It goes a little something like this.

Teams have been playing 4-2-3-1 for a couple of decades now, and one of the primary ways to pass out the back in this shape is to push the fullbacks higher, spread the central defenders wider, and have one of the midfielders drop into the space between them, forming something more like a 3-3-3-1.

Italiano’s idea is that, instead of pulling a midfielder back, he wants a centerback to go forward. It’s similar to what Pep Guardiola did by pushing John Stones into midfield last year, and it’s safe to say that Italiano is watching Guardiola’s teams very carefully. That’s a good sign, by the way: you want your manager paying attention to tactical trends and adapting them to his own ends. Anyways, here’s the result. If you’re a nerd for this stuff, you’ll recognize the infamous box midfield.

If you’re not a big dork and aren’t sure what a box midfield is, the guys at Tifo Football have a really good explanation (actually several good explanations if you go through their offerings). The tl;dr is that having 4 players through the center allows teams to dominate the most important part of the field—the middle—while still having width across the front line. A box midfield also means that, if your team loses the ball, you have lots of players in the middle to force counters down the wings, rather than letting them tear through straight at goal.

Photographic evidence that this actually happened

I’ve flagged up five examples from the Inter game of Fiorentina doing just this. I’ve circled the defenders in teal (I think that’s teal) and the midfielders in pink. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find shots of the whole team, so you can’t see the shape higher up the field, and as a result, I’m only focusing on the deepest couple of lines.

1. Second minute and Milenković is very high up, with Biraghi dropping deep to get even with Ranieri and Dodô to form a wide back 3. Arthur is dropping deep to get the ball (stick a pin in that) and Mandragora is higher up, out of the picture.
2. This is just moments later. Milenković has dropped into the back line and now it’s Ranieri all the way up. Biraghi is out of the picture at the bottom of the screen, level with Milenković.
3. Eight minutes in and Look at this. Mandragora and Arthur are both deeper than Milenković, who’s so high up he’s not even in the shot. Biraghi is, again, out of picture at the bottom of the screen.
4. Twenty-first minute and Ranieri’s clearly ahead of the other defenders, even with Arthur. Note Mandragora up in the corner, a shade wider, just like you’d expect from a box midfield.
5. Thirty-first minute and Arthur’s come deep to get the ball. Milenković is much higher up. Note the space in front of Ranieri and Mandragora; they both recognize Fiorentina needs a player there and are rushing to fill it so Arthur has an easy option to progress the ball.

You get the idea. Italiano wants to form a back three in possession, get an extra body into midfield, and keep three attackers stretched wide across the front line. Like I said, that’s very much in keeping with the latest tactical evolution across Europe. What’s more interesting to me, though, is what it means specifically for Fiorentina.

Maintaining a numerical advantage

One of Fiorentina’s biggest weaknesses under Italiano is susceptibility to counterattacks, particularly from teams playing a striker pairing. Part of that, of course, is the simple risk of playing a very proactive passing and pressing style that requires a high line and accepting the risk, but it feels like the Viola are more fragile than they ought to be even with that acceptance of risk.

The other side of that equation is what happens when Fiorentina has the ball in deep positions, though. The opposing strikers can push forward onto the Viola centerbacks and then slide across, as they pass the ball to the fullback, who’s then stuck in a dead end and easy to press, forcing a long pass and a decent chance at winning possession.

The common solution, as previously mentioned, is dropping a midfielder into the back line and pushing the fullbacks on. The problem there, though, is that most centerbacks aren’t good enough with the ball at their feet to beat the press. That’s why the team got such a huge sum for Igor even after a bad season: centerbacks who can dribble and/or pass out of pressure are worth their weight in gold.

Nikola Milenković, Luca Ranieri, and Lucas Martínez Quarta (until we see Yerry Mina, I’m ignoring him) are all good on the ball for centerbacks, but none of them are great passers or dribblers. Dropping Arthur into the line between them means that opponents know they need to press him and force the ball to one of the defenders. If everyone else is marked up, that defender will have to sit on the ball so long that he has to pass back to the goalkeeper or just boot it up the field himself.

Italiano’s found a solution to that: because both of his fullbacks are excellent technically, they’re better able to cope with being pressed and less likely to lose the ball. Dodô’s a very good dribbler and can zip past his marker, breaking the press and driving the Viola up the field. Biraghi’s not a dribbler, but his passing range and vision are excellent, so he can ping balls into the attackers.

The upshot is that, when two strikers press a centerback and the fullbacks, the centerback can just shift the ball to either side and let the fullbacks worry about progressing it. To put it another way, there are now two good ball players to build get out of the high press rather than one; that’s twice as many good options to advance the ball and thus twice the likelihood of getting out effectively.

So what does the extra centerback do?

Take a look at images 1 and 3 up there. See Milenković ahead of Arthur? I’d bet that’s the plan. An opponent can’t just ignore a guy right in the middle of the pitch, even if that guy isn’t going to do a lot, and that leaves Arthur free to drop deep and pick up the ball. Milenković, then, is essentially serving as a bouncer, blocking Inter’s midfield from getting into Arthur so the Brazilian can pick up the ball, turn, and find a pass.

It didn’t work, though

In this instance, no, it sure didn’t. Despite this really clever innovation, Fiorentina got bulldozed by Inter, mostly because the Nerazzurri pressed them in their own half and never let them out. I’ll submit, though, that the failure to get out wasn’t entirely on the plan and was partly on other circumstances, with the most obvious being just how out of gas Fiorentina was.

There are a couple other points here, though, that are more about Simone Inzaghi and his guys figuring out how to foil this strategy. The first was that Denzel Dumfries is really quick and didn’t give Biraghi any time to find his passes going forward. Even when Captain Cris did ping one up, Christian Kouamé and Lucas Beltrán weren’t able to hold off their defenders well enough to keep possession. It might have been interesting to switch Kouamé and Nico González in this situation, as the Argentine could have won more of those battles against Matteo Darmian.

So that was the left side shut down. On the right, Dodô was man-marked by Federico Dimarco, who’s not a great defender and whom the Brazilian should’ve found some success. However, Inzaghi did a good job nipping him in the bud as well. Dimarco always forced Dodô inside, where Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Hakan Çalhanoğlu shaded to his side, ready to pounce whenever he tried to turn infield. That’s where the first goal came from, in fact: Dodô lost the ball on the wing (as did like 4 other Viola players) and Dimarco hit a lovely cross for Thuram. Right side also shut down.

The final nail in the coffin was that Inter always had someone tight to Arthur so that even when he came deep, he was getting hassled and couldn’t really settle the game down. The strikers were particularly good here, too, as they did a nice job of shading Fiorentina’s defenders down the line and away from their midfield maestro.

Fixing what’s broken

Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s a weird thing to do and Fiorentina just needs more reps. Take a look at image number 5 up there. See Mandragora and Ranieri sprinting into the exact same space? That’s bad. I’m not sure if Luca was supposed to step up and realized it late or if the Mandrake was slow dropping in, but there’s an ocean of unmarked grass there where Arthur should be able to hit a simple pass and get Fiorentina up the field. But there’s nobody there. That’s just more work on the training ground. That’s fixable.

There are also player personnel considerations here. Fabiano Parisi is one of Serie A’s best dribblers at fullback, for example. Sticking him in there instead of Biraghi would’ve given Inter something else to think about, as he would’ve been better able to drive past Dumfries. Having a dribbler in midfield would also have provided that simple option; Arthur’s a passer, not a ball-carrier, and neither Mandragora nor Alfred Duncan offers that either. Pulling Giacomo Bonaventura deeper is an option, but one that would require other adjustments higher up. This is where the team desperately misses Gaetano Castrovilli, Sofyan Amrabat, and Igor.

You can see, then, the shape of the squad Italiano needs, and you can really see what’s missing. That should inform Daniele Pradè’s transfer policy in January and in the coming summer, as beating high pressure already looks like a real weakness for this edition of Fiorentina. Finding guys who fit these (and a host of other) situations is paramount to keep growing.


I’m not absolving Italiano of blame in this game at all. By not rotating his side and by not reacting sooner to Inter’s obvious superiorities (switching the wingers, bringing in Parisi, dropping Jack deeper), he set his guys up for failure. That kind of in-game tactical adjustment remains, in my opinion, his biggest weakness as a coach, although I’m also willing to cut him some slack since he had very little time to prepare and implement a gameplan for this one.

I am encouraged by his willingness to try creative solutions, even when they don’t quite work. I also think that, with some more time practicing these moves, Fiorentina should be able to mitigate some of its difficulties in beating high pressure, which is absolutely necessary for a team that wants to control possession. This time it backfired, but the patterns are there for future success.