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How has the transfer window changed Fiorentina’s European ambitions?

Nearly half of Serie A is in the running for the European places, and the mercato has changed the calculus.

Spezia Calcio v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Simone Arveda/Getty Images

Fiorentina has come under considerable fire from the fanbase after spending almost nothing in the January transfer window. While the acquisitions of Davide Faraoni and Andrea Belotti strengthen the squad in some of its previously weakest spots, neither can really be termed a marquee signing. Add in the removal of a winger (albeit a woeful one) in Josip Brekalo when manager Vincenzo Italiano specifically requested a starter out wide and it’s easy to see why the consensus is “molto deluso.”

That pessimism doesn’t exist in a Viola transfer vacuum, though. Despite its obvious shortcomings, the team had somehow ground its way to 4th in the standings as late as November, fueling dreams of a return to the Champions League and its fabled riches for the first time since 2009. Coming off a season with two cup finals, it felt as if there was a chance to do something special again; with some judicious additions to the squad, maybe Europe’s premier club competition was a real possibility.

That’s expectant environment into which Joe Barone and Daniele Pradè introduced minimal change, leading to howls amongst the supporters. While the lack of purchases stings no matter what, it looks even worse when compared to Fiorentina’s direct rivals for the European places. With 5 teams within 4 points of Bologna in 5th place (AS Roma, Lazio, Fiorentina, Napoli, Torino), it’s a game of musical chairs for continental competition, with 3 of the contestants set to miss out entirely.

Serie A Fixture Unveiling
Not the most popular men in Florence right now.
Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images for Lega Serie A

It’s a well-established fact that the payouts from the Champions League can be transformational, but the Europa League cash is also significant, and even the Conference League offers a financial boost. There is thus significant motivation to gain entry to one of those tournaments, which allow teams to invest more via the payouts while complying with FFP regulations.

Bologna

Serie A’s biggest surprise this year didn’t want to disrupt what they’ve built and thus didn’t make any big moves. The main addition is Santiago Castro, but he’s clearly the understudy to star man Joshua Zirkzee. The other additions—Mihajlo Ilić and Jens Odgaard—are clearly depth signings with an eye to the future. It’s exactly the sort of clever business you’d expect from ex-Atalanta DS Giovanni Sartori, as he’s already finding replacements to bed into Serie A in case his starters go for big money in the summer.

None of these transfers particularly move the needle for this year but that’s hardly the point. Sartori looked at the XI and decided that there weren’t any significant holes and thus focused only high-potential players for low prices, picking and choosing where to strike. The Felsinei are still on course for their first European adventure of the millennium, putting faith in Thiago Motta and the current squad to get them over the line.

Roma

There was never any question that the Jose Mourinho Third Season Syndrome would kick in eventually, and the Friedkens decided that 9th place was simply unacceptable for a club with the 3rd-highest payroll in Serie A. New manager Daniele de Rossi has done well in his 2 games in charge, but the backroom staff has done even better.

AS Roma Unveil New Signing Tommaso Baldanzi Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

After clearing out some fringe players (including Belotti), Roma grabbed some talented young players for cheap, headlined by Tommasso Baldanzi for €15 million. Alongside Juventus loanee Dean Huijsen and bargain buy Angeliño, he’s the obvious successor to Paulo Dybala and long term face of the club. It’s a tremendous piece of business for a minimal outlay, but slashing the wage bill is also a significant achievement.

Now playing 4 at the back and only just getting to grips with de Rossi’s tactics, it’s hard to tell if the new coach bounce will carry Roma as far up the standings as they want. There’s a lot of talent up and down the roster, though, and plenty of experienced depth to match the world class talent. That’s a recipe for improvement if de Rossi can keep a steady hand on the wheel.

Lazio

After a summer window that brought big changes, many Lazio fans expected to see some canny additions in January to fortify a team that’s into the Champions League knockout stages against a slightly shaky Bayern Munich. Instead, the Aquile stood pat; their only winter move fell through at the last minute over unpaid wages in what felt like a very Fiorentina story.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Claudio Lotito, clearly frustrated with the failure of big name signings like Daichi Kamada to settle in, has jerked the leash of Igli Tare and company. The hope, of course, is that a healthy Ciro Immobile will add desperately-neede goals and that more time for the summer signings to understand Maurizio Sarri’s complex system will lead to an improvement, but Lazio has one of the steeper hills to climb and fewer options in the toolbox than many of its opponents.

Napoli

The Scudetto holders are under even more pressure than Fiorentina, having tumbled all the way to 9th following the departure of Luciano Spalletti. That’s clearly motivated Aurelio de Laurentiis to make some changes. Sacking Rudi Garcia was the first, obviously, but he also spent big in market, splashing out €18 million on Hellas Verona’s Cyril Ngonge (Fiorentina beffata et cetera), another €3 million on Marco Mazzocchi, and grabbing Hamed Junior Traoré (Fiorentina beffata et cetera) and Leander Dendoncker on loan.

The only significant exit was Eljif Elmas, who joined RB Leipzig for €24 million. Several other fringe players—Alessio Zerbin, Alessandro Zanoli, Gianluca Gaetano, Giuseppe D’Agostino—also left on loan. Elmas’ exit, though, feels significant, as he doesn’t fit as well in Walter Mazzarri’s beloved 3-4-3, while Ngonge, Mazzocchi, Traoré, and Dendoncker look like excellent pieces. While none are certain starters, they’re all competent rotational options who will, at the least, push the starters.

The Partenopei may have acted too late. Last year’s magic is gone, and with Victor Osimhe and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa at AFCON, another scudetto is fully off the table. However, Mazzarri can expect his players to get better as their understanding of his system increases. Add that to the fact that there’s simply too much talent on this roster to languish in mid-table and a second-half surge seems quite likely.

Torino

Torino’s the least likely of this group to make Europe, although Ivan Jurić has certainly set that goal. The Granata didn’t exactly make a statement with their winter transfer business, so he may start looking around on LinkedIn. Matteo Lovato looks an excellent young defender while David Okereke and Adam Masina bring experienced depth and Uroš Kabić is a good long term gamble who probably won’t do much this year, but loaning out a number of rotational attackers—Nemanja Radonjić, Yann Karamoh, Demba Seck—to save on salary hasn’t made it easy.

In all probability, Torino will keep muddling along in 10th, maintaining a flimsy pretension to European qualification while happily finishing in mid-table, as has been the norm under Urbano Cairo. Jurić is a really good manager and capable of dragging this side to some surprising results but probably lacks the quality in the squad to mount a real challenge for anything beyond 7th, given the strength of his rivals for that spot.

And what does it all mean for Fiorentina?

The short answer is nothing good. Fioretina added a couple of decent pieces but made itself even thinner on the wings and in central defense, while central midfield remains a hopeless morass when any of Arthur, Alfred Duncan, and Giacomo Bonaventura aren’t on the field. Belotti could very well prove an upgrade on M’Bala Nzola but probably isn’t transformational, while Faraoni looks every inch the seasoned veteran.

That’s not enough to move the needle in Florence, especially in comparison to its rivals for Europe. Fiorentina are 8th in the table (although the loss to Lazio means it’s actually 9th, as head to head results matter more than goal difference), leading just Torino and Lazio. That means the Viola trail Bologna, Roma, and Napoli. To qualify for even the Conference League, much less the Europa League, will require a strong second half that sees our boys leapfrog at least one of that troika.

That would make for a fascinating race, but the stark reality is that Fiorentina probably doesn’t have the horses to run it. The 3 teams ahead have strengthened (significantly in the case of Roma and Napoli) and it’s hard to imagine either plummeting again. Bologna may not have the staying power to finish the season where it is, although this outfit’s success looks sustainable for the rest of the season (barring injuries), and Motta doesn’t have to sweat midweek European fixtures like the rest of these misters. There’s also the specter of Lazio going on a run, which Sarri teams seem to do with regularity, especially with Immobile approaching full fitness.

Italiano’s also shown the ability to lead Fiorentina to long strings of positive results, as evidenced by his incredible work last year. Maybe the returns of Nicolás González, Christian Kouamé, Dodô, and Gaetano Castrovilli (?) will provide sufficient impetus to get back to the good parts of the table. However, the Viola are riding a 6-match winless streak across all competitions and look to be running out of ideas.

This mercato was a fantastic chance for Rocco Commisso, Barone, and company to demonstrate serious ambition. Barone in particular discussed targeting the Champions League last season; when faced with a very good chance to do so, he didn’t push his chips into the middle. He folded, telling reporters that 4th place isn’t possible.

And you know what? He’s right. This is not a 4th-place squad. Nobody’s arguing that. With a couple of smart additions, though, it could have been. That’s why the fans are fuming. That’s why the narrative has taken a decidedly anti-management turn. And that’s why I’m very nervous about whether the Viola can return to Europe next year. Right now, I can’t see it happening.