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Real Betis 3-1 Fiorentina: 3 things we learned

With the season starting in a week, we’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions.

Real Betis v AFC Fiorentina - Pre-Season Friendly
Just a little too “John Travolta shrugging” meme for comfort.
Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images

Fiorentina wrapped up their preseason slate against a Real Betis side featuring some old friends in Gemán Pezzella and Joaquín. The good guys were extremely flat in the first half, creating no real chances and conceding a couple of cheap goals; the only positive in the period was that Pietro Terracciano made a 1-v-1 save to keep it looking vaguely respectable. The worst part, though, may have been Nicolás González limping off with what looked like a hamstring injury. Hopefully he’ll be ready for Cremonese.

The second half was a lot better as Fiorentina actually created some chances, with Jonathan Ikoné in particular looking menacing (at least until he got close to the goal). Luka Jović made it count with a header from a right-footed (!) Cristiano Biraghi cross, but a superb free kick from leftback Juan Miranda restored the hosts’ 2-goal lead. Arthur Cabral had a couple of late chances that he couldn’t quite put away, so it ended 3-1.

I’m not going to do player grades for a preseason game because I still don’t think the preseason matters all that much. Half of these guys aren’t trying all that hard because they want to make sure they’re healthy for the games that matter, and that’s fine.

1. Something is off with the defense. Once again, the Viola rearguard allowed a couple of soft goals in the first half. Youssef Maleh got owned by the diminutive Juanmi on a high corner, letting the shorter guy beat him like Vince Carter going after Frédéric Weiss. The second was a poor pass from Ikoné that let Alex Moreno cross for Borja Iglesias to tap it in, with Igor and Cristiano Biraghi completely ignoring the forward’s run. There were several other mix-ups as well, both in possession—Sofyan Amrabat and Lucas Martínez Quarta were both a bit careless—and out of possession—Biraghi got skinned a few times, Dodô stepped way too high and left acres of space for Nikola Milenković to cover, et cetera.

I’m not sure what the solution here is. It’s strange that the communication between Igor and Biraghi seems as bad as it’s looked, since they spent much of last season playing next to each other, but they’ve failed to pick up runners time and again this summer, and that’s a legitimate reason for concern. Sometimes, the problems in the defense aren’t actually the fault of the defense, as the players ahead of them lose the ball in dangerous spots or let attackers run free. While Amrabat and Maleh were particularly bad in both aspects today, a lot of the problems originated in the back four’s inability to sort itself out. That’s bad. That’s real bad.

2. The midfield lacks dynamism. I like the Viola midfielders individually. I’ve spoken at length about how I think Amrabat’s struggles have been largely an indictment of his instructions rather than his qualities. I love Youssef Maleh’s energy, even though he doesn’t offer too much else at this point. Jack’s got moments of class in his bag. Alfred Duncan is perfect and pure in every way. Rolando Mandragora’s looks to be settling in nicely. So what’s the problem?

These guys are all safe passers or off-ball runners. Amrabat, Duncan, and Mandragora all fit the first category, while Maleh’s solidly in the latter. Jack straddles the two groups, as he’ll occasionally twist past a defender or try the audacious shot or pass, but with his 33rd birthday looming, he can’t do it twice a week. Maleh’s willingness to run beyond the forwards offers a dimension this attack needs, but there’s nobody who can unlock a packed defense with a brilliant pass or by dropping a shoulder and going, at least until Gaetano Castrovilli comes back.

That’s a big problem, as it means that the attack usually ends up pushing the ball wide and crossing. That can work, of course, but with just a single striker in the box and a group of wingers who are often instructed to maintain width, it leaves the center forward up against 3 or 3 defenders. That means that the midfielders either need to crash the penalty area or the wide players need to stop crossing and just recycle it. There are a few adjustments I’d like to see, and I’ll write about those in the next week or two, but this system doesn’t seem to work very well.

3. Everything depends on Italiano. With a system that seems to be broken, especially with regards to getting the strikers consistent touches in good positions, you have to look at the coaching. I love Italiano and think that he’s turned Fiorentina into a completely different team than the one we saw scuffling along under Beppe Iachini, and I don’t think that criticizing him is especially valid or constructive. He’s doing good work with what he’s got.

But. For this team to take the next step, he’ll either need a couple new players who can completely alter the XI, or he’ll need to coax improvements out of his current players, or he’ll need to alter his system. I doubt the latter will happen, as his entire coaching career is based on his principles, and it’s a bit late in the window to hope for two more marquee signings (although Giovanni Lo Celso could fix some problems). That leaves improving current players as his likeliest avenue towards improvement. If he can get a lot more from guys like Sottil and Maleh, this whole thing could work. It’s probably not fair that so much depends on Cousin Vinnie, but that’s where we are.