We know that Paulo Sousa will not be coaching at Fiorentina next season. That’s fine. We also know that the Della Valles want to “Italianize” the team, so it seems pretty clear that Sousa replacement will be from the peninsula. And with both Eusebio di Francesco and Stefano Pioli expected to be looking for work this summer, it’s hardly shocking that they’re the top two choices. But which one would do better in Florence? Well, we’ve put our best people on it.
So who the heck are these guys?
Eusebio di Francesco (yes, he’s named for the striker) is a Pescara-born 47-year-old who began his playing career with Empoli, but made his name as a midfielder at AS Roma, racking up 168 appearances and 14 goals. He also had stops at Lucchese, Piacenza, Ancona, and Perugia, along with 12 appearances for Italy, before hanging up his boots in 2005. Just 3 years later, he took the helm at the now-defunct Virtus Lanciano, keeping them in the Lega Pro before moving to hometown club Pescara the following year. After bringing the Delfini to Serie B and finishing solidly mid-table, he jumped ship to Lecce, where he had a brief and unsuccessful spell in Serie A.
It was in 2012, though, that he really grabbed attention as a manager, leading Sassuolo to first in Serie B and to their first-ever Serie A promotion. After narrowly avoiding relegation in 2013, he brought the outsiders to 12th in 2014 and an astonishing 6th last season, including the club’s first European competition. Sadly, the wheels rather came off for him this year, and his Neroverdi languish in a disappointing 14th place, although they’ve probably been the unluckiest side in Italy with regard to injuries.
Stefano Pioli is a 51-year-old former defender who began his playing career in 1982 with Parma. After a 3-year stint at Juventus, he moved to Hellas Verona for a couple of years, then spent 1989 to 1995 at Fiorentina before closing out his career in the lower professional leagues, mostly in Tuscany, before calling his career quits in 1999. That same year, he accepted a job as the youth coach at Bologna, where he won a Primavera scudetto, before taking the same job at Chievo Verona.
His first senior job was with Salernitana in Serie B, but he grabbed attention with Modena by leading the Gialloblu to the Serie B playoff, earning himself a shot with hometown club Parma in Serie A, which ended in relegation. After a couple more Serie B stops with Grosseto and Piacenza, he led Sassuolo to the promotion playoff, earning himself another shot in Serie A with Chievo, whom he led to an impressive 11th place finish. After 3 solid years at Bologna, he moved to Lazio, where his 3rd place finish in 2014 made him a star. However, 8th the following year was enough to get him fired by Claudio Lotito. He stabilized a floundering Inter Milan this season after taking over for Frank de Boer, but the Nerazzuri ownership have rather inexplicably sacked him with just a couple matches to go.
How do their teams look?
Di Francesco has always used a 4-3-3, prioritizing positive football, quick transitions, and a focus on getting his front three in enough space to do something cool. He’s clearly got an eye for attacking talent, given the procession of stars passing through the Sassuolo ranks under his watch: Simone Zaza, Nicola Sansone, and now Domenico Berardi, Matteo Politano, Antonino Ragusa, and Gregoire Defrel. If there’s a criticism of his high-energy style, it’s that his defense can frequently be left rather exposed due to the forward-thinking nature of the rest of the team.
Pioli is also a positive-minded coach. He prefers a 4-2-3-1, although he’s also capable of moving to a 4-3-3 with a regista. He usually opts for at least one passer in the middle, although he prizes midfielders who can both create and defend. His teams tend to keep possession through the middle before suddenly shifting the ball out wide to take advantage of space for the wingers (and frequently overlapping fullbacks) to make something happen. His sides do sometimes lose structure, which means an opponent that can pass skillfully can often draw them out and punish them.
What would they do with Fiorentina?
Di Francesco has never coached a side that possesses the pure talent he’d have in Florence, particularly in central midfield. Players like Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa would become even more important than they are now as the focal points on the wings. Josip Iličić really wouldn’t fit the scheme, and Riccardo Saponara would probably have to play deeper in midfield than he’s used to. He might scrap the Montella/Sousa sideways passing paradigm and install something more like a Klopp-lite regimen, which would suit the personnel nicely. He’d badly need some defensive reinforcements, particularly at the fullback spots, and probably ask for some cover on the wings as well.
Pioli would probably move Fiorentina to more of a Prandelli-looking 4-2-3-1, which would more than likely give rise to the Bernardeschi-Saponara-Chiesa attacking band we’ve been salivating over for months, although he’d maybe miscast Borja Valero as a holding midfielder. The club’s weakness at fullback would also cause him problems. His almost Sarri-type approach would fit right in after Montella and Sousa’s possession-based systems, although he’d want the ball moving through midfield a lot faster than we’ve seen recently. He might be able to persuade Nikola Kalinić to stick around, as poachers have a pretty good record under Pioli.
Okay, yeah, but like, how would they handle the peculiar difficulties at Fiorentina?
Oh, you mean the lack of budget and the uneven squad and the occasional spats with ownership and management? Well, that’s a whole different story. Di Francesco is used to working with players from the academy and the bargain bin. He’s immensely popular with both his players and his bosses, to the point that club chairman Carlo Rossi claims that anyone trying to hire him will need to “pay a penalty” to get him, even after this disappointing season, as his contract doesn’t run out until 2019. He’s a very promising young manager who’s probably ready for the next step, which is taking a midsize to large team into a successful run in both the league and in Europe.
Pioli, on the other hand, has been at his best when presented with a quality squad; he doesn’t seem as comfortable papering over the gaps in the side. However, he’s got some European experience, albeit of the washing-out-distressingly-quickly type. He does have a reputation for nurturing young talent, which is crucial for a Viola side loaded with promising teenagers, and he seems even-keeled and easy to get along with, although there have been rumors about him losing the dressing room at Lazio a couple of years ago.
So which of them is it going to be?
Yikes. I have no idea. EDF brings more energy and hipster cred (as well as a son, of course named Federico, who’s a promising winger at Bologna and could join Chiesa and Ianis Hagi in the “offspring following in their fathers’ footsteps” squad currently being assembled in Florence), as well as an attacking mindset and infectious enthusiasm. And he was caught getting dinner at Pantaleo Corvino’s house recently in what sure seems like a preliminary talk about joining the project.
Pioli is more experienced and his playing style would allow for greater continuity with what we’ve seen at Fiorentina over the past several years. He’s also an ex Viola player, which surely has to count for something. He’s also been reported as being in contact with Corvino, and hiring him won’t involve paying a Serie A rival, as Inter just fired him.
Both are perfectly acceptable options: di Francesco is more likely to shake things up and maybe get Fiorentina back towards the top of Serie A, while Pioli will probably maintain the general status quo while striving to improve results within the framework he’s given. Whichever of those sounds better to you is probably the choice you’ll prefer.