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What to expect from Italiano’s Fiorentina

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The new mister brings a very different approach to Florence than what we’ve seen for the past few years.

Spezia Calcio v Torino FC - Serie A
Ready to be cast in bronze and set at Coverciano.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Now that Fiorentina have snapped up Vincenzo Italiano to lead the charge back to respectability, it’s time to start figuring out how he’s going to do that. A big part of that will be the recruitment policy; sporting director Daniele Pradé has already signed Nicolás González, who should help implement the new mister’s plans, and there should be a lot more business coming.

It’s tough to predict what a manager’s approach will be before he’s got his full squad, and it’s even tougher with Italiano. He’s only got one season as a Serie A manager (and one before that in Serie B), so drawing too many conclusions is extrapolating from incomplete data (you know, my favorite). That said, here’s what I think we can probably expect from the Viola next year.

Personnel

A lot of newly-promoted teams rely on a core group of players, but Italiano took Spezia in a very different direction last year. He used the 3rd-most players in Serie A last year (35 compared to Fiorentina’s 30) and it wasn’t just a matter of 88th minute subs. The Aquilotti went two-deep at nearly every position as their mister chopped and changed every week. That sort of tinkering can get very frustrating, but it could also throw a lifeline to guys Tòfol Montiel and (sigh) Alexandr Kokorin. Italino’s also going to play a 4-3-3, so at least there’s no mystery there.

Another interesting item is that Italiano isn’t afraid to move players to new roles. Simone Bastoni had previously been a central midfielder, but reinvented himself as a hard-charging leftback last year. Kevin Agudelo was an attacking midfielder but played as a winger or a striker. For Fiorentina, the obvious candidates for position change are Gaetano Castrovilli (potential winger), Lucas Martínez Quarta (fullback or midfield), and Erick Pulgar (central defense). I could also see some of last year’s loanees—Szymon Żurkowski at rightback?—taking on some new duties as well.

Defense

This is probably the shakiest area for Italiano as a manager. Spezia conceded 72 last year—4th most in Serie A and 13 more than Fiorentina—and let in 40 in 38 in Serie B in 2019-2020. While some of that is simply a matter of lacking top players, he’s also a big believer in passing out from the back; he’s spoken at length about his desire for defenders to operate as playmakers in the first phase, which naturally means that there’s a lot of potential for mistakes at the back. That could see Germán Pezzella, who’s famously uncomfortable with the ball, drop down the pecking order with Igor and Lucas Martínez Quarta both available.

Pezze, however, has a decent chance to keep his spot because he’s comfortable in a deeper block, and that’s one of Italiano’s hallmarks. Rather than chasing opponents in their own penalty area, he generally favors a slightly lower block; he’ll push it higher at times but generally wants a very compact setup that minimizes space between the lines (paging Pulgar) and leaves space open ahead to counter into. While that worked with Spezia, he may need adopt a slightly more proactive approach with Fiorentina, as opponents will usually try to sit deep and force the Viola to play through them.

Pressing

One of the things that made Spezia stand out last year was their approach without the ball. Unlike the contemporary ideal, the team didn’t just relentlessly chase the ballcarrier. As mentioned, he usually sets up a deeper block that prioritizes crunching space between the lines. He varied the depth to keep opponents off balance, sometimes dropping all the way into his own box and sometimes pushing a bit higher, but this is far from a gegenpress.

It isn’t a Giuseppe Iachini approach either, though. Spezia were quite proactive without the ball last year and showed a real cleverness in trapping opponents. They shifted around neatly depending on where the ball was rather than man-marking a la Stefano Pioli, but were very good at converging like a pack of wolves when opposing teams worked themselves into corners.

That’s the real interest for me. Like many modern teams, Spezia liked to trap a fullback against the touchline up the pitch and then exploit the space in behind, but they also showed a knack for occasionally hurling midfielders forward to press the centerbacks and force wayward clearances. That sort of varied approach bodes well for a team that has been very one-dimensional without the ball for the better part of a decade, but it’s the cohesion in the press that stands out. Sofyan Amrabat, Castrovilli, Pulgar, and Vlahović should excel in this system as press-happy workers.

Buildup

One of Italiano’s favored ploys last year was keeping Emmanuel Gyasi very high and wide as an outlet to start counterattacks. You’d have to think that Nicolás González could be that man if the mister keeps that same approach. That compact block means that, when possession is won, there are a lot of players who are in position to break in support of a forward who gets the ball, which means Dušan Vlahović should have a lot more help.

When the counter isn’t on, Spezia did a good job of building overloads in the wide areas to pass through set defenses. It was often Nahuel Estévez who moved to wide right positions, so Castrovilli could replicate that on the left (although getting some drive from opposite fullback could be crucial as well). Making that work requires overlaps from defenders and generally intelligent movement in the final third, which means Italiano’s got his work cut out for him in Florence.

One thing that could benefit the players in the squad is that Italiano, while happy to have his teams keep the ball, isn’t a big fan of aimless possession. What we saw from Spezia last year was a willingness to knock it around the back for a bit, but the real focus was on moving the ball quickly through the lines with vertical passes on the ground. In theory, that should play right into the strengths of Igor, Amrabat, and Lorenzo Venuti.

Final third

Fiorentina’s reliance on crosses last year veered into the absurd (if not for Cesare Prandelli’s intervention, Fiorentina likely would’ve wound up in the top 5 in Europe), but Italiano will likely tone that down a bit. While Cristiano Biraghi should have the green light to center the ball, it’s probably that Fiorentina will use him as a decoy more than anything, pushing him forward in an effort to build space out wide. If Biraghi can find more cutbacks to find, say, Castrovilli in the space right at the corner of the box, Italiano will likely be quite satisfied.

I’m also fascinated by the shooting distance numbers here. Fiorentina’s average shot distance last year was the 3rd-lowest in Serie A, largely because Giacomo Bonaventura was the only player they had who could realistically threaten from outside the area. Spezia, however, also prioritized working the ball into the box rather than squeezing off shots from distance, averaging just 0.2 more shots from distance than the Viola. That makes me think that Italiano may be well equipped to compensate for the wayward long range shooting that’s characterized Fiorentina for so long.

Conclusions

Tactically, Italiano looks like a good fit for the current Fiorentina squad. A focus on building from the back and playing through the lines suits a lot of the defenders and some of the midfielders, while the desire to create wide overloads should fit well with other personnel. That said, there’s a lot of work to be done still in terms of recruitment: the squad as it stands needs help at fullback, in midfield, and out wide, and you have to think that central defense will need reinforcement if Pezzella and/or Nikola Milenković move on.