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Fiorentina: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

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Half way into the season is a good time to get the map out and see if we are still on our plotted course, or is Paolo Sousa veering off, captaining the good ship Viola into uncharted territory.

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As Fiorentina move into the second half of the Serie A season, it feels as good a time as any to assess where the team truly stands within the framework of the league table. You may well ask, is there any better way to do that than to look at the actual league table?

As a yardstick, surely the league table is the best way to measure the team’s level of proficiency. Certainly that is the case come the end of a season when all teams are destined to remain eternally ranked in the position they have ended in.

Such is the nature of sporting discourse that up until the curtain closes on the final day of a season, conjecture will rage as to whether or not a team’s position in the table truly reflects its overall ability. In the course of debates such as these there is an underlying truth at play. The very nature of the table means it is apt to fluctuate; therefore asserting that one team in time will end up above or below another is a perfectly natural response to a sport that offers a myriad of variable factors, mitigating circumstances, and latent truisms.

One way in which we can analyse the current state of the team is to compare it to where the team were last year at this very same point in the season. To see how this team has woven itself into the collective affections of Viola fans, one has to gaze through the looking glass back to where the team stood in the table at this point last year. Week 21 of the 2014/15 season saw Fiorentina sitting sixth in the league table with a total of 32 points. Sousa’s team, at the same point in the fixture list, sit third in the league with a total of 41 points. Arguably it is not just the nine-point differential that marks this team as potentially better than Montella’s, though the statistics make a compelling enough argument. Sousa’s side have scored 39 league goals, where Montella’s team had scored only 29 goals at the same stage of the season. Sousa’s team have conceded 21 goals, whereas at this juncture of the season last year, Montella’s charges had conceded just 20 giving Sousa’s team a goal difference of +18 to Montella’s measly +9.

As a point of order and to evenly balance out the statistics above, it is also worth mentioning that at this point (week 21) in the fixture list in 2013/14 Vincenzo Montella’s team sat fourth in the table with an equal amount of points to that accumulated by this year’s squad. In that year with exactly the same amount of matches played, Montella had amassed 41 points, exactly the same quantity as Sousa’s side has gathered this season. To play devil’s advocate one has to ask the question, is it possible that the team has not progressed from that same vantage point that they occupied in the 2013/14 season? Montella’s team that year had by week 21 stacked up 12 wins, 5 draws and 4 losses. Sousa’s team by comparison have 13 wins, 2 draws and 6 losses. If there is a difference, statistically it is a fine one.

Part of why some people may believe that Sousa’s team is superior to Montella’s surely has to reside in the non-statistical realm that encompasses unchecked emotion. As fans, it is hard not to develop an emotional bond to a group of players, who after all took the club back to the summit of Serie A for the first time since 1999. This emotive response is completely natural, as it addresses the romantic in us all. The dreamers begin to dream and start to pick holes in the logic that states that the club is incapable of winning the league. Out of the window goes the fact that the Fiorentina wage bill is significantly lower than at least five or six teams in the same competition. Such is the emotional bond, that one can be moved to deny or rebut what is a proven reality, namely that the teams who pay the most in wages in nearly all given scenarios will end up winning the title. This after all is not what we watch sport for, self-identifying as dark horses, fans are on one level hoping their team upsets the odds and brings about a new order within the league structure.

Over the course of Montella’s reign, at one point or another he managed the side to victory against Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Napoli, Roma and Lazio. Clearly he had proven he was able to mastermind victories against teams whose wage bill dwarfed his own. And with limited resources at his disposal, Montella had not only taken the team to a fourth placed finish, three years in a row, but also had driven the team deep into the latter stages of cup competitions, although there would be no happy ending for the former Italian International.

Montella left under a cloud, insisting that in order for the team to progress the owners needed to open their chequebook. This is the place where Paulo Sousa now finds himself, the manager is in need of investment in a squad whose early season sparkle appears to be waning. For a squad that was relatively thin to begin with, injuries and suspensions are now beginning to take their toll, whether the Della Valle’s will provide the financial muscle required for Sousa to actually seal that all important third place finish that brings about Champions League football is open to speculation.

If one were a speculator it would be hard not to reconcile the fact that by investing in the club presently, the owners would effectively be putting their faith in a manager who to date has only emerged victorious in one game where Fiorentina could be conceived of as underdogs (AC Milan withstanding, as they are not the force they once were). Sousa has lost to Napoli, Roma, Juventus, Lazio and just for good measure a poor AC Milan side as well. These opponents are, in terms of finances at least, the Viola’s direct rivals for European qualification. Fiorentina’s owners, the Della Valles, are shrewd businessmen. To invest big in this team, the gamble in plain terms is thus: will winning against all of the teams who have a lower wage bill than Fiorentina ensure la Viola Champions League football next year? If the answer to that is yes then investment is perhaps credible. If the answer however is no, then it would be hard to fashion an argument for a shrewd businessman to speculatively invest in such a project.

So where are Fiorentina as a club? It is a difficult question to answer; there are a lotta ins, lotta outs and lotta what-have-yous. The statistical evidence would suggest that Fiorentina are more or less in the same place that they have been for the last three to four years. A lot can change during the vicissitudes of a season, and it is Sousa's mission to navigate the waves and prove capable enough to produce a second half of the season that gives the team, at the very least, a chance at Champions League qualification. If the manager does achieve actual qualification, he will have exceeded expectation and such a feat should be rightly lauded, for it would be a magnificent achievement in what would appear to be testing if not impossible circumstances.