After a strong start to 2015/16, Fiorentina ultimately had a very poor end to the campaign, but still qualified for the Europa League. Our team have pooled together their thoughts on Paulo Sousa's first season in charge of Fiorentina.
Best moment of the season?
Nolan: The Inter thrashing early on in the season. We got off to a good start, but to humiliate Inter in Milan, especially considering Inter looked like a scudetto contender at the time, gave me excitement that even the Prandelli and Montella years hardly did. There was always reasons to be skeptical about our ability to contend, but that moment announced, for half a year at least, that we were for real. The last few months have erased much of the excitement of the first half of the season, but there is still good memories, and that was probably the best.
Tito: Got to be the 1-4 over Inter at the San Siro. Sure, it was a pretty misleading result in hindsight, but stomping one of the traditional powers at their place to take the lead is a pretty swell thing. I mean, it made everything look great: Nikola Kalinić looked like the sort of predatory striker Fiorentina'd been missing, Josip Iličić suddenly became the brilliant player he'd been at Palermo, Badelj and Vecino really came into their own as the powerful, composed, and energetic double pivot that we hadn't seen under Montella. Everything, for that one blessed instant, was flawless and perfect and I wanted to embrace the world in all its ugliness and imperfection and say, "See? Beauty and joy can happen."
Huw: The obvious answer would be the first match against Inter but the return leg gets my vote. Comeback win, lots of needle, Baba goal, mad red cards, no one knowing what was going on. It was great.
JSE: It has to be trouncing Inter 4-1 in their own back yard, from a Viola perspective it did not get more satisfactory than that this season. The cherry on top was the result meant we leapfrogged them into first position in the table. At this stage it was still fair minded to think in Nikola Kalinic we had something potentially very special.
Worst moment of the season?
Nolan: The 2-1 loss to Udinese for me. There was more dramatic losses - the less said about the Roma matches the better, and 2016 in general was full of ugly losses, Arguably the 2-0 loss to Empoli a few weeks before was even worse. But after hope was more or less gone, Fiorentina gave is a slight bit of hope with an entertaining win against Sassuolo, only for it to be crushed with one of the most unwatchable, uninspiring performances of the season, on my birthday no less.
Tito: 4-1 at Roma. Just as the Inter match showed us the clinical, predatory Fiorentina we'd barely dared to yearn for, this one showed us a parody of the team that had frustrated us beyond the bounds of human expression since the beginning of the Montella era. The sort of possession-based style whose only purpose is to expose a defense that is, on a good day, as sturdy against the counter attack as Artur Boruc is against The Little Mermaid. For those of you who aren't familiar, that's not at all.
Huw: I'd pick out one of the late season draws but they were so eye-gougingly dull that I can't tell them apart. Chievo, Palermo, Frosinone, Verona. All the same kind of boring purgatory interest vacuums that obliterated my attention and killed my dreams. The sight of a decent season fizzling out.
JSE: Losing away from home to AC Milan a result that in and of itself would usually not be such a bad thing. However this Milan were there to be beaten and having lost to all of our direct rivals for Champions League football already, I for one went into this fixture feeling it was imperative that we get a result even if we were to only draw. Taking something from that game was crucial. As it was we lost convincingly to a bad Milan team who hit us on the break In a similar fashion to the way all of the other teams who had beaten us up until that point had also done. Milan had done their homework and we were toothless. For me that was a harbinger of things to come, a fork in the road moment for our season. It was downhill all the way from there on.
Nolan: The Mammana saga ending the way it did. It remains the symbol of the winter transfer disaster we had, This was an embarrassment and the emergency replacement, Benalouane, was an even bigger disaster than previous emergency signings. The defense still remains a big question going forward - Gonzalo is not getting any younger and we lack even average depth at this point.
Tito: Huh. I could go with the inability to sign any fullbacks, or the lack of an in-form striker throughout the second half of the season, or the various transfer deals that got Charlie Browned right out from under Prade and company, but I'm going to go with the club's refusal to renew Manuel Pasqual. That's a garbage way to treat a guy whose longevity and professionalism are as impressive as anyone not named Javier Zanetti in contemporary calcio.
Huw: Kalinic's form just plummeting off a cliff. The winter transfer window was a chance to get someone in to replace him, but it was a missed opportunity. Tello is decent but limited. Zarate is frustratingly, hilariously, predictably selfish. We needed goals. We didn't get them. Maybe Yohan Benalouane is a professional footballer, I don't know. Frankly, I don't want to know.
JSE: Has to be the January transfer window if not for injury and the fact that he missed too many games I would have Milan Badelj as my player of the year. When Badelj was felled against Lazio in January we had no one who could adequately replace him. Mauro Zarate was a good signing but as for Kone and Benalouane, well the less said the better really. When we needed reinforcements they simply were not forthcoming. If a club is serious about mounting a challenge for uncharted territory (which on this evidence is debatable) then this transfer window was simply not good enough.
Nolan: Zarate's goal vs Carpi - as exciting a game winner as it gets and one of the few rewards of the winter transfer window.
Tito: Mauro Zárate's curler against Carpi made me so freaking happy. The only other dude on this team who can score that kind of goal is Lurch on a good day; the prospect of him and the Zárate Kid starting wide and cutting inside to shoot made me positively giddy to watch the remainder of the season. I mean, clearly that kind of attack would easily compensate for any shortcomings up front, and lead to a real resurgence for the club as a whole and a push for a Champions League spot.
I'm, uh, not great at predictions.
Huw: Babacar against Inter. Possibly the worst goal scored this season. But that only made it even better.
JSE: My favourite goal has to be Nikola Kalinic's goal against Napoli at the San Paolo. There are a few reasons for this, at the time we were seemingly in contention with Napoli they appeared to be a very real rival. Having gone a goal down the writing seemed to be on the wall, it was an equalising goal in a game with huge importance attached. But importantly it was the manner of the goal, a beautiful passing move which ended with a sumptuous finish. To score a goal like that coming from behind in the game, in my mind meant we had the ability to project our collective talent in a big game scenario. With hindsight that feeling was obviously a little premature but at the time and in the moment I celebrated with abandon in a style that I can not attribute to any other goal the team scored this season. Generally i am quite a passive fan in the sense that when the team scores i applaud but excited wails are kept to a minimum. However this game I was watching at work on the sly in a crowded area yet could not suppress my emotion as I wailed uncontrollably, which invited multiple questions from those around me, it makes me smile thinking about it. Maybe not the best goal we scored all season but definitely my favourite.
Player of the season?
Nolan: Borja Valero - During the first half of the season he was excellent, arguably less of an impact player than Badelj, Ilicic, or Kalinic, but didn't have the horrible fall off that those three did, and while he wasn't flawless, he never fell off and showed up for some of the most important games. Possession was never an issue, and Borja made sure of that.
Tito: Borja Valero. Even though he had the odd clunker, nobody else was as consistently good as he was. His job isn't particularly glamorous--few goals, few assists, absolutely zero spectacular tackles or clearances--but his ability to move the ball from the middle third to the attacking third is pretty much unequalled in Italy. He certainly had some champagne football moments, but it's all the little things he does game in and game out that set him apart from everyone else on this team. I'd argue he's the only world-class player on the team.
Huw: Gonzalo, Alonso, or Bernardeschi. All of them had periods where they went a bit rubbish. Berna probably edges it for being young and exciting and naming a defender as player of the season is just wrong.
JSE: I have thought long and hard about this one. I have built myself a shelter for the abuse and vitriol likely to come my way but I am going to go with Josip Ilicic. My reasons are I hope grounded in logic. If the team had carried on in the manner that they had played in the first half of the season throughout its entirety I would probably have opted for Milan Badelj or Borja Valero. Those two players pulled the strings in Sousa's hybrid football as crochet approach to the game. When that approach worked it was spellbinding however when it fell flat it was grey and predictable, and the fact of the matter is in the second half of the season it did fall flat. Leaving the team with no answers especially against opposition who decided to sit back and spring on the counter. Therefore Borja's game became somewhat restricted likewise Badelj who in fairness was also hampered by injury. Ilicic however was about as close to a model of consistency as you are ever likely to get from such a player. Entrusted the responsibility of penalty taking he raised his level to that of a German penalty shoot-out winning team. Getting a penalty with Josip on the pitch meant we had a goal, without him on the pitch, as seen at the Franchi against Juventus meant perhaps we did not. But it was not just the penalties. As a standalone player he had his best ever season scoring more than he has ever scored in a solitary season. 15 goals in 37 starts is a great return positioning himself as the top goalscorer at the club this term. Added to this his six assists across all competitions places him joint top in assists for the season alongside Borja Valero. What is frustrating about Ilicic is the fact that for a player of such fantastic ability he only turns it on every so often, that said, when he does turn it on he can produce virtuoso performances par excellence. It has been mooted that the Slovenian will leave in the summer, personally I really hope he stays, as with Ilicic in the side we have a player capable of creating something from nothing. No doubt about it he is a luxury player, but when our luxury player returns the kind of stats he did this season, to top the charts in goals and assists, it begs the question how did that happen? Either other players were misfiring or Ilicic surpassed himself, either way you have a situation where at the very worst Josip Ilicic did all that you could ask from him and therefore was the most consistent player in the team, or a scenario where he went above and beyond his talents and produced a standout season. Whichever way you look at it for an attacking midfielder the light reflects nicely off of those numbers. Perhaps this is why the Viola's no.72 is arguably Fiorentina's most expensive asset.
Worst player of the season?
Nolan: Not counting guys like Benalouane and Kone, who were nothing more than future trivia answers, I'd say the biggest weak spot was Tomovic, who had his worst season yet. Tomovic is a good backup asked to do too much, and he's had a good run, but I think it's time to move on.
Tito: I would say Yohan Benalouane, but the word "player" does carry a certain expectation that the entity to which it is applied should, well, play. Benalouane did not. Therefore, I guess I have to go with Mati Fernández, as much as it pains me--Matigol is, after Borja, probably my favorite player on the team. After he was head and shoulders the best player in purple last season, I though that he and Borja would prove way too much for anyone to handle in the middle. Instead, tooth (!) and leg problems, combined with general ineffectualness and rumors that he wanted out of Florence, left him about as useful as a three-legged hippopotamus on a frozen lake.
Huw: Nenad Tomovic. Dross. Utter, utter dross.
JSE: This one is strange, he possibly would have won my player of the season last year and maybe because of that fact his fall from grace hits even harder, Mati Fernandez. There are players like Nenad Tomovic, you know what you are getting with Nenad so you can not be too surprised when he does something silly. With Fernandez however you expect a certain level because you know that he is capable of it, this season he was a shadow of the player he was last year, if anything he became the forgotten man. I am at a loss to explain this loss of form from a player i am very fond of but the 2015/16 Serie A season is a season best forgotten for Mati Fernandez.
Biggest need in the summer?
Nolan: Where to begin..if Badelj is leaving, a replacement is absolutely necessary. It appears Vecino is staying which is very important, but we need a metronome type of player to replace Badelj unless we plan a complete overhaul, especially after Mario Suarez failed to work out. After that, the striker question is a big one; I still have hopes Rossi may return, but I want us to cut our losses with Mario Gomez, and Kalinic fell off badly after Serie A defenses adjusted to him. I'm an Ilicic defender but for the right price now may be a good time to sell, and while I think Zarate is a good option to keep around, he's best used as a sub and backup.
Tito: I could say that it's a consistent striker or a rightback or another centerback or a holding midfielder or a goalkeeper or a few more nuns in the stands, but I think what's most important, and most obviously missing, is to see this club decide on an identity, then build around it.
This squad is broken, not because it lacks players in certain roles, but because nobody seems to know what type of player to target. Guys like Cristian Tello, Federico Bernardeschi, and Matías Vecino are best suited to play a high pressure, quick tempo sort of game. Kalinić, Iličić, and Badelj are all suited to a slower pace. It's time to figure out a coherent and complete club philosophy, match the tactics to that philosophy, then match the players to the tactics. Right now, it feels like a lot of flailing around with square pegs and dodecahedronal holes, leading to underperforming players and geometric monstrosities.
Huw: Banish Tomovic. Find out where Kalinic went. Buy a right back.
JSE: The team desperately need some cover in defence, a good centre back is still required to shore up the back line. Also a preferably a versatile full back of good stature is another requirement. To be honest the team needs improvement all over, but defence is where we are most in need.
Opinion on Sousa after his first season in charge - will he stay or will he go?
Nolan: I hope he stays and it looks like he will, but he can't be fully off the hook for our second half collapse this season. I don't blame him first - he came in a tough, cost cutting situation to begin with, and the lack of depth was not his fault, especially when the winter market was something that should go down in infamy, but he shares some of the blame for the lack of motivation at the end, and he genuinely seemed out of ideas as the season went downhill. He deserves another year where he will hopefully have input on reinforcements. But while overall results may depend more on the squad, an implosion like this season cannot happen again.
Tito: I think Sousa is likely to stick for another season for two reasons. The first is that Fiorentina are by far the biggest club he's ever managed, and another competitive year would bring his stock as high as his collar. The second is that, considering how his team pretty much tanked the second half of season, in large part due to his inability to adapt his tactics, he needs a good season to prove that he's not just a one-trick pony.
Whether or not he should stay is another matter entirely. He took Serie A by storm, but once opponents had enough film on him to figure out his tactics, he never recovered. Sure, the lack of fire in the team could be partly down to a thin squad getting tired, but an inability to adjust his tactics on the fly and/or inspire his players definitely has me a bit worried about next year.
Huw: He's been alright. A strong start to the season followed by a dismal end. Nothing's really been achieved but nothing's really been lost. I think he's a decent manager. Still not sure he's the best person available. If he can spend some money on the players he wants, then he might be able to achieve a bit more. But that's true for most managers. He'll stay for at least six months. If he doesn't get the support he wants, then the management won't be too sad to see him go.
JSE: Personally i am not wholly convinced by Sousa. I have not warmed to him in the same way that i did to Montella. I want to like him but his reserved approach and cliched soundbites in my eyes do not do him many favours. The team played well enough this season so i will reserve my judgement in the hope that after another season in charge he can banish any doubts that i have about his managerial ability. That is to presume he will stay, which is a proposition that i believe to be on shaky ground. I can without too much imagination envision a scenario whereby Sousa leaves the club mid-way through the summer due to a fall out with the owners or some such nonsense. Also i get the feeling that if a club with big coffers flutters their eyelids in Sousa's direction or indeed offers him a ‘new project' then the Portuguese coach will be hot tailing it to Peretola Airport before you can say Jakub Blaszczykowski!
Overall grade for the season
Nolan: The overall season gets a B- for me - it's easy to forget many of us came into this year with low expectations, but we were spoiled by an amazing half a season, which was ultimately meaningless but a fun ride. 2016 has been miserable, make no mistakes, but as bad as it was, we ultimately went in a circle and not necessarily downhill. We still have a core to build around, including improvements from younger players like Bernardeschi and Vecino, but without any investments from the Della Valles it won't matter.
Tito: I predicted a 6th place league finish this season, so 5th is a slight improvement. Adding in the excitement of leading Serie A for a bit certainly bumps the grade up as well. However, the Europa and Coppa campaigns were both deeply underwhelming. All in all, I'll give this season one a C+ (or a 6.3), as it was just slightly above average. If the team had achieved similar results, but maintained the high-intensity ethos from the first half of the year, I'd rate it a lot higher. Watching everyone default back to Montella-ball was a really big letdown.
Huw: C. Decent enough, but no one's going to remember this season in the years to come.
JSE: C+ After a cracking start to the season the team ended up flat-lining in Europa League qualification for a fourth successive season. Given the projections at the beginning of the season this is a reasonable place to finish. The good start to the season had us all hoping for Champions League qualification at the very least, that we tailed off so drastically was as disappointing as it was perhaps predictable. Ultimately we have taken a step backwards in terms of both where the team finished in the league and our progress in cup competitions. Looking back i think Montella was under-appreciated as a coach. That said in the first half of the season Sousa's team did bring a level of joy to the fans the like of which had not been seen for a good while, and that has to count for something.