In the aftermath of a dramatic and perhaps too-exciting draw against Lazio, it’s easy to forget that Fiorentina is really struggling in one specific area of the pitch right now, and that is in defending set pieces. The match against the Biancocelesti marked the third in a row that the Viola have conceded via centerback on a set piece: Kosta Manolas got the go-ahead goal for AS Roma; Felipe hit the woodwork which left Alberto Paloschi to prod home the rebound; and Stevan de Vrij opened the scoring at the Olimpico this past weekend.
It’s a worrying trend, as the template to beat Fiorentina has long been to play on the break and hit through set pieces. This isn’t just a defensive issue, either, as this new weakness has knock-on effects across the pitch. Opponents can focus more on sitting deep to stymie an attack which hasn’t shown any ability to break a deep block, knowing that goals are there to be had through set pieces on the other end. It allows opponents to slow down the pace, which cripples the Viola counter, which has been the most promising phase of the attack. Basically, Stefano Pioli must tighten things up on set pieces if he wants to get the team in sync with his vision. So let’s take a look at what’s going wrong.
First, let’s look at the goal.
Aleksandr Kolarov plays a corner into the middle of the box, where Edin Dzeko gets in front of his marker Germán Pezzella and gets a head to the ball, which takes a deflection off Manolas and nestles into the back of the net. The set piece routine was fairly basic: three men clustered near the penalty spot, one on the front post, and one on the back post. The three crossed paths to throw their markers off as the ball was played in.
From a deep position on the left of the defense, Federico Viviani swung in a cross to the front post. SPAL sent 5 men to crash the goal, but Felipe delayed his run at the front post and flicked the ball onto the upright. The rebound fell to Paloschi, who fired home from point blank range. In the video, you can see Marco Benassi start running before realizing that he’s completely lost Felipe, leaving the ex-Viola defender a free header. It’s a very basic marking error.
It’s a pretty innocuous-looking set up. Luis Alberto floats a free kick deep from the right side of the defense towards the middle of the box. Stevan de Vrij (and about 3 other Lazio players) start well outside the box, then run straight through the defense and into the heart of the area. The Viola defense lets the runners sprint by them unchecked, and by the time the ball arrives, Pezzella (again) is way behind de Vrij, whom he was supposed to be marking.
So what’s the deal here? Marking at set pieces is always difficult, but this is pretty poor, especially since the mistakes here are very basic. Every single one, however, is triggered by the Fiorentina defender losing his man as the ball is played in. The goals from Roma and Lazio indicate that Pezzella is very uncomfortable when trying to follow his mark through traffic in the box. The SPAL goal demonstrates the importance of putting big men on big men in the box; Benassi isn’t exactly renowned for his aerial prowess and was always at a disadvantage against a larger opponent, which is why he started tracking back too soon: he was hoping to get to a spot where he could establish position and hold his man off rather than beat him on the jump.
The most obvious solution to the problem here is a lot more time on the training ground, but that can only get you so far. A better idea may be a move to a zonal marking system on set pieces which wouldn’t require players to cross paths or stick to a man so carefully. Whatever solution Pioli tries, he’d better get it right quickly, because Sassuolo defenders Francesco Acerbi and Paolo Cannavarro are both crafty and good in the air, and you know they’re excited to test the Viola marking.