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End-of-year grades: Fullbacks

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Weirdly enough, this may well be the best-performing unit over the past season.

ACF Fiorentina v Atalanta BC - Coppa Italia Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Nikola Milenković

What happened: The massive young Serbian split his time between fullback and centerback, but played spent more time at the former. When combined with his stints as in Nenad Tomović’s old spot on the right in Vincenzo Montella’s hybrid 3- and/or 4-man defense, along with his frequent jaunts forward, he showed a lot more dynamism than we had any reason to expect from such a large human; he’s truly an incredible athlete.

Unfortunately, that athleticism seemed to be all he had to go on at times this year, as he fell way out of form for the middle three months of the season, right as the rumor mill began producing daily updates about his impending move to Manchester United or Atletico Madrid. His positioning, tackling, and decision-making all suffered badly over this period, and the sight of Nihola lumping a ball straight down the line and into the teeth of the opposing defense became all too common. He righted the ship there at the end and regained some of his form from last year, but it’s hard to see this season as a step forward; it was, at best, a holding pattern rather than an ascent.

Final stats: 38 appearances (38 starts), 3 goals, 9 yellow cards, 1 red card

Best moment: GET IN

What’s next: Still just 21 years old and already possessed of World Cup starting experience for Serbia, he would have attracted a lot of interest on the market even if Fiorentina hadn’t imploded this year. Since the Viola crashed and burned, though, he’ll likely be one of the major assets that the brass cash in to jumpstart yet another rebuild. That said, we’d be thrilled if he stuck around, but as he’s a Fali Ramadani client, it’s likely that he’ll move on for big money.

Final grade: B- Had some extremely bright moments, but also struggled in some matchups that we’d have liked him to dominate. Still has everything you could ask for in a defender; just needs to put it all together without hiccups for a full year.

Vincent Laurini

What happened: Despite heavy speculation last summer that he would be sold, the Frenchman stuck around and performed quite well when called upon. Never the flashiest or most dynamic going forward, he nevertheless drove forward on the overlap when the opportunity presented itself. More importantly, though, he demonstrated his usual hard-nosed man-marking, particularly in the second half of the season. Despite barely sniffing the pitch for the first three months, he was ready to go when called upon, professional as ever, and possessed of a curious ability to win headers in the box over much taller players on a consistent basis. He did everything that was asked of him, and that’s not nothing.

Final stats: 17 appearances (10 starts), 5 yellow cards

Best moment: Weirdly enough, it was probably in the defensively-bereft showing against Chievo Verona which finished 3-4 to the Viola. Laurini kept his wing on lock—none of the Donkeys’ goals came from his side—and motored up and down the wing nicely. Like most everything Vincent does, it wasn’t super-impressive, but was entirely adequate.

What’s next: He turns 30 in two weeks, which will make him the second-oldest player on the roster (after the returning Cyril Théréau, ugh), so there’ll doubtless be voices calling for Fiorentina to move on from him. With the likes of Lorenzo Venuti and Gabriele Ferrarini working through the ranks, though, who knows if he’ll stick around?

Final grade: B Never did anything but was asked of him and did it quite well. Can’t really have any complaints about him, and he may be the only Viola player this year about whom that statement can be uttered.

Cristiano Biraghi

What happened: We had hoped for a bit of a lift from the 26-year-old in his second year in Florence, and CB3 delivered. While his defense remains a bit spotty at times, particularly when faced with pacy opponents who build up a full head of steam to run at him, he was, at worst, adequate in defense. That was probably the biggest knock on him before, and his improvement surely has much to do with his cementing a place (and possibly a starting berth) in Roberto Mancini’s Italy.

His calling card, of course, was never his work on the back foot, and he was usually the second- or third-most dangerous attacker for the team as well. His tireless running on the overlap, thoughtful crossing, and threat from set pieces made him as tactically important as anyone going forward, given that he was often the only man providing width on the left. While his assist numbers may not show his improvement in crossing, imagine if he’d had a decent target to aim for; Giovanni Simeone was simply bad this year, and neither Federico Chiesa nor Luis Muriel is exactly an aerial threat. Too, Biraghi was always available: he led the team in minutes played.

Final stats: 40 appearances (40 starts), 1 goal, 6 assists, 9 yellow cards

Best moment: Has to be that stoppage time free kick against Atalanta, doesn’t it?

What’s next: Despite whispers of interest from Inter Milan and PSG, Biraghi has publicly committed to staying in Florence, and we’re very pleased about that. Between his ability and his attitude—if not for Germán Pezzella, Biraghi would be a great choice as captain—he’s the sort of good, hard-working, and occasionally brilliant player an ambitious team has to hang onto.

Final grade: B Struggled a bit defensively, as previously mentioned, but more than made up for it with his work up the pitch. If he stays and a decent finisher arrives this summer, look for his assist number to rocket upwards; that’s really all that kept him from challenging Serie A’s best fullbacks this year.

David Hancko

What happened: Despite spending his entire career at centerback previous to his €3.8 million move to Fiorentina this past summer, the 21-year-old Slovenian looked like a natural as Biraghi’s backup.

Final stats: 5 appearances (3 starts), 1 assist

Best moment: While he got an assist against Chievo Verona, his best moment was his debut against SPAL. With Biraghi looking a bit ragged and on a card, Hancko stepped in at halftime and starred. He shut down Italy international Manuel Lazzari, played a 1-2 backheel with Chiesa that would have been a perfect highlight had Fede not pulled the shot wide, raked a brilliant cross across the box that should have had someone to tap it in, and generally looked like a monster.

What’s next: While Biraghi clearly has the leftback/wingback spot locked down, a move to three at the back under Montella could suit Hancko nicely, given his history in the middle. His class on the ball would perfectly fit Vinnie’s pass-first system, and he’d be able to step into midfield to provide an extra option there as well. Don’t be surprised if he unseats Vitor Hugo and Federico Ceccherini.

Final grade: B+ Didn’t play much, but did everything right when he was out there and looks like a star in the making. He’ll be one of the most interesting players to follow next year.

Next up: central midfield