As we approach La Viola’s opening fixture with Napoli this Saturday there is truly reason for optimism ahead of the new Serie A campaign. Daniele Prade has delivered, in acquiring Kevin-Prince Boateng, Pol Lirola, Milan Badelj, Erick Pulgar and Franck Ribery. Fiorentina has signed players that can improve the quality of their starting eleven immediately.
This successful rebuild also renders the opening game of last season as nothing more than a distant memory, a moment where it was believed that the youngest squad across the top five European leagues was set to write their own coming of age story. It ended with a remarkable 6-1 win over Chievo and an early statement to any team with hopes of qualifying for the Europa League. The first goal was exemplary;
At the time Nikola Milenkovic had been linked with Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United, however following an indifferent performance in the Serie A it is now reasonable to expect Milenkovic to be a part of Fiorentina’s squad for the coming season. Rocco Commisso publicly stated his desire for there to be no key departures this summer some time ago now. It is also difficult to believe that Manchester United will continue their longstanding interest following their signing of England International Harry Maguire, an experienced central defender with all too similar characteristics. Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid and Juventus have secured alternative targets to strengthen their options at the position.
While Milenkovic did not have the breakout season that was expected, it wasn’t simply a case of underperformance. The continuous switching between full-back and centre-back clearly presented its challenges and when Vincenzo Montella replaced Stefano Pioli as Head Coach in April the defence changed from a back four to a back three, a different system entirely. This positional instability should be a major consideration in assessing last season’s performance.
Despite this, in the 2018/2019 campaign, Milenkovic won 66% of defensive duels, 59.57% of aerial duels, completed 17.9 forward passes per 90 minutes and averaged 5.8 interceptions per 90 minutes. Only Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Torino’s breakout performer Armando Izzo recorded higher numbers in the Serie A last season, demonstrating the potential level of impact he could have as a starting centre back this season.
Positively, it is highly likely that Milenkovic will partner German Pezzella as the heartbeat of La Viola’s defence this season. With the departure of Vitor Hugo and the recent addition of a starting calibre right wing-back in Pol Lirola, it can also be expected that Montella intends to use him as a centre back going forward. A question yet to be answered is whether Fiorentina will line up in a back three or a back four, however links to Torino’s promising young Italian defender Kevin Bonifazi earlier have now cooled. Bonifazi featured as a left-sided centre back in a back three for SPAL on loan last season and Fiorentina do not currently have the depth required at the position for this to be Montella’s go-to system.
In any case Milenkovic will have the opportunity this season to start in his natural position away from the spotlight, which could be the perfect environment to realise the potential that has attracted the interest of Europe’s biggest clubs. At just 21 years old, it is well-known that the Serbian international possesses the hallmarks of an elite defensive prospect - with the ability to read the game, to anticipate and crucially distribute effectively. This instinct to move away from his position, however, at times left Fiorentina’s defence exposed towards the end of last season. Providing this judgement is refined, alongside the ever-formidable Pezzella, there is every reason to believe that La Viola will improve from being the Serie A’s sixth best defensive team in 2019-2020.