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Fiorentina season review 2019-2020: Midfielders

The engine room had its highs and lows this year but showed some improvement towards the end of the season.

ACF Fiorentina v Bologna FC - Serie A
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Now that we’ve looked at the defensive side of Fiorentina, it’s time to move our focus further forward, although not too much farther forward. That’s right, it’s time to look at the Viola midfielders. For the purposes of this article from running too much over 2000 words, I’m not going to include guys like Kevin Agudelo and Szymon Żurkowski, who simply didn’t play enough to get for me to get a read on. I am adding Rachid Ghezzal to this group on the grounds that he mostly played as a nominal central midfielder rather than as a winger, although that was a fairly tough decision.

Erick Pulgar

The Chilean was one of the first signings of the season but met with a rather muted response. While Vincenzo Montella insisted on using him as a box-to-box runner to accommodate Milan Badelj, Pulgar was a bit awkward; while his defensive contribution was excellent, he seemed a bit clunky on the ball. Some of that might’ve been Vinnie’s influence, as the whole team was pretty feckless, but a move to the holding role under Giuseppe Iachini brought out his best.

Under Beppe, Pulgar showed fantastic discipline screening the defense. He was 5th in Serie A in pressures, highlighting his intelligence without the ball, and his distribution improved as well, although nobody’s ever going to mistake him for prime David Pizarro. We’ve also got to call out his strong work at set pieces, as he led the league in chances created from dead balls, which in turn brought the best out of Nikola Milenković and Germán Pezzella in front of goal. It was a bit of an up-and-down year for him, but there’s no question that he was one of Fiorentina’s better players on the year, especially once he could move into the holding role.

Final stats: 41 appearances (3306 minutes), 7 goals (all PKs), 8 assists, 10 yellow cards

Final grade: B- As a ball-winner and defender, he’s as good as anyone the Viola have had in that role for quite some time. Add in his free kicks and you’ve got a very strong debut season, even if he’s never going to be a creative force from deep.

Best moment: He was outstanding against Udinese and in both games against Brescia, but it’s got to be the 1-2 win over Parma, doesn’t it? He was impassable in the middle as a screener all day, spread the play quite effectively, and added a brace from the spot for good measure.

Worst moment: Like so many other players, this comes down to the 5-2 loss at Cagliari, the 1-4 to AS Roma, or the 1-3 to Sassuolo. For me, the first was his low point, but I won’t argue if you think it’s either of the other two.

Goals for next year: It’s rather unlikely that he’d move on just a year into a 4-year contract, even if there is interest from Atletico Madrid and the Premier League. However, with Amrabat incoming, he’ll have to adapt his game to work with a player who generally occupies the same areas of the pitch, which could make for a rocky first few months. The goal is to avoid that.

Gaetano Castrovilli

What a first year in Serie A for the 22-year-old. We were all excited to see him after he’d excelled at Cremonese in Serie B for two seasons—at this site, we’d previously compared him to Borja Valero—but he wound up being far more dynamic in possession than the ex-West Bromwich Albion man. Tanino was second in the league in pretty much every dribbling stat behind Jeremie Boga, but also ranked just two spots behind Pulgar in pressures, which highlights his defensive contribution as well.

After a torrid start as a dribbler, he matured a bit and even scored 3 goals in 6 games under Montella. He struggled to adapt to a more disciplined role under Beppe and never reached the heights he had with the Aeroplanino. Indeed, he consistently fouled opponents in dangerous areas and put his team in trouble at times. That said, his ability to burst forward with the ball from deep and deform an opposing defense was revelatory and was, for a time, Fiorentina’s most dangerous avenue of attack. He more than earned his caps for the Azzurri with his displays this year and we shouldn’t be too hard on him for a rough stretch after the restart, as that was just such an unpredictable period.

Final stats: 35 appearances (2864 minutes), 3 goals, 2 assists, 10 yellow cards

Final grade: B+ Can’t be an A because he was rather dreadful after the restart, but he was very effective (and also the funnest player in the league) until the break. Certainly the highest-impact debut season a Viola player has had after spending time in Serie B that I can remember. What a talent.

Best moment: It’s tempting to say it was the 1-2 win at Sassuolo, when he scored one and assisted the other, but I thought his effort at Torino in the 2-1 loss was even better. On the third watch (after I’d written the match report), he was just absurd: 6/6 on dribbles, created 5 pretty clear opportunities, passed the ball forward really well, and added a really good defensive shift.

Worst moment: He was, without question, the worst player on the pitch in the 1-3 loss to Sassuolo. Constantly lost the ball, constantly gave away fouls, handed the Neroverdi two goals just by himself, and provided nothing going forward. It was probably more exhaustion than anything, though, so you can’t be that mad at him.

Goals for next year: Learn how to shoot a dang soccer ball so that it goes into the back of the other team’s net. Really ought to have scored 7ish goals based on his opportunities this season, so let’s see if he can add that to his game, because with Pulgar and Sofyan Amrabat behind him, he should have a lot more freedom to get forward.

Milan Badelj

After a year with Lazio, the Croatian international returned to Florence on loan with an option to buy after failing to crack the Aquile lineup. The move made sense, as Montella had gotten the best out of him previously, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Badelj remains a very intelligent midfielder but his lack of mobility seems to be really catching up to him as he offered nothing defensively. The move to Iachini only highlighted his shortcomings, as Fiorentina rarely had the ball, which in turn prevented him from serving as the metronome in possession.

Off the pitch, he remained a leader and mentor, even captaining the side 3 times in Pezzella’s absence (cannot recall another incidence of a loanee wearing the armband). But whether it was pushing Pulgar into an unnatural box-to-box role or struggling to keep up without the Chilean’s ball-winning next to him, it’s pretty clear that Badelj simply wasn’t cut out for Beppe’s high-intensity, low-possession approach. The team generally suffered with him on the pitch this year, unfair as it may seem, and he was often the worst player out there.

Final stats: 24 appearances (1739 minutes), 1 goal, 3 yellow cards, 1 red card

Final grade: D- While he frequently improved the team’s ball retention in the middle with his understanding of where to go off the ball, his mistakes in possession and, more than anything, his helplessness to keep up with opposing attackers made him a serious liability.

Best moment: Anchored the team in the 1-3 win at AC Milan brilliantly. 5 interceptions, 3 tackles, and a succession of passes floated to the wings. Pretty much the dictionary entry for an excellent Badelj game as he locked down the space between the lines and moved the ball around efficiently.

Worst moment: No shortage to choose from this year, is there? His 29-touches-in-75-minutes performance at Inter Milan jumps out to me, but he was equally terrible in the 5-2 thumping at Cagliari, the 1-0 loss to Hellas Verona, and the scoreless draw at Udinese just before the break.

Goals for next year: With a move to Lokomotiv Moscow all but official, we wish him the best in Russia.

Marco Benassi

The man of mystery remained, well, mysterious as ever. He’s somehow still only 25 but seems like he’s been miscast by Viola management for a decade. Limited to a rotational role by the rise of Gaetano Castrovilli for much of the year, he still featured prominently through the first half of the season before Alfred Duncan arrived in January.

It was the usual Benassi story: scarce involvement with or without the ball interrupted by the occasional moment of brilliance. Make no mistake, our Marco’s capable of brilliance, but he doesn’t seem to control when or how it manifests itself; rather, he’s a conduit for some sort of inspiration which he can’t control. Ending the season with a calf injury meant that we didn’t see him as much as we might have otherwise as Iachini tried to rotate his midfield after the restart, but it’s more than likely that it would’ve been more of the same.

Final stats: 22 appearances (1321 minutes), 3 goals, 1 assist, 1 yellow card

Final grade: D+ Had every opportunity to lock down a spot with Castrovilli and Pulgar and failed so hard that the club had to buy Duncan and Sofyan Amrabat in January. On the plus side, he did score the goal of the season and had some sparkling moments, but not enough to outweigh the negative ones.

Best moment: It really is a matter of moments with Benassi, who rarely turns in a full 90 minutes, so I’ll go with the platonic ideal of a looping volley from outside the box he scored at Bologna. You won’t see a better hit all year.

Worst moment: Pretty much whenever he wasn’t scoring or assisting, which was nearly always. My pick of the bunch was in the 1-2 loss to Atalanta, when managed 28 touches in 85 minutes. Could also argue for the 2-1 Coppa win over la Dea, when he was equally uninvolved and equally overrun in the middle. No shortage of yikes.

Goals for next year: It’s hard to see a regular role for Benassi with Amrabat, Castrovilli, Pulgar, and Duncan all in the fold and a spate of rumors linking the Viola to new midfielders. With a contract that runs until 2022, though, Marco’s best chance for playing time may be a loan move away; he could stick around and offer the threat of midfield goals off the bench, but that seems like a bit of a waste for everyone.

Alfred Duncan

After Fiorentina supporters allegedly (and, this being Italy, almost certainly) targeted him with racist chants in the home fixture, Duncan was perhaps the most awkward possible purchase in January. To his immense credit, he settled in and got to work.

Final stats: 13 appearances (889 minutes), 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 yellow cards

Final grade: B Did have a couple of clunkers in there but was generally one of the better players on the field when he played. His ability to receive the ball under pressure and move it, either by passing or dribbling, to a good spot is very impressive. Would’ve liked to see him demand the ball more often, but he was still quite good.

Best moment: Ran the show against Cagliari in the scoreless draw. 105 touches, 7/8 dribbles, 3 interceptions, and an outside-of-the-boot blast that fizzed just wide. More than the stats, it was how he played, continually receiving the ball under pressure before turning past his marker and darting forward to start the attack.

Worst moment: Just two weeks later, he was completely outmuscled by Amadou Diawara and Jordan Veretout in the 2-1 “loss” at Roma. Registered 35 touches in 90 minutes and did nothing useful with them.

Goals for next year: Nail down a spot in the XI next to Amrabat and Castrovilli (even if it is at Pulgar’s expense). His all-around game adds a dimension in attack that Pulgar’s just doesn’t.