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Fiorentina season review 2019-2020: Central defenders

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The big guys came up big all year.

AS Roma v AC Fiorentina Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Despite some wobbles, Fiorentina wound up posting the 5th-best defensive record in Serie A, and the best after Giuseppe Iachini took over. While Beppe’s system is a big part of that, the bulk of the credit has to go to the players themselves, who—aside from some stink bombs against Cagliari and AS Roma under Vincenzo Montella—were superb both individually and collectively.

Germán Pezzella

Much like the rest of his team, the captain was mighty uneven this year. He started rather iffily, aside from a banger to keep a clean sheet against Juventus, and had a bit of a death spiral until February or so, which wasn’t helped by Samuele di Carmine breaking his face with an elbow and knocking him out for a few weeks. Really tried to adapt to Iachini’s demands after the restart, particularly with some more positive passing to the wings, albeit with mixed results.

As ever, he remains nearly unbeatable in the air and tough as nails in the tackle, but his lack of pace and quickness means he doesn’t do well when tracking up the pitch, and he’s never going to be the most comfortable with the ball at his feet. But between his busted cheekbone and a bout of COVID 19, he had a lot to overcome this year and closed it out very strongly, highlighting a really strong mentality. That said, as the captain, it was disappointing that he couldn’t get a bit more out of his team, especially in the early going.

Final stats: 34 appearances (2902 minutes), 3 goals, 1 assist, 13 yellow cards, 1 red card

Final grade: B- Not the steadiest year for the skipper, although some of that was because his midfield let him down quite a bit. Still, he was certainly worth the money he earned, even in a slightly down season.

Best moment: Was superb against Juve in the 0-0 and at Napoli in the 0-2, but it was after the restart in the 2-0 over Torino that he looked best to me. Completely destroyed Andrea Belotti and Simone Zaza over 90 minutes in what was, for me, his most complete performance.

Worst moment: You could argue for his Coppa Italia performance against Atalanta which saw him get sent off, or for the 5-2 shelling at Cagliari. For me, though, it was the coronavirus. That’s scary as hell.

Goals for next year: With rumors swirling as to his impending departure and a contract that runs out in 2022, now’s the time for Pezze to figure out his next step. A contract renewal would be great news, as it’s doubtful that Fiorentina could find a better player for what he’d bring, so let’s hope it’s that.

Nikola Milenković

It’s hard to believe the Mountain that Kicks is still only 22; he can make a very good case for being Fiorentina’s player of the season. He was the team’s best defender more much of the season and often looked like the only guy with a clue under Montella. He did regress a bit from December to February, but was perhaps the most impressive player on the team after the restart.

His physical gifts are a known quantity but remain freakish; there just aren’t many humans who combine his size and strength with such quick feet. His 5 goals also indicated that he’s finally figuring out how to use his height on set pieces. After the restart, though, he began showing off increased skill with the ball, particularly with his passing, and also showcased some superb reading of the game. He’s hit that next level and looks like a genuinely world-class player, maybe the best on the current roster.

Final stats: 41 appearances (3617 minutes), 5 goals, 9 yellow cards

Final grade: B+ Had the odd hiccup but was, for my money, the best player in the side this year and really took the final step.

Best moment: There are a lot to choose from, as he was, on average, the highest-rated player on the team for us. Maybe it’s the recency bias, but the second half against Bologna was just insane. A highlight-reel goal on one end and 45 minutes of slamming the door on whatever Musa Barrow and Nicola Sansone tried on the other.

Worst moment: The Cagliari drubbing. Like everyone else, he was just hopeless.

Goals for next year: Like Pezzella, he’s wanted by a number of clubs and has a contract running out in 2022. This may be the highest his profile will get, so the brass need to figure out if it’s worth cashing in. Hopefully they and he decide that he should remain a Viola player, though, because he was one of the league’s best defenders this year and there’s no way to find equivalent value in the market.

Martín Cáceres

The well-traveled Uruguayan signed with little fanfare as a free transfer over the summer, but quickly became a massively important player for the Viola. His athleticism and experience meant he was perfect on the left of a back three, although he also deputized at fullback occasionally in a back four under Montella. Either way, he was generally quite solid on the back foot and did a good job of carrying the ball forward. He started the season really well before growing increasingly ragged, but mostly tightened things back up after the restart.

The downside with Cáceres was, and always has been, that he’s capable of incredibly bad decisions. He gave away a number of chances this year with ill-considered passes deep in his own half and sometimes pushed to far upfield, leaving his wing open. He’s also not averse to a horror tackle and the subsequent punishment. However, he offered more positives than negatives in his first Fiorentina season, particularly when asked to mark an opposing wide forward tightly, and can go down as a successful signing.

Final stats: 30 appearances (2480 minutes), 2 goals, 9 yellow cards, 1 red card

Final grade: C+ His versatility and toughness were great, but his decision-making was an issue. On balance, he was better than league-average, but not by much.

Best moment: While he was immense in the scoreless draw against Juve, this has to be the second half in the 0-2 win at Napoli. He was good in the first, but after the break, he utterly erased Jose Callejón from the game. One of the best displays of man-marking I’ve ever seen.

Worst moment: Has to be the restart opener against Brescia, doesn’t it? The lowlights were conceding a needless penalty and getting sent off for a terrible challenge, but it wasn’t just two bad moments. His passing and positioning were really quite bad too. All in all, it was a sub-Tomović level performance, maybe dropping all the way down to the depths of Felipe.

Goals for next year: There’s an option to extend his contract for another year and the club would be wise to exercise it. Cáceres brings experience, grit, and talent (not to mention zero shirts) to any club, and having him for another year as Igor works his way into the XI would be great. Martín is 33 and isn’t going to change from the player he’s been for years, so we’re not expecting him to be any different next season.

Federico Ceccherini

It was a tale of two halves for the 28-year-old Livorno native. He was really shaky at the start of the season when asked to fill in for Cáceres and Pezzella, always looking a bit tentative and more than capable of a howler. As ever, he struggled with particularly strong or quick forwards and with maintaining his focus for extended periods; he seemed in danger of dropping behind Luca Ranieri and then Igor on the depth chart by the new year.

After the restart, though, he was brilliant, showcasing a level of focus we hadn’t ever seen from him. He was particularly good at chasing opposing forwards deep into their own territory when they dropped in and playing on the turn, which hadn’t ever seemed like his forte. His distribution and skill on the ball remains underappreciated qualities, but his re-invention as a very proactive stopper was eye-opening.

Final stats: 17 appearances (1010 minutes), 3 yellow cards

Final grade: B- It’s hard to chase his recent performances off the brain, but he was nearly catastrophic through much of the early season. Since the bulk of his starts came after the break, though, they’re weighted more heavily in this grade, especially considering his previous body of work as a professional.

Best moment: How does shutting down Ciro Immobile sound? It may be strange to highlight his performance in a loss, but he put the capocannoniere in his pocket from the opening whistle and only removed him after the game, showing off a really proactive approach to stop the prolific forward. Just hugely impressive.

Worst moment: Had a torrid showing against Torino in the 2-1 loss. Got absolutely bossed by Zaza and was very lucky that none of his mistakes were directly responsible for goals.

Goals for next year: If he can keep playing with the confidence and intensity he showed after the restart, he’s going to be a fantastic depth player and a really good option off the bench who could maybe push the starters for more minutes while remaining a positive dressing room influence. What else can you ask for?

Igor

Brought in from SPAL over the winter break, the young Brazilian took some time to settle in as Giuseppe Iachini tried to figure out whether he was a centerback or a fullback. It didn’t take long for his obvious athleticism to jump out—he’s built like a tank but changes direction like a Roomba—although his positioning was occasionally a bit suspect. He briefly pushed past Cáceres and Cecche on the depth chart but looks more like next year’s breakout star with his obvious comfort on the ball, both dribbling and passing.

Final stats: 9 appearances (609 minutes), 2 yellow cards

Final grade: B- Some really strong showings and a few mistakes as well, but he was definitely better than advertised and was more than adequate when called on.

Best moment: Bit weird that two of his best performances were in losses, but he was magnificent in the referee-aided 3-0 loss to the Juvenuts and silenced Josip Iličić for 90 minutes in the 1-2 defeat to la Dea, but sometimes that’s just how it goes.

Worst moment: Had two bad moments against Lazio by keeping Felipe Caicedo onsides when the striker dove to win a penalty and then letting the ball bounce off him and back to Luis Alberto for the equalizer, but looked completely out of his depth as a wingback against Udinese and struggled for the entire game rather than just two moments, so it has to be the latter.

Goals for next year: Iron out those kinks with his positioning and take over the left side of the defense. Overtaking a veteran like Cáceres isn’t easy, but Igor should definitely be up to it. Sky’s the limit for him.

Luca Ranieri

All of 20 years old when the season started, the former Primavera star got his senior debut in the first competitive game of the season against Monza and looked like he belonged, able to play on the left of a back three or a back four. It was a bit trickier against Serie A opponents and he fell out of favor under Montella before dropping down to Serie B with a January loan to Ascoli, where he’s impressed again. As a player, he’s not the most athletic (and does have a bit of that Alberto Gilardino look/awkwardness) but reads the game well and times his tackles better than any young defender I’ve ever seen.

Final stats: 5 appearances (412 minutes), 2 yellow cards, 1 red card

Final grade: D+ It probably wasn’t fair to expect him to contribute right away as a 20-year-old debuting in the top flight; the flashes of excellence were cancelled out by mistakes, but we’re high on him as a contributor in the future.

Best moment: Getting the nod to start against Monza. Yes, they’re in Serie C, but I can’t remember the last time an academy-trained defender started for the Viola. That he didn’t put a foot wrong all game only made it sweeter.

Worst moment: It’s tough to be a young guy thrown into the mix with a 2-goal deficit (so the midfield is pushed up and leaving space) and told to shut down Immobile, so he has my sympathy for his horror show against Lazio, but a needless high boot to get booked within two minutes of coming on and then a handball to earn his marching orders and give up a penalty aren’t very good.

Goals for next year: He needs to get stronger, as bigger forwards can push him around, but he should be ready for an extended run in Serie A. Since Fiorentina has depth on the left of the back three with Cáceres, Igor, and Ceccherini, a loan to a bottom-half side could be his best chance of getting it.