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2020-2021 End of year grades: Central defenders

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It’s a mixed bag from the crew at the back.

ACF Fiorentina v Hellas Verona FC - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Nikola Milenković

What happened: We all expected this would be the season in which the Mountain would become one of the 10 or so best defenders in the world. Despite his sterling statistics, it didn’t quite happen that way. He had some brilliant moments, particularly in front of goal, but also had some mental lapses both with and without the ball and occasionally looked rather disinterested. There’s no way not to wonder if he would’ve performed better in a healthier, calmer environment, but he just wasn’t steady enough to really say that he’s raised his level. That said, he remains one of the best in Serie A largely due to his unearthly athleticism.

Final stats: 37 appearances (37 starts), 3366 minutes, 3 goals, 1 assist, 7 yellow cards, 1 red card, 71.1% tackling (1st), 37 shots blocked (T-2nd), 77% aerial success rate (3rd), 330 ball recoveries (10th)

Best moment: Has to be his equalizer against Genoa deep in stoppage time; he looked like an adult playing with children as he fired a shot goalwards and then smashed home the rebound to snatch a point.

What’s next: When you’re 23 and a Fali Ramadani client, a move to one of Europe’s top 15 or so clubs is always on the cards, and that’s where Nicky’s at. His contract runs out after next year, so Daniele Pradè could try to cash in on him. That said, there’ve been rumors recently that Milenković is interested in sticking around and working with Gattuso, so this could wind up anywhere.

Final grade: B- It speaks volumes about his quality that, even in a down year, he’s well above average.

Germán Pezzella

What happened: The captain started out nursing an ankle injury and never seemed entirely recovered. While he had some good, solid performances, he seemed physically and mentally slow for most of the season; his performance against Bologna was strikingly awful, but there were plenty of other miscues as well. His inability to organize and hold a defensive line constantly let runners in behind, forcing everyone else to scramble (there’s a reason Fiorentina’s 14 penalties conceded was 2nd-most in the league this year), and he looked cumbersome on the move; maybe that ankle didn’t heal.

Final stats: 33 appearances (33 starts), 2816 minutes, 1 goal, 5 yellow cards, 163 clearances (6th)

Best moment: Tough to beat a goal in literally your first 2 minutes of the season. Pezze got his first start against Spezia in the 4th game of the year and headed home a corner after 90 seconds to open the scoring. That he went off injured and the Viola eventually coughed up a 0-2 lead feels entirely apropos for this season.

What’s next: He’s just 29 and you have to think he’s far from finished at this level, but his contract expires next year and, despite publicly stating he wants to re-sign, there’s a decent chance he’s sold on this summer. If not, he should mentor some young defensive colleagues next season and hope to bounce back under Gennaro Gattuso.

Final grade: D+ If it seems harsh, that’s because he’s set the bar so high over the past few years.

Lucas Martínez Quarta

What happened: You can forgive his slow start as he adjusted to the speed of the Italian game, especially since he only joined on deadline day, but he showed enough glimpses of talent to tantalize until he finally became a regular in February. After that, he displayed incredible energy, always trying to cut out passes or pressure opponents to win the ball and go the other way. Whether he was amazingly proactive or a bit frantic depends on your perspective, and his enthusiasm did get him burned a few times, but he was a breath of fresh air in a stale season, leading the club in tackles and interceptions per 90.

Final stats: 21 appearances (15 starts), 1691 minutes, 1 goal, 4 yellow cards, 1 red card

Best moment: The goal, certainly. He’d been pressing so hard for one and had come close a couple of times, but when he bulleted home a header from Erick Pulgar to open the scoring against Parma, you could feel the joy rolling off him in waves.

What’s next: He’s perfectly suited to play in a high line, but there’s been talk of Gattuso trying him at rightback or even in midfield as well. No matter what, expect the Argentina international to be right in the middle of everything the Viola do.

Final grade: B- It was a slow start and there was no shortage of mistakes, but his energy, athleticism, and quality on the ball mean he’s set to be the next excellent Argentine defender to wear the purple shirt.

Igor

What happened: The Brazilian was a bit of a mystery at the start of the year. We weren’t sure if he was a central defender, a fullback, or something in between. It took him a while to unseat Cáceres, but he was really impressive once he did. While there were certainly some wobbles, his composure on the ball and absurd physicality made it easy to believe that he’s got a future with the Seleçao. A mid-season calf injury derailed him a bit, but if you’re too much of a hipster to pick Milenković for defender of the year, Igor’s almost certainly who you’re backing.

Final stats: 24 appearances (15 starts), 1426 minutes, 6 yellow cards

Best moment: Any of the ones where he brushed past about 4 defenders before laying off a simple pass are very good, but I’ll got a little bit deeper and say it was the 180 minutes he played between the win at Juventus and the goalless draw at Lazio. He shut down Juve’s vaunted attack and then served as Fiorentina’s most creative passer the next week, constantly passing through the lines.

What’s next: Ringhio gets to figure out that original question. Igor has the technique to replicate some of what Kalidou Koulibaly does for Napoli in carrying the ball forward, but he may also be the best leftback on the roster. Either way, the Brazilian is set for a big role.

Final grade: B+ Coming along brilliantly and looks like he may be the best signing Pradè’s made this time around.