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End-of-year review: Central midfielders

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With so many talented players in this list, you’d really expect the grades to be higher.

Juventus v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
Building blocks?
Photo by Filippo Alfero - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Sofyan Amrabat

What happened: As Serie A’s most impressive midfielder for Hellas Verona last year, expectations were high for the Moroccan. Frankly, they were too high, and it quickly became clear the Giuseppe Iachini and Cesare Prandelli wouldn’t use him the same way Ivan Jurić did. A rocky settling in period saw him make a bunch of mistakes as the holding midfielder, but he showed improvement when he was moved to a freer role. His purported bust-up with Prandelli, though, is cause for significant concern, and even as Fiorentina began figuring out how to maximize his talents, he never reached the previous season’s heights.

Final stats: 33 appearances (30 starts), 2684 minutes, 7 yellow cards, 316 middle third pressures (5th), 40 dribbles (9th for CMs)

Best moment: The Coppa Italia loss at Inter Milan for me. Completely dominated the midfield, bossing Arturo Vidal within an inch of his life. Won possession and spread play to the flanks brilliantly. Dropped deep to retrieve possession at times to change the team’s rhythm in possession. Steamrolled anyone who came near him.

What’s next: Despite a few rumors that he’s on the outs, expect Fiorentina’s record signing to occupy his usual spot in the engine room; Gennaro Gattuso should be able to get a bit more from him.

Final grade: C- There were some positive signs but it was a rough season. If he’d landed in a less chaotic team, he’d probably have been much better. The Prandelli episode is also a problem.

Gaetano Castrovilli

What happened: Widely tipped to take the next step and become one of Serie A’s best, Tanino came out firing on all cylinders. He scored 3 goals and assisted 2 more in the first 5 games of the year and looked like he’d taken that next step. Instead, he fell off from there (1 goal and 3 assists for the rest of the year), becoming increasingly anonymous and eventually losing his spot to Jack. He looked peripheral, constantly deferring to Franck Ribery—who missed 2 of those 5 games—and not looking for the ball, and it’s fair to say that BeppeBall interrupted his progress pretty substantially.

Final stats: 37 appearances (31 starts), 2586 minutes, 5 goals, 3 assists, 8 yellow cards, 1 red card, 168 successful pressures (10th), 68 times dispossessed (10th)

Best moment: Scoring twice and setting up another against Udinese was special. The first goal was smart movement in the box, the assist was a gloriously weighted cross for Nikola Milenković, and the second goal was a biophysics-defying bomb into the top corner. He had a goal and 2 assists against Spezia, too, but was a halftime sub so it feels a bit less impressive.

What’s next: He was apparently quite sad to have missed out on the Euros and was considering his Viola future, but he should resettle himself during the summer and come back to work ready to improve.

Final grade: C+ That start showed what he can be, but there wasn’t any follow through.

Giacomo Bonaventura

What happened: The former Atalanta and AC Milan midfielder was supposed to be the first option off the bench. It took him a minute to get settled, especially as he figured out Iachini’s negative approach, but his runs into the box were an underrated part of the Viola attack. He also scored some of the best goals of the season and at least got himself to the right spots on defense, although he’ll never be mistaken for the sort of gritty midfielder that Beppe likes best. All in all, he was better than advertised and showed he had more in the tank than we might have thought, although it might be partly because he was one of very few players to take some responsibility going forward.

Final stats: 35 appearances (28 starts), 2386 minutes, 3 goals, 2 assists, 6 yellow cards

Best moment: That goal against Crotone. I mean, c’mon.

What’s next: He’s got a team option on his contract for another year and should serve as veteran depth.

Final grade: B Not flawless but wound up as perhaps the team’s most important midfielder by default.

Erick Pulgar

What happened: Missed the first 3 games and wasn’t fully fit for a bit, but slowly built up steam. Benched in favor of Amrabat in the holding role through the first half of the season and often looked redundant with the Moroccan, but they began figuring out a relationship in the second half and Erick started to do his usual thing, which is sweeping up in front of (and occasionally behind) the defense and delivering excellent set pieces, which he often ceded to Cristiano Biraghi for some reason. Anyways, we all know exactly what Pulgar is at this point and he fulfilled his usual brief to a tee. Whether you like that or not will probably determine how you think he played, but his positional intelligence, reading of the game, and dead ball ability meant he was never less than useful.

Final stats: 33 appearance (23 starts), 2206 minutes, 1 goal, 3 assists, 10 yellow cards,

Best moment: His lone goal was a thunderous free kick against Milan, but I thought he was better overall in the 2-0 win over Lazio, shutting down Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinković-Savić and playing mistake-free for 90 minutes as the unsung hero behind the upset win.

What’s next: He’s been linked to numerous clubs in England and Spain and could well be on his way out; he’s probably not dangerous enough on the ball to suit Gattuso’s plans for the deepest midfielder and hasn’t ever looked comfortable in a role farther forward, but he’s a good player and could well end up sticking.

Final grade: B His job is about as unglamorous as any in the game, but he does it quite well. Most of the time, that’s evident in how little you notice him.

Valentin Eysseric

What happened: Only on the roster because Daniele Pradè couldn’t offload him, the Frenchman looked utterly washed at the start of the season, serving occasionally as the vice-Ribery and looking slow and hopeless. Prandelli, though, rather unlocked him, using him in central or attacking midfield and coaxing some genuinely excellent performances out of him. After San Cesare stepped down, though, Iachini exiled him back to the bench and Val looked just as cumbersome.

Final stats: 18 appearances (7 starts), 834 minutes, 2 goals, 1 assist, 3 yellow cards

Best moment: Brought on at the half against Spezia, he scored one goal and had a hand in creating two others. It might have been the strangest impact sub of the Serie A season and it was almost as inspiring as it was funny.

What’s next: He’s out of contract and penned a surprisingly sweet farewell to the team and the city. Brest have registered some interest but his market hasn’t built up a lot of chatter. We wish him nothing but the best.

Final grade: B- For those 45 minutes against Spezia, he looked like a world class attacking midfielder. For pretty every other minute, he didn’t.

Borja Valero

What happened: The emotional satisfaction of seeing one of Fiorentina’s favorites return after being tossed out by the Della Valles was wonderful, but Borja didn’t seem to have all that much left in the tank. He’s still class on the ball and still has an outrageously sharp mind, but at 36, his legs are just about gone, and he’s incapable of staying in front of anyone defensively. A consummate professional, he doubtless provided invaluable leadership through the year, but it’s tough to see that stuff from the outside.

Final stats: 21 appearances (5 starts), 558 minutes, 3 yellow cards

Best moment: Had some lovely touches, but let’s be real. Just the news that the Mayor was returning from exile in Milan was the best gift he could’ve given us.

What’s next: His contract’s up and he’s a free agent. There’s reportedly a role as a director waiting for him if he’s ready to retire, but he may want to give it one more go. If so, let’s hope his swan song befits the player he is, and that he’s back in Florence afterwards to take on some kind of job with Fiorentina.

Final grade: Who cares? Il Sindaco è tornato.