Pre-match warm-ups often reveal a great deal about a side’s playing style; if you’d lived under a rock for the past five years and were unsure about Barcelona’s strategy, for example, a small taster of one of their ‘rondo’ sessions would explain everything concisely.
Fiorentina’s warm-up outlines their strategy particularly blatantly. After the usual stretching and passing drills, Fiorentina assemble themselves in their regular 3-5-2 (or 3-5-1-1, if you like) formation within one half of the pitch. The defence starts close to the halfway line, the forwards remain near the penalty box. Within that shape, the defenders collect a ball from the centre circle, and the players keep possession for 20 or 30 seconds, practising their passing combinations and off-the-ball movement.
Once the majority have touched the ball, a coach blows his whistle, and suddenly Fiorentina switch from unadventurous ball retention to immediate attack. A forward pass is followed by a quick diagonal ball to a wing-back, for a striker to convert into an empty net. Once a goal has been scored, the entire side suddenly sprints back into position.
It summarises three of Fiorentina’s qualities – their ball retention, their ability to attack suddenly from deep positions, and their good defensive transitions.
It’s unusual for a manager to openly lay out his formation on the pitch for the opposition coach to observe. Vincenzo Montella has experimented with a 4-3-3 in recent weeks, but for the majority of the season he’s favoured a back three, in common with many other Serie A coaches. But while Napoli and Udinese re-popularised the formation by playing direct, counter-attacking football, Montella has done something entirely different. “The team is doing very well, but I think it’s evident we can grow a great deal,” he says of his project. “You cannot do everything in a year, but this is a start.”
Fiorentina are arguably the most possession-orientated side in Italy. At home, they average the highest possession in Serie A, but on their travels their intricate passers struggle to impose themselves on games, and they drop to 5th in terms of possession – incidentally, they occupy the same two positions, home and away, in terms of pass completion rate.
Like many modern passing sides, Fiorentina’s passing quality starts from defence, where Gonzalo Rodriguez, Stefan Savic and Facundo Roncaglia are all able in possession, but the centre of midfield is the defining area of the team. The recruitment of three ball-playing central midfielders – David Pizarro, Alberto Aquilani and Borja Valero – seemed odd last summer, and prompted questions about how Montella would fit them into the same side. The answer was simple – he plays all three together, with no physical midfielders required. Valero has motored forward excellently to become Serie A’s third-best assistor behind Marek Hamsik and Francesco Totti, while Aquilani seems at home in a system perfectly suited to his style.
Perhaps the most amazing statistic is that Pizarro has collected 13 bookings this season, despite committing just 14 fouls. His offences usually involve breaking up opposition counter-attacks cynically – sometimes with handballs – hence why he rarely concedes a free-kick without going into the referee’s notebook.
But in possession, Pizarro is the heartbeat of the side. He plays exactly the same role Andrea Pirlo does at Juventus – collecting the ball from the three defenders, then spraying passes towards the flanks. There, Fiorentina have two useful wing-backs possessing completely different qualities. 30-year-old Italian Manuel Pasqual, the club’s longest-serving player and captain, plays a steady role on the left, staying wide and delivering a stream of crosses – 2.7 accurate deliveries per game, the most in Serie A. On the right, Juan Cuadrado is a different beast – his crossing is less consistent, but he’s a great dribbler, beating an opponent 2.8 times per game, compared to Pasqual’s 0.3.
Upfront, Fiorentina have two separate systems. Montella can use star man Stevan Jovetic behind Luca Toni, as an old school ‘prima punta’, or Jovetic can become the main striker with support from Adem Ljajic. Jovetic prefers being given license to drift around, but against quality opposition Fiorentina benefit from Ljajic’s movement and dribbling ability – against relative minnows, a penalty box poacher like Toni works better.
At the other end of the pitch Fiorentina’s back three have relatively little to do, thanks to Fiorentina’s great ball retention, which means Montella’s side have conceded the joint-fewest shots in the league, alongside Juventus. Right-sided centre-back Roncaglia is the most proactive defender in terms of tackles and blocks, but left-sided Savic has been the most dominant in the air, winning 70% of his aerial duels compared to Roncaglia’s 54%, and Rodriguez’s 58%. Savic’s move from Manchester City, with Matija Nastasic going the other way, seems to have worked out perfectly for both clubs, and both players.
Intriguingly, despite Fiorentina’s great technical quality and focus upon possession football, they’ve also been lethal from set-pieces. All three centre-backs have contributed a significant number of goals, and Fiorentina have scored more from dead ball situations than any other side in Serie A (14). To describe Gianni Vio as the ‘secret’ to their success would be a lie – Fiorentina’s dedicated set-piece expert has rightly received significant praise this season. “During the game, teams are lined up on the basis of various roles, but set-pieces allow you to mix them up again and disorientate the opponent,” Vio explains in WhoScored contributor James Horncastle’s profile of him. Fiorentina might reveal their formation before the game, but their set-piece routines provide the surprise.
The most remarkable statistic from Fiorentina’s season is not a number you’ll find on WhoScored.com. The figure? 81%. But this isn’t Fiorentina’s pass completion rate or Emiliano Viviano’s save percentage – it’s the squad turnover from last season. Of the 27 players that have appeared this season, 22 were not at the club in 2011/12. For that, sporting director Daniele Prade takes the credit – his recruitment has been excellent, and it helped that he’d worked with Montella before, at Roma. “We chose the players that would suit Montella's ideas,” he says. “The Coach can do as much as he wants, but only if he has the right players.”
Despite Savic’s aerial dominance, Pizarro’s diagonal balls and Valero’s assists, Prade rates the signing of third-choice goalkeeper Cristiano Lupatelli – who played for Fiorentina between 2004 and 2008 – as amongst his most crucial purchases, because of his role in the dressing room; he is to Fiorentina what Pepe Reina is to Spain. Legendary striker Toni and childhood Fiorentina fan Viviano have also brought familiarity, despite the huge changes from last season’s squad.
Prade, Montella and Vio have become Fiorentina’s dream team. 2012/13 was about building the foundations for future years, but already Fiorentina find themselves in sixth place – outsiders for a Champions League place, but likely to qualify for next season’s Europa League. “We've been pleasantly surprised to see that the results have come so quickly,” admits Prade. “But our real project is a medium and long-term one.”
If this group stays together next season – with Giuseppe Rossi still yet to make his debut, remember – Fiorentina could mount a genuine challenge for the title next season, for the first time since the days of Rui Costa and Gabriel Batistuta.