With Inter Milan and Fiorentina on a collision course for this weekend, we got the rundown on the Nerazzurri’s first opponent of the season thanks to our favorite Fiorentina fan, Tito Kohout from Viola Nation.
Q: After a strong run of form to close out the 2019/20 campaign, Rocco Commisso made the decision to stick with Beppe Iachini at the helm. Was that a good move? What does it mean for Fiorentina this season and beyond?
A: It’s probably a bit too early to tell if it was a good move. The conventional wisdom about Beppe is that he’s an excellent manager for yo-yo clubs but not good enough to take anyone to Europe, and that was more or less how we felt last year. However, he got the players to stop behaving like jerks and buy into a clear team identity, which worked wonders, and his defensive organization is as good as anyone’s in Europe: after he took the reins, Fiorentina boasted the best goals-against record in Serie A. Because neither Maurizio Sarri nor Luciano Spalletti could reach an agreement, Rocco and company made the smart and correct decision to keep Iachini in Florence rather than sign someone else they weren’t crazy about. Given that he’s built up a good rapport with the players (all the players bolt to hug him after they score and Patrick Cutrone even stole his hat for a sec last year, which was hilarious), it makes sense to maintain that continuity rather than try to rebuild, especially during a short offseason and a crazy transfer window.
What it means for Fiorentina this year is that we’re going to see more BeppeBall, which is more Thunderbird than champagne football in that only lunatics prefer it but that it serves the same basic function. That said, we have to give the Ballcap credit, as the system he trotted out against Torino was a lot more forward-thinking than anything we saw last year, particularly with regards to the wingbacks. If you want a somewhat esoteric explanation, I wrote like 1800 words on it here. The tl;dr is that he encouraged Federico Chiesa and Cristiano Biraghi to play much higher up than we saw the wingbacks last season, which in turn made the entire team look way better with the ball. The caveats are that it was just one game and that Torino looked absolutely dreadful. Whether Beppe’s willing to be more adventurous against a top side like Inter Milan should be really interesting.
I suppose there’s a world in which the Viola easily qualify for the Europa League and even push for the Champions League, but that’s really the only one in which Iachini would get an extension. As is, I think Commisso will shake his hand, thank him for his service, and send him on his way at the end of the year. Sarri or Spalletti both look like pretty good options to replace him and are in line with Rocco’s stated goals, so I’d expect the club to make pretty strong passes at both of them.
Q: Fiorentina has a trio of Under-23 strikers at its disposal; Patrick Cutrone, Dušan Vlahović, and Christian Kouamé. What do each bring to the table and who should be the starter?
A: That’s the 80-billion lira question, isn’t it? Kouamé is definitely the favorite to start up front next to Franck Ribery because he’s probably the best of the bunch right now. He’s got electric pace and he’s ridiculously strong holding up the ball, although his touch can get away from him at times. He was lethal for Genoa last year before wrecking his knee on international duty and still seems to be shaking a bit of rust off, although his athleticism clearly hasn’t suffered: he showed some jaw-dropping hops against Torino to reach 4 crosses and would’ve scored at least 2 of them if not for some Salvatore Sirigu miracles. With a full offseason to bed in and a much-improved midfield behind him, I’m on record as saying he’ll hit 15 goals this year; he was on pace for 22 goals+assists through 11 games with the Grifoni last year. He’s awesome.
Cutrone is fun too but doesn’t possess the dynamism that Kouamé does. He’s very smart with his movement and is perhaps a slightly more reliable finisher, although he’s not a stranger to the head-scratching miss. His defensive contribution is probably the best of the three, and he seems to be the sort of fun-loving guy who can really bring a dressing room together. However, there’ve been whispers that Fiorentina want to move him on this summer (which is difficult because he’s on loan from Wolves), so he’s probably not in the long-term plans. Dušan Vlahović, on the other hand, is very much in the long-term plans. He’s probably got the highest ceiling of this trio due to his absurd size/speed combo and his outrageous technique, but he needs a lot of work before he’s ready to feature for a good team. His movement and finishing are often timid and he gets visibly frustrated at times. A loan away to let him start every game this season might be nice, but it sounds like he’s about to sign an extension and wants to stay in Florence for now, so the team will likely let him hang out instead.
Q: Fiorentina’s midfield has gotten a lot of hype coming into the campaign. Why so? Is it deserved?
A: Maybe? There’s an outrageous amount of quality in the Viola engine room right now. Gaetano Castrovilli and Sofyan Amrabat were maybe the two breakout midfielders in Serie A last season, and they’re joined by a fantastic group in Alfred Duncan (Man of the Match against Torino), Erick Pulgar, Giacomo Bonaventura, and a certain Borja Valero. Any combination of that group is an upgrade on last year’s midfield, and I think that a Castrovilli-Amrabat-Duncan unit could go toe-to-toe with almost anyone in Serie A. Having Pulgar and Jack to throw in gives Iachini the chance to tailor his gameplan to any opponent. On paper, this is as much talent as Fiorentina have had in the middle since those first Montella years.
In practice, though, we have no idea. Amrabat was suspended for the first game due to accumulated yellow cards carrying over from last year, and Pulgar is recovering from Covid (he’s fine, thank goodness), so we haven’t seen this unit really mesh yet. Amrabat should start against Inter, but there’ll likely be some growing pains as everyone gets acquainted. If Iachini’s positivity against the Granata reflects his plan for the full season, though, I think this midfield could be a whole lot of fun.
Q: Fiorentina has been able to keep hold (so far) of the talented young trio of Federico Chiesa, Milenković, and Gaetano Castrovilli. What do you want to see from them at the Artemio Franchi in 2020, and when will it be time to say goodbye?
A: What every Viola fan would like to see from Chiesa and Milenković is their signatures on a lengthy contract extension. Both their deals run out in 2022, so this is really the year that they have to either re-up or move on. Given the renewed investment in the squad, I think Fede would be mistaken to force his way out right now. He’s clearly the protagonist for this side and now has the sidekicks to help reach his limitless potential. Milenković showed tremendous improvement late last year and seems well on his way to becoming one of the five or so best central defenders in the world. I love him but also understand that guys like that don’t usually stay in Florence, especially when Fali Ramadani represents them. I’d guess that we’ll see him sold unless Fiorentina qualify for Europe and give him a big raise.
Castrovilli’s a bit different. He came out of nowhere last season (although we’d been pounding the table for him as one of the best prospects in the Viola system for years) and showed a lot of growth from the beginning to the end of the campaign. I think what he needs to do is develop as a creative passer in the final third (he offers sporadic invention but isn’t very consistent in that department) and stop fouling so much, particularly in or near his own penalty box. He just signed an extension last year (and may be looking at another one already), took the coveted 10 shirt, and seems very happy in Florence. Rocco’s made it clear that he wants Tanino to be the first bandiera of his regime, so I’d expect him to stick around for a while longer.
5. With a new season comes new hopes. Where do you expect Fiorentina to finish in May?
5. Rocco did a smart thing and told the press recently that he’s hoping for a top half finish. While that sounds deeply unambitious, I’m pretty sure he said that to take some pressure of Iachini and the team. You don’t spend like the man has and ask for a repeat of last year. Those reinforcements, plus a full year of Iachini’s consistency, plus a concrete identity, make me think that Fiorentina should, at the very least, push for the Europa League. As VN’s resident pessimist, I think they’ll fall just short and finish in 8th, but a number of smart, plugged-in people are expecting something more impressive. I think that this club is about two pieces away from continental competition, but I’ve been very, very wrong before.
Q: What’s your predicted Viola starting lineup Saturday, and how do you see the game playing out?
A: I’d guess we’ll see the same group as we saw against Torino with two exceptions. That means it’ll be Drągowski; Milenković, Pezzella, Cáceres; Chiesa, Amrabat, Duncan, Castrovilli, Biraghi; Kouamé, Ribery. Germán Pezzella couldn’t pass his fitness test last week after suffering a knock in the friendly against Reggiana and Amrabat’s suspension will be finished. We could maybe see Cutrone replace Kouamé, but my money’s on the Ivorian.
As far as how it’ll play out, I’m really uncertain. I expect Inter to dominate possession and to push the Viola wingbacks a lot deeper than Torino did, so we could see something a lot more like last year’s matchups. However, Amrabat’s passing range and ball-carrying ability mean that we could see him start some fun counterattacks the other way, while Castrovilli and Ribery have the wiggle to cause problems against an aggressive midfield and Chiesa can go nuclear at any given moment. I think that, overall, it’ll be a pretty classic “stronger team dominating the ball and territory at home while the visitors focus on quick transitions” kind of matchup. That said, Inter are the massive favorites amongst the betting houses for a reason. Even if there’s a bit of clunkiness in their first competitive match of the year, it’s pretty clear that this is an all-or-nothing season for them and I expect Antonio Conte to have them frothing to get after it, which makes me nervous. As far as the score goes, I’d guess it’ll be a valiant but ultimately doomed effort for the good guys (that’s Fiorentina, obvs), who’ll battle well in a 2-1 defeat. Goals from Lautaro, Lukaku, and Kouamé.
A big thanks to Tito for this wonderful article!