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Q&A with Viola Nation ahead of Saturday’s Milan v Fiorentina match

Tito from Viola Nation was nice enough to answer some questions

AC Milan v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Thanks to Tito over at Viola Nation for taking the time to answer some of our questions about this weekend’s match-up between Fiorentina and AC Milan. I also answered some of his questions, so if you’re not sick of hearing me ramble over here, go see what I said about the match over there.

Viola Nation does a great job of covering everything Fiorentina in English, and I highly recommend giving them a read, even if they do root for a different club. I mean, Fiorentina fans hate Juventus, so they can’t be all bad, right?

ACMO: Fiorentina have only lost four games, which is as good as Inter Milan, but have also drawn seven matches. What’s preventing the team from turning draws into wins?

VN: I’d say there are two problems there. The first is that Fiorentina don’t get to play at the Artemio Franchi every week, and the second is that, until recently, they didn’t score any goals.

The Viola have yet to win away from home, which is statistically improbable at this point. That includes draws at Frosinone and Bologna, which is genuinely embarrassing. Maybe this team--perhaps you’ve heard from every broadcaster/commentator/rando walking down the street that it’s the youngest in a major European league?--gets intimidated by unfriendly stadia and lacks the veteran leadership to get results away from home, but I think it’s more of a correlation with the inability to score goals rather than a cause in and of itself.

And that inability to score has been something. As much as I wanted to laugh at yall’s scoreless draw with Bologna, Fiorentina did the exact same thing not very long ago. Part of the problem is a midfield with a tremendous commitment to man-marking opposing midfields, with the upshot that, whenever the Viola get the ball, everyone’s all scrambled around from chasing somebody all over creation, which has resulted in a lot of aimless punts upfield for Giovanni Simeone and Federico Chiesa to chase. Neither is exactly a punishing physical specimen, so winning aerial challenges against rugged centerbacks is hardly a winning strategy.

Finally, everyone just plain forgot how to score. Cholito’s scored in back-to-back games and looks like he has some confidence back, but it’d been a nice little 10-week goalless stretch from him before Sassuolo and Empoli, who don’t possess impressive defenses. Chiesa is starting to become Nick Young: nothing but long shots every time he’s near the box rather than slowing it down and looking for a smarter option. And Marko Pjaca has just been a big old bust thus far, so there haven’t been any goals from there. With a very strong defense, this edition of Fiorentina is built for 1-0 draws but lacks the precision up top to punish opponents, leading to a lot of squandered points.

ACMO: I’ve seen it said that Stefano Pioli doesn’t have to fear for his job right now, but should he? So how hot is the seat? Has he taken the club as far as he can, or does the team have it in them to challenge for a Europa League place?

VN: The Della Valles are maybe the most coaching change-averse owners in Italy, so I don’t think they’ll fire Pioli before season’s end. His contract runs out this summer, though, so if he finishes short of 7th--the stated target for this team--I’d expect that there’ll be someone else (Luciano Spalletti? Eusebio di Francesco?) on the bench next year.

It’s a shame, as Pioli handled about the worst situation a mister can ever face with a grace and dignity that I didn’t know he had in him, and the city and the fans will always love him for that. However, his tactical system is very limited and he hasn’t shown any capacity to change it in the year and a half he’s been here. Tight man-marking in the middle and at the back can definitely work, but there has to be an attacking component as well. Right now, Fiorentina don’t look like they’ve improved at transitions and are completely reliant on Chiesa to manufacture chances for them. It hasn’t really worked, as he and Simeone seem to have regressed this year. I think that’s the real danger for Pioli’s continued employment: if you’re brought in to oversee a youth movement and the youths get worse, you aren’t going to last long. But again, I think it would require some Delio Rossi-level fireworks for the DVs and Pantaleo Corvino to give him the axe before season’s end.

ACMO: Will Fiorentina be able to hang on to Chiesa in the long term?

VN: Dammit. Probably not. Unless they can kick it into high gear for the rest of the year and qualify for Europe, I don’t think there’s any way. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for him to stay in Florence and become the next great bandiera and lead them to the Scudetto and all, but I’m also acutely aware of Fiorentina’s position in the food chain. As I mentioned above, he’s developing some bad habits in Florence because he’s expected to do something magical every time he touches the ball. If he wants to reach his full potential, he needs other top players to work with and take some of that responsibility so that he can focus on doing what he’s good at and let the game come to him rather than forcing the issue.

If he leaves at the end of this year, I’ll be really sad but I’ll also get it. On the other hand, he’s never said anything about leaving and he’s got some close ties to the city--his dad Enrico obviously starred for the Viola and his family still lives in Florence, including his younger brother and Viola academy player Lorenzo--and he seems to really like living with his folks, so he may end up sticking around a little longer than people expect. Maybe he ends up being Domenico Berardi: a one-time surefire prospect who stays at a smaller side until his form plateaus, scaring off all the big-name suitors before a small renaissance sees him quietly regain his earlier impact.

ACMO: Is there a player that isn’t well known to non-Fiorentina fans that can cause problems for other teams? If so, who is it?

VN: Germán Pezzella has quietly been one of the best defenders in Serie A this year and is certainly in the conversation for team of the midseason. On the other hand, he’s the captain and an Argentina international, so he’s not exactly under the radar. Ditto for Cristiano Biraghi, who’s been as good as any leftback in the league this year and fully deserves his berth with the Azzurri. Now that Manchester United wants Nikola Milenković for all the money, he’s not exactly unknown either. Kevin Mirallas certainly has the name recognition, but he’s turned it around in Florence over the past month after looking utterly washed for years.

I guess the safest answer for a virtual unknown is Marco Benassi. The former Inter Milan primavera captain is simply a bizarre player. Nominally a central midfielder, he operates more as a right wingback/second striker and leads Fiorentina in goals. But he doesn’t really do much besides score goals and spends the majority of most matches completely invisible.

Alban Lafont also deserves a shout here. The 19-year-old Frenchman is a bit unsteady at times, particularly when it comes to attacking crosses, and he can make some truly boneheaded plays in possession, but he’s already got the reflexes and anticipation of a world-class goalkeeper. If he learns how to better command his area and stop punching the ball back into the middle of the box, he’s going to be a bona fide star.

ACMO: Predict the score.

VN: This feels like a draw to me. Milan are very out of sorts but still have enough class, particularly at striker and on the wings, to pose a significant threat. More than that, I can’t imagine that Fiorentina are going to get their first win away from home at the San freaking Siro. I’m expecting a 1-1 with goals from Cutrone and Chiesa, although there’s a lot of possible outcomes here. Given the personnel limitations and tactical approaches of Gattuso and Pioli, this could wind up being a really scruffy affair in the middle with a lot of intensity and openness, but not much passing quality. Those kinds of matches are either low-scoring slogs or track meets, so this one could well wind up being really entertaining for the neutrals as well, assuming you can roust them out for an early one.