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Tactical Preview: Fiorentina v AC Milan

The Rossoneri head to Florence to face yet another three-man backline.

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

For the third week in a row, AC Milan will play a team that utilizes a three-man backline and two wing backs. However, Fiorentina have a unique spin on their formation that differs significantly from those of Internazionale and Torino. The Florence-based club runs a conservative 3-5-2, using the help of a defensive midfielder and the wing backs to support three centre backs.

Fiorentina’s Defense

Playing with up to six players on defense, Fiorentina operates as one of the most defensive teams in Serie A. The two wing backs rarely venture forward, allowing the defense to stop any counter attacks and “park the bus” in front of build-up play. Often, the entire team will retreat into their own half, a defensive style that is very difficult to break down. La Viola frequently employs an effective high press that enables the forwards and centre midfielders to disrupt oncoming chances. The press is fast and ferocious, and Fiorentina has the third-most attempted tackles in Serie A with 660.

A defensive midfielder sits above the three centre backs, which gives flexibility to the wing backs to join the high press. He can easily drop into an even more defensive role and help cover for defenders who have wandered out of position. Despite all of these defensive-minded tactics, Fiorentina have allowed a disappointing 35 goals so far this season, indicating a high amount of individual errors and a lack of talent.

Germán Pezzella

The big Argentinian is from the well-known River Plate youth system and is in the midst of his third season with Fiorentina. Pezzella is his club’s captain, top defender, and possibly best overall player. Among players with at least 20 caps this season, he is third-best in the league in successful tackles per game with 1.6 (tied with Alessio Romagnoli). His one flaw is that he has a tendency to be reckless and has picked up 9 yellow cards so far this season. As the most central centre back, Pezzella is the glue that holds the backline together, and he often has to remedy his cohorts’ mistakes.

Igor Julio

Known as Igor, the 22-year-old is on loan from SPAL and has played in just two matches for his new club. In a recent match against Juventus, the Brazilian was phenomenal, completing 5 tackles, but was utterly exposed against Atalanta six days later. He turned in one of the worst defensive performances of the season, committing thoughtless fouls and was caught out of position several times.

Here we see Igor (#3) with an obvious man to mark, but he inexplicably leaves him to step towards the player with the ball. He passes Atalanta player to Dalbert Henrique (#29) to his immediate left, though the attacker is already a yard past the wing back. As Igor steps, he hesitates, letting another Atalanta forward blow by him. Then he continues to advance towards the attacker, even though two centre midfielders are stepping as well. A massive hole is created in the backline that essentially leaves two forwards wide open around the 6-yard box. Because of his hesitation, Igor misses the interception and the chance is easily converted. Kids, if you are learning how to play centre back, this is a textbook example of what NOT to do.

Unsurprisingly, Igor was benched for the match against Sampdoria, but if he returns to a starting role on Saturday, he could be Samu Castillejo’s chance to exploit Fiorentina’s backline.

Dalbert Henrique

Dalbert plays as Fiorentina’s left wing back, on a season-long loan from Internazionale. Though a solid defender, the Brazilian does not pose an attacking threat and has just 1 goal in his career. He helps solidify his club’s left flank, and often makes thunderous tackles that stifle opposing forwards. Dalbert, along with Igor, played at an elite level against Juventus two weeks ago, before Fiorentina collapsed and lost 3-0.

Erick Pulgar

A top defensive midfielder, Pulgar is a consistent presence for La Viola. The Chilean international has a mind for offense and has recorded 3 goals and 3 assists so far. He is an elite distributor, with an 83.6% pass completion percentage. He also registers 2.7 key passes per match, an outstanding number for a CDM that demonstrates his value to Fiorentina’s offensive tactics.

Fiorentina’s use of a defensive midfielder helps protect the centre of the pitch. Only 60% of Fiorentina’s shots-against have come from this area, the second-lowest rate in the league. However, a focus on the centre leaves the wide areas of their defensive third somewhat susceptible.

Milan will need to concentrate on attacking the wings and finding ways to cross the ball to Zlatan. Another point of emphasis is to win one-on-ones, as The Violets’ backline can transform into an impermeable wall. Playmakers like Samu Castillejo and Ante Rebić are crucial to Milan’s success. If they find an opportunity against Igor or Nikola Milenković, two young and inconsistent defenders, the attackers must be able to beat them into the vulnerable space behind the Fiorentina defense. Théo Hernandez will need to continue to contribute on the wing and should be expected to make frequent overlapping runs with whoever starts at left mid.

Fiorentina’s Offense

Fiorentina’s offense has not performed well so far this season, aside from their most recent performance that saw the club score 5 against Sampdoria. However, this sudden output is a bit misleading, and includes two VAR-given penalties and an own-goal that gave the Violets a fast start. Aside from this outlier, the club has scored two goals or more in just one match since mid-November. It is difficult to score without possession of the ball, and in the last five league matches, Fiorentina has had more than 46% of possession just once.

The offense tends to keep the wing backs deep on most attacks, preferring to allow the defensive midfielder to join the two forwards and the two centre midfielders. Pulgar, playing as the CDM, functions as a deep-lying playmaker who facilitates the attack from its base. Because he remains deep, even while leading the offense, he is able to drop and defend easily if the attack is broken up.

Here lies the problem with La Viola’s offense: The club is missing a true identity. Because the wing backs stay deep, Fiorentina rely on a CDM, a hodgepodge of central midfielders and terribly inefficient strikers to create chances and goals. They often aimlessly play long balls forward because they lack the ability to build a true offensive attack. The club has scored just 18 goals from open play and counter attacks, 8th-worst in the league. Unsurprisingly, they do not have many effective offensive players.

Frederico Chiesa

Fiorentina’s young forward has been in poor form this season. Chiesa often holds onto the ball too long and is frequently dispossessed. The forward is inconsistent and has a tendency to disappear during matches, going long periods of time without touching the ball. That said, when he is playing well he is a good dribbler with a hard shot, which he converts just 7.8% of the time. Chiesa has great potential, but Milan should be able to shut him down on Saturday.

Dušan Vlahović

Just 20-years-old, the Serbian is one of Serie A’s brightest young stars. An elite dribbler, Vlahović has the ability to create chances from nothing, anywhere in the offensive zone. Though he technically plays as a striker, the youngster often floats to the wings, where he lets his playmaking skills shine. Though he does not possess elite speed, Vlahović is a very technical dribbler and an efficient goalscorer. Against Sampdoria, he scored in open play, off of a penalty kick, and created an own-goal with a deadly cross. The 20-year-old is by far Fiorentina’s biggest offensive threat with Franck Ribéry sidelined, and needs to be watched carefully by Milan’s backline.

Gaetano Castrovilli

Castrovilli has played in all but one match this season, and for good reason. He is consistent, a good dribbler and works hard on defense during the Violets’ high press. The 23-year-old is a solid player, but he does not contribute enough to the offense to be a true threat. Though he plays as a creative midfielder, Castrovilli has just 3 assists and 25 key passes this season. He has his moments, but Fiorentina need the midfielder to elevate his play to improve their lackluster offensive numbers.

Preventing critical errors is the one key for Milan’s defense. If individual mistakes are avoided, Fiorentina should not score more than one goal under any circumstance in this match. With Vlahović likely posing the biggest threat on the left wing, Davide Calabria needs to be in top form to hinder Fiorentina’s biggest threat.

Prediction

Fiorentina has not had an ideal season so far, but their future is bright. Eight potential starters are 23 or younger, and they will only get better as they play more and more. This match has potential to be a very messy, hard-fought affair. Milan is in the top 3 in Serie A for cards-received, while Fiorentina is top 4 for fouls committed. Additionally, La Viola has proven to have a solid defense and a disruptive high-press, which could impact Ismael Bennacer and the Rossoneri’s other central midfielders. Because the match is in Florence and a high-profile opponent is coming to town, Fiorentina may put up more of a fight than most expect.

Final Score: Fiorentina 1, AC Milan 1

Prediction Record: (2-0)

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