It took a stunning late free kick from Matías Fernández for Fiorentina to salvage a point away at Parma on Monday, as they missed yet another chance to gain ground on Napoli in the Champions League race. The Neapolitans' latest in a long line of stutters was a 1-1 draw at home to mid-table Genoa, and yet their advantage over the fourth-placed Florentines is still a healthy six points.
It has been a frustrating season for a Fiorentina side which was tipped to push Juventus for a scudetto at the start of the season. They're only three points better off than they were this time last year, despite the pricey summer arrivals of Mario Gómez and Josip Iličić. Their being 21 points behind the league leaders with 13 rounds still to play is surely a disappointment.
Granted, the starting place for analysing their struggles has to be the injury table. A lack of depth in the attacking department has seen the viola struggle in the wake of another injury to Giuseppe Rossi, who was enjoying the season of his life before suffering his umpteenth knee problem. Likewise, Mario Gómez has made just three Serie A starts all season, also dogged by constant injury issues.
Prior to the loan signing of Alessandro Matri from AC Milan in the summer, Vincenzo Montella's only forwards were 20-year-olds Ante Rebić and Ryder Matos, who have shown no signs of being ready for first-team football in Serie A. That forced him the coach into experiments with winger Joaquín and midfielder Iličić as a false-nine, but that didn't bear fruit; Montella reverted to a more standard 3-5-2.
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So, certainly injuries have played their part. Plus there's the simple fact that Matri doesn't score many goals. But there may well be deeper explanations for their occasionally underwhelming performances, with the problems to be found further down the field as well as up top.
Montella's favourite midfield trio of David Pizarro, Borja Valero and Alberto Aquilani is the most offensively-minded of its kind in Serie A. Pizarro is usually the deepest midfielder; a classic deep-lying playmaker drifting laterally into space and spreading passes from the halfway line. Valero is similar, but offers more muscle than his Chilean counterpart (though not near as much as a truly defensive midfielder). Aquilani is usually the most advanced player, linking the midfield and attack.
All three players are different, and yet perhaps too similar. They're all creative players; all primarily focused on pushing high up the field and hemming their opponents in. As a comparison, the Juventus midfield trio has two steely box-to-box midfielders, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba, to cover for the defensive weakness of the sole true playmaker, Andrea Pirlo. Fiorentina just play with three playmakers.
That may not seem all that surprising, as Montella's system is, after all, based around dominating possession high up the field, retaining the ball and hoping to gradually wear their opponents into submission. But even the masters of possession themselves, Barcelona, recognise the need for at least one defensively-minded player, and the importance of Sergio Busquets in breaking up play and making the crucial interceptions, tackles and tactical fouls in preventing their opponents countering quickly.
With Fiorentina lacking this kind of player, it means they're highly vulnerable on the counter-attack. Against what is -- by historical standards -- a horribly weak Inter Milan team, the viola were constantly torn apart on the break in their 2-1 defeat earlier this month. The margin of victory may have only been a goal, but they're lucky it wasn't two or three. Rodrigo Palacio delighted in the space left between their midfield and attack, with Fredy Guarín's quick breaks and incisive passing impressing in perhaps his best performance in a nerazzurri shirt.
There are already concerns about the quality of personnel in Fiorentina's defence, and question marks of young goalkeeper Neto. With them so exposed, it's little wonder they found themselves struggling.
Clearly, Montella and Fiorentina sporting director Daniele Pradè aren't stupid. The midfield problem was one they looked to address in the summer by signing AC Milan midfield enforcer Massimo Ambrosini on a free transfer. But now 36, and having struggled with injury concerns throughout his career, it wasn't a solution for either the long or short-term.
On paper, Fiorentina should really be closer to rivaling Juventus, and should certainly be giving Roma and Napoli more of a run for their money. But while their personnel is impressive, they're crucially lacking the requisite midfield balance. Strike it, and they'll be mounting a serious charge for the top after this season's false start.