It's been a tumultuous, chaotic season in Serie A, one full of surprises and upsets and all sorts of insanity. Probably one of the biggest surprises so far, though, is the team that's topping the table just a little over a month away from the mid-season winter break: Fiorentina.
The Tuscan team has enjoyed a phenomenal start to their season, winning nine matches en route to earning their view atop the table. They've enjoyed strong performances from Nikola Kalinic, Josip Ilicic, Borja Valero, and others, and have earned a couple big wins along the way, including a massive thrashing of Inter Milan.
Fiorentina fans have been enjoying their success, and rightfully so. But can they stay on top of the pile and bring home that much-coveted Serie A title?
There's certainly good reason for Fiorentina being where they are. La Viola have enjoyed some strong defensive performances, and they've also enjoyed a record-setting possession game:
64 - Fiorentina have posted a 64% av. possession figure in this Serie A, the highest in a season since 05/06. Sousa. pic.twitter.com/CTZGehXfAU— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) November 9, 2015
That's come largely due to the work of new manager Paulo Sousa, who has very subtly transformed Fiorentina in order to get the best out of his new club. Some of the changes are the results of transfer and bringing players back from loan, but others are the result of Sousa getting his team focused on playing together as a unit, and drilling them into playing his tempo-dictating style. He's also had his team playing much smarter and more mistake-free than they ever had under his predecessor Vincenzo Montella, under whom Fiorentina were good for about one game-crippling mistake per match, which hasn't been the case since Sousa took charge.
Also of importance for them this season has been the revitalization of Borja, who has returned to his incredible passing form in the heart of Fiorentina's midfield after a rough season a year ago that had many fearing that the end was near for him. Instead, he's bounced back in a big way, taking charge of his team and dominating in the center of the pitch, playing with his same old creative genius again and providing more in defense than he ever has before. He's been absolutely massive for Fiorentina this season, almost irreplaceable -- and that's where the problems and concerns start.
If Valero gets hurt, and history suggests he probably will at some point, Fiorentina are in a lot of trouble, because they don't have someone to replace him adequately. If he's out for a long time, it's a big problem, because they'd have to significantly alter how they play, and how they play is why they've been so successful. Their reliance on him, and on the form of the over-achieving Kalinic and Ilicic, could prove problematic if any of the trio spend significant time off the pitch or fall out of form.
There are other concerns and red flags as well, starting with Jakub Blaszczykowski. The Polish winger has been playing out of position as essentially a wing back in Sousa's 3-5-2, a position he's questionably suited for. Fiorentina have been giving him help by cheating their rightmost defender in the back three, generally Facundo Roncaglia, over his way while relying on Gonzalo Rodriguez and Davide Astori to pick up the slack. They also help by putting a box-to-box midfielder, Milan Badelj or Matias Vecino, on Kuba's side of the pitch to help cover the space he leaves when he charges up to join the attack, which Blaszczykowski does regularly because he's naturally a winger.
While Badelj and Vecino have been consistently pretty good in midfield for a couple of years now, there's major concerns on the back line. Roncaglia's history is mixed at best, and he's generally been better as a fullback than as a center back in his career, even wide in a back three. Even in Fiorentina's successes on the season so far, Roncaglia has often been at the heart of what defensive mistakes they have made -- and when it hasn't been him, it's been his backup, Nenad Tomovic, at fault. Then there's Astori, who's been solid enough this season but is coming off two very poor seasons for Roma and Cagliari, so one has to wonder how long this good spell of play will last for him.
There's another lingering concern -- the quality of Fiorentina's play against top opponents. Against Napoli and Roma, two teams that clearly stack up better than Fiorentina in terms of talent, the Viola looked more dreadful than the scoreboard suggested in a pair of 2-1 losses. They beat second-place Inter convincingly, but the Nerazzurri have a bevy of questions and problems of their own that leave many doubting their title run credentials. Otherwise, they've beat up on Carpi, Bologna, Hellas Verona and Frosinone -- not exactly a who's who of high-quality Italian teams. Once their schedule gets tougher, it's hard to see this same form holding up.
Let's not take anything away from what Fiorentina have done. They've played very well and achieved a lot so far this season -- whether it lasts or not, let's enjoy it while it lasts. Fiorentina are a fun team no matter what else happens, and that counts for a lot.