A lot of people still have this weird idea that Serie A is slow, defensive and boring. That hasn’t been true for a long time, and this year’s edition of the competition seems particularly likely to buck that stereotype. The only top team currently playing in a way that one might consider “typically Italian” is Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, and even it is averaging more than two goals per game. Serie A kicks ass.
My favorite Italian team to watch at the moment is Fiorentina, who is notable for playing a zero-striker formation. Other teams have played with out-of-position playmakers or false nines up top, but the Viola really do play zero strikers. I find this especially amusing given that their manager, Vincenzo Montella, was a top class striker who scored more than 100 goals in Serie A. (Perhaps no one on the squad is up to his lofty standards.)
Taking up the de facto striking roles in Montella’s 3-5-2-0 formation is a pair of entertaining wide forwards at different points in their career. You can watch them combine in the highlights from Fiorentina’s win over AC Milan. It totally rules.
Franck Ribery, who has spent the last five years as a rotation player at Bayern Munich after injuries slowed him down, looks reinvigorated at 36. He’s doing an excellent job picking the ball up in deep positions and dribbling past defenders, and he’s only taking very high-percentage shots.
His partner, Federico Chiesa, is on the other end of his career. The 21-year-old is transitioning from being a pure right winger to a more dynamic role that requires him to get into the box and take more shots. He only has one Serie A goal to his name this season, but his numbers suggest more are on their way. Fiorentina don’t want to lose Chiesa anytime soon, and have rejected bids in excess of €50 million for him in the past, but if he keeps this up they’re going to have a tough time retaining his services.
Fiorentina has created a high volume of shots and 11 goals in six games without a real striker by winning the ball aggressively in the center of the pitch and counter-attacking quickly, often dribbling into the box instead of going for through balls. The Viola are last in Serie A in passes into the box.
The central midfielders, Erick Pulgar and Gaetano Castrovilli, are perfect fits for the system. Pulgar is an energetic ball-winner and a good shooter from distance, while Castrovilli, a 22-year-old in his first season as a Viola regular, makes a lot of runs beyond Ribery, forcing defenders into difficult decisions.
Fiorentina presses high, as you can see here. The red areas are where Fiorentina takes more defensive actions than the average Serie A team. (The darker the red, the more actions; likewise, the darker gray, the fewer actions.) The Viola really like to get after it in the opposition penalty area.
However, as you might have guessed, Fiorentina is not particularly successful at actually winning the ball high up the pitch with Ribery. Here’s the same defensive heatmap, but with pressures taken away, so only all other defensive actions are taken into account — tackles, interceptions, fouls and blocks. The areas you’d expect Ribery to be responsible for stick out like a frostbitten thumb.
But hey, I’m not here to disrespect a 36-year-old playmaking genius for not being Diego Costa. The rest of the team makes up for the one deficiency in Ribery’s game pretty nicely.
Fiorentina is third in Serie A in pressures and fourth in aggressive actions (defined as defensive actions made within two seconds of an opponent receiving the ball), but below league average in opponent passes per defensive action and the average distance from goal that they take defensive actions. Basically, it lets defenders play with the ball a bit, but really ramps up the pressure and wins the ball back at a high rate in the middle of the field.
What results is a particularly unorthodox and enjoyable counter-attacking team that opponents don’t know how to defend against yet. Fiorentina might get figured out and end up having to buy a traditional striker in January. But Chiesa also hasn’t found top form yet, and should start scoring more soon. Fiorentina has also allowed three more goals than Expected Goals, suggesting its defense has been unlucky and can improve. If Ribery can stay fit (the world’s biggest if), the Viola should be a blast to watch all year.