Over at Just Football I have written a general overview of Fiorentina’s tactics in the 2015-16 season under new boss Paulo Sousa. Here I want to do a more in-depth treatment of the team’s approach that highlights both the overlap in Sousa’s side with other interesting European sides while also noting some of the specific quirks that Sousa has introduced to the Viola.

General Principles of Paulo Sousa’s Tactics at Fiorentina

In a general outline there is very little about Sousa’s approach that we haven’t seen before. His Fiorentina side:

  • Wants to have high possession
  • Is fluid in player position
  • Keeps a compact shape in defense and attacking in order to make pressing easier and more effective.
  • Commits many players forward to create defensive overloads.
  • Uses multiple levels to the formation in order to maximize passing angles.

In these respects, the side is simply miming much of what we’ve seen from Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone, Thomas Tuchel, and Brendan Rodgers’ best Liverpool team.

That said, there are specific points about Sousa’s Fiorentina that are unique. Much of it has to do with the specific way that their formation is fluid so that is the best place to begin our discussion of their tactical approach.

Fiorentina plays out of three base formations.

Formations are always a bit off when it comes to describing how a team actually plays because they can often conceal far more than they reveal. That said, they can be a useful shorthand to start conversation so we’ll begin by looking at Fiorentina’s three main formations you’ll see from them in-game.

Their base formation is a narrow 3-4-2-1 shape that has some similarities to the 4-3-3 of Guardiola’s Barcelona as well as the 4-4-2 diamond Rodgers used at Liverpool. In all three cases you have a de facto back three with two wide center backs and a central defensive player who anchors the formation, you have three attacking players in close proximity to each other in the attacking third, and you have a midfield band of four that includes two wide players and two central midfielders.

Here is how Fiorentina’s 3-4-2-1 looks in a game:

fiorentina-base-3-4-2-1

(Screen shot courtesy of David Selini whose post on the Viola is must-reading.)

The 3-4-2-1 does a couple things really well: It creates many passing lines in the formation which makes it harder to close down on the ball when defending. As you can see in the example above, you really have seven passing levels if you include the goalkeeper. In the classic flat 4-4-2, you only have four passing levels. Thus the 3-4-2-1 creates a lot more layers in the formation and a lot more passing lanes when in possession.

Diagrammed it looks like this. I have included lines showing each of the seven levels in the formation:

fiorentina-passing-levels

The other thing the 3-4-2-1 does well is related to the first. The spread of the players on the field and the use of a deep anchorman gives the team the best of both worlds with its potential passing moves. On the one hand, short quick one-touch passing plays are possible because of the close proximity of the players.

fiorentina-short-passes-gif

In more advanced positions, this short passing can be used more aggressively to really push the ball forward, which is partly why Fiorentina plays so many through balls:

fiorentina-through-ball

The key here is the closeness of the Fiorentina players. Particularly in the through ball gif above you can count seven Fiorentina players in the attacking third. When you have that many players close together it is possible to play that sort of intricate, short passing game. Once the ball gets into this part of the pitch, you often will see this kind of attacking play from the Viola.

On the other hand, during buildup when the players are spread out more you can also attempt longer, more ambitious passes because the spread of the players in buildup forces the opposition to spread itself thin as well and means that well-positioned players should have plenty of time on the ball to pick out a pass. In this respect, the closest analog to what Fiorentina does with one if its defenders is likely Mats Hummels at Borussia Dortmund, a team that has many similarities with this Fiorentina side.

Dortmund has three key players in the center of the park for their buildup play. Midfielder Julian Weigl is a passing metronome at the base of the midfield. Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan is a box-to-box runner who also has a wonderful eye for a pass and good technical ability. Hummels, meanwhile, sits at the base of the entire team and can present himself to Weigl as an outlet when needed and is also able to play long balls over the top of the midfield up into Dortmund’s attacking players.

Gonzalo Rodriguez, the central defender in the back three, plays a similar role for Fiorentina. Consider the similarity in passing charts between Hummels and Rodriguez. Their average position is slightly different since Hummels is on the left of a back four while Rodriguez is in the center of a back three, but the passing range and overall approach is strikingly similar:

hummels-pass-chart-v-mainz

rodriguez-passing-chart-v-sampdoria

Additionally, Sousa is also happy to see other players in the squad making similarly ambitious passes as a way of advancing the ball quickly and catching the opposition out as in this ambitious diagonal ball attempted by Valero to Rebic:

fiorentina-long-ball-valero-to-rebic

This kind of long, diagonal pass is an important part of the Fiorentina attack. As you can see, overmatched opponents like Frosinone will generally back off Fiorentina and give them time on the ball when they are in less threatening positions. When you try to pass through an opponent packed in like this, it’s often quite difficult. Thus teams try to use these diagonal balls as a way of passing over a packed defense—and in the case above it nearly works.

Fiorentina’s defensive style owes something to Diego Simeone.

When defending, however, the Viola shift into more of a 4-4-1-1 shape that you can see below:

fiorentina-defending-4-4-1-1

Note particularly how narrow the formation is. So it’s a sort of 4-4-2, but it’s much closer to the 4-4-2 of Atletico or Lucien Favre’s Borussia Monchengladbach then the 4-4-2s you see in England.

Though this will be old hat to anyone familiar with Diego Simeone or Favre’s work, here are the basic strengths to this style of defending:

  • It limits the opposition’s space and time in dangerous parts of the field.
  • It is ideal for springing fast counter attacks, particularly when you have a passer like Rodriguez in the team.
  • It can shift laterally as needed to squeeze the opposition on the wings where the chances of recovering the ball and launching a counter are much higher.

You can see the pressing at work below:

fiorentina-press

The key thing about the press here is three-fold:

  1. The players press when the ball is being played to a player who will receive it with his back to goal and limited passing options. So a defined cue to press was triggered.
  2. One player presses by moving toward a passing lane to cut off the most obvious pass for the player receiving the ball.
  3. A second player closes on the ball and goes in to win it, which in this case he does successfully.

That said, Fiorentina has not always succeeded in this phase of the game. Though they do not give away many scoring chances—they currently have conceded the fewest number of shots in Serie A—around 41% of all the chances they concede are from the area immediately in front of goal. Though it comes via a wonderful strike from Mohamed Salah, Roma’s opener against Fiorentina highlights the basic problem—Salah’s run is untracked and Miralem Pjanic is given entirely too much time inside the box to control and distribute the ball:

salah-goal-vs-fiorentina

It’s worth noting that the above looks more like players not totally grasping a system than a system completely failing. The idea of compact defending is that it’s easy to attack the ball with multiple players because the game is being played in a smaller space and so the players are not spread around the field as much. And if you see the moment that Salah shoots, there are five players converging on the ball—they just don’t get there in time. What this looks like, then, is more like a team still learning a new defensive system rather than some basic flaw in the system. The Viola had players in the area; they just didn’t get tight enough to Pjanic (granted, he’s in the box so that probably factors in here as well), didn’t track Salah’s run, and, ultimately, got beaten by a world-class finish by Salah.

Fiorentina’s attack going forward looks, if anything, like a Marcelo Bielsa-inspired system.

The attack going forward is where the Fiorentina system really distinguishes itself from other possession-oriented pressing systems. The magic happens on the edges where Sousa has used fullbacks as outside centerbacks and wings as wingbacks. The result is a lopsided formation that ends up looking like a 3-3-3-1 when in attack. Getting a screen capture of the entire shape is difficult because this shape only develops when the team is surging forward (and actually is arguably more 2-4-3-1 anyway with the right sided center back surging up to a wingback role and the right wingback moving forward as a wing while the left side stays deeper) but you can see what it looks like in the attacking third below:

fiorentina-set-up

Here you can see the two advanced midfielders playing just behind the center forward Khouma Babacar. But you can also see the wingback, Ante Rebic in this case, in an advanced position on the wing ready to receive the ball. Note also that Nenad Tomovic, notionally the right center back, is pushed up like a right back and will overlap Rebic down the flank. The movement leads to a wonderful chance for the Viola:

fiorentina-chance

What this 3-3-3-1 shape does for Fiorentina is it helps them get more numbers forward in attack and to have better width in the attack. Generally speaking, the narrow shape is a feature and not a bug in these pressing systems.

That said, the tradeoff to playing more narrowly is that it can become much easier for opponents to mark your best attackers if they are allowed to simply sit back and soak up pressure. Thus it becomes important for these sorts of narrow, pressing teams to have some extra attackers moving forward to provide additional passing options and some additional width which, typically, will create more space for everyone. In a pressing system that uses two center backs, this width will typically come from the fullbacks. Think of Dani Alves at Barcelona, Glen Johnson at Liverpool, or Danny Rose at Tottenham. These are fullbacks who almost play more like wingbacks and surge down the wings to provide a wide passing outlet for the team’s narrower attacking players.

Fiorentina uses their wingbacks in creative, unpredictable ways.

Fiorentina takes this basic concept and expands on it by taking a significant risk: They use wingbacks to come forward and play as wings would play in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, which adds some width. But as the Rebic clip above illustrates, when the wingbacks surge forward they also tuck in a little bit as well. So they still add width, but not as much as a true orthodox winger would.

This is where the play of the wide center backs come in. Both players have license to almost play as box-to-box midfielders, surging forward when opportunity presents itself. If they are comfortable doing so, they even have license to make overlapping runs around the wingback, as Tomovic does in the clip above. Thus you get something like the functional 3-4-3 of Guardiola’s Barcelona, but even more aggressive because two of the three center halves end up playing more like inverted fullbacks who function in many ways like a box-to-box midfielder. Thus there is sometimes only one or two players left in a deep position with one midfielder shielding them.

This puts an incredible burden on Rodriguez in particular but also midfielders Milan Badelj, Matias Vecino, and former Atletico man Mario Suarez, who are left to cover up defensively if the ball is turned over. That said, the effectiveness of Fiorentina’s press is such that teams do not typically counter them successfully despite the high number of players the Viola commit forward.

Indeed, though many Serie A teams give up far more chances from the counter than most of Europe, Fiorentina is only giving up around 23% of all its shots off the counter—and that’s 23% of their Serie A low 7.5 shots per match.

To see how successful Fiorentina’s high press is, compare the charts below that show ball recoveries for Fiorentina in their win against Frosinone, Tottenham in their win against Aston Villa, and last year’s Bayer Leverkusen in their win against Hanover:

In the above comparison, Sousa looks like something between Mauricio Pochettino and Roger Schmidt for high pressing craziness.

Additionally, when you get three narrow attacking players, two wingbacks storming down the wings (one playing more as a wing than a wingback), and one of your two midfielders surging forward, you can simply overwhelm the opposition. This is something that Zdenek Zeman sides do masterfully which we have written about in the past.

Conclusion

The big question with this Fiorentina side is whether they have the talent required to compete with Roman, Napoli, and Juventus over a 38 game season. They’ve already lost to Roma and Napoli so the answer is probably “no.” The team doesn’t have a lot of truly world-class talent, particularly compared to their three bigger domestic rivals. Star man Borja Valero’s biggest club prior to Fiorentina was Villarreal (where he played with Santi Cazorla and was managed by Manuel Pellegrini). After Valero, you’ve got an odd mixture of up-and-coming players like Federico Bernardeschi and Rebic and veterans in their prime or just past it, like Valero, Suarez, Rodriguez, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Manuel Pasquel, and Davide Astori.

Given that there are only three Champions League places in Serie A, it’s likely that Fiorentina will finish just outside of that as they are unable to keep pace with Serie A’s three most dangerous sides. That said, finishing fourth and above both Milan sides and Lazio would be a fine result for this Viola side. While they will need to find younger talent in the years to come, the management of Sousa certainly seems to be an asset to the club and should help to attract promising young talent.

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