In their third season under Vincenzo Italiano, Fiorentina’s growth is evident and now they look ready to try to push on. But to do that, they still need to improve in certain respects.
When Rocco Commisso acquired Fiorentina in June 2019, his great ambitions clashed with a club that, after a few good seasons under Vincenzo Montella and Paulo Sousa, was struggling to improve on lower-mid-table positions. The 2018-19 season ended for the Viola with a disappointing 16th place and with relegation avoided only on the final day.
In the first two seasons, the adaptation of the new ownership to a new reality like that of Italian Calcio was not easy. Managerial changes (going from Montella to Giuseppe Iachini, up to trying to recall Cesare Prandelli, who had a glorious past with the club between 2005 and 2010) did not lead to great results. Fiorentina achieved a 10th-place finish in Serie A in 2019-20 and 13th in the following campaign.
After this settling in period, the turning point came when the ownership decided to radically change the team’s style of play, bringing in Vincenzo Italiano as manager – who had impressed at the helm of Spezia in the previous two seasons.
It was clear to everyone right from his appointment that the desired results would not immediately arrive, and that management and supporters would have to wait for Italiano to get his ideas across to his squad. But the new style of play was noticeable from the very first games.
It took a while to start reaping the benefits, though. Fiorentina ended the 2021-2022 campaign in seventh place, followed by eighth place last season – though they were also runners-up in both the UEFA Europa Conference League and Coppa Italia. They also had the bonus of qualifying again for the Europa Conference League due to Juventus’ year-long ban from UEFA competitions.
This season they’re performing even better. After 19 matchdays, they had 10 points more than the same stage in 2022-23 (the second-best point difference after the first half of the campaign between last season and this season behind Inter – who had 11 points more). They have also made it to the Coppa Italia semi-finals and finished top of their group in the UECL group stage.
As mentioned, the style of play brought by Italiano was evident from the start of his reign. The main characteristic is lots of ball possession, especially in the opponent’s half. In each of the last three Serie A seasons, Fiorentina have recorded the second-highest possession percentage (always behind Napoli) and in two of these campaigns have had the highest field tilt value (68.0% in 2021-22 and 69.7% this season), which is a measure of territorial dominance between teams. It looks at the share of possession each team has in their attacking third compared to their opponent.
So far at Fiorentina, Italiano has alternated between a 4-3-3 formation and a 4-2-3-1. His team really utilises the flanks, using their full-backs a lot in the build-up. Cristiano Biraghi, captain and left-back, has been involved in the most open-play sequences (799) for Fiorentina so far this season, 118 more than his nearest teammate, Brazilian midfielder Arthur.
Another characteristic of Italiano’s Fiorentina is their high aggression – with a defensive line always kept very high – and over the seasons this has become much more evident. Looking at PPDA (opposition passes per defensive action) and their high turnovers per game, it is clear that with the passage of time and the chance to learn Italiano’s football, Fiorentina’s defensive phase and pressing have become much more aggressive.
In fact, they have improved in pressing, becoming the Serie A side with the lowest PPDA (10.3) and most high turnovers per game (9.0). However, despite the impressive number of high turnovers so far (180 after 20 league games), only 24 of these have ended in a shot – and just two have ended in a goal.
To make a definitive leap in quality, Fiorentina must improve two aspects; one offensive and one defensive.
The offensive one can also be traced back to the data on high turnovers and field tilt. Although the Tuscans play a lot of their football in the attacking third, they are not great at creating good goalscoring opportunities.
Fiorentina have had the third-most touches in the opposition box this season in Serie A (on average 25.2 per game) and have attempted the third-most open play crosses (15.4 per game). However, the average expected goals (xG) value of their shots is 0.09 – 14th in this ranking among Serie A sides in 2023-24. In fact, because of their long periods of possession in attacking zones, they often struggle to find space between the opponents’ defensive lines, with 39% of their shots coming from outside the box, the highest percentage among sides in the top half of Serie A, which explains why the xG average value of their attempts is so low. Indeed, only one of their 104 shots from outside the box has led to a goal.
Since Dusan Vlahovic left the club to join Juventus in January 2022, Fiorentina have not yet found a striker able to score double figures in a single Serie A campaign. Their joint-top scorers in the current season are midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura and winger Nicolás González, both on six goals.
Bonaventura’s performances have been a big bonus as the 34-year-old is experiencing a second wind in his career and is having one of his best seasons ever. With six goals scored and two assisted in 18 Serie A appearances (1,416 minutes), the former Milan man has been directly involved in a goal every 177 minutes – his third-best ratio in a Serie A season over his 20+ year career.
For the role of central striker, after the departures of Arthur Cabral and Luka Jović, Fiorentina have gambled on Lucas Beltrán and M’Bala Nzola, but neither seems ready for the role of attacking leader.
Beltrán, bought from River Plate last summer, needed 12 league appearances to find his first Serie A goal. Now, he seems to be more confident and has grown a lot in recent times, having found the net in four of his last six league games (one from the penalty spot). Fiorentina have won five points thanks to his last three goals – but the Argentinian still has a few steps to make to become central in Fiorentina’s project.
On the defensive side, even though they have faced only 203 shots so far (just four fewer than the best team in this ranking, Inter – 199), because they keep the ball so well the chances they concede are often quite dangerous. The average xG per shot they have faced so far is 0.13, the highest in Serie A this season.
This is clearly because of their high pressing and their high defensive line, an aggressive attitude that leaves space for the opposition’s attacking players to exploit. Of shots attempted by their opponents this season, 72.9% have come from inside the box; the highest percentage in Serie A.
Furthermore, the graphic below shows how high Fiorentina’s defensive line is; their average offside line is 32.4m, the highest in the league this season.
So, on to the question about whether Fiorentina can qualify for the Champions League this season… They currently sit fourth in Serie A after 20 games, a point ahead of Atalanta and Lazio.
According to our prediction model, Fiorentina have slightly greater than a 20% chance of finishing in the top four in Serie A (though there is still a chance for Italy to have five spots due to changes in qualifying for next season’s Champions League). That suggests they only have a one-in-five chance unless fifth place also counts, but it’s far from impossible.
With their high-risk, high-reward approach, you would be a brave person to rule Italiano’s men out. Even if it doesn’t happen, they have still started on the path to build a glorious future in the coming years.