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Know your enemy: Juventus-Fiorentina Q&A with Viola Nation

What better way to distract you from the transfer window ending than to talk about Juventus’ next opponent.

Federico Chiesa (L) of ACF Fiorentina hugs Matthijs de Ligt... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

The January transfer window is a thing of the past, meaning we can officially put all of our collective concentration back onto what Juventus is doing on the field. No more rumors to constantly check in on, no more wondering if Juventus and Borussia Dortmund are going to agree to a transfer fee for Emre Can. None of that.

It’s back to fully worrying about Juventus’ on-field product.

And with the month of February basically here, that means seeing Juve compete on three fronts — Serie A, Coppa Italia and, maybe most important of all, the Champions League knockout phase — is now going to be dominating a lot of the conversation.

Juventus’ February fixture list gets underway this weekend with Sunday’s lunchtime kickoff against a somewhat resurgent Fiorentina side that has started to right the ship after Beppe Iachini replaced Vincenzo Montella right before the Christmas holiday break. Juventus, coming off last Sunday’s crapfest of a loss to Napoli, still has a lead over Inter, but somehow allowed Antonio Conte’s side to make up ground in the standings despite dropping points for yet another weekend prior to kickoff in Naples.

As is becoming tradition around here, I decided to give my buddy at our sister blog Viola Nation, Mr, Tito, a holler and ask him some questions about the roller coaster of a ride the last couple of months have been for a Fiorentina fan. As always, Tito brought it in only a way Tito can, providing a whole lot more insight into Fiorentina than I could ever provide.

I will subsequently just reference what Tito said about La Viola about 50 times over the next 48 or 72 hours.

Enough yackin’. Let’s get to what Tito had to say.

BWRAO: Good afternoon, good sir. Thank you always for taking some time out of your day to chat with me. Let’s start out with the good: Fiorentina have, for the most part, not been the pile of suck the club was before the managerial change. How have things gotten better outside of the obvious results improving?

VN: There are so many possible answers, but they all boil down to Giuseppe Iachini being a much better manager than Vincenzo Montella. Il Aeroplanino always seemed aloof and disinterested, leading to a squad without any character or identity. Iachini, on the other hand, has immediately instilled a stronger group mentality (look at these team celebrations after scoring against Napoli). The team’s body language on the pitch and behavior on social media has been dramatically different since the ball cap hit Florence.

Tactically, Beppe’s got a reputation for getting teams promoted from Serie B or steadied in Serie A due to drilling negative tactics very effectively. From what we’ve seen, that’s fairly true, especially without Gaetano Castrovilli. He uses a 3-5-2 with a very deep block, looking to soak up pressure and prevent space between the lines. He couldn’t care less about possession play — Fiorentina have averaged about 33% since he took over — and has instead prioritized very direct attacks with long balls through the channels for his speedy forwards to exploit. The wingbacks will occasionally get up the pitch but mostly sit deep, and there’s usually only one central midfielder really driving forward as well. If this all sounds basic, well, it is. It’s about as simple a set of principles as you’ll find. However, he’s done a really good job of implementing his scheme. Every player seems to know exactly what to do, even if everyone else knows it too. It’s still a big improvement.

BWRAO: At this point, Federico Chiesa is a known transfer target of Juventus come the summer time. How has his season gotten better as the team’s overall form has gotten better?

VN: Fede’s had a really weird season. As you may recall, he was the only attacker even remotely capable of threatening a defense last year, which led him to develop some really bad habits. He started trying to dribble through entire defenses that were already keyed in on him anyways rather than making simple passes; it was often still the right choice, as his teammates were so hapless that an outnumbered Chiesa was still more likely to do something useful than a wide open, say, Marko Pjaca. (Thanks for that, by the way.)

At the start of the year, he was really showing signs of breaking out of that mindset due to Franck Ribery’s influence. The French wizard’s ability to run an attack let Chiesa work off the ball more; having Castrovilli become one of the best midfielders in Italy didn’t hurt, either. Too, the rise of Dušan Vlahović and now Patrick Cutrone to lead the line seemed like it took some pressure off, as the former especially started demanding the ball. Since Ribery’s injury, though, that selfishness has been creeping back in, especially since Castrovilli’s injury.

Chiesa’s still an incredible talent with everything you could want in an attacker: pace, dribbling, aggression, a wicked shot from distance with either foot, and the ability to hit every pass you could want. His decision making hasn’t caught up to his physical talents yet, but as he matures, it will; take a look at the difference in his performances with the Azzurri as compared with Fiorentina. Right now, he’s in a strange spot due to the team around him, but he’s still going to be a monster and already is sometimes.

BWRAO: Patrick Cutrone, huh?

VN: He loves the pizza. He loves the pasta. The boy is f***ing magic.

Ahem. Anyways.

Yeah, he’s the sort of low-risk, high-reward player Fiorentina needs to be gambling on. €18 million is a lot of money for Fiorentina, but this is a player who’s proven to be quite productive in Serie A; in 2017, he was good for a goal or assist every 113 minutes, which is a good return for a teenager. Last year was rough for him as AC Milan was a trainwreck and he was often pushed out to the wing to accommodate Krzysztof Piątek (whoops). He struggled a bit with Wolves, although his goals/assists per minute remained pretty good despite the accusations of his uselessness. Why Wolverhampton would give up on him so quickly is crazy to me, but it’s Fiorentina’s gain, so I’m not whinging. He’s been used in rotation with Vlahović thus far, and has been as advertised: brilliant with his movement without physically overpowering anyone. We like him.

BWRAO: The last time Juventus and Fiorentina played one another, Franck Ribery was outplaying Cristiano Ronaldo. Ribery, however, has been out injured since late November. What has Fiorentina missed since he’s been out?

VN: You know, it’s funny that Ribery was probably the best player in the team from that Juventus game until his injury. While he’s not outrunning anyone now, his technique, eye for a pass, and confidence are excellent; he’d already developed sparkling chemistry with Castrovilli and Dalbert. Even though he’s 36, he’s got plenty left in the tank. The punchline, of course, is that he really doesn’t fit very well in Iachini’s setup. Ribery certainly can’t play as a wingback and he probably can’t hold up defensively in central midfield, which means he has work as a forward. As mentioned above, Iachini’s forwards get through a ton of running, where Ribery wants to slow things down. While losing a talented playmaker is something a team like Fiorentina can’t really ever afford, seeing how he’s deployed when/if he’s healthy again this year is going to be fascinating.

BWRAO: While Gaetano Castrovilli might not play against Juventus this weekend, how has he been able to keep up his impressive early-season form and really be one of Serie A’s breakout players this year? He could be another name we hear linked to Juventus a lot this coming summer, too, you know ...

VN: Oh my god Tanino is amazing. He’s actually gotten better since the start of the year, which is just wild. He was pretty much a one-trick pony at the beginning of the season, although that trick — dribbling past everybody all the time — was impossible to stop. Over the past month or so (really, since Ribery went down), though, he’s started added some really incisive passing as well. He’s even digging in defensively a bit. If he ever learns how to shoot consistently, he’s going to be unplayable. The brain injury he sustained against Genoa was really scary (“Ref, I don’t know where I am”), but he seems to be okay now.

We’ve been pushing him as the next big thing for years — proof here and here, along with a few hilarious misses — and what he’s done is begin fulfilling that progress. While it may seem like he came out of nowhere after a couple of years at Cremonese in Serie B, he’s been building towards this for a long time. This apotheosis is a bit more sudden than even I expected, but he’s had hype since he came up through the ranks at Bari as the “New Cassano.” As an added bonus, Castrovilli seems to have his head on very well on, unlike Fantantonio, and is by all accounts a lovely young man to boot.

BWRAO: Seeing as the second half of the Serie A season is officially underway, what are the legitimate goals for this Fiorentina squad for the next five months?

VN: That’s the billion lire question, isn’t it? Rocco Commisso declined to set a tangible target in the table this summer, which seemed like a good decision given the ruined squad he’d purchased, but everyone figured that a midtable finish and maybe even a push for the Europa League was realistic. Instead, Montella happened. With Iachini, relegation seems deeply unlikely, but Europe is probably unattainable as well. I think the real goal is to blood some new talent, get the players on the same page, get Chiesa locked down to a contract extension, and then really aim to push on next year. Other parts of the fanbase feel very differently, but the majority is probably on more or less the same page here.

BWRAO: How are you feeling about the trip to Allianz Stadium knowing that Juventus is coming off a terrible showing against Napoli last weekend?

VN: Terrible. I feel terrible about the coming trip to the Allianz Stadium. Let me count the ways:

  • First, Fiorentina haven’t beaten Juventus in Turin since 2008;
  • Second, Fiorentina are missing their two most creative presences in the middle in Castrovilli and Ribery;
  • Third, Fiorentina played a grueling match against Inter Milan at the San Siro very late on Wednesday, so they’re already running on empty;
  • Fourth, Fiorentina have managed a decent run of late, and if you’re a Viola fan, you expect that to end in the worst possible way because you’ve lived this before;
  • Fifth, Juve are going to be extra-focused after getting ambushed in Naples and are likely to unload some transferred rage onto the Viola;
  • Sixth, Juve employ a couple of Viola exes in Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi, which is always a bit too convenient a narrative for me to get comfortable with;
  • Seventh, Juve have some attackers in excellent form who always seem to give Fiorentina a lot of trouble;
  • And eighth, you’re never going to find a Fiorentina fan who feels anything outside of dread (and maybe some disgust) about a trip to take on the Bianconeri.

BWRAO: You asked me for a prediction. Now I ask you for a prediction. What you got, buddy?

VN: As detailed above, I’m uh ... not very confident. That said, Juve are the sort of team that Fiorentina can cause problems for, especially under Iachini; anyone who wants to dominate possession and play a high line against a team with the pace of Chiesa and Dalbert or the cleverness of Cutrone can suffer for it. This feels like it’s not going to be very much fun to watch, and not just because kickoff is at 3:30 AM for me. Expect a lot of stop-start, physical, “grinding” (read: shoddy) play in the middle with the hosts dominating the ball. This feels like a low-scoring game, so let’s say 1-1 behind a Ronald goal (of course) canceling out a Cutrone strike against the run of play. And if we all believe this together, friends, maybe it’ll really happen. Let’s try. Please.