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Know your enemy: Rival Q&A with Viola Nation

It’s our bi-seasonal chat with our buddy from the purple side of SBN Italia.

ACF Fiorentina v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Lisa Guglielmi/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With the first weekend of November on the horizon, Juventus is all of 90 minutes away from another international break. We can safely say that Juve started the new month a whole lot better than they ended the month of October, with Max Allegri’s squad coming out of ritiro and beating Zenit St. Petersburg 4-2 to wrap up a spot in the Champions League Round of 16.

Now, we return to Serie A action.

And it just so happens that Juve’s return to domestic competition comes against a Fiorentina side that has been one of Serie A’s more pleasant surprises through the first 11 games of the 2021-22 season. (That doesn’t mean La Viola haven’t had some very Fiorentina-y moments this season ... because they have.) With Juventus facing Fiorentina Saturday night, that allows us to check with fellow West Coaster and the man who runs the show at Viola Nation, Mr. Tito himself.

We always enjoy when Tito can stop by, even if it means him ribbing us a little bit for how poorly Juventus’ season has gone so far. (Hey, at this point, you can’t fault the guy for getting his shots in. It’s certainly deserved.)

But Tito is here today to talk about Fiorentina on top of a couple of Juve-related jokes. Yes, the same Fiorentina that currently sits in seventh place entering the final weekend before the November international break.

So, here’s Tito with some very good insight into what has made Fiorentina tick this season.

BWRAO: Hello again, my friend. Thank you for joining me as always. Let’s jump right into it: We are in early November and Fiorentina’s above Juventus in the standings. This obviously surprises you and brings you much joy, but is it even a bigger surprise that Fiorentina are where they are?

VN: Yeah, I’m going to take a moment to quietly gloat here. Wait for it. Waaaaiiiiiit for it. Okay, I’m done. I’m definitely surprised. I thought the institutional rot at Fiorentina was so severe that it would take another year to turn things around, so yeah, this is a pleasant surprise. I’m not wholly convinced this early season form is sustainable for a couple of reasons — there’s no depth in some key positions, the new coach bounce could wear off at any time, the intensity of the style of play could lead to burnout — but things are definitely ahead of schedule. Qualifying for Europe would be fantastic, but I’d be very comfortable with missing it and spending another year building the squad.

BWRAO: Vincenzo Italiano — pretty good manager, eh?

VN: Pretty good manager. He’s gotten a lot of plaudits for his tactical approach (the pressing is blood and thunder, the passing moves are occasionally gorgeous) although I think part of that is the stylistic whiplash of going from Giuseppe Iachini to him. I’ve been more impressed with what he’s done to the team’s mentality in such a short time: Fiorentina used to be very passive but are now happy taking the game to opponents, which is a pretty big change.

He’s far from being a perfect coach and the impressive results have masked some underlying problems, I think, but he’s a young guy in just his second Serie A campaign and has demonstrated that he’s improving. For example, I’d been very impressed with his pre-match plans but underwhelmed by his in-game adjustments, but he made a really smart switch against Spezia last week, pulling Riccardo Saponara off the left wing and moving him into more of a free 10 role while instructing Gaetano Castrovilli to stay wider left. It worked fantastically well and Saponara created the second goal to put the game to bed pretty soon after the break. The hope here is that as he improves as a manager, Fiorentina will grow right along with him.

BWRAO: Besides the wins, what has been the best thing that Italiano has brought to the table?

VN: Sorry to harp on something so abstract, but I think it’s the mentality. Fiorentina want to control the game both with and without the ball, and that requires a mindset that was previously lacking. Fiorentina have tried to play their game against AS Roma, Inter Milan, Atalanta, Napoli, and Lazio rather than bunkering back and trying to just hit on the counter. While it does show some naivety (Fiorentina are one of 5 teams in the big 5 leagues yet to draw a game), that’s an acceptable exchange for playing a mostly fun and watchable game.

BWRAO: Are you cherishing the beginning of the end of Dusan Vlahovic’s run in Florence? Obviously you wanted to keep him, but him leaving seemed inevitable, didn’t it?

VN: I don’t think too many of us saw him as the next bandiera, but the way he’s forcing his way out stings a little. I’m not trying to start anything with y’all, but, it sure sounds like his agent Darko Ristić is doing everything possible to steer him to Juventus, and that feels pretty distasteful considering how much time he’s got left on his contract, especially considering the recent stories about some transfer market shenanigans. It’s a fairly ugly situation which could have been avoided without that much trouble and I think that there’s enough blame to go around for Ristić, Vlahović, Rocco Commisso, Daniele Pradè, and Joe Barone to have second helpings even without the alleged tapping up.

The feeling among supporters seems to be split between wanting to keep him until his contract runs down and selling him in January, and I can see arguments for both sides. Fiorentina aren’t likely to find another striker as good as Vlahović, so why not get another 18 months of a €70 million striker? He’s the best chance the club has to win, so getting rid of him before it’s necessary is a bad idea. On the other hand, there’s an unholy level of awkwardness in having your best player not wanting to be there, and making sure that he moves outside of Italy (hi, Antonio Conte) would be great. If there’s a way to line up some big January reinforcements — Domenico Berardi and Andrea Belotti, maybe? — I think you pull the trigger and sell him. If you don’t have a succession plan in place, though, selling him would likely stop all the positive momentum Italiano’s built up and send the club back into a doom spiral.

BWRAO: Who have been some of the other top performers for Fiorentina so far this season?

VN: Nicolás González is the obvious answer here. He’s an unbelievable player: quick, fast, dynamic, good on the ball, clever with his movement, happy to press, happier to pass, useful in the air, you name it. He wins more free kicks than anyone in Serie A because he’s just impossible to defend in space. Of course, he tested positive for coronavirus (obligatory reminder that THERE IS STILL A WORLDWIDE PANDEMIC KILLING THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE EVERY DAY) so he may not be available in this one, which would be a real punch in the crotch for Viola fans.

Other than that, Lucas Martínez Quarta has shown tremendous growth compared to last year, when he was definitely promising but uneven. Saponara has been sporadically brilliant. Alfred Duncan, Giacomo Bonaventura, Álvaro Odriozola, and Lucas Torreira all look like, at minimum, adequate Serie A players, and might be even better than that. But it’s really all about Nico this year. Best purchase I’ve seen from this team in years.

BWRAO: Prediction for the weekend…

VN: You probably don’t need me to tell you that Juventus look awfully fragile right now, or to mention that a win against Zenit in the midweek was pretty necessary to keep a lead on top of Group H. That likely means there’s going to be some rotation and/or some tired legs, which could give Fiorentina an advantage. That said, I think Max Alllegri is a very good manager and isn’t going to let this group underperform forever, so a bounce-back game and lopsided result are definitely within the realm of possibility.

I’m trying to be optimistic here and I don’t feel the usual sense of overwhelming gloom that hits when it’s time to travel to Turin, though, so I’m going with a 1-1 behind goals from Paulo Dybala and Vlahović. I think it’ll probably be a pretty good game to watch, as Fiorentina are likely to try and move the ball around despite being on the road, but they’re going to leave some space for Juve to break into. I’m particularly anxious about Federico Chiesa running at Cristiano Biraghi because that is the sort of nightmare that makes me wake up screaming. If I had to guess, I’d say that Fiorentina will control possession but Juve will have more chances, particularly on the counterattack. But, again, that might be more aspirational than realistic.