Vincenzo Montella’s second spell at Fiorentina was being billed as a disaster already, the results on paper not looking good at all. Although owner Rocco Commisso had insisted that Montella’s role as coach was not under threat, many pointed to poor results in ill-fated spells elsewhere as a reason why this would not work out.
After four matches, the Viola were sitting bottom of the table with just two points in the bag, but those who had watched the games knew that something special was coming. They had fought bravely during their opening with Napoli, but poor defending and officiating had cost them at least a point.
In their next match the side were unable to match the bright opener as they lost to Genoa, but picked themselves up for a credible 0-0 draw at home to Juventus. Three points were also within touching distance as Fiorentina built up a 2-0 lead versus Atalanta; however, La Dea changed the game with substitutions in the last 10 minutes as they pegged their opponent back to 2-2.
The jinx was finally broken at home against Sampdoria, as Montella’s men battled to a 2-1 win versus a side struggling mightily under Eusebio Di Francesco.
Then, yesterday evening, the real Fiorentina decided to turn up.
La Viola faced AC Milan at San Siro, with Rossoneri boss Marco Giampaolo fighting for his job after losing three of his first five games at the helm. But the fact that the home side were so poor was largely inconsequential, as for the first time this season, Fiorentina clicked into gear and showed everyone watching exactly what they are capable of.
After a few weeks of work with a side full of new faces, Montella had honed his 3-5-2 formation to perfection. All 10 outfield players knew precisely what was expected of them, working seamlessly as a unit to keep the shape as they played their high-pressing, intelligent passing game.
Supporters of the Tuscan club had never seen their team sign a player with the quality and reputation of Franck Ribery, and he took it upon himself to be the latest in a long line of legends to have wowed the crowd at San Siro. This time, however, the player to receive a standing ovation at the end of the match was wearing the colors of the visiting team — not Milan’s famous red and black stripes — but the home fans applauded him anyway. He deserved it.
To compound the misery of the Rossoneri faithful, Fiorentina left with a 3-1 victory. It could have easily been four if Gianluigi Donnarumma hadn’t saved a penalty from Federico Chiesa, as Montella’s men controlled the match from start to finish.
As those who watch football regularly know all too well, it takes more than one superstar to make a team. At 36 years old, Ribery is the wise old head that Fiorentina have sorely needed, but his nine outfield teammates are doing everything they can to raise their individual game and work in tandem at the same time.
With two competent and modern fullbacks for the first time in a very long time, Fiorentina can make the most of their pressing by pushing Pol Lirola and Dalbert high up the pitch. Central defenders German Pezzella, Nikola Milkenkovic, and Martin Caceres work incredibly well as a trio, and young Federico Chiesa is slowly improving and developing a partnership up front with Ribery.
Yet it’s in the midfield where Fiorentina have most improved this season. Last term, a lack of any quality in the middle of the pitch allowed attackers to run at the center backs unchecked, but the gap has now been well and truly plugged.
The signing of Erick Pulgar from Bologna was a masterstroke by sporting director Daniele Prade, the 25-year-old having shown already that he plays with a high level of energy as Fiorentina look to press, his tackle as tough as his touch is deft.
Commisso pledged to reduce a huge squad this summer and, as part of that effort, Gaetano Castrovilli was nearly sold on, only for Montella to catch sight of the 22-year-old in training. The coach immediately took him off the market and straight into the first team, a move that has paid off in some style.
You couldn’t have guessed that the midfielder was making his first-ever Serie A appearance at San Siro on Sunday, and the new No. 8 capped off another superb box-to-box performance with a maiden goal in the bag.
That pair has already been mentioned as bright stars in the Viola midfield, but there is one returning hero that has largely gone unsung. Milan Badelj played under Montella during his first spell at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, before leaving for Lazio at the end of the 2017-18 campaign.
After failing to impress in Rome, the Croatian returned to work with his old boss once again and is arguably showing the best form of his career.
Quiet but hugely effective, the graphic above demonstrates just how much influence Badelj had over the game as he continually kept the play moving by making accurate passes. He recovers the ball when possession is lost and starts the move all over again, playing the right pass almost every single time.
Those who remember Montella’s first spell in charge of Fiorentina – one in which he took the team to three consecutive third-place finishes – will understand the importance of this role within his system, and it’s no different now.
After a spell in which Fiorentina faced all of last season’s top three sides in Serie A, they have now registered back-to-back wins with – on paper at least – a vastly easier run of games coming up. Encounters with a struggling Udinese side, then games versus Brescia, Sassuolo, Parma, and Cagliari are all on the horizon following the international break.
It seems like with the win over Milan, the lid has been lifted. It will be very interesting to see just how far this Fiorentina side can progress this season.