These are heady days for Fiorentina fans. The last time Fiorentina had this many points (27) after 12 games was a decade ago (28) when Luca Toni won the European Golden Boot. They would have qualified for the Champions League were it not for their implication in the Calciopoli scandal. Instead, a 15-point penalty meant they finished ninth.
Currently top of the table, it’s the first time Fiorentina have been there since Valentine’s Day 1999. They were winter champions that season and could well have won the title if Gabriel Batistuta hadn’t pulled a muscle and Edmundo had stayed away from the Rio carnival. Alas he went A.W.O.L and the team, missing their goals, faded.
Fans of the Viola are hoping there is no carnival in Zagreb to entice striker Nikola Kalinic away this spring. Even if there were, however, Fiorentina’s squad is deeper than first thought. Look beyond Kalinic and Sousa can call upon Giuseppe Rossi, Khouma Babacar and Ante Rebic. It could be argued Montella never had a striker with Kalinic’s durability and prolificness in equal measure. No sooner did Rossi return from surgery and go on a hot streak than his knee broke down again. Mario Gomez had injuries too and flopped.
Is this the major difference then? A healthy and lethal centre-forward? Not exactly. Sousa has made adjustments to Fiorentina’s style. Montella got them playing football that was easy on the eye. There was a Spanish feel to them. So much so that Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino even told La Gazzetta dello Sport that Fiorentina could play in La Liga and no one would notice they were an Italian club.
Under Sousa, La Repubblica has defined them “an Ajax without a Cruyff.” They have played total football at times. Their possession has increased. Only Bayern (67.9%), PSG (63.3%) and Barça (61.4%) have averaged more (61%) in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season. The last team to post those sort of numbers in Serie A was Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan the year before they last lifted the Champions League trophy. On three occasions Fiorentina this season have gone beyond the 70% threshold. One imagines Pep Guardiola’s admission after Bayern’s 5-1 win against Arsenal – “what I want, my desire, is to have 100% possession” – is shared by Sousa. Fiorentina are also averaging 630.2 passes per game, a figure that has risen considerably on last term (506). Against Inter, who were down to 10 men after half an hour, they attempted 788.
However, the fetishisation of the ball is no more the raison d’être of Sousa’s philosophy than it is in Guardiola’s. “The game I want to see,” Sousa explained after Fiorentina beat Atalanta 3-0,
“is not only based on ball possession. We need movement and to verticalise the ball more too. Today we did what we needed to score goals, but we must always look to do more because towards the end we were lacking the vertical movement of players without the ball.”
Verticalizzazioni – in passing and in running – are the cornerstone of his game plan. Fiorentina are constantly seeking to play it forwards in order to turn defenders and get them running backwards. They hate that. It forces them into mistakes. It’s what led to Rodrigo Ely and Miranda to see red for the Milan clubs. Incidentally Fiorentina have also scored more penalties than any other team this season (5) in Serie A this season. Reward has come from provoking their opponents into making decisions and taking risks they don’t want to.
It makes the game downhill for Fiorentina. As does scoring in the first half. No team has done it more than they have this season (13). That speaks volumes about their approach – Sousa gets his tactics right from kick-off as do the players in terms of their attitude. As soon as they score, they immediately look to hit their opponents again. You might say it’s quite a German approach. Against Frosinone they scored three in seven minutes. Against Inter, a couple of goals came within five minutes of one another. Likewise against Belenenses. Fiorentina also doubled their lead against Bologna only 11 minutes after opening the scoring. If you overlook the display against Torino, Fiorentina know how to kill a game. Once they get in front, they stay there. No team has been in the lead longer (565 minutes) than they have this season.
There’s an added directness about Sousa’s side. That’s not to say Montella’s Fiorentina were ponderous, but this one really goes for the jugular. They look fresher and zestier. The staleness has gone. Sousa has improved the unheralded and reinvigorated difference makers whose spark had either dimmed or been extinguished. “Enriching [players] tactically” is how he sees his job. Some players – Marcos Alonso and in particular Borja and the sparkling Josip Ilicic – look reborn. Others have continued the improvements they were making last season like Milan Badelj and Federico Bernardeschi. In the meantime, summer signings Matias Vecino, Kalinic and Kuba Błaszczykowski have left those who slammed Fiorentina’s transfer window looking rather silly.
Make no mistake this is a fine collective. At one end, 10 different players have got on the scoresheet. At the other, Fiorentina’s goalkeepers have made 17 saves combined, fewer than any other team. The question on everybody’s lips is can they stay the course? Montella and Cesare Prandelli received great praise for how their teams played but ultimately they didn’t win anything. Will it be different this time? Champion of Israel and Switzerland in back-to-back years, might Sousa make it a hat-trick in a third different country. Fiorentina are playing with a winning mentality. They’ll need that and more if they are to win their first Scudetto since 1966.