Many saw this trip to the Marassi as a big test for Sousa’s team, with Sampdoria unbeaten at home so far this season. They came into the game off the back of a European tie three days prior, a trip to Poznan, albeit making a fair few changes. Bernardeschi occupied the right wing-back and Pasqual the left, seeing Roncaglia slot back into defence. Badelj came in for Suarez in the middle, and Valero moved back into the attacking midfield role, with Kalinic replacing Rossi up top. Samp took up a familiar 4-3-3, with their main danger being the pace and movement of Eder and Muriel on the break.
The match picked up quickly, with a fast-paced start, as the away side looked to use their wing-backs as an advantage, trying to provide options out wide going forward. Pasqual, in particular, got forward early on and Samp appeared to offer him too much space. Borja Valero was intent on closing down the opposition players on the ball in their own half in his section, on the left, and the home side weren’t generally allowed the space to build through midfield. However, the referee set a precedent of booking Badelj early on for tugging back Eder who was breaking away, followed by the same reprimand for Vecino shortly after. This could have been some concern for Viola, with both their central midfielders on bookings and unable to commit to risky tackles for the rest of the game. However, this never really materialised as an issue because of how Fiorentina put the emphasis of the game firmly upon their own possession of the ball, and never got in a position where they had to chase around in those areas.
The breakthrough came when Samp’s young full-back Pereira, playing for the first time on the left, was caught out of position and lost his man after Roncaglia played a long ball over the top. Bernardeschi cut in and flicked the ball up, prompting Zukanovic to inexplicably wave his arm at it and give away a penalty. Ilicic scored the resulting spot-kick, low and hard to Viviano’s left. This only served to inspire confidence into the away side, as they got men forward on the attack, and dominated possession. Bernardeschi looked dangerous coming forward down the right, on one occasion running with the ball and shooting just wide. Samp did manage to use their outlet of Muriel, as he burst away down the left, with Gonzalo booked for pulling him back at the byline, but the home side couldn’t utilise the counter at all well, and showed no great threat or intent at moving men into Fiorentina’s half. When they did pick up the ball in their own half, they were quick to pass it to an opposition player and lose any opportunity they had to catch Viola out of position.
Defensively Sampdoria seemed to struggle as well. Kalinic had a great chance to score, after a fantastic dink through from Badelj (shown in the image at the bottom, demonstrating the movement of the front two), but putting it wide of the post. The defensive line was poor – with one man out of position (yellow circled) and playing Kalinic onside. Sousa’s men continued to press high up the pitch if the opposition took too long on the ball in defence, disrupting the rhythm of the Blucerchiati, and pinning their play back. All the while, Eder and Muriel were becoming completely isolated from the play and a void would appear between them and the midfield whenever they had the ball. If anything, Viola were the more proficient on the counter, with Ilicic breaking this time, although the final pass being offside. Samp did have a brief spell where they tried to rally before half-time, as the noise from the crowd intensified. Muriel still looked lively, despite a lack of service, and he got onto the end of a long ball, after Astori failed to deal with it, but the resulting opportunity was blazed over by Baretto with a clear chance failing to materialise. All the same, it was some hope for the home side, and Fernando was trying his best to gee up the supporters.
It was clear that Zenga’s plan, as usual, was to pressure the Fiorentina players on the ball, and close them down whenever they had the chance to stop them playing it over the halfway-line. This high-energy and hard-working approach fell short, mainly because of the Fiorentina’s quality in possession and ability to retain the ball. They were simply too good to be harassed out of possession, even with a slightly poor playing surface. Despite being on early bookings, Viola’a two centre-midfielders had excellent games. For example, Vecino had 95 touches of the ball and 90% pass accuracy. The away side’s transition between defence to midfield to attack was measured and effective, whereas Samp’s was almost non-existent for large periods of the game. Fiorentina were also well set at the back, holding a much better line than Sampdoria, and were ready for crosses and attacks – although they had little to deal with in the way of creativity or running between the lines from midfielders. As you can see below, Sampdoria had a lot of work to do in terms of challenging Fiorentina in the middle of the pitch and in their own half, whereas Viola only really had to compete for the ball in wide areas. When the ball was in the middle of the pitch or key areas, it was the away side that had control of possession.
Bernardeschi continued to impress, breaking down the right to the byline, cutting back onto his left and whipping a shot at the far corner, only to be denied by a decent save. Sousa has said recently that he wants Bernardeschi to become more versatile and has used him a lot this season, in a variety of different positions. The 21-year old has been impressive, and looks like a promising talent to have come through the Viola youth ranks. Despite the strength in depth that Sousa has this season, he has kept faith in players that may not have otherwise commanded a first team place. Vecino is another one who has been given time to shine, after coming back from a good spell at Empoli under Sarri last year. Despite players like Mario Suarez, Matias Fernandez and Marcos Alonso (who all came on a subs) being rotated in and out amongst others, Fiorentina look like a side who demonstrate confidence and cohesion on the ball, and work together particularly well as a unit. They have an average of 64% possession this season in Serie A, the highest in the league, and show a control over most games which allows them to pick up wins against weaker sides that may have caused them more problems last season. It can wear the opposition down. But, it isn’t just possession for the sake of it – you can see via the diagram below that they can convert this into dribbles in the attacking half, and use this to not only penetrate the opposition defence but change the tempo of the game at that particular time.
Viola carried the same approach into the second half, despite lowering the tempo of the game. They looked to counter at times when space appeared, with their change of pace impressive and facilitated by the movement and versatility of the front players – Valero, Ilicic, Kalinic. In one instance, Ilicic played a great pass with the outside of his foot, but Samp got back and dropped off into their own third. Although the attack broke down, Fiorentina could easily restart on the half-way line and build another. For the home side, Muriel again showed he has good movement, and is ready to get in behind, but was flagged offside with Fiorentina still holding a good line. Bernardeschi and Ilicic both had chances, before the 2nd goal went in. Good interplay between Ilicic and Kalinic into the penalty area lead to a tap in for Kalinic. Fiorentina raised the intensity in the final third, catching Sampdoria slightly by surprise and a bit flat-footed, allowing the movement of the front two to work the ball into the box for an easy-looking second goal. Zenga would have been disappointed by the way it was conceded, but it was coming.
The movement of Viola’s front three has been impressive, on and off the ball, working space and not giving the Sampdoria defence time to settle. Kalinic in particular has done a great job, filling in as the number 9 this season in the absence of Gomez and Rossi for the most part. The link-up play has been consistent and well orchestrated. They also made it hard for Sampdoria to move the ball through the middle of the pitch, and when they did get a chance to attack, Fiorentina congest the central area just outside their penalty box and force the play narrow. The best chance Samp got was from a ridiculous free-kick by Roncaglia in his own half which went straight to Eder, who struck low and forced a good save. Alonso did well when he came on, offering a lot down the left, with good passing, positional awareness and defensive capabilities. He’s still only 24, is versatile, and would be unlucky to not continue getting a decent amount of game time this season under Sousa. On the other side, Bernardeschi was still trying to cut inside and offer a threat coming into the opposition area, but failing to get his efforts on target. All the same, his ambition going forward, as well as his commitment to defensive duties throughout the game have to be commended. Kalinic and Ilicic seem to have built a good combination, interchanging positions at times and opening up key space, supported by players like Bernardeschi who’s adaptability really helps in transitional phases and offering the frontmen time to maneuver as well as passing options. The image below, of the Kalinic chance in the first half, illustrates how Fiorentina were able to easily cut open the opposition defence, and had too much space from poor Sampdoria awareness and positioning. The defender plays the offside trap too late, but both Viola players are already ahead of everyone else ready to pick up the ball moving towards goal. At the other end, Sousa’s men would not allow this kind of space outside their penalty area, regardless of the speed of play or quality of passing from the opposition.
Fiorentina killed the game off completely by holding the ball and emphasising their control over the match and dominance of Sampdoria. The victory was even more impressive considering the fact that all the teams around them had already won their matches and the pressure was on to get a result at a tough ground, and only 3 days after their trip to Poland. Sousa sent out a message that they are well and truly aiming at the Scudetto, and sticking to their way of playing. Individually the Viola were on form and motivated to win, but collectively they look even stronger – like they believe in their football and have the confidence to dominate the tempo of a match. Sampdoria didn’t offer much of a threat, but Fiorentina made sure not to allow them a long enough period of time to ever feel like they could get back into the match.