Sassuolo need to get any point they can get given their lackluster campaign so far, while Fiorentina will be out to prove again that they belong in very meaningful conversations.
Serie A Week 19– Saturday 6 January 2024 – Mapei Stadium | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Things just haven’t come together for Sassuolo this season, other than a couple of surprise victories and sound performances against top sides, which is in their DNA at this point. But those turn into simple blips if they aren’t followed up with decent showings, and especially victories, against fellow minnows. Stunning Inter and Juventus quickly loses its luster if then you get bested by the likes of Frosinone, Torino, Cagliari, and Genoa.
Plus, as the season went along and their issues piled up, they haven’t been that competitive against the elite sides either. Even though they have always shown up and measured up okay, they have been ultimately topped by Milan, Roma, and Lazio too.
Alessio Dionisi is a pretty good coach, but he’s arguably the least impactful, aggressive, and inventive out of the crop of emerging gaffers, and he has surely been surpassed in the virtual pecking order by a few more touted and inspiring colleagues. If he were an NFL quarterback, he’d be a game manager.
The general impression is that they’ll go as far as their stars will take them, or rather Domenico Berardi, because most of the others haven’t taken a step forward in their progression or seem more followers or frontrunners than leaders and true difference-makers, and that the boss doesn’t add a lot to the mix.
Andrea Pinamonti has done better than last season stat-wise, and it was hard to do worse, but he basically needs to be spoon-fed to score. Given his combination of size and agility, he had shown a lot more promise especially when he was at Empoli. Perhaps he’s more of a counter-attacking guy, but they don’t really do that a lot since they like to have more possession than the average team, and he seems to struggle in tight spaces.
Laurienté looked like a million bucks for large stretches of the past campaign, especially when he had a starring role with Berardi on the mend, but he has been underwhelming all season long, perking up a little only recently with a pair of assists. Some inconsistency comes with the territory, but somebody with his talent and skillset should be a lot more incisive and put his stamp on every fixture. He’s an afterthought way too often.
They went back to a 4-2-3-1 after cashing in on Davide Frattesi but, prior to the ongoing wave of injuries, they have been at their best with something very to their previous 4-3-3 with Matheus Henrique, Kristian Thorstvedt, and Daniel Boloca together in the midfield, and neither of them is a no.10. The first two alternated in the hole and in uncorking their channel runs, while the last one basically acted as a pure regista. Fortunately for them, he returned pretty quickly from a jaw fracture, so they can go back to this make-up. Playing with a pure trequartista has its defensive drawbacks, especially if the player in question, Nedim Bajrami or Samu Castillejo, doesn’t make his presence in the final third.
Thorstvedt will never live up to his early Sergej Milinkovic-Savic comparisons, just because he arrived from the same hotbed of talent, Genk, but, even though it took him a year to adjust to find his footing in Serie A, he’s an excellent well-rounded midfielder with an impressive physique, and he thrives if he’s given freedom to attack in every action since he has good touch in the box and takes up a lot of real estate. But they need Boloca to return, or find a player who provides an equal amount of balance, to re-unleash that. Henrique is no slouch either, although he hasn’t been as superb as last season due to a pair of physical problems.
While their frontline hasn’t performed to the best of its capabilities, the real problem has been in the back. They have given up the second most goals in the League, and a ton of them have come on silly and avoidable mistakes. Dionisi has insisted on the incredibly sloppy Ruan Tressoldi way too much given his recurring blunders, and his supposed muscular superiority doesn’t come close to making up for those. Martin Erlic and Andrea Consigli are fine but can’t hold things together on their own, plus, all their fullbacks are better while venturing forward than defensively. Moving on from Ruan would be only the first step to tighten the screws. They need a lot more attention to detail and focus in that area.
The Sassuolo execs don’t make rash decisions, as they are among the most patient and competent in the League. They had a very deep overhaul in the summer, and the roster came out worse overall. Perhaps they believe it’s only a matter of time before things click and the squad fully gel. But they are teetering on the edge of the relegation zone, and something must not be working well at the top if so many players are underperforming.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Consigli; Toljan, Erlic, Ferrari, Pedersen; Henrique, Boloca; Berardi, Thorstvedt, Laurienté; Pinamonti.
Doubts: Erlic/Ruan, Ferrari/Viti, Boloca/Bajrami.
Injury Report: Defrel (thigh strain) – Questionable; Vina (knee sprain), Racic (calf strain), Obiang (thigh surgery) – Out.
Once a prophet of a very modern brand of football, Vincenzo Italiano has suddenly discovered that there’s some value in the beliefs of the opposite party too, as Fiorentina are coming off three straight one-nil victories that would make Massimiliano Allegri and José Mourinho very proud. The strategy probably wasn’t entirely deliberate, but it’s evident that they have toned things down and become stingier once Nicolas Gonzalez suffered an injury, significantly muting their firepower.
It’s likely temporary, and any boss could always use a dose of pragmatism in their beliefs. They’ll be in a great spot if they can combine their current robustness with their previous flair once their star is back. The Champions League race is wide open, and they firmly belong.
Despite their efforts and a few additions, they still don’t really have another go-to guy who comes close to their ace’s caliber and constant dangerousness. They have replaced him by committee, but that stratagem has now fallen through since Christian Kouamé left for AFCON and Riccardo Sottil will miss a few games with a thigh issue. Their once deep wing departed is down to just Jonathan Ikoné and Josip Brekalo, plus Gino Infantino, who has barely been given any opportunity, and Giacomo Bonaventura, who has done it in the past but has transformed into a fantastic attacking midfielder and lost a step compared to his heyday.
It didn’t take long for them to realize that their toothlessness was a problem, and rather than doubling down on that end, they have solidified the other. They have still done it in an elegant fashion, augmenting their possession rate and really bunkering up only in a few instances when even a three-man defense made a rare appearance.
Since they have offensive-minded wingbacks and three solid central defenders, they’d actually have the pieces to pull off a credible 3-5-2 or a 3-4-2-1, but it might be too much to ask for a big proponent of 4-3-3 who already had to tweak it to make it fit his men better. It’s more likely they’ll turn to 4-4-2 with Bonaventura and Lucas Beltran and M’Bala Nzola together when they want to have more presence up front.
The Argentine has been trending positively and has hit the net thrice in his last four appearances, starting to bag the easy and cheap ones, while he seemingly only scored beautiful and difficult goals in the early going. While he’s clearly talented, the jury is still out about whether he’s really a true no.9 who can fill his boots in Serie A. He’s not rugged nor very big, and some of his movements and traits make him more akin to a second-striker. They probably don’t care as long as he produces.
They are in a pickle on the transfer market because they could certainly use a new attacker, especially a left winger since Gonzalez is more comfortable on the right. However, they have a few so-so options already, so they need to sell to make room first, which is easier said than done given the short time available. The right man would truly elevate their squad and make it less lopsided and dependent on one or two players.
The only other hole is at right-back since Dodo is out with an ACL tear, but the reports about his recovery are optimistic, and Micheal Kayode has been more than a sound substitute and very impressive, especially because of his lack of experience. But it’s a taxing role where it’s better to have two contributors.
They have built a roster that’s not super sexy but well-assorted. They struck gold with Arthur, who needed the exact kind of environment and trust, and better injury luck, to bounce back. Plus, their patience paid off for instance with Pietro Terracciano, who’s now one of their most reliable goalies in Serie A, Lucas Martinez Quarta, who’s having a remarkable this season after a pair of blah ones, and Alfred Duncan, who’s a perfect Robin for the Brazilian since he has dynamism for days. The downside of that is that they’d have to spend big and bring in high-end contributors to strengthen it. There’s a non-zero chance some starters will be spared ahead of the Coppa Italia.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Terracciano; Kayode, Milenkovic, Ranieri, Biraghi; Arthur, Duncan; Ikoné, Bonaventura, Brekalo; Nzola.
Doubts: Milenkovic/Martinez Quarta; Biraghi/Parisi, Nzola/Beltran.
Injury Report: Gonzalez, Sottil (thigh strain), Kouamé (AFCON), Castrovilli (knee surgery), Dodo (ACL tear) – Out.
Fiorentina Win – Under 2.5 Goals