Fiorentina’s ascent in Serie A this season has been a surprise to many. Under the guidance of Paulo Sousa the club has reached new heights in their performance, winning nine of their opening 14 fixtures and playing some wonderful football along the way.
Sousa has taken what was already a strong squad, one that had finished fourth in the league for three consecutive seasons and reached the latter stages of domestic and continental cup competitions, and added a refined philosophical bent which has born greater effectiveness. His 3-4-2-1 system and demand for strong situational and positional sense and interconnection have brought about some exceptional team performances, such as their 4-1 away demolition of Inter Milan.
Within the system there are several roles worthy of specific scrutiny such as the cerebral Borja Valero at inside forward and Nikola Kalinic as a striker and space creator. But the most intriguing, and most recent, development has been the use of Federico Bernardeschi at right wing-back.
An attacking midfielder by trade, Bernardeschi has operated in a number of positions in an attempt to force his way into Sousa’s 3-4-2-1. He started this season as an inside forward before appearing at left-wing back in the home defeat to Roma. Then, away to Sampdoria on Sunday, 8 November, he took on the right wing-back role normally assumed by Jakub Blaszczykowski, who is absent through injury until 2016. Bernardeschi’s employment in this role was an unorthodox choice but he has offered a range of unique attacking and defensive possibilities.
Fiorentina’s attacking play is a beautiful thing to watch when in full flow, with the primary concept underpinning this being the interconnectivity between players within the 3-4-2-1. The system allows for the formation of multiple ‘rhombi’ or diamond shapes throughout the team, enabling multiple passing lanes for each player in most instances.
Bernardeschi’s deployment at right wing-back aids Fiorentina’s construction of possession as it makes even better use of the team’s interconnectivity. A natural left footer, he is better equipped than a right footer such as Blaszczykowski to pass infield and connect with team-mates when receiving the ball on or near the right touchline in the early stages of the possession phase. This is because, unlike a right footer, he does not need the ball to come across his body to reach his favoured foot. This makes for quicker combinations and reduces the possibility of the opponent intercepting Fiorentina passes to the right flank.
Bernardeschi is also in a better position to utilise a wider array of options when receiving on the right flank as his left footedness allows him access to more passing lanes with greater efficacy. Whereas a right footer receiving in this area in the early stages of the attacking phase would need to control the ball and shift his body position to have access to diagonal and vertical forward passing options, a left footer such as Bernardeschi has these options available with greater immediacy.
Thus not only does Bernardeschi’s inverted role improve Fiorentina’s combination play in the early stages of building possession; it also enhances the possibilities of the play.
Variety in the final third
Operating as an inverted right wing-back doesn’t necessarily stunt Bernardeschi’s attacking influence. An astute technical player, he is at home when running at opposition defences, and his slightly more withdrawn new role still permits him to do this on a regular basis.
The wing-backs in Fiorentina’s 3-4-2-1 system are the sole consistent providers of attacking width. Their job is usually to provide crosses, make overlapping runs and create opportunities for overloads against opposition defences. However as an inverted wing-back, Bernardeschi brings a variety of additional options in the final third.
One option is the possibility for changes in momentum. When Fiorentina work the ball out to the right flank the usual end product would be either a return pass infield or a cross, but Bernardeschi provides a more incisive edge. Naturally inclined to drive inward with the ball, he can disjoint the opposition’s defensive shape as, once the ball has reached him, he can dribble diagonally infield onto his favoured foot.
In many marking schemes the opposition will change their position relative to the ball to some degree. Thus, against Fiorentina, they will follow the ball horizontally as it moves out to the right flank, but will have to immediately alter their movements as Bernardeschi looks to drive inward, link up with team-mates, attack space between the lines aggressively and commit defenders. This creates the possibility for momentary chaos as opposition defences have to instantaneously reset their collective shape to deal with the quick changes in direction.
As well as potentially unhinging the opposition’s defensive organisation, Bernardeschi has greater angles to work with once he has driven infield. Were Blaszczykowski to move inward in this manner, it would be extremely difficult for him to work the ball back in the direction from which he came due to his being right footed. Resultantly, the Pole would have less angles available to him to penetrate the opposition defensive line with a pass.
Bernardeschi, however, is able to not only pass diagonally forward to the left and vertically forward, but diagonally forward to the right. This is a dangerous pass as he can draw the opposition towards him and the ball by driving diagonally inward to the left before passing to the right, once again potentially unhinging the opposition’s defensive line.
With such movements, Bernardeschi essentially performs many of the attacking tasks of an inverted winger, though it is also important for him to hold his wide position at times. In the 2-0 win over Sampdoria and also in Fiorentina’s more recent 1-1 draw with Sassuolo, his movement was situational. Sometimes he would drive inward; sometimes he would remain in the right channel.
Primarily the decision to hold a wide position would be to create extra space for Ilicic, the right-sided inside forward, to utilise. However it also has the effect of keeping the opposition left-back guessing as they don’t know whether to mark Bernardeschi or concentrate on Ilicic. Thus, as well as stretching the opposition defensive line, Bernardeschi’s positioning and movement can confuse his direct marker.
While there are many positive attacking aspects to Bernardeschi’s use in the inverted wing-back role, his duties extend beyond helping to build good possession and creating in the final third; he also has to perform defensive duties. His inclination to cut inside doesn’t stop when Fiorentina attacks break down and this tendency, which while natural to him is also evidently instructed, helps his team in the defensive phase.
Fiorentina’s midfield four can be stretched due to numerical overloads at times, with the central midfielders – Milan Badelj and Matias Vecino – required to do a lot of covering and closing work both vertically and horizontally. Badelj, operating as the right-sided central midfielder, gains from Bernardeschi’s presence particularly when cutting off the half-space opportunities for opposition players.
If an opponent takes up a position between Badelj and Bernardeschi, the latter closes down from the outside while the former moves toward the opponent from the inside. This forms a kind of pincer movement that congesting the space available to the opposition player in question to move wide or infield from that left-sided half-space area.
Bernardeschi’s inward defensive movement also provides supportive coverage. There was a good example of this during the Sampdoria game, as illustrated below. After a Fiorentina attack down the left had broken down, Sampdoria’s Eder received the ball and passed back to Edgar Barretto. Badelj followed the ball and moved up to close down Barretto. With Badelj having left his man, Eder was now free and Barretto tried to find him with a pass. However, Bernardeschi – anticipating the possible instability caused by Badelj’s pushing up – quickly moved inside to cover and in the process intercepted Barretto’s pass to Eder.
Bernardeschi’s willingness to provide situational support of this kind is aided by his natural left-footedness, which makes it easier for him to intercept passes and break up attacks in the way described above.
Paulo Sousa’s Mr. Versatile
Bernardeschi’s technical qualities have never been in question. Since a young age it was clear that he was a player to watch out for. However his work-rate, intelligence and flexibility are traits that many 21-year-old footballers either do not have or are not particularly interested in obtaining. It is these characteristics that have made the young Tuscan stand out and have impressed his coach.
Sousa commented on Bernardeschi’s personality and skill following Fiorentina’s home defeat to Roma, where the youngster played at left wing-back. In the post-match press conference, he told reporters, “He is a player who has a strong desire to help the team, the city and himself. When a player has this attitude, the coach has the ability to change tactics concerning the player. Not everyone has this open-mindedness.”
It won’t be long before Europe’s top sides cotton on to Bernardeschi’s commitment to self-development. Indeed, in recent days Barcelona sporting director Ariedo Braida has publicly commented on the player, telling Radio Blu: “Are Barcelona interested in Bernardeschi? Let’s say yes…Bernardeschi is a fantastic player, he’s great and I can’t say any more. He’s a talented guy…A perfect replacement for Dani Alves? No comment.”
While such speculation may be alluring, the tactically mature Bernardeschi is a perfect fit for Sousa’s Fiorentina. In less than six months he has played in three different positions and his latest one, the inverted right wing-back role, may just be his best.