Not so long ago, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a relationship with a wonderful lady which was very meaningful, potentially life changing, and for the most part very happy. Unfortunately, for reasons both valid and unavoidable, it didn’t become the life partnership that at one stage it appeared it might.

But this is not a confessional. The reason I mention it is because the plan had been to spend this year and maybe many more in Florence, which has been the scene of Serie A’s most compelling story of the season.

Florence: ‘The Athens of the Middle Ages’.

Not a bad view, I suppose…

Florence is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with narrow streets steeped in cultural heritage, and with sites of global artistic and historical significance seemingly waiting to be discovered round every street corner. It is city whose extreme beauty has even spawned a psychosomatic disorder, Stendhal Syndrome. Quite apart from being the birthplace of Renaissance art, at times it has been Europe’s primary library of Classical learning, a cutting edge hotbed of middle-ages philosophy, and a centre of scientific advancement. Given its population size, limited by the cradle of hills in which it sits, Florence can make a decent argument for having been one of the most important cities in the world, per capita.

Accordingly, Florentines have a genuine and generous pride in their city, and the same love is applied to the city’s only professional club, Fiorentina.  A club formed as a reflection of this pride and to provide opposition to the other great cities of Northern Italy, it was also the result of  the cultural revival and rediscovery of Calcio Fiorentino, an ancestor of modern football that was played by members of the Medici family. Gianni Brera once wrote: ‘A city and its people have never been painted such a dramatic colour by one football team’. The colour he is referring to is, of course, purple, or ‘Viola‘, Fiorentina’s self-adopted nickname, which refers to the Fiorentina kit, which is both unique and instantly recognisable.

What colour do ‘La Viola’ play in again?

Regional rivalries: The lifeblood of Italian Football.

Last month,  I was minded of my time in the Renaissance city with the home team Fiorentina’s pivotal fixture against As Roma, where a win would make them favourites for Italy’s third Champion’s League place, and the visitors needed the points for their Europa League ambitions. It was of particular interest to me because the two men in Florence most connected to the aforementioned lady, and thus myself,  are the Tuscan Mario, a passionate fan of La Viola, and Marco the proud Roman, who revels in the position of being the footballing outsider. And it is also a fixture that is something of a grudge match.

Florence is a city which often defines itself as much by its opposition and difference to Italy’s other major cities as it is by its illustrious cultural history. This can lead to wonderful contradictions. A city known for and passionate about its political liberalism, Florence managed to foster both virulent Fascism and dedicated (and more enduring) communism in the early 20th Century. It is a city disinterested in and disenfranchised by Italian nationalism, despite being the first Capitol of unified Italy, and the birthplace of the modern Italian language.  At one point, its ruling family condemned astronomy on behalf of the church, whilst secretly housing Galilleo and funding his research.

This spills over into football. Fiorentina look down on Sienna, Perugia, Livorno and Pisa as local rivals but dislike most of the Italian big guns more for one reason or another. Lazio are largely fascist, where as Fiorentina are leftist,  Milan are Burlisconi’s plaything (not a popular man in Florence) and Napoli, being run by southern nutcases, are largely viewed with a condescending suspicion. The big one is against ‘The Old Lady’ of Turin –  Juventus are cheats who bribe officials and indulge in player doping (most of Italy feels the same way), they ‘stole’ Roberto Baggio, and no fan of La Viola has forgotten  being cheated out of the championship in favour of Juve in 1982. With this in mind, being the team of Rome (Historical snobs, renaissance thieves and home of the Pope) is quite enough reason to hate Roma.

Just in case anyone had forgotten about Romulus and Remus….

And the feeling seems to be mutual. Fiorentina vs Roma fixtures are usually high scoring affairs with shocking disciplinary statistics. Their last match featured 11 yellow cards and 3 reds, and the one before that Roma ended up with 8 men. The stakes were high, with a win taking Fiorentina into third, above Burlisconi’s mob in Milan, and a defeat would mean the gap between the two teams in the race for Europe would be cut to just three points. With the sides being two of Serie’s highest scoring teams, and neither having a watertight defence, it had all the makings of a great watch.

The Match

With Fiorentina on a great run of form coming into the fixture, but Fiorentina have not also been known as ‘I sfortunati‘ (The Unfortunate) since the 1940s for nothing.

Despite spending almost twice as much time in the opposing half as their visitors, dominating possession and hitting the post twice, La Viola managed to lose 1-0 to a goal from a corner in the 92nd minute. That the goal was scored by Pablo Osvaldo, the striker who had flopped so badly for Fiorentina half a decade before, only added insult to injury.

As with all great Fiorentina misfortunes, there was a degree of suspicion to be levelled at the match officials, with the referee ignoring two good penalty shouts, including a blatant deliberate handball from Daniele De Rossi in the last ten minutes. Given that a certain sympathy for those that cheat the system permeates through large parts of Italy (though unsurprisingly not the unassuming pride of the Florentines), I’m sure it made some of Marco’s fellow Romans enjoy his team’s victory even more.

Ultimately, this match pretty much put paid to Fiorentina’s Champion’s League ambitions.

Much more interesting than this one fixture, however,  is the story of Fiorentina’s season.  And it is impossible to understand why this season has been so remarkable without some a broader context.

Fiorentina: A decade of disorder

In Florence, the local team has often punched above its weight, but has suffered much upheaval in recent years. In the last decade alone, the club has gone out of business and been reborn with a new name, in Luca Toni had the highest goalscorer in Seria A in almost half a century, been docked points in the match fixing scandal, been cheated out of the Champion’s League in favour of Bayern Munich, and had nine managers (including five in the last 28 months, one of whom, Delio Rossi was sacked for attacking a player he had just substituted). The fact that the current Italy manager Prandelli is the longest serving boss in the club’s history with a tenure of five years is indicative of the chaos that surrounds this medium sized club that attempts to go toe to toe  with giants.

The omens entering the 2012/13 season were not promising. After three bottom half finishes, the club lost their captain and star player Riccardo Montolivio on a free to Milan, and changes were afoot. In came former Roma Striker Vincenzo Montella as manager after only 16 months of coaching experience, and there was an extraordinary turnover of players.

Ins & Outs and a surprising start.

Not one of Montella’s new men…

An incredible 17 of the 26 man squad starting the seasons were new signings, nine of whom would be first choice players. What is more remarkable is that this was done spending a grand total of £18m, which is less than they recouped for the sales of Nastasic to Manchester City and Behrami to Napoli. A further six arrived permanently or on loan in January, though chief among those is Giuseppe Rossi, who is injured for the rest of the season. Equally, since last summer 25 players with first team experience have left the club. Essentially the club removed and replaced their entire first squad and coaching staff, bar three players, in little over 12 weeks.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the new manager would take time to settle and that the massive influx of new players would struggle to gel, particularly as so many were coming from overseas without previous experience of Serie A.

Remarkably, after 14 games, Fiorentina were playing beautiful possession football and found themselves second in Serie A, only four points behind leaders Juventus. Despite a sticky patch around the turn of the year, La Viola came the Roma fixture in fourth place, one point behind Milan and six ahead of Roma. Given that pre-season expectations were of mid-table consolidation at best, Stadio Artemio Franchi has been a surprisingly exciting place to be this year.

Montella’s Tactics

The Magic Man Montella

The Magic Man Montella

Key to this has been Vincenzo Montella’s tactical input. Fiorentina started the season implementing the new manager’s own take on the 3-5-2 formation that has enjoyed a renaissance with Antonio Conte’s Juventus. In contrast to Prandelli’s implementation of the same formation with the national team, this appeared to be design rather than pragmatism, given the extraordinary influx of new faces.

Like Conte, Montella used his wing-backs to create space for passing to begin in central defence, highlighting the importance of the purchase of Gonzalo Rodriguez from Villareal. The Argentine is almost an old fashioned libero, with his aerial presence complemented by an excellent passing range. In possession, the three central defenders would spread wide, encouraging the wing-backs to become authentic wide men by covering the space behind them.

This placed particular onus on the most defensive of the midfield creators (the rejuvinated Chilean David Pizarro) to provide an option to the man on the ball, and be ready to buy his team time to funnel back into a tighter defensive three, should the other team win possession and mount a quick counter-attack.

In defence, Montella’s wing backs, would funnel back into authentic full back positions to a far greater degree than their equivalents at Juventus, whose central defensive trio are more overtly destructive, as well as being Italy’s first choice combination. As soon as Fiorentina won the ball back, their incredibly fit wing backs reverted to their more attacking default.

In Montella’s system, the back three were encouraged to carry the ball into midfield and build the attaack. For this to be possible, it is  vital that the wing-backs hugged the touchline and the creative midfielder’s didn’t stay too deep.

For this system to work, it placed a greater priority on the midfield’s ability to retain and transfer possession smoothly, and for the front men to be able to keep the ball to allow the midfield to join them. This explains Montella’s approach in midfield compared with Juventus, and also illustrates the importance of the fit again Jovetic and the rejuvinated twilight of Luca Toni’s career.

Where the two sides differ is in approach in midfield areas. Pirlo aside, Juventus rely on energy and tight pressing to squeeze opponents and operate at a high tempo. Montella’s Viola, however, have put their faith in technical creators, three of whom are re-igniting their careers after disappointing spells in England (Pizzaro, Aquillani and Valero). Almost all of the plethora of new players in Florence were rejected elsewhere, invariably due to a perceived lack of physical or mental fortitude. It seems that getting the most out of them  was largely a case of not trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes.

Willingness to Adapt

What is interesting, is that following the team’s sticky patch in January, where the defence became leaky, and an injury to Jovetic stifled the team going forward, Montella adjusted his system on the fly, rather than struggle on manfully ploughing the same furrow. And it was definitely a case of evolution rather than revolution. Recognising that the team’s central creative hub was its strength, he shifted to a lopsided 4-5-1, tailored specifically to the players at this disposal. Cuadrado was pushed into the role of a slightly tucked in right winger with freedom to roam, taking advantage of his speed and dribbling skills, and behind him the third central defender became an orthodox right full-back. Pasqual retained his role as a wing back on the left, but was encouraged to slightly delay his runs so that later overlapping could take advantage of his excellent crossing. Lastly, Ljajic’s excellent form has seen him cement a place as a creative inside left, replacing the second striker role, with the net result of ensuring greater ball retention and affording slightly more defensive stability.

Having now becoming comfortable with both systems, their similarity, particularly along the team’s spine, allows the players to adjust between the two during the game as the situation demands.

Effective and Attractive

A standout feature of Montella’s first season in charge in Florence has been that Fiorentina have been widely recognised as the side who currently play the most attractive football in Serie A. Fiorentina rank third in Serie A in terms of both possession and pass completion statistics, and are fourth in shots per game and goals scored.

 “Here we want to play football and entertain the fans. This is a brand new side with players from different experiences and cultures. The sooner we integrate all those elements, the earlier we can start showing what we can do.” – Montella

Because this and their aggressive use of their deep wide players, their positional fluidity and their occasional use of a ‘false 9’ upfront, they have drawn numerous comparisons to Barcelona.

“I think it’s correct to say that this team plays the Spanish way. Our coach knows how to get the most out of the squad, taking inspiration from Barcelona and the other La Liga clubs…If I’ve managed to get used to this league quickly then it’s down to the way Fiorentina play.” – Former Villareal defender Gonzalo Rodriguez

The Fiorentina of Catalunya

They are in actuality more consistently forward thinking in their approach, placing less of a priority in the retention of possession for its own sake,  and they typically play at a higher pace than Barcelona. Montella also embraces greater pragmatism than the likes of Guardiola or Wenger.  Fiorentina are known to place a particular emphasis on set-pieces – Montella brought a guru named Gianni Vio with him from Catania who has published papers on hundreds of dead-ball schemes. The benefit of this has been for all to see, with 12 goals from the team’s central defenders in a league infamous for its tight marking.

Summing up the season

The Roma result pretty much ruled Fiorentina out of a remarkable return to Champion’s League football, and left La Viola looking nervously over their shoulders at a resurgent AS Roma for fourth place.

Those fears were been dispelled by two back to back 1-0 wins against relegation fighting Siena & Palermo (with both goals set up by the rampaging Cuadrado), and with Roma dropping points. If the Florentines won at Pescara and Milan lost to the now relegated Siena (a draw for Milan would require Fiorentina to beat Pescara by four goals) on the final, the Champion’s League would still beckon.

Sadly, true to their heritage, La Viola were the victims of ill-fortune and suspicious officiating.  With a hat trick from the in-form Adem Ljajic, Fiorentina won 5-1, achieving their end of the bargain. Milan now needed to win to finish above them, and found themselves 1-0 down with 10 minutes to go. Cue an outrageous dive from Balotelli leading to a penalty. And Balotelli doesn’t miss penalties. Milan’s winner came 5 minutes later from Mexes, a goal with a hint of offside about it.

Either way, it would wrong to define this season as anything but a hugely unlikely success for the pride of Florence.  The club secured 24 points more than it amassed at the end of last season, and achieved its second best points per game ratio in over 30 years.

Given that Fiorentina by any impartial measure are maybe the 9th or 10th biggest club in the division, this would already be commendable, but what makes it stand out is the extraordinary levels of risk en route to this success.

Not content with hiring a rookie coach whose greatest playing successes were for a significant rival, the club also brought in a new sporting director, with the legendary Pantaleo Corvino being replaced by Daniele Prade. While usual practice would see a new managerial team slowly bedding themselves in, getting to know their players and strengthening slowly, Fiorentina replaced their entire squad bar four players in under three months.

While we have seen remarkable turnovers of players at clubs with the resources of Manchester City, PSG, Chelsea and briefly Malaga, La Viola managed to turn a transfer profit, despite losing their captain and best player on a Bosman to Milan . And some of those who departed were only on loan or joint-ownership deals, so are still assets to the club. Even after a few further arrivals in January (primarily the injured Giuseppe Rossi), the season’s net spend is only a little over £5m, with a possible further £10m to spend if they make some incoming loans permanent. To put that into context, they club has recruited an entire first team squad for a total spend of less than Andy Carroll, or a loss of Andrei Arshavin’s 2012-2013 wages.

What next?

The boy wonder – on his way out

Crucially, Fiorentina seem well-placed looking forwards. The world and his wife knows that Jovetic is leaving this summer, probably to Juventus, Arsenal, Chelsea or Man City, but as the season has gone on, he has become less important to the side, almost as if their tactics have adjusted in anticipation of his departure. The golden boy’s injury hit the team hard in the new year, but it gave an opportunity to last year’s enfant-terrible, Ljajic, who since breaking into the team has become undroppable. This has pushed the Montenegran  Jovetic into a more advanced role which he has struggled to adapt to at times, but has also made him more expendable. Having planned for this with the January purchase of the still injured Giuseppe Rossi, La Viola have a striker of great quality waiting in the wings, and one who can be a poacher or a deep lying player, giving them greater tactical flexibility.

With last summer’s business being done so cheaply, the club are financially in relatively rude health, having slashed their wage bill at the same time. With a Europa League place guaranteed, there should be money to spend and Florence will be a more attractive proposition to potential signings. As well as finding cover for the aching limbs of the aging Luca Toni and David Pizzaro (who seems in as good form as ever), there is the question of either signing or replacing those loan players who have made a real impact. The Colombian Cuadrado (on loan from Udinese) brings unpredictability, pace and penetration from the flanks that has helped give a cutting edge to Fiorentina’s passing game, and his form and accordingly his reputation has blossomed as the season has gone on. Unless Udinese are ready to cash in, another flying wide-man is a must. Almost as important is the stability that has been brought by Emilio Viviano in goal. His signing seems almost a formality as in addition to La Viola having a reasonable option to buy as part of the loan agreement, his parent club Palermo have been relegated. Another factor is that Viviano grew up as a fan of Fiorentina having been born in the hills of Fiesole, not far outside the city (not to mention the original Tuscan settlement of the ancient Etruscan kings). Either way, these signings and more will be covered by the inevitable departure of Jovetic, who the club hope can be lured by Premier League wages away from his preferred choice of the old enemy, Juventus.

In short, the malaise that descended on Fiorentina following Cesare Prandelli’s decision to take the Italy job in 2010 has finally been lifted, and his best points total surpassed. The pampered prima donnas, so memorably described by Gabriele Romagnoli in La Repubblica as being no more motivated than “Persian cats on cushions” have all left the club. The players that have come in were targeted to complement each other’s personalities as well as footballing abilities, and most are well motivated by having something to prove.

The introduction of a new director of sport, new coach and 23 new players have made for a new team and, as a consequence, a renewed sense of purpose and ambition. The results of this mental shift are for all to see.  Fiorentina are now a renaissance club in more ways than one.