Roma and Fiorentina are two teams who usually pride themselves on the style of their play. Last weekend however, Roma secured victory over the Viola by ceding possession and using the counter-attack. Here, Mina Rzouki reflects on Italian football’s long and successful relationship with pragmatism and explains how even Seria A’s most notorious aesthetes are getting gritty.
Italian teams, domestic or national sides, are largely known for prioritizing victories above all else. In the words of Juventus’ Giampiero Boniperti: “Winning is not important, it’s the only thing that matters.”
Style, beauty and exceptional fluidity was reserved for the teams wanting to delight, but the Italians knew that success often involved a little ugliness.
It is why the La Grande Inter thrilled in the 60s, why Juventus have succeeded for so many decades and why the Italian national team have won four World Cups, through sometimes cynical play, a predatory nature and the manipulation of weaknesses.
Two teams break the mould, though. In place of relentless victories followed by countless titles, Roma and Fiorentina value the art in football; the beautiful patterns of play and stunning individuality and technique to inspire millions of youths.
The problem is, everyone wants to win. Pragmatic play may not be pleasing on the eye but it is the most logical way of fulfilling ambitions (unless of course, you are Barcelona).
It is precisely why Fiorentina and Roma are now at the top of Serie A; practicing their beautiful play yet understanding a certain amount of grit and downright ugliness will have to creep in if they want to ensure success.
No-one understands this better than Paulo Sousa. A former Juventus player, his arrival at Fiorentina was met by fan protests. No-one in Tuscany wanted their beloved team to be put in the hands of a man who played for their most hated rivals. Losing Vincenzo Montella and his aesthetic style of football was a bitter pill to swallow but replacing him with Bianconero was almost too much to bear.
Except Sousa’s Juve past is exactly the reason why the Viola have achieved so much this season, reaching first place in the league going into the game against Roma.
A man who appreciates a fine passing game, Sousa is also a winner who trained alongside the greatest of professionals and champions. He understands the desire for beauty but also the need for pragmatism. Evolving the side he inherited from Montella, Sousa quickly learned that any style changes he would introduce would only be readily accepted if he worked on the psychology of his players.
His squad had grown accustomed to frustration under his predecessor. For all their technique, they never quite possessed the balance required to win a trophy. The rules had to be changed and the mentality developed. Sousa wanted to maintain the aesthetics that has come to define the Viola but introduce a little more verticality for a more direct style of play – one that would encourage goals. In defence, he needed the confidence of the players to ensure grittiness and character.
To carry out his revolution, he asked his players to choose where they wanted to sit during meal times. He wanted to study the dynamics of the group, how the players integrated themselves within the squad and how they communicated with one another. By observing his men, he knew how to then reach out to each individual, how that player wished to be spoken to and what would drive him to give his best.
On the pitch, he looked to technology to better understand the players at his disposal: their posture, their weaknesses and their physical capacity. By studying their behaviour and their every move on the pitch, he could then communicate with each player perfectly to extract the very best out of each member of the squad. The result? A stunning pre-season and consecutive Serie A wins.
Sadly for Fiorentina, when they met Roma on Sunday, they came up against a side who have also learned the value of pragmatic play.
Rudi Garcia, tired of his team’s inefficiency and aware of the Viola’s strengths, opted to rely on cynical tactics to punish the fragility of Sousa’s men.
Managing only 32% possession, the Giallorossi opted to sit back before exploiting the pace within the side to counter-attack viciously. The intelligence of their tactics earned them a valuable 2-1 win while Fiorentina’s local papers criticised their own side for regressing tactically to look like a Montella team once again.
They shouldn’t wallow for too long, though. The Viola may have surrendered first place in Serie A but with Sousa at the helm and a team that genuinely enjoys its football, it won’t be long before they develop further and return to winning ways.
Read more from Mina Rzouki here!
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Do you think teams like Roma and Fiorentina need to be more pragmatic to challenge for titles? Do the ends justify the means? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below.