The Corriere della Sera labelled it “A destructive fall” while the Corriere dello Sport insisted the title race had reopened. On Sunday evening in the Stadio Artemio Franchi, a league that thrives on schadenfreude wryly smiled as Juventus suffered their fourth defeat of the season at the hands of rivals, Fiorentina.
Dubbed inconsistent and mentally fragile, Fiorentina have been made to suffer this season. Coach Paulo Sousa was hailed a magician last term, as his side combined beautiful technique with wicked vertical speed to create a thrilling side. Yet in Italy, stability is a luxury few can savour and problems soon arose. Sousa was unhappy with the club’s dealings in the transfer market, while this year, there is a distinct lack of chemistry between coach and squad.
Results have suffered and Fiorentina have been accused of lacking an identity. Sousa enjoys developing tactically flexible sides that can change and adapt depending on the opponent. However, the constant tinkering has led many to accuse him of stripping the side of a solid identity – one that already suffers from a lack of leadership and a healthy attitude.
It was thought Sousa’s time with the Viola was nearing an end. Some wondered if he took Fiorentina as far as he could; others felt he was Juve’s number one choice for coach should Massimiliano Allegri depart. As for the team, they needed a win to revive their dormant winning mentality.
Football, or so we have come to learn, can be a game of perceptions. To some, tactical tinkering is a sign of intelligence and flexibility while others see it as accomplishing little more than disharmony and chaos. And as the big game approached, Juventus were coming to town.
Sousa refused to bow down to the opinion of others and insisted on making his usual tactical changes. Much like Allegri, he wanted his Viola side to take control of the game, play with intensity and demonstrate ambition from the offset. Sousa had learnt his lessons from the reverse fixture played in August.
Back then, Juve’s sixth consecutive Scudetto seemed a formality as they pressed with aggression, utilised their superior physical strength and commanded the game, rendering Fiorentina impotent.
He sought to make a vital change. Midfielder Carlos Sanchez was deployed in defence, setting the tone for a rampant performance. On paper, the move looked risky. In hindsight, it can be appreciated for what it was, a courageous and excellent move. Sanchez battled, tackled and intercepted to frustrate Juve.
Juventus, in what now looks like an archaic 3-5-2 formation, were both slow and static. Their midfield easily overtaken, their defence bizarrely fragile, the away side simply had no answers. Allegri had opted to bench their most creative player in Miralem Pjanic while Paulo Dybala disappointed as Gonzalo Higuain looked around for support. Lacking in balance and ideas, Juve couldn’t grab hold of possession.
There is something distinctly different about this Juve compared to previous seasons. While offensively they appear quick and enthralling, they have lost the defensive solidity that once defined them. The midfield is lacking in talent and balance and thus incapable of offering the protection it once did while the team, as a whole, is guilty for surrendering to apathy too often.
More importantly, the Old Lady was once renowned for her concentration levels, her mental strength carrying her past even the toughest of opponents. This season, she’s been known to get distracted, inviting pressure and attacks she is unable to defend against. Juve not only conceded two goals against Atalanta in the midweek Coppa Italia game to make for a tense ending but conceded another two to Fiorentina days later. Four goals in two games, Juventus are no longer defensively mighty.
Pitted against a clever Sousa, they capitulated. While the Viola tactician has rightfully been praised for adopting the right tactics to pierce through the Champions of Italy, it is his management of Fiorentina’s fragile mentality that guaranteed the win. Whilst he acknowledged the city’s obsession with this fixture, he quietly treated it as any other. Players were allowed to relax and tactical risks were taken. The message he sent his players was that while Juve were strong, they were not impossible to defeat. Even when his team scored, Sousa barely celebrated and why should he?
Every well-planned game played by determined individuals could achieve glory. And they did. Juventus lost to a Fiorentina side led by a man who understands mental strength and perfect schemes like they do. Why? Because he’s one of them, a man who learnt it all while playing in the Bianconeri jersey.