How Fiorentina and VAR overcame relegation battlers SPAL in Serie A

Artwork by @chapulana.

There was high drama at the Stadio Paolo Mazza on Sunday afternoon as SPAL took on Fiorentina. There would be 10 minutes of chaos which would see the scoreline change from 2-1 to SPAL to 4-1 to Fiorentina courtesy of a VAR decision. Both teams were needing a win in this Serie A clash. SPAL, currently fighting a relegation battle and Fiorentina pushing for a place in Europe. The ‘Violas’ last outing was a steady 0-0 draw with Napoli, proving they can ‘mix it up’ with the league’s bigger teams. SPAL however, lost 2-1 away to Atalanta.

In this tactical analysis, we will look at how both teams fought the three points on offer as well as reviewing the controversial VAR decision.


With regards to formations, both teams opted for a 3-5-2  ‘mirroring’ each other with one difference. SPAL had a defensive diamond with Mirko Valdifiori playing the defensive centre-mid. Fiorentina had an attacking diamond in the middle with Gerson in the attacking midfield role. Stefano Pioli usually prefers an attacking set-up such as 4-3-3,4-3-2-1 and even 3-4-3. However, switching to a 3-5-2 suggested that SPAL will play rather defensive and would need breaking down.

In contrast, Leonardo Semplici is consistent in playing SPAL in a 3-5-2 which he has done the last four games. But, hasn’t had much luck with results with the last win coming back in January.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics
Credit: Wyscout

Fiorentina’s unforced errors

The ‘Violas’ started the game pretty much in control. Chiesa had the chance to run down both wings as the middle had been won. Consequently, this enabled Chiesa to cross the ball, particularly from the right-wing. Yet, despite a good start to the game, Fiorentina had a ‘devil may care’ attitude towards passing and concentration.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

As an illustration, we have the above picture. The back-three of Fiorentina have shifted left on the pitch. Biraghi has pushed forward to pressure T.Cionek, who has the ball. As well, we have Antenucci and Kurtic ready to make runs, deep into the Fiorentina half. This is made possible by Ceccherini, who is keeping them onside. The defence is caught napping and Kurtic runs straight onto the ball whilst Antenucci straightens up to receive and score.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

Ceccherini redeems himself and blocks a pass which would’ve almost certainly been a goal.

Running good lines creates a goal for SPAL

You would have thought that almost conceding a goal would’ve shaken up the Fiorentina team into ‘switching on.’ It didn’t, instead, they carried on lazily passing the ball about the back-four…

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

SPAL press high now they are aware Fiorentina are lackadaisical. V. Hugo plays the ball back to Biraghi, who is running backwards to create space. Unfortunately for Biraghi Antenucci, he reads the play before it happens and takes advantage of yet another lazy pass. With quick-thinking, Antennuci then takes the ball to the ball line by the edge of the box. Kurtic runs straight for the outside of the away teams post looking to receive. Milenkovic goes with him but the ball is played through the entire defensive line straight to Valdifiori who strikes it low and hard.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

As you can see, Milenkovic (4) is now out of position which has put pressure on the midfield to mark the opposing striker. The goalkeeper makes the save but it bounces straight to Petagna, 1-0.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

Fiorentina strike back

Fiorentina didn’t press the panic button. Just before half-time, they equalised with a well-worked goal. Biraghi drags the ball out wide whilst Gerson runs into the box. Biraghi makes the pass then immediately moves into the box himself. SPAL, for some reason, dedicate four players to tackle Gerson leaving an empty zone on the pitch controlled by Fiorentina.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

Gerson then somehow threads the ball back to Biraghi just inside the box and completely unmarked. Edilmilson Fernandes arrives just outside the box, again unmarked and poised like Paul Scholes famously did. Biraghi turns and lays the ball back to Fernandes who then strikes it into the back of the net. 1-1 just before half-time.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

VAR controversy 

Serie A, unlike the Premier League, uses VAR on matchdays and has done since last season. SPAL had wished it was never in use, as one of the craziest 10 minutes of football we have ever witnessed, unfolded.

Chiesa makes a run into the box, skips past a player and then is fouled as he loses the ball. What makes this worse is that Chiesa, already with a reputation for diving in Serie A jumps into the air. This is probably why a penalty wasn’t given straight away as you could be forgiven he was trying to jump out of a dangerous challenge. Play went on and SPAL took the ball down the other end of the pitch and scored. Valoti peels off towards a ball boy on the side of the pitch and celebrates. Lovely stuff, 2-1. Or so we thought…

Before the game restarts the VAR is in the ref’s ear to review the tackle on Chiesa. The referee is then called to the side of the pitch to review the tackle. After nearly minutes of reviewing, the SPAL goal is rescinded and the referee awarded a penalty. SPAL are outraged and the penalty is converted. The lead of 2-1 is switched from SPAL to Fiorentina.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

SPAL push too high

After the controversy of the VAR incident and conceding the goal, SPAL got a free-kick just into the Fiorentina half. However, The team pushed too far on a free kick and left three in defence. This would have been normal but SPAL had completely exposed the left-hand side of the pitch.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

As the shot came in you can see how quite easily it could’ve turned into a goal-scoring opportunity. Sadly, it didn’t and the ball gets played perfectly into the unoccupied space. Simeone, who hadn’t scored in seven games, runs onto the ball and runs the entire length of the pitch before slotting it between the sticks. 1-3 and game over.

Fiorentina pile on the misery

All credit to SPAL, they did not give up. Yet, the ‘Biancazzuri‘ received punishment for their efforts. Fiorentina looked as if they were going to just play the remainder of the game in a ‘catenaccio’ spirit by defending deep.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

Fiorentina started dropping back and at times, played five at the back to soak up SPAL’s pressure. The fourth goal happened as an unforced error for SPAL, strangely enough, an emulation of what Fiorentina did in the first half regarding sloppy passing. It was the final nail on the coffin. SPAL would lose this fixture 4-1.

Passing analysis

As you can see SPAL prefered attacking down the right wing with Cionek playing a big role. With over 60 touches, Cionek stands out as the best link from defence to attack.

On the other hand, the left side seemed segregated and central midfielder Valdifiori contributes very little to link the team together. Because of this, Antenucci, who managed just under 40 touches, didn’t link up with the midfield that well.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

Fiorentina, similar to SPAL, favoured the right-hand side of the pitch as well. Veretout was a key part in linking the defence with attack and totalled 82 touches with 69 passes. More than anyone else on the pitch.

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics

Fiorentina SPAL Serie A Tactical Analysis and Statistics


This will be a game that will hurt relegation battlers SPAL but will spur Fiorentina on. They are now eight games unbeaten in Serie A and are still on target to qualify for Europe. The VAR decision, although controversial was correct. The time it took to make a decision was disappointing, allowing SPAL to move up the field and score before looking into the incident. Using VAR this way will surely give it a bad reputation, no matter if the decision is correct or not.

In conclusion, Fiorentina’s 3-5-2 is working a treat for them and they are now eight games unbeaten with Euro qualification in sight. SPAL, meanwhile, have lost the last three games using 3-5-2 and should probably look into trying something else.

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