Fiorentina’s Two Unforgivable Collapses In Five Days Spell The End Of Paulo Sousa
Fiorentina manager Paulo Sousa has a problem. Paulo Sousa isn’t very good at his job. What’s more, people are starting to notice. For a while now, Fiorentina fans have been trying to tell anyone who will listen that the Portuguese manager is performing well below expectations. After two high profile capitulations in the space of a week, Sousa’s problem is now clear for all to see. Paulo Sousa isn’t very good at his job.
It might be said that the relationship between club and manager was doomed from the start. Having had the pleasure of being managed by two upstanding, interesting managers in recent years (Vincenzo Montella and Cesare Prandelli), owner Diego Della Valle seemed to decide that the profile of the next manager should be similar.
After falling out with Montella, the Della Valle family seemed to think that it was an urban suaveness and cosmopolitan attitude which suited their team, rather than the tactical aptitude and proclivity for attacking football that the aforementioned managers had demonstrated. Sousa fit the bill for the former, but not the latter.
Furthermore, if there is one team in Italy which is sure to rile any Florentine, it is Juventus. In Italy, there is an inevitable cross-over between former employers. Many players and coaches have played for fierce rivals. But Sousa never hid his admiration for Juve, nor his ambition to manage the Italian champions.
Right from the start, he seemed an awkward fit for Fiorentina and fans did not warm to him. Sure, Sousa could wear the hell out of the club’s merchandise and his management history, at Basel and Maccabi Tel Aviv, demonstrated that he knew how to win a league. From many corners he was seen as an up-and-coming coach.
But in both of those previous stints, he had managed the league’s heavy favorites. Added to that, he was a pragmatic coach. Whereas Prandelli and Montella had La Viola playing some of the best football in Italy, Sousa was willing to dial back the attacking intent to win points.
Also, he arrived during a summer in which Fiorentina jettisoned Montella and dumped Mario Gomez, two symbols of the club’s recent renaissance and desire to compete at the top level. In Sousa, the team were instantly treading a different, jarring path.
It should be said that, at first, Sousa’s style worked. Fiorentina were top of the league going into the Christmas break. A flurry of goals from surprisingly successful signing Nikola Kalinic propelled the Florentines into first place. The fans were beginning to warm (slightly) to the Juve-tainted coach.
But then it fell apart. It wasn’t some huge, apocalyptic collapse. But the goals started to dry up. tight games which Fiorentina had been edging turned from three points into one. Leads were squandered, easy goals allowed. As Juventus surged through the table, Fiorentina sank. They dropped out of every cup. They found themselves, once again, outside the Champions League spots looking in.
Considering the amount of money they had spent and the talent elsewhere in Italy, this was about fair. But the relationship between Sousa and the fans has never repaired itself. But that early period of unexpected success bought Paulo Sousa a lot of time. Since last Christmas, there have been rumors that the Fiorentina manager is either looking to quit or is facing the sack.
To be fair, last summer’s spending in Florence was notably dialed back. The reappointment of bargain hunter Pantaleo Corvino as director of football has seen Fiorentina change their approach to transfer activity. While big money had been spent on Gomez and Giuseppe Rossi, now they were searching for under-valued players, plugging squad holes with Balkan teenagers and hoping to uncover transfer coups that no one expected.
In the past, this approach had brought Stefan Jovetic to the club and had secured big transfer fees for relatively unknown players. But it seemed to rile Sousa. Some of his best players were sold and they were not replaced with players of equal quality. Marcos Alonso has become essential to a title-winning Chelsea team and could net Fiorentina €30 million, but the team still struggles to field an adequate fullback on any given match day.
Had this been Montella in charge or Prandelli, the fans would have backed the manager against the club’s hierarchy. But the coldness between the coach and the ultras led to an indifference. So far this season, only the emergence of genuinely exciting youth products in Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa have kept the wolves from Sousa’s door.
Even then, he spent most of last season playing Bernardeschi at full back. Fiorentina have been treading water, with none of the fans, the manager or the management being very happy with the situation. Things were heading for disaster.
But, outside of the club, the perception seemed very different. Most Italian fans do not rank Fiorentina as being one of the country’s ‘big teams’. They do not expect them to finish any higher than fifth. They don’t pay attention to the inner machinations of the club and don’t watch every game. They don’t see the losses against Empoli or the home draws against Crotone. They don’t see Sousa’s boring football or his inability to affect a game with substitutions.
They find it hard to distinguish the fans’ genuine criticism from the constant background fury that makes up Italian ultra-culture. But they do notice the bigger results. One of the strangest, one of the most noticeable, came against Juventus. In the middle of January, everything seemed to click for one night. Fiorentina absolutely trounced the champions in a game which everyone watched. If Fiorentina are capable of this, people reasoned, then why are fans complaining?
The match had another effect. It began to cement the swirling managerial rumors which had been linking Sousa with a move to Juventus, should Massimiliano Allegri depart in the summer. Juve fans who had watched only the Fiorentina game seemed excited. Fiorentina fans were willing to drive Sousa to Turin themselves.
There has been a phenomenon at Fiorentina under Paulo Sousa. Five minutes into most games, it’s possible to predict the final result. The tactics and team selection are either perfect (as against Juventus) or awful (as against Roma, three weeks later). Players in the wrong positions, odd tactical switches which actually cater to the opponents and strange team selections.
Again, it’s the details which Fiorentina fans will notice but not the world at large. While Fiorentina have the quality of players to edge out most teams in the league, this phenomenon of odd team selections and preparations can be triumphant or catastrophic when facing the best teams.
Matters finally came to a head this week. Firstly, in the Europa League. Last week, Sousa had one of his clever moments and Fiorentina went to Germany and stole a one-nil victory from Borussia Monchengladbach. This put them in a prime position to quality for the next stage of the knockout tournament. In the return fixture, they proceeded to go two-nil up, gifting themselves a three-nil aggregate lead. At home.
And then they collapsed. Gladbach scored four unanswered goals and sent Fiorentina crashing out of the competition. It was embarrassing and disastrous. For a manager who is ostensibly so pragmatic, it was a shock. Sousa had failed to act, had failed to arrest the surrender and the rest of Italy watched as Fiorentina snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Meanwhile, in Florence... this happened:
28' Fiorentina 2-0 Gladbach (agg 3-0)
60' Fiorentina 2-4 Gladbach (agg 3-4) pic.twitter.com/fBEkFrYpyH
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 23, 2017
Monday night, it was Fiorentina versus Torino, and it nearly happened again. Once more, Fiorentina raced into a two-goal lead. Once again, they threw it away. High-flying Torino fought back to a 2-2 draw, but should've claimed all three points. The fact that Torino also missed a penalty demonstrates how completely Fiorentina collapsed. Once again, Italy was watching. Now, it seems, people have begun to realize that Paulo Sousa has a problem. That Paulo Sousa is the problem.
— Serie A English (@SerieA_English) February 28, 2017
In the hours after the defeat, the club directors admitted their disappointment. They don’t want to talk about Sousa right now. Even Sousa himself has stated that he will not quit. But the fact of the matter is that every discussion focuses on the negative.
It seems inevitable, at this point, that the Portuguese manager will be gone. The Italian press have been linking coaches to his soon-to-be-vacant position, including Claudio Ranieri. Even before Monday night, fans were protesting at the ground, demanding the coach be sacked.
Though he will likely last until the summer, Paulo Sousa will not be at Fiorentina much longer. He will leave without having achieved much, without having moved the club forward in any meaningful sense. His greatest achievements as coach will be marred by the subsequent capitulations. No fans will weep for his departure, no players will demand he stay.
There is no great love lost between Paulo Sousa and Fiorentina, the two seemingly stuck in the death throes of an increasingly acrimonious relationship, both eyeing the exit door and getting their excuses in early. Fiorentina have a problem. It is called Paulo Sousa. He isn’t very good at his job. But it’s not a job he will have much longer.