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A Women’s Champions League Q&A with Viola Nation

We had questions, they had answers

Arsenal v West Ham United - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ahead of Arsenal Women’s round of 32 Champions League tie with Fiorentina, Tito Kohout, of Viola Nation, was gracious enough to exchange questions and answers about the respective teams. You can their questions and my responses here.

The Short Fuse: Fiorentina finished second last year by a single point. Is winning the league a goal for the team, and what have they done over the summer transfer window? What are the team’s goals for the season?

Viola Nation: Winning the league is a good goal, but they probably haven’t strengthened as much as Juventus, AC Milan, and AS Roma have over the summer, given that they don’t have the resources those three can sink into their teams. The Viola aren’t out of the race for the Scudetto by any means, but they’re definitely second fiddle (and stop me if this sounds familiar) to the Bianconere right now. Another top two finish to ensure Champions League qualification is probably the realistic goal, but this group is gritty, tough, and hungry (and also brings out the absolute worst in sportswriting clichés sometimes), so they’ll certainly want to reclaim the top spot for the first time since 2017.

As far as summer moves, the biggest one is hanging onto captain and Italy international Alia Guagni, who turned down an offer from Real Madrid’s women’s team CD Tacón. She’s a Florentine born and raised and has anchored this team since its inception, so keeping her on board is a huge victory. For actual arrivals, it’s been perhaps a bit underwhelming. Janni Arnth is probably the best of the lot and should earn a spot in the defense next to Guagni. Lisa de Vanna is an Australian international with a wealth of experience, but may have trouble cracking the rotation in Florence. Janelle Cordia is the team’s first ever American, which is fun, and has also enjoyed a successful career, but she’s more competent than exciting. Winger Marta Mascarello is exciting, at least, as she’s just 20 years old and has been called for the Azzurre a couple of times, albeit without making an appearance for them. Paloma Lázaro is a former Spanish youth international who could pick up some minutes here and there.

TSF: We’ve seen in England and in the USA efforts to capitalize on the success of the Women’s World Cup. But Italy, having been absent for 20 years, had a fantastic, and surprising, World Cup. What was the reaction to the World Cup? Has it altered perceptions of the league?

VN: Ugh. Women’s soccer in Italy remains, at best, an afterthought. For example, Atalanta Mozzanica, one of the founding members of the league, just folded due to a lack of funds; how that can happen the same summer that the national team features in the most prestigious competition in the world and, fueled by some charismatic players and a fluid, exciting style of play, even made a little bit of a run goes to show you what the profile of the game is on the peninsula. While Juve and Roma in particular have sunk some resources into their teams, it seems like they, along with Fiorentina, are the only clubs really trying. Given the lack of support from the FIGC (Italy’s governing body for sports), it’s not hard to see why. Hopefully the clubs continue to invest, because the Italian leadership sure doesn’t seem like it could care one way or the other.

TSF: What is Fiorentina’s tactical style? Will they adjust for Arsenal?

VN: Antonio Cincotta plays a 4-4-2 that prioritizes staying compact and tight at the back and focuses on quick attacking transitions. Against the smaller teams in domestic competitions, the Viola basically just bulldoze people with direct play. Against bigger teams (and that’s definitely Arsenal), they’ll sit back and play mostly on the counter. Especially given Arsenal’s quality in the midfield and pace in behind, Fiorentina will likely sit deep and look to frustrate their more-decorated opponents, then go for the smash and grab.

As far as tactics, it all starts at the back. Guagni organizes her defense well to stay narrow; they’re generally alright with leaving some space out wide in favor of shutting down the center, meaning that opponents often resort to crosses which the Viola are happy to smack away. The central midfielders tend to grind things out more than dazzle, with both generally sitting back in attack rather than haring into the box. The wingers will occasionally sit very high to provide an out ball, but are comfortable moving centrally as well, which encourages the fullbacks on. The strikers are happy to pull wide and work the channels. If this all sounds a bit basic, well, that’s not wholly inaccurate.

TSF: Who should Arsenal be concerned about? What areas are more of a weakness?

VN: Again, the defense is pretty good. Goalkeeper Stephanie Öhrström is the sort of steady, mistake-free veteran who’s rarely exciting but rarely wrong (although 22-year-old Francesca Durante could overtake her this year after getting called up to the World Cup), Guagni is world-class and you know that Arnth is solid, but rightback Davina Philtjens is also a Belgium international and has a knack for causing havoc in the opposing third. Tatiana Bonetti plays on the right wing but loves to cut inside and offers a serious goal threat with her ability to shoot from distance and wriggle past defenders. Strikers Lana Clelland (a Scotland international) and Ilaria Mauro have a great partnership and play off each other so well. Clelland is more of a poacher in the box while Mauro tends to drop a bit deeper, but they’re willing and able to switch roles. Valery Vigilucci offers some pace off the bench, too, and can work on the wing if need be, so she’s a bit of an X-factor.

As far as weak spots, left back Alice Tortelli is solid, but probably not up to the level of her colleagues in defense yet; part of that is that she’s just 22, though, so it’s more a lack of experience than ability. Central midfield is probably the area of greatest concern for me. Stephanie Breitner and Greta Adami are hard-working but more functional than anything; if Arsenal take a lead and then drop deep, it’s hard to imagine a creative spark originating in the center of the park, and that could prove to be a big problem for Fiorentina. They’ll either have to summon forth some previously unsuspected creativity or make sure that they shut down this Gunners attack without any mistakes.

TSF: Predictions?

VN: Do we have to? Fine. I’ll call it a 1-1 in Florence behind goals from Clelland and Vivianne Miedema, then a 2-0 win for Arsenal at Meadow Park with Miedema and Kim Little on the scoresheet. And to tell you the truth, I’m worried that I’m flattering the Viola here. They’re good, but Italy remains a step behind England in terms of women’s football and we should see that play out across two legs.

Many thanks to Tito.

Fiorentina Women’s FC v Arsenal Women
UEFA Women’s Champions League, Round of 32, First Leg
Thursday, September 12, 2019
6:00 PM BST/1 PM EDT/10:00 AM PDT
Stream: TBA (Thanks, UEFA!)