Cesare Prandelli felt as though he had never been away. A decade has passed since he stepped down as manager of Fiorentina, whom he led to consecutive Champions League qualifications in 2008 and 2009. Yet Prandelli has kept a home in Florence ever since.
He left to take over the Italian national team, whose Coverciano training base is located in the same city. His next stops were further afield: Galatasaray, Valencia, Al-Nasr in Dubai and then Genoa, but he did not stay long enough with any of them to lay down roots. When Fiorentina asked him to replace the struggling Beppe Iachini as manager this November, it was an easy decision to make.
“I think I am the only manager who held a season ticket for two years,” Prandelli quipped at his (re)introductory press conference, his joy at this opportunity overflowing. “Florence always cared for me and I hope to give a lot back. If you strip away the romanticism, life becomes boring. I live for the emotions and I have a profound love for this club.”
His fellow Fiorentina supporters were happy, for the most part, too. The Viola had won only two of their opening seven games under Iachini, whose stubborn commitment to a 3-5-2 seemed to be wasting the club’s significant wage investment into wide forwards José Callejón and Franck Ribéry. Fiorentina sat 12th in the table, a million miles away from the Champions League push that the club’s general manager, Joe Barone, had envisaged at the start of the year.
Prandelli was easier to get behind. His sincere love for the club was a good starting point, and he has long been perceived as a good man: one who gave up the biggest break of his career, at Roma, in 2004 in order to take care of his terminally ill wife, and who made it his mission as Italy manager to restore pride in the national side for reasons beyond what they achieved on the pitch.
Under his charge, the Azzurri went to train on fields reclaimed from the mafia and gave call-ups to players who had reported attempts to fix games. While preparing for Euro 2012, Prandelli took his squad away from their Krakow training facility one day to visit the Holocaust memorial at Auschwitz.
And his teams played some brilliant football. On top of those two Champions League qualifications with Fiorentina, Prandelli also led the club to sixth place in 2006-07 despite a 15-point deduction as a punishment for their previous involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. His Italy team finished as runners-up at the Euros, with Prandelli drawing the best out of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano as almost no other coach has done in their careers.
Still, his return to Fiorentina this winter did also bring trepidation. Few are the stories of managers returning to the scenes of their greatest successes and hitting the same heights a second time. And the hard truth was that Prandelli really hadn’t done well anywhere since leaving the national side.
He lasted only 16 games before getting the sack at Galatasaray, 10 at Valencia and 19 at Al-Nasr. After replacing Ivan Juric at Genoa in December 2018, he won four out of 24 league matches, barely scraping into 17th place. Even his time with Italy had ended on a sour note, Prandelli resigning after his team crashed out of the 2014 World Cup at the group stage.
Fiorentina hoped he could prove himself once more to be the “Wizard of Orz” – a play on his hometown Orzinuovi – and in particular that a man who helped Luca Toni, Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino to produce some of the best seasons of their careers might work his magic up front. Together with the experience of Callejón and Ribéry, the club had assembled a group of highly touted young forwards – Patrick Cutrone, Dusan Vlahovic, Gaetano Castrovilli and Christian Kouamé – whose potential was yet to be fully realised.
So far, he has failed to live up to that hope. Prandelli lost his first two games back in charge of Fiorentina, 1-0 at home to newly-promoted Benevento and then 2-0 at Milan. His team then needed a 98th-minute equaliser to draw 1-1 against Genoa. Prandelli sought to focus on the positives, saying that Nikola Milenkovic’s last-gasp goal could “change the wind” and saying that the result felt more like a victory. He hoped his players could carry some momentum into their match on Sunday, away against an Atalanta team that was itself without a league win since the end of October.
Fiorentina lost, 3-0.
It was a grim performance, Prandelli’s side seeming to dig into their defensive positions right from the opening whistle, and offering no reaction after they fell behind to a Robin Gosens goal on the stroke of half-time. Ruslan Malinkovskiy and Rafael Toloi completed the rout not long after the hour mark, Atalanta taking advantage of such meek opposition to rediscover a little joy of their own.
Had Prandelli got his selection wrong? His first move after replacing Iachini was to switch the defence to a back four, but the shape of the rest of the side has been chopped and changed from game to game. The starting formation here looked something like a 4-5-1, with Giacomo Bonaventura theoretically breaking forward to support Vlahovic as the lone striker, but in practise mostly camping in front of his box with the rest of the team.
Ribéry and Callejón, who has been slow to regain match fitness after a coronavirus infection, did not enter the game until their team were already 2-0 down. Kouamé replaced Vlahovic at 3-0. Perhaps they would have made no difference in an uneven game, but certainly there was little of the attacking joy we associate with Prandelli’s better sides to be found on the pitch here.
Four games into his tenure, the manager can hardly be blamed for all his team’s failings. Fiorentina’s recruitment last summer was a mess, the aforementioned glut of forwards assembled without any thought to team construction. The squad desperately needs a ball-playing midfielder to knit things together, and it is ever-more apparent how many cracks were papered over last season by the capacity of Federico Chiesa – sold to Juventus this summer – to make things happen on his own.
Regardless of who is to blame for all those decisions, though, it is Prandelli now who bears the responsibility of trying to turn things around. One point and one goal from four games represents a grim start to his second tenure. Fiorentina have slipped all the way to 17th, kept out of the relegation zone only by the haplessness of the teams beneath them.
“After it went to 3-0, paradoxically, we freed ourselves from fear and were able to attack our opponents,” said Prandelli at full-time. His ability to always see a glass half full has been an asset many times in his career, and makes him an easy man root for. It will take a lot more than positive thinking, though, to rescue the team that he loves the most.
Serie A results
Sassuolo 1-0 Benevento, Lazio 1-2 Verona, Torino 2-3 Udinese, Crotone 4-1 Spezia, Milan 2-2 Parma, Geona 1-3 Juventus, Napoli 2-1 Sampdoria, Bologna 1-5 Roma, Atalanta 3-0 Fiorentina, Cagliari 1-3 Internazionale
• Nicky will post her Serie A talking points in the comments section below