Atalanta, a club based in the city of Bergamo who has a population of just over 120,000 and plays football in a stadium that does not meet UEFA’s minimum standards. With a payroll of around only 25-30% of their rivals, the geniuses of Gian Piero Gasperini have helped them reach the quarter-finals of UEFA Champions League in their first-ever stint. They were narrowly eliminated by Paris Saint-Germain’s last-minute winner. The Bergamo based club broke the club record they set the previous season for most points and finished third in the Serie A. Gapserini’s team has played some of the finest tactical football anyone has seen this season. This tactical analysis will look at his tactics and analyse how they set-up for the next season. Through this scout report, we will see how Atalanta plans tochallenge for the Serie A title.
Squad and formations
Atalanta usually play with a back three in a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation. They play a complex model that is dependent on the positional rotation, interchange, and the high press. Josip Iličić, Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel usually lead the line with Papu Gomez or Ruslan Malinovskiy playing behind them. Technically intelligent players such as Mario Pašalić, Marten de Roon, and Remo Freuler rotate in the midfield. José Palomino, Rafael Tolói, and Berat Djimsiti are the usual centre-back candidates. Robin Gosens, Hans Hateboer, and Timothy Castagne rotate as the wing-backs.
There is no one specific way in which they build-up and deal with complex variations and tactics. The secret to Gasperini’s success is the positional rotation of the players during transitions. Gasperini wants his defenders and midfielders to attack and the forwards to defend. Atalanta builds from the back and progresses the ball through the wings. Through their positional exchanges, they confuse their opponents to create gaps and spaces to attack.
Atalanta has a fixed formation but not fixed players playing at that position. If the centre-back moves forward to take a position along the wing, the central midfielders occupy the void left by the centre-back and make sure that they don’t get exposed on the counter.
Atalanta plays a fluid and free-flowing football style, full of attacking diamonds and intelligent runs. They play a narrow horizontal and a wide vertical block. As wing-backs provide width, they overload the side of the ball to form consistently changing diamonds all around the pitch which gives the player with the ball, multiple passing options. This way they can play quick passes and open up the play easily with their intelligent movements.
Here is another example of how Atalanta overload on the ball side while maintaining their width on the other side. Gomez, playing behind the strikers usually shifts to the ball side to provide extra passing options and confuse the opponent.
A skewed diamond is formed here with the wing-back and Atalanta has overloaded on the ball side. With Gosens moving inwards and Djimitsi making a run from the back, Freuler drills it to Zapata who flicks it on to the player making the runs. With a perfectly waited pass from Zapata and the intelligent inward run by Gosens, Milan is wide open. Djitsimi continues his run and is now at the striker position while Castagne makes a run from the other side as Gosens delivers the cost. This attack shows Atalanta’s fluidity as all the three players in the box are defenders.
In all the above photos, another thing common was that they don’t compromise their width regardless of the side of the ball so they can easily switch the attack from the overloaded side.
After overloading on the left, Atalanta keep their width. As Muriel finds no good passing option near him due to Juventus‘s press, he passes it to Malinovskiy near the centre circle who switches it the first time to Hateboer who has ample green grass in front of him.
Papu Gomez plays behind the two strikers but usually shifts towards the left while attacking as seen from his average positions in some of Atalanta’s recent matches. (Number 10)
The right-sided attacker, usually Iličić, comes deep and gets involved in the build-up from the right side. The Slovenian is an intelligent player who, by coming deep, attracts players towards him to create space behind the defenders.
Iličić drops deep and receives a pass from Gomez from the left. He draws players towards him, turns, and runs with the ball. Meanwhile, Pašalić makes a horizontal run into space behind the centre-back. The 32-year old plays a ball and the midfielder is through on goal. All this came from Iličić dropping deep.
Iličić plays the ball back to de Roon and then takes a run behind the player. By doing that he attracts three players towards him. Gaya is now in a confusing situation as he has to cover Hateboer but also needs to close the gap created. He sticks to his position, and Marten de Roon finds himself in a great position only for his shot to narrowly miss the target.
This attack against AC Milan sums up Atalanta’s attacking style. Players form a diamond on the right with Toloi driving the ball forward and Iličić dropping deep. Toloi passes to the wing-back but does not stop his run. With Atalanta still maintaining their width, the striker receives the ball and switches it to Gomez who is free on the left.
Gomez shows his incredible individual prowess and drives forward and dribbles past the right-back to finish a fantastic goal.
Atalanta is an outlier in both Goals/90 and Expected Goals/90. They also have the most goal scoring actions and shot-creating action per 90. They scored a whopping 98 goals in the league this season; the most by a team in a season in almost 70 years. The stats and the analysis infer that Atalanta is the most attacking side of the Serie A.
Atalanta is equally good on attacking set-pieces. They have scored a league-high 19 goals from set-pieces this season. They win 16.4 aerial duels per 90,i.e., 55% of the total, and are the third highest in the Serie A for this. The Bergamo-based club tries to attack their corners at the near post and has been efficient in doing so. Usually, a player makes a late run from the middle of the box to the near post area to arrive before the defender.
We have seen how solid they are as an attacking unit, but they are as good and sound defensively. They are a team that defends from the front. Gasperini deploys a high-pressure system, trying to enter the attacking phase quickly and catch the opponents on transitions. Atalanta is an excellent pressing team that overloads the side of the ball and cuts the passing lanes.
Usually, the player closest to the ball acts like a trigger and charges towards the ball. Meanwhile, other players make sure to stay close to their markers. They block the passing option for the opposing team, which creates a high-pressure area with little room for the opposition to manoeuvre. The whole team presses together and thus no big gaps are formed between the midfield and the defensive line. Atalanta averages 12.38 tackles plus interceptions/90, which is the second-best in the league.
When playing a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3, while defending in their half they swiftly move to a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 respectively with the wing-backs joining the back three. They try to outnumber their opponents at all times and win the ball as quickly as possible.
See how Atalanta has overloaded the ball side and forced their opponent to either go long or lose the ball to them.
Due to their high press, they again win the ball in the opponent’s half. De Roon played a first-time pass to Gomez who found himself in acres of space and scored the third goal for Atalanta. These were just two of several such events where they win the ball high up the pitch and get a goal-scoring opportunity.
Since the players always try to follow the ball, the defensive shape gets often disoriented and gaps are formed. These gaps are exploited by creative and intelligent players. They play a high block, with balls over the top of their relatively slow defenders causing them problems. Players need to stay at their concentration peak and the highest levels of mental and physical state throughout the whole match as one lapse can collapse their system. Gasperini’s methodology works on this high press, intensity and they are intimidating and extremely effective when working well but risky and can come at a high cost.
Atalanta is one of the superior attacking powers of Europe right now and has been the top-scoring team in Serie A for the past two seasons now. In this preview we learned, the players are made to work hard but with the lack of quality and squad depth, it is difficult to maintain peak physical state. They managed to win only three out of the last eight games of last season including their quarter-final elimination against PSG. The club is facing difficult financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic and will find it unlikely to sign big money players. With a lack of quality and squad depth and little possibility of improvement, Atalanta might face problems in the shortened and hectic season to follow.