The last match of the 32nd round of Italian Serie A saw two teams face off with very different realities, but with the only priority of winning to achieve their different goals. The home team, Atalanta, was looking to get into the qualifying positions for next season’s Champions League. For their part, Empoli was looking to get out of the relegation zone. This was an important match for both teams in the final stretch of the season.
The following tactical analysis will show why Atalanta and Empoli did not take advantage and the game ended with a goalless draw. A draw that is of little use to either team. In addition, statistics will show how, incredibly, Atalanta could not score in the many opportunities the team had.
The team from the city of Bergam set-up at the Atleti Azzurri d’Italia stadium with the formation most used throughout the season by their coach Gian Piero Gasperini: 3-4-1-2. Three center backs in the back-line. Hans Hateboer, who is a full-back, on the right as a midfielder. Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler as interior midfielders. Robin Gosens as a midfielder on the left.
Duvan Zapata returned to the starting team after suspension for the accumulation of yellow cards. This made Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez return to play as a creative midfielder. Josip Iličić played as a striker, but constantly moving in and out of the area.
For their part, Empoli took to the field with a 3-5-2 system. The idea of coach Aurelio Andreazzoli was to put many players in the middle of the field to counteract the offensive power of Atalanta and to close paths to goal. The full-backs Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Luca Antonelli began playing in the line of midfielders. The purpose was so that the team would not be too far behind. Also to generate options of attacking by the wings. None of this was achieved by Empoli.
Pressure and ball recovery
Atalanta has been characterized throughout the season for being a proactive team. That is to say, with initiative. It’s a team that likes to have possession of the ball and this match was no exception. Atalanta did absolutely everything to win, but the most important thing was missing: a goal.
The first characteristic of this team is the high pressure they always exert on the build-up of their rivals. Zapata, Iličić, and ‘Papu’ Gómez are the first to cover the passing lanes and press the back-line. This proposal was reflected in this match. The pressure forced Empoli to pass long balls to get out of the asphyxiation. In addition, the players of Atalanta always had close proximity to each of the players of Empoli. In the rest of the field was the reference man to man.
What Atalanta wanted to achieve with this high pressure was to try to recover the ball as quickly as possible and as far from their goal as possible. The idea was to generate an error in the build-up of Empoli so that the players were badly located and to generate numerical superiority.
Mobility and variants
The natural system used by Atalanta is a 3-4-1-2, but the tactical movements of their players make the system go into the background. Few passages of the match saw that formation that has brought so many results to Gasperini.
It’s amazing how many men Atalanta attack with. It is a team with many variants thanks to the good triangulations and support of players. The first of these attacking options is when ‘Papu’ Gomez plays as an axis and a creative midfielder. That function is what the Argentinian feels most comfortable with.
Another movement seen during this match was when de Roon and Freuler were ahead on the pitch. The interior midfielders played higher up and ‘Papu’ Gomez played behind the two of them. This formed a triangle with more passing options.
One of the most mobile players in Atalanta is Iličić. A great striker, but also with other functions. He constantly leaves the area to generate spaces and more options in attack. The Slovenian played several moments on the right wing for Hateboer’s appearance as a striker.
Iličić also has the function of being the axis. In that role, he is placed in a position near ‘Papu’ Gómez to alternate the function of a creative midfielder. Iličić leaves their natural position for the arrival of other players to the rival’s area.
In the same way, Zapata has the function of playing on the left side as well. Open the pitch on that side and allow the arrival of Freuler and Gosens. While Zapata goes on to play from left wing always another player occupies the striker position in the area.
Atalanta’s centre backs also have a dual function. It’s not enough just to defend, they must also start the game and reach the area if possible. Gianluca Mancini and Andrea Masiello went on the attack permanently to accompany the plays and to be a support for the midfielders. This shows how advanced the team led by Gasperini plays.
That amount of movement generated by the good circulation of the ball made Atalanta reach the opponent’s area with many players. Bergamo’s team used a 2-3-5 formation during many stretches of the match. The five-player line was all inside the opponent’s area. In other words, Atalanta made an inverted pyramid.
Hold the lines
Analysing Empoli in this match is simple because the team was based on only one thing: hold on for the 90 minutes. Empoli’s idea was to resist Atalanta’s attacks with two lines made up of eight players. Empoli’s idea was completely defensive from the first minute to the last.
Empoli wanted to play with a 3-5-2 as their initial proposal but never got it. The majority of the match used a 5-3-2 formation. This was also due to the style of play used by the local team, which never let Empoli play. In fact, Empoli wasn’t even trying to pressure Atalanta’s players. That made things easier for the Bergamo team.
Giovanni di Lorenzo and Luca Antonelli ended up playing in the back-line to occupy all the spaces across the pitch. They used two compact lines, with the midfielders playing very close to the centre backs and full backs. It was a very backward team that almost never made it past the halfway point. Empoli wanted to close the pass lanes to Atalanta but never succeeded.
The following statistics from the match will demonstrate Atalanta’s superiority in all facets of the game.
Atalanta made 496 accurate passes from a total of 568. That’s an 87.32% success rate. The main pass connection was between ‘Papu’ Gomez and Freuler. It can be observed that most of the passes were given from the middle of the field to the front. In addition, the heat map reflects the procedure of the match. The majority of the match was always played in Empoli’s half.
Atalanta’s possession was 61.43%, 4% higher than its average throughout the season. In this match, the possession of the ball was never below 60%. This reflects Gasperini’s idea of always proposing with the ball.
Finally, Atalanta made 93 recoveries during the match. But of those 93 recoveries, 45 were positional. This speaks well of the good use of time and space of the players. They were always well positioned on the pitch to read plays and anticipate.
Bartlomiej Dragowski: remember the name
The great figure of Empoli and the match was the 21-year-old goalkeeper. The statistics show that he saved 20 shots from 43 Atalanta made. Atalanta’s players may have made some mistakes in front of goal, but it would be unfair not to give credit to the young Polish goalkeeper. If Empoli’s point saves them from falling into Serie B, Bartlomiej Dragowski’s performance must always be remembered.
Of the 20 shots Dragowski saved, 10 of them were through reflexes. The conversion rate is around 70%. That is to say, the expectation of goals for this match was 6.39, but the goalkeeper saved all the shots that went to his goal.
The draw in this match is a result that is of little use to either team, but it is more painful for Atalanta than for Empoli. Atalanta had the opportunity to place themselves in Champions League qualifying zone positions for the first time in the entire season. For that, they had to win and take advantage of some results in their favour. The fight for European competition positions is more interesting than ever and the team knows that the last six matches will be life or death. In addition, Atalanta has the second leg against Fiorentina for Copa Italia. The first leg ended with a score of 3-3.
As far as the tactical proposal is concerned, there is no doubt that it is a team that always goes forward. They have been one of the teams that have played better this season. Despite not getting the victory in this match Atalanta will continue to appeal to the game of possession and position. With that premise, they will always be closer to win than to lose.
For their part, Empoli with the draw is still located in the relegation zone. They are two points behind Bologna, the team that for now is the last to be saved from falling to Serie B. The next two matches will be direct duels against SPAL and Bologna itself. But the last four games will be against superior rivals fighting in the top of the table: Fiorentina, Sampdoria, Torino, and Inter. The panorama is complicated for Empoli who will have to propose something more in the matches if they want to save themselves.