It’s hard to argue that the clash between Sampdoria and Atalanta was one of the best tactical battles last week. Both teams are Serie A dark horses and have provided us with tremendous attacking styles of play. For Gian Piero Gasperini’s side, they have been running for a Champions League qualification spot. And up to now, things have gone pretty well for them. Their opponents, Sampdoria, had been having a good season as well. Marco Giampaolo‘s innovative style of play has led them to ninth spot in the league table.
In the run-up to this match, both teams have had some positive results. For the away side, they managed to come out with a draw against Fiorentina at the Coppa Italia. Just five days later, three points were theirs when they faced the same opponents at home. Sampdoria had a bit of struggle when they welcomed Cagliari and travelled to SPAL. But they still managed to get a maximum of six points in the end.
This clash was a perfect demonstration of their respective form, as they both entered the match with high confidence. In the end, the better team – in this case Atalanta – showed their quality to secure three points. Using tactical analysis, we will work out how Atalanta outplayed their opponents throughout the match.
Sampdoria lined up in a familiar 4-3-1-2, with top scorer Fabio Quagliarella and Manolo Gabbiadini as the strikers. Indonesian-born goalkeeper Emil Audero started in goal behind the tight centre-back connection between Omar Colley and Joachim Andersen. Giampaolo picked Nicola Murru to replace Bartorz Beresyński, which saw Jacopo Sala moved back to his favoured position. Former Hamburg man Albin Ekdal completed the midfield that also consisted of Karol Linetty and Dennis Praet. Riccardo Saponara acted as the attacking midfielder behind the strikers.
On the other side, Gasperini only made one change to his lineup. Hans Hateboer replaced Timothy Castagne as right wing-back while Robin Gosens continued to be the key player on the left. Atalanta’s three-man defence consisted of ex-Zürich defender Berat Djimsiti, Gianluca Mancini and Andrea Masiello. Former Middlesbrough man Marten de Roon formed the midfield with Remo Freuler. Captain Alejandro ‘Papu’ Goméz played behind the sensational pair of Duván Zapata and Josip Iličić.
Atalanta’s first-half dominance
As expected, Atalanta approached the game with their familiar high-intensity pressing style of play. They also favoured man-oriented marking, as demonstrated below. Each Atalanta player would follow an opposition defender, with the aim of suffocating Audero’s passing options. This prevented them from building from the back, which is Sampdoria’s favourite style.
The pressing game was adapted by Atalanta on both sides of the field. Mancini and Masiello had the responsibility of marking Quagliarella and Gabbiadini. That left Djimsiti as a spare man, but Gasperini had other plans for him. He marked Saponara, who played as an attacking midfielder, and followed him into deeper positions. The Italian coach wanted his players to win the ball as soon as possible, and prevent them from reaching Gollini’s goal.
Sampdoria used long balls to counter against this style of play. But the efficiency of chances that came from those situations was quite poor, mainly due to Atalanta’s aerial superiority. The away side deployed a high defensive line while the strikers pressed the centre-backs, as seen below. Either Quagliarella and Gabbiadini fell into the offside trap or the ball would be cleared by the back three. In total, Djimsiti, Mancini and Masiello registered 15 clearances, more than half of Atalanta’s total.
When in possession, Atalanta adopted a fast-paced attacking style. Using one-twos and through-balls, they bypassed the pressure coming from Sampdoria players easily. It’s worth noticing that Atalanta preferred to attack down the right-hand side. Hateboer was instructed to join the attack when possible. He was supported by Iličić as the Slovenian striker tended to drift wide, which made Atalanta’s attacks even more dangerous.
Another interesting fact is Atalanta’s centre-backs tended to overlap. Take Zapata’s chance at the 39th minute as an example. After Gosens’ unsuccessful cross, Gómez picked up the ball. Out of nowhere, Mancini burst up from the right-hand side to provide a passing option. He then received the ball after an advantage, placing the cross onto Zapata’s head. Unfortunately, the Colombian striker squandered the chance. This showed Atalanta had a variety of choices when attacking, but they couldn’t register a goal in the first half.
Sampdoria struggled in their approach
For Sampdoria, they deployed a similar pressing game to Atalanta’s. They pressed the ball-carrying player, suffocating his passing options and taking the ball away. Against a team that like to play out from the back, this system became more vital. The image below shows us how the home side pressed Djimsiti while he was carrying the ball. There are four players near him, at the same time surrounding De Roon, Atalanta’s playmaker.
When the ball reached the halfway line, Sampdoria defenders and midfielders would create a medium block. This forced Atalanta to circulate the ball in the middle of the field and waited for spaces to open up. But unfortunately, due to their narrow shape, no one was able to track the Atalanta wing-backs’ runs. They were free to create chances from the flanks and were even supported by the strikers.
Their defenders were performing adequately, but their strikers weren’t. As mentioned earlier, Sampdoria mainly used long balls to start their attacks. They registered 30 long passes in the first half, but only 16 of them found their targets. Even though some passes were successfully executed, the lack of sharpness prevented them from finding the opening goal. They had to rely heavily on long shots, as Atalanta defended in numbers.
Second-half improvements from both sides
Atalanta continued to be the dominant side in the second half. As a result, they created two great chances but both Iličić and Gosens couldn’t convert them. However, they didn’t have to wait that long for the opening goal.
From a press, Quagliarella was forced to give the ball away. It was picked up by the Slovenian striker, who later played a one-two with Gómez. He immediately notices the run of his partner, Zapata, and plays an incisive pass towards the Colombian striker. Zapata calmly controls the ball while Sala and Andersen press him.
It was the Danish defender’s aggressive pressing that accidentally pushed the ball into the goal. All of those situations happened within the space of just 10 seconds, and gave Atalanta the lead.
Sampdoria’s equalising goal came in the 67th minute. After a foul by Gómez on Ramiréz, Quagliarella calmly converted the penalty to equalise. But it wouldn’t have happened if Gómez had kept his cool while he tried to win the ball from the Uruguayan. He had the ball at his feet, but he was too aggressive when facing the shield that came from Ramiréz.
At this stage of the match, both teams started to apply a more physical game. It meant substitutions were required and Pašalić and Berezyński were subbed on for both teams. They both left some influence to the match, but were still unable to help their respective teams find the winning goal.
The breakthrough came at the 77th minute, and again it was from the left-hand side. Giampaolo knew about his team’s biggest problem, and he didn’t fix it until the last minute of the game. Atalanta once again exploited this by utilizing Hateboer’s ability. The goal was also a perfect combination of Atalanta’s advantages that they had showed throughout the match.
Everything started from Masiello as he picked up a pass from Freuler after an overlap. He then left the ball to De Roon, who sent it to Iličić. The Slovenian tried to create some impact by cutting inside, at the same time dragging Murru with him. Hateboer moved in the spaces that his teammates had created and picked up the ball. His original idea was to cross in for Pašalić, but it was saved by Audero and bounced to Gosens’ position. The former Heracles Almelo man didn’t miss such a good opportunity and gave the lead to his team.
In the remaining minutes, Sampdoria wanted to create an overload in order to salvage a point. Their defensive line pushed high up the pitch and provided an attacking option if needed. Giampaolo also changed the formation to 4-3-3 and introduced a pacey striker, Grégoire Defrel, to the game.
An the other end, Atalanta switched into a 5-4-1 formation after Timothy Castagne replaced Iličić. They created a low block in front of Gollini’s goal, blocking any shots that came from Sampdoria. The wide spaces were also occupied by the full-backs and wide midfielders as their aim was to prevent the opposition from making any crosses into the box.
Sampdoria’s efforts nearly paid off at the 87th minute, as the image below shows. Murru picks up the ball from Colley, then runs up the left-hand side and makes an early cross. The ball was beautifully met by the unmarked Ekdal, but Gollini denies his equalising goal with a stunning save. Surprisingly, although Atalanta had many players in the box, nobody noticed Ekdal’s run and marked him up. The score remained the same until the referee blew the whistle.
Atalanta were the superior team throughout the match, and a win was the perfect result for them. Gasperini’s side demonstrated an attractive and innovative style of play in both defence and attack. They showed why they have the right to dream about a Champions League spot in the near future. And if they continue to perform like they are now, it’s no doubt that they will achieve this quite soon.
For Marco Giampaolo, this game gave him a lot of lessons. The most important one is not to rely on a single formation, as shown in the game. He gave a very modern style of play to Sampdoria, which is a good thing. But he should also focus on other aspects if he wants to push for a European spot, and maybe even further.
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