The last round of Serie A determined several things. Juventus were champions with a number of games to spare, it was left to define the last team to be relegated to Serie B and the ones to qualify for the European Cups. This was one of the matches that determined a place in the European Cups, as Atalanta had the opportunity to make history. Atalanta and Sassuolo faced two different realities. Atalanta was fighting to enter the Champions League, while Sassuolo played for absolutely nothing.
The following tactical analysis will show with some statistics how the team led by Gian Piero Gasperini was able to win the match and end up achieving their best season in their 111-year history. A complex and even match with two teams with similar styles. Finally, Atalanta’s solidity prevailed over Sassuolo.
Atalanta’s usual system
Atalanta took to the pitch with their usual 3-4-1-2. They never changed this throughout the whole season. This was the formation used in the vast majority of matches by Gasperini, who was always faithful to his style of play. Sometimes there are different players depending on the tactical variants that the coach would like to implement. And also, logically, depending on the opponent they face. But always with the same system: a back-line with three centre backs, four midfielders with two on the outside and two on the inside, an attacking midfielder, and two strikers.
In this match, there were some changes with respect to the last match. José Luis Palomino returned to the starting line-up at centre back. Thanks to this, Berat Djimsiti, who usually plays on the left, was accommodated as a centre back on the right and Andrea Masiello was placed as a centre back on the left.
In midfield Timothy Castagne, Marten de Roon, Remo Freuler and Robin Gosens stayed in the team from the last two matches against Juventus and Lazio in the Coppa Italia final. The midfield line usually consists of these players and Hans Hateboer, the other player who has started several games throughout the season. Ahead of them, the usual three: Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez as attacking midfielder and Josip Iličić and Duván Zapata as strikers.
Sassuolo, for their part, took to the pitch with a 4-3-3 formation. Roberto De Zerbi, coach of the ‘neroverdi’ team, used this system in the last matches of the season. For this match he made some changes in the players who were usually starting to try other options for the following season.
First, the goalkeeper for this match against Atalanta was Gianluca Pegolo replacing Andrea Consigli, who played most games throughout the season. The back-line was the same that De Zerbi had been using: Pol Lirola as right back, Merih Demiral and Gian Marco Ferrari as centre backs, and Rogério as left back.
In the midfield line, Mehdi Bourabia started as an interior midfielder. This relocated Manuel Locatelli, who usually played in that position. Francesco Magnanelli played as a defensive midfielder in the middle and Alfred Duncan was the other interior midfielder. Jérémie Boga played as a left winger and Domenico Berardi as right winger. The central striker was Manuel Locatelli in the replacement of Filip Đjuričić.
Pressure to recover
Atalanta went looking for the match from the first minute as usual throughout the season. This last match was not going to be an exception in their plan. So the first thing Atalanta did to open the scoring was to press very hard on Sassuolo’s back line.
Gasperini knew how good Sassuolo’s ground game was, so Atalanta’s idea was that each player should be very close to each Sassuolo player, that is to say, to each possible receiver of the ball. The goalkeeper Gollini was thus forced to kick long balls throughout the match.
With that first objective accomplished, the next thing was to recover the ball. It was useless if the contested balls didn’t fall to one of the Atalanta players. That’s why it is important to have a physically strong team because playing with such high intensity during an entire season is not easy.
The number of Atalanta recoveries during the match shows this. Atalanta recovered 79 balls in total. Of those 79 recoveries, 27 were in the own third of the pitch, 38 were in the middle sector of the pitch and 14 were in the opposition sector of the pitch.
That is to say, where Atalanta recovered the most balls was in the middle of the pitch with 51% of the recoveries. More than half of the recoveries occurred in the sector with more players. That means that the numerical superiority that Gasperini wanted to implement worked perfectly.
Attack on the right
Atalanta leaned their attack to the right for most of the match. It was on that side of the pitch that the best goalscoring opportunities arrived. The heat map shows that this zone was the one that had more influence and action in the game. Also, the passes between Atalanta’s players show that Castagne’s, de Roon’s and Iličić’s were the ones who got together the most. The greatest combination of passes was between these three players, that is, on the right.
In those attacks on the right, two players were very important: Iličić and Castagne. Both exchanged positions during several passages of the match and were a tandem that worked perfectly. At times, Castagne was running inwards to reach the area as a striker. With that movement of his team-mate, Iličić was located as a right-winger.
In addition, Atalanta also attempted attacks from the right side with crosses. Of Atalanta’s 11 crosses, eight were played from the right. That is, 73% of the total number of the crosses. Of those eight crosses, four were by Iličić. This shows the movements of Iličić and Castagne explained above.
Sassuolo were surprised by Atalanta from the first minute. Atalanta quickly looked for a goal that would give them peace of mind. That’s why Sassuolo had to settle down on the pitch defensively. They played for several moments of the match with a 4-4-2 system. Boga was the sacrificed player with this scheme because he was placed as a midfielder on the left.
With this idea, De Zerbi wanted the two lines of four players to play very close to each other. The reason was to generate numerical superiority in midfield, which was where Atalanta was winning the duels.
Movements to attack
Sassuolo tried to have the ball for moments of the match, as it is their usual style as well. Sassuolo tried several interesting movements in their players to change the tactics. With one move by Duncan, the whole team automatically changed and everyone knew what position to take.
Duncan left his position as an interior midfielder and went on to play as a striker between Locatelli and Berardi. Boga was still open as a left winger. This formed a line of four attacking players. Rogério left back, went forward with Ferrari to play alongside Bourabia. Lirola, the right winger, was also ahead. Two lines of four players, but in the attack.
Magnanelli left his position as a defensive midfielder and moved on to become a centre back. That is to say, he exchanged position with Ferrari to join Demiral in the back-line. Demiral was the only player who always occupied his starting position.
Atalanta ended up achieving their biggest and most important target in their history. The Bergamo team finished third with 69 points and qualified for the Champions League for the first time. In addition, there are more statistics that magnify Atalanta’s season. Atalanta was also the team that scored more goals in this Serie A season with 77 goals scored.
Duván Zapata scored 23 goals and was second in the scoring standings, just behind Fabio Quagliarella who scored 26. Also ‘Papu’ Gómez was the highest assister of Serie A 2018/2019 with 12 assists.
This, of course, is no coincidence. These results are the product of the good work by Gasperini and his players. Atalanta’s game was based on a game of possession of the ball, offensive style, mobility, intensity and high pressure throughout the season. He never changed his style and never changed his scheme. He always used a 3-4-1-2 system that the players understood perfectly. Atalanta will be one of the teams to watch in the next Champions League.
Sassuolo finished their season in the eleventh position with 43 points. Overall it’s not a bad season, but it hasn’t been their best participation since they were promoted to Serie A in the 2013/2014 season. At times they had a good game based also on possession of the ball and attacking, but the performance of the team was not consistent.
In addition, Sassuolo did not finish very far from the Serie B relegation positions, as they were only five points above. The ‘neroverdi’ team will have to improve in the 2019/2020 season if they don’t want to suffer from relegation. For that, Sassuolo will have to change some players and determine whether De Zerbi continues to be the coach.