As the travelling team in this Serie A matchday 16 fixture, Atalanta had the opportunity to jump into 4th position in the league table. While Atalanta looked to extend their win streak to three, a win for Bologna could see them jump up to 11th. A poor run of results was something Bologna were looking to put behind them. During this tactical analysis, we’ll break down how Bologna approached this game and what led them to take all three points.
Having had some changes to their lineup in recent weeks, Bologna went back to 4-1-4-1 and the lineup that gained them their last three points which was away to Napoli on December 1st. As for Atalanta, they again opted for the 3-4-1-2 formation that had seen them take nine points from the last three fixtures both domestically and in the Champions League. A formation that isn’t seen in the game as often nowadays and one that clearly creates problems for their opponents.
After getting off the mark in the 12th minute of the game, Bologna showed patience and discipline in pursuit of a second goal. While the match stats below illustrate Atalanta’s ball dominance in the game, Bologna showed a dominance of their own by locking down wide areas and ensuring there were no easy options to get the ball into the front two. These tactics limited both the quantity and quality of Atalanta attacks, with the only real threatening attacks coming in transition moments, rather than being broken down.
Atalanta dominated the ball in almost every phase of the game, however, struggled to create many high-quality opportunities to score.
Cautious Full Backs
During this analysis, it was important for Bologna that the full-backs, Stefano Denswil and Takehiro Tomiyasu, made good decisions in the game. As Atalanta played with a front two, the two were torn with a decision of when to release to pressure the Atalanta wing backs, or, when to stay connected to the backline.
Bologna dealing with the front two with plenty of defensive coverage in behind from the full-backs. Mario Pašalić is also in a deeper position, minimizing the risk behind the Bologna backline.
For Atalanta, there was a clear plan to draw out the full-backs and play into the channel behind them. With a front two, they would be able to isolate the centre backs in wide areas which is undesirable territory for any central defender.
A well-placed pass from Robin Gosens sees two Bologna players taken out of the game while releasing Musa Barrow into the channel.
Setting traps and creating overloads
The way Bologna combatted Atalanta’s tactics to exploit wide areas and create 1v1’s was to set traps of their own and create overload situations. The first piece of the puzzle was to pick the right time to release the full-backs. Denswil and Tomiyasu would have to wait until the ball was played into the Atalanta wing-backs before moving quickly to close down space. Had the full-backs released too early in the game, Atalanta may have found the ball into channels from different positions on the pitch. In addition, the releasing of the full-backs would have an impact on the positioning of the two centre-backs, forcing them to take up slightly wider positions to help control space.
The next connecting piece is how Bologna created overloads. With Denswil/Tomiyasu supporting and denying penetration, the wingers, Sansone and Orsolini would apply pressure from the opposite direction, limiting the wing-backs options on the ball. As pressure was applied from the front and back, the final tactical nuance was to have an attacking midfielder also move across to support and help suffocate Atalanta which created a triangle and ultimately became a nightmare to break out of.
Tomiyasu releases to pressure Gosens and denies a forward pass while being supported by Poli and Orsolini.
Again Tomiyasu releases with support from Orsolini and this time Svanbera. In this image, we can also see Bani who is playing centre-back operating in a very wide area. The trapping and suffocating tactics that Bologna employed created limited options for Atalanta wing-backs to get out of.
With the full-backs releasing and the knock-on effect being the centre-backs also having to shift, there’s a couple of ways of dealing with the overall management of space. One solution is the entire backline can shift over, leaving space on the weak-side. The other way is having a defensive midfielder drop into the backline between the centre-backs which has been a popular trend in the modern game. Bologna opted for the latter with Gary Medel often connecting with the backline and helping maintain defensive structure in central areas. Having Medel drop in centrally also allowed Bologna to be numerically sound.
Medel can be seen in a deep position as he looks to slot into the backline and offer support to Bani. This helped the functional role of the full-back as knowing support is behind will help to give the confidence to release and pressure the ball.
For all of the good that Medel did in the game, there was one that got away. Part of Medel’s role in supporting the backline was also to deal with R. Malinovskiy as the Atalanta attacking midfielder. In the blink of an eye in what seemed like a tactically sound situation, Barrow gets on a half turn and slips a ball in-behind for Malinovskiy who had made a deep run from midfield and outpaced Medel. Seconds later the score was 2-1 and now Bologna have a lead to defend with 30 minutes still left on the clock.
As the play develops, Medel takes up a good start position close to Malinovskiy and aware that Barrow is carrying the ball into traffic.
As Malinovskiy breaks forwards with a turn of pace, Medel struggles to keep up and Barrow’s crafty ball in-behind becomes the killer pass that puts Atalanta back in the game.
On the 63rd minute, Medel was substituted which was minutes after the goal. A tactical switch, or something else? We’ll never know. Interestingly, A. Poli dropped in to replace Medel in the defensive midfield role but did not offer the same support. At times, this left Bani in a 1v1 situation which is what Bologna had worked so hard in the game to avoid.
In the above image, it can be seen that Poli has a much higher starting position than Medel had and ultimately leaves Bani isolated.
As the game progressed, Atalanta were able to maintain pressure and create some half-chances late in the game. Bologna resorted to managing the clock and continuing to play on the counter. Losing Danilo in the 87th minute meant Bologna had to dig in for the final three minutes plus stoppage time.
Getting out of the blocks early in the game was the dream start that Bologna had clearly hoped for. Taking the early lead allowed them to approach to the remainder of the game in a patient and disciplined manner. Defensively they were organized and difficult to break down through their pressing triggers and intelligent play from the full-backs in particular. Playing against a front two is not seen as often in the game as it once was. Add in the attacking midfield role of Malinovskiy playing behind the front two and there’s potential for a 3v3 situation in an area that’s not favourable to the home side. The support of the full-back and of Medel as the defensive midfielder allowed the Bologna to come away with all three points and manage the game well.
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