Gian Piero Gasperini’s side have taken full advantage of the forced break to stay one step ahead of their competitors both physically and mentally, and as a result, they have been able to secure four wins out of four, making them the most in-form side in Serie A after the restart. This combined with a Champions League qualification spot surely secured following on from their win against Napoli, they were able to go into this fixture with a weight lifted off from their shoulders, and a new objective of overtaking Inter in the table.
Cagliari on the other hand, were struggling to find momentum after the restart under Walter Senga and were looking quite suspect defensively, only managing one clean sheet in their previous four outings. This was a particular cause for concern for the “Isolani” as they were about to play against the league’s highest scorers in Atalanta. Which no doubt added more pressure on to the side, who were in desperate need for a win in order to keep their Europa League qualification hopes alive.
Atalanta lined up in their usual 3-4-2-1 formation with Luis Muriel leading the line with Ruslan Malinovskiy and Mario Pašalić playing just behind him. As expected, wing-backs Hans Hateboer and Timothy Castagne played a significant part in Atalanta’s attacks, while Adrien Tameze and Marten de Roon played a more defensive role in midfield. The back three was then compromised of José Luis Palomino, Boško Šutalo and Mattia Caldara.
Cagliari set-up in their preferred 3-4-1-2 with both João Pedro and Giovanni Simeone leading the attacking line while Radja Nainggolan played as the sole attacking midfielder. Charalampos Lykogiannis and Artur Ioniță formed the wing-backs, in midfield Marko Rog was partnered with Nahitan Nández. Finally, in defence, Andrea Carboni, Fabio Piscane and Sebastian Walukiewicz made up the back three.
Atalanta’s attacking play
Atalanta’s attacking tactics often involve the use of positional movement’s and quick passing combinations to help create numerical advantages and overloads in wide areas. This is often seen through a diamond-like shape with the outer centre-back at the base of this diamond, who looks to get the attacking phase started. Beyond this, the wing-back and central midfielder create the sides of the diamond, while the striker or attacking midfielder will usually form the peak. As we can see this diamond helps to create a numerical advantage for Atalanta with a 4v3 on show during this phase of play. As this progresses however the wing-back (Castagne) and midfielder (De Roon) advance forwards towards the peak of the midfield where they can then create a 3 v 2 with Cagliari’s second defensive line and maintain the numerical superiority. In the end, Atalanta is able to bypass Cagliari’s defensive line thanks to a pass around the corner towards De Roon, who is then able to continue Atalanta on their attack with support from Pašalić, highlighting the effectiveness of the diamond structure in this scenario. We can see another example of this diamond structure below; except this time it is on the other side of the pitch. Nonetheless, in this instance, the diamond structure helps Atalanta disorganise Cagliari’s defensive shape by drawing players out of position, which then consequently creates space which they can then exploit. Specifically, this space is created when the wing-back advances the ball towards the Cagliari defensive line, which forces them to press and shield the passing options. As a result, space is created in between the lines for the player at the peak of the diamond (Malinovskiy) to receive the ball. This then invites the wing-back to transfer the ball towards De Roon who is in more space and in a better position to pick out the pass towards the Ukrainian midfielder. Now here we can see Malinovskiy receive the ball in between the lines, as the Cagliari defensive block is beaten.
Cagliari’s defensive shape
In order to minimize Atalanta’s preferential style of using passing combinations out wide, Cagliari opted to make sure that added coverage was in place in these areas. They predominately achieved this by creating a false sense of ease for Atalanta, by positioning their players in the centre of the pitch, to create a numerical advantage, so that Atalanta could not play passes through the lines. This subsequently made Atalanta revert to playing the ball towards a wide player, which we know they are more than comfortable in doing as we have already highlighted. Yet it is at this moment, that the players from Cagliari shift their positioning to press the wide-man and prevent the diamond structure from being put in place. Now once this phase progresses, we can see the two Atalanta players completely surrounded by the pressing structure of Cagliari, which leaves them isolated and in a vulnerable position to give the ball away. Furthermore, with Nainggolan cleverly closing down the ball carrier, he is rushed and forced to play the ball into Pašalić, despite being in a poor position. From this point, with the press being applied onto Pašalić, combined with the positioning of Rog (highlighted) who is blocking any potential passes across the pitch, the Croatian midfielder has no other choice but to play the ball long. Another example of Cagliari’s defensive structure can be seen below. On this occasion Cagliari are shifting towards the other side of the pitch, to get their block in place. This phase is interesting because it shows that Cagliari has enough time to shuffle across the pitch, after Atalanta switch the ball towards that side, illustrating the versatility and effectiveness of Cagliari’s defensive tactics in this game. Once the ball eventually reaches the wing-back, we can see Cagliari’s block in full force yet again, with the passing angles cut off and passing combinations unable to take place. Also with the compactness of Cagliari’s structure here, the wing-back has little room to manoeuvre, which forces the ball to be played long, allowing Cagliari to re-gain possession.
Cagliari’s use of transitions
Given the fact that Atalanta committed so many men forward during their attacks this game, it left them exposed during transitional moments, as a result, Cagliari were able to counter their opponents on numerous occasions. For instance, below we can see that Atalanta have committed seven players forward, leaving just three centre-backs to defend the counter. Thus as soon as Cagliari win the ball in this scenario Atalanta is in a very vulnerable position with the majority of their players unable to help stop the transitional move. As soon as, Cagliari break away they are able to commit numbers forward in an attempt to penetrate a disorganised Atalanta backline. To do this the ball carrier (Ioniță) plays the ball into striker Simeone who then looks to return the favour by playing the ball behind the lines for Ioniță to run onto, from a deep position. On this occasion, however, the pass is inaccurate and the counter-attack is stopped, even so, the situation does highlight how Cagliari are able to take advantage of Atalanta’s attacking style of play to exploit them through transitional moves. We can see another example of Cagliari countering ability below. In this example four players from Atalanta are on the wrong side of the ball and thus out of play, this frees up room in the centre of the pitch for both Rog and Nández to run into, in which they can then receive the ball and progress the attack further. The only reason why Cagliari’s ability to counter in this game was so effective was due to their success in disrupting Atalanta’s build-up and time on the ball as highlighted earlier. This is because it frustrated the visitors and forced them to commit more numbers forward and by doing this whenever Cagliari was able to regain possession, they could exploit the spaces left by the now open and vulnerable Atalanta backline. As a consequence, Cagliari was able to conjure up more chances than they perhaps should have against this Atalanta side.
Atalanta’s creation of chances
During Cagliari’s phases in defence, it was hard for Atalanta to create passing moves and effective link-up play. To combat this they opted to change their attacking approach in which they put more of an emphasis on playing centrally, while the wing-backs stayed out wide to stretch Cagliari’s defensive line. For instance, below we can see that Atalanta now have two banks of four, which gives them a more flexible attacking structure, where there are multiple passing options in which they can utilise. Specifically, in this structure, the wing-backs out wide pose a significant threat to Cagliari’s defence, in spite of the fact that they appear to be isolated. Below we can see that Hateboer is able to drag the oppositions defensive line towards him which open up space for the midfielder’s (out of the picture) to run into. Additionally, a passing lane also opens up towards the path of the now subbed on Alejandro Darío Gómez in between the centre-back and the covering midfielder who is acting as a full-back in this phase. The result of this as we can see below the dangerous positioning of Gómez forces the players from Cagliari to overcommit, which leaves space both for Pašalić down the right flank and Tameze in the central area to receive the ball from. In the end, Tameze receives the ball but fails to continue the attack any further, and as a result, play is recycled. However, we do see a similar chance like this again just a couple of minutes later in both the 71st and 72nd minute, helping to emphasis Atalanta’s focus on generating space from positions out wide. In both scenario’s Šutalo is on the ball with two viable passing options where overloads can be created. Either he can pass to Josip Iličić on the edge of the box or he can play in the wing-back Hateboer where a cross can be played into the box. Both options in this instance will break down Cagliari’s defence and allow Atalanta to get in behind the lines, where more passing combinations can be executed for a shooting opportunity.
To conclude, this result helped Atalanta continue their current winning streak to five after the restart, while for Cagliari it has all but ended their hopes for Europa League qualification. Nevertheless next game week, Atalanta will be hosting Sampdoria, at what looks like a comfortable game for Gasperini’s men, while Cagliari will be up against Fiorentina, who will look to continue their winning ways after their matchup against Parma.