In the third round of the Serie A matches for the 2020/21 season, Atalanta hosted Cagliari for their third consecutive victory. It was the start of the team’s journey in search of competition for the league title this year after the great performance by the team of coach Gian Piero Gasperini during last season’s Serie A. After winning their first two matches against Torino (4-2) and against Lazio (4-1), they achieved their third victory against Cagliari, scoring five goals.
On the other hand, Cagliari entered the match against Atalanta with one point from their draw with Sassuolo in the first round, after which they were defeated by Lazio. Cagliari, who want to stay in Serie A, could not do anything against the strength and organisation of the Atalanta players, who seem to be intent to compete strongly for the title this season.
This tactical analysis breaks down the tactics of the match between Atalanta and Cagliari. With the use of match footage and data, this analysis unpacks what happened in Atalanta’s 5-2 win over their opponents.
Gian Piero Gasperini started the match with his usual 3-4-1-2 formation; Marco Sportiello was the goalkeeper and had the trio of Berat Djimsiti, Cristian Gabriel Romero, and José Luis Palomino in front of him, the midfielders were Mario Pašalić and Marten De Roon (formerly of EFL side Middlesbrough). Robin Gosens and Hans Hateboer (formerly of Eredivisie side FC Groningen) played as the wing-backs while Alejandro Darío Gómez, Luis Fernando Muriel Fruto, and Duván Esteban Zapata were the attack triangle who alternated their positions over time.
On the other side, former Roma coach Di Francesco started the game with a 4-4-2 formation, with Alessio Cragno as the main goalkeeper, Diego Roberto Godín and Sebastian Walukiewicz were the defending duo, Gabriele Zappa as the right-back and Charalampos Lykogiannis as the left-back. Răzvan Gabriel Marin, Marko Rog, Riccardo Sottil, and Nahitan Michel Nández were the midfielders and the attacking duo was Giovanni Pablo Simeone and João Pedro.
Atalanta’s defence and the building up
As is Gasperini’s habit of playing according to the opponent’s level, in this match against a team at the level of Cagliari, Gian Piero Gasperini decided to take the pressure off his players. When the team is in a state of defence, they do not press directly to retrieve the ball, and this appears in the (PPDA) report for the match, where the average number of free passes in their area was 19.3 in the two halves of the match as shown below.
It was clear that the Atalanta team were not interested in defence from the start of the match – this is shown in the (PPDA) report above, as the team were not characterised by the usual pressure in their areas.
And so when they were in a state of defence, the players were not placed well throughout the match, as shown below for Cagliari’s second goal, where despite the large number of Atalanta players in the box, it was useless as João Pedro moves freely in the box without supervision until he was able to add the second goal.
In building up, Gasperini prefers to play from the sides as the wing-back drops into the middle of the field to leave spaces behind him in the wide areas, after which the CB passes the ball towards the wing in the more dangerous areas. This appears in the match’s passes map, where the dependence of Atalanta’s players on passing on both sides of the field in their own third in the early stages of building up is shown.
Gasperini knows the abilities of his players in creating and finishing attacks, building up in the simplest way possible without effort in front of a relatively easy opponent, in this case, Cagliari. Here, for example, when the Atalanta team were in the phase of building up from the back, we notice the wing-back Gosens dropping to their half to leave space for Zapata to move in. This is what happened as Palomino passed the ball in the space behind Gosens, in which Zapata moved and took advantage of it to score a great goal.
Atalanta’s positional play and their attacking diamonds
Gasperini always relies on the objective rotation of his players in his attack, whereby a player is not in one place throughout the match, but rather all players move in all places in rotation and according to the method of each attack, and what differs only is the way this method is implemented every match.
Here, for example, to move without the ball for the Atalanta players when the ball was with Gómez, we notice Zapata moving into the left half-space, leaving his place for Pašalić who moved into the empty space, and this attack actually ended with a goal for Atalanta scored by Pašalić.
Atalanta relied on using the central channels to attack, as shown below in the (xG) report for the match, where the xG ratio of 63% of the total goals expected for Atalanta in the match were from this area.
One of the important points that Atalanta players relied on throughout the match was the accumulation of play around the box by converging the lines and overloading around the box to give the player who possesses the ball other opportunities to pass. This then leads to them transferring the ball to half-spaces away from the pressing structures around the box.
Here, for example, the Atalanta players overloaded the edge of the box with three players, and after several passes, they diverted the ball into the left half-space towards the wing-back Gosens, and this attack ended with a goal for Atalanta.
It is very important for Atalanta to maintain the offensive state of the team as long as possible, and this appears in their way of playing a lot as they make offensive diamonds consisting of 4 or 5 players in order to give more opportunities to pass to the player who has the ball.
And thus, the team continues in a state of permanent attack. As can be seen below, where Martin De Roon has the ball, the Atalanta players worked hard around him to give him more chances to pass and thus the team continued in attack.
Cagliari’s defensive problems
When the Cagliari team are in a defensive state, young coach Di Francesco prefers to defend with a 5-3-2 formation.
This method of defence is the best way to defend against a strong and diverse offensive opponent such as Atalanta. But it undoubtedly needs to not be complacent under pressure, which was not the case for the Cagliari players throughout the match. As a result of this, the Atalanta players were passing the ball between the lines and in the depth of the field freely, which led to this great loss in the end.
Here we notice when Cagliari are in a state of defence, they line up in a 5-3-2 formation.
Cagliari attacking structure
Di Francesco relies on offensive transitions on playing in the spaces behind the wing-backs, and this also appeared a lot throughout the match. As shown below, Nández entered the depth, leaving the space behind the wing-back to Atalanta to his teammate Zappa, who sent a cross from which came the second goal for Cagliari through João Pedro.
They also depend on sending crosses to the penalty area, and we can notice that they are overloading the box in order to confuse the opponent as shown in the image below.
Atalanta got three very important points at the start of the 2020/21 Serie A title race after their outstanding performance from last season.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s players were ready for this match, and the most important thing for them was to achieve the goal, which was the three points at the expense of Cagliari, and it happened with a great result and a great offensive performance.
On the other hand, Cagliari could not do more than they did against this very strong and diverse offensive team that could not be dealt with, but without a doubt, it will be a good lesson for them for the upcoming matches.