Two of the most tactically interesting managers faced off in a game between two sides, Atalanta and Sampdoria, enjoying different moments in terms of results. Giampaolo’s Sampdoria currently sits in fifth position, whereas Gasperini’s men are one point away from the relegation zone, having won just one game out of eight.
The game was quite consistent throughout, as it saw the home side exerting control and exploiting the visitor’s weaknesses thanks to natural structural advantages created by the sides’ shapes. Out of possession, Sampdoria employed its typical zonal man-oriented press, mainly focusing on Atalanta’s build-up rhombus, comprised of the ball-side half-back, wing-back, centre-midfielder and winger/second striker in a 3-4-2-1; especially in deep build-up, Giampaolo’s men pressed the vertexes of the rhombus aggressively, looking to simply push the opponents back to re-circulate. During high/midfield pressing, the ball-side striker pressed the half-back, whereas Caprari, the attacking midfielder, rather passively, tried to prevent passes into the centre, a zone that Atalanta only uses as a link to the ball-far side anyways. The centre-midfielders stepped out on the wing-back and the aforementioned striker used backward pressing to press or block passing lanes into “La Dea’s” midfielders; perhaps counterproductively, as the striker dropping slightly deeper allowed Atalanta to access the centre-back, who could make switches or re-circulate without being under immediate pressure.
Whilst Sampdoria’s use of a midfield diamond out of possession may create some advantages when it comes to congesting the ball-side and blocking passes into the centre, its narrow structure, especially if the team shifts aggressively to one side, exposes the far-side. Moreover, it makes it hard for the players to shift quickly and cover wide areas following switches.
Knowing this structural weakness, the former Juve “Primavera”, Genoa and Inter manager planned his strategy around attracting Sampdoria to one side and using the connections created by the build-up rhombus to evade or bypass the press and subsequently play diagonal switches to the ball-far half-space.
Atalanta invites the press and De Roon subsequently makes a diagonal switch to the far-side
This resulted in Atalanta having many situations in which the wing-back and/or winger could dribble towards the opposition’s full-back in isolation. From here, the home side developed interesting combinations to gain advantages as to time on the ball and creating free-man situations. For instance, when facing the opposition’s full-back in a 2v1, or even in 2v2s when the ball-side centre-mid was able to track back in time, one player usually attacked depth; thus, he drew players with him, freeing the winger on the edge of the box for Atalanta’s typical half-space crosses (statistically, together with cut-backs, the most effective type of cross).
Moreover, during Atalanta’s build-up, when Sampdoria’s centre-midfielder had no pressing access on the wing-back due to being too high and central, the visitors’ full-backs committed, opening a passing lane either into depth or into the half-space.
Despite having created a series of advantageous situations and a generally rather strong box occupation on crosses which lead to multiple big chances, the home side lacked the final touch. This has been missing for quite a while and has typified Atalanta’s season since their double 0-0 draws against Copenhagen in the Europa League, which resulted in an early elimination from the competition: in the qualification rounds.
Atalanta’s pressing trap
Off the ball, Atalanta, as per usual, pressed in a man-oriented fashion across the pitch, marking each of Sampdoria’s central options. Only the full-backs were left unmarked, as the wing-backs stayed deep to maintain numerical superiority at the back. However, the strikers curved their runs when pressing the centre-backs in order to prevent easy passes to the wide men. Therefore, Giampaolo’s side could only access the full-backs through lofted passes. This is another one of Gasperini’s typical strategies, who uses a pass to the full-back as a pressing trap. The ball’s travelling in the air provides the wing-backs with time to push up and immediately press the opponent when the ball touches the ground.
The strikers’ positioning prevents ground passes to the full-backs, making the centre-back chip the ball and consequently fall into Atalanta’s pressing trap (Castagne, out of the picture, is deep, but the travelling time of the ball allows him to access Bereszyński).
Furthermore, the limited passing angle stemmed from the presence of the touchline, makes pressing actions easier and reduces the opponent’s options, who has the difficult task to not only control the ball under pressure but to retain it or find a passing option without putting a teammate in a difficult situation.
Due to the man-marking in every area of the field, Atalanta’s defensive shape is always adapted to the opposition’s. This time, however, the home side’s 3-4-1-2 structure allowed it to have optimal access to Sampdoria’s 4-diamond-2, with the half-backs, Toloi and Masiello (Mancini entered the match in the 24th minute for the latter due to injury), marking the strikers whilst the middle centre-back followed Caprari in deep areas. Thus, whenever Palomino stepped out of the backline to follow the attacking midfielder, one side-back moved laterally to occupy the vacated area and maintain horizontal compactness on the last line.
Due to Atalanta’s aggressiveness, the centre-backs do not shy away from attempting to anticipate the opponent and leaving their position, therefore, the teammates must always rotate and drop back into the situational free-zone in order to prevent gaps in the structure from creating.
Freuler and De Roon pressed Doria’s centre-midfielders, whereas Pašalić marked the #6, Ekdal. Papu Gómez and Zapata pressed the centre-backs, curving their runs to block passes towards the full-backs or the previous passer; the wing-backs stepped out on the opposition’s full-backs. Normally, Castagne stayed deep when Bereszyński received a flat pass, to achieve numerical superiority on the last line (4v3), committing only once the Polish-man bypassed the half-way line. On the other side, Hateboer stayed higher and applied immediate pressure regardless of the pass type.
Moreover, when the visitor’s midfielders pushed up to pin the wing-backs deep, Pašalić stepped out on the full-back instead, with Zapata dropping back to mark Ekdal.
Atalanta’s strategy completely nullified Samp, who either resorted to unsuccessful long-balls or was too slow and stale in its circulation, only being able to progress on a few occasions following some successful one-touch combinations to find the third man. One way to elude Gasperini’s side’s man-marking is, in fact, by using quick passing and double movements to take advantage of the reactive nature of man-orientations. The markers will always have to react to a movement from a player, who will gain an advantage from:
- knowing in which direction he’ll make the movement
- making the actual movement, gaining momentum over his opponent
The use of quick passing can be used to confuse the markers as their attention will be naturally drawn to the ball, which eventually can lead to them losing their man. Collective non-marking through third man patterns is another, even more effective way of eluding man-orientations, that combines quick passing and movements that can create dynamical and positional advantages.
The respective game plans didn’t change in the second half, as Atalanta kept attacking and controlling the game, creating fewer chances than in the first half, though.
However, Sampdoria was able to get all the three points thanks to a 1-0 win, despite having accumulated just 0.48 Expected Goals, as opposed to Atalanta’s 1.78 xG. Interestingly enough, the visitor’s best chances both came from set-pieces, highlighting the flaws of a pure zonal-marking set-up: the opposition’s runners have quite an advantage when jumping to head the ball from a dynamic situation, whilst the defenders not only don’t have direct control of the opponents, but they also jump from a static state.
Atalanta’s zonal-marking on Sampdoria’s goal
Gasperini will be extremely disappointed given the dominance his side showed throughout the match, and will certainly have to find a solution to what has been Atalanta’s main issue thus far: that is the predictability offensively and lack of variants when it comes to the final ball. La Dea’s final-ball plan revolves around crossing into a strongly occupied box; whilst it does have some very capable players in the air, such as Zapata, the lack of alternatives allows the opponents to organize specific strategies in order to ensure that Atalanta get to cross freely the least amount of times possible and the attackers are marked closely in the box.
Giampaolo, on the other hand, will be satisfied to have won away from home against a tough opponent, regardless of the performance.
Now, sitting on six points in eight matches, Gasperini doesn’t have much time to find solutions, and it’ll be interesting to follow the developments of Atalanta’s situation.