Atalanta and Shakhtar Donetsk came into this UEFA Champions League match looking to get back on the right foot following their losses in matchday one. This tactical analysis will break down the key points in Shakhtar’s 2-1 victory at the San Siro. Atalanta had controlled most of the possession throughout the game, but Shakhtar’s tactics allowed them to be a constant threat.
This analysis will break down Shakhtar’s tactical plan that resulted in taking all three points on the night. Atalanta showed improvement from their stunning 4-0 loss at Dinamo Zagreb, yet they did not take their opportunities to secure the vital result. The Italian side’s chances of progressing in the competition look slim after dropping the first two matches. Meanwhile, the victory puts Shakhtar immediately back in the discussion for a top-two spot.
Gian Gasperini made two changes in the side following the horror show in Zagreb. Berat Djimsiti was replaced by Jose Palomino in the back three. On the left-hand side, Timothy Castagne deputised the wing-back slot over Robin Gosens. The side stuck to their 3-4-1-2 shape.
Only one change was made for the visiting side. Viktor Kovalenko was introduced in attacking midfield ahead of Manor Solomon. The Ukrainian champions set up in the 4-1-4-1 formation. Taison, Marlos, and Kovalenko were all given the freedom to move around as they wished in attack, as new manager Luis Castro was keen to take advantage of their high technical abilities. Stepankenko operated as a single pivot in possession. Alan Patrick flipped between the two lines of midfield depending on the situation.
Atalanta’s attacking movements
Atalanta possesses one of the most dangerous attacking tridents in Serie A. The side’s 77 goals last campaign led the league, with Zapata, Ilicic, and Gomez all playing very specific roles in their attacking structure.
The Argentinian Gomez is especially given license to roam around the pitch to create opportunities in Gasperini’s 3-4-1-2 system. He has amassed double-digit assists for Atalanta in the past three seasons. His ability to drift between the midfield and forward lines gives Atalanta the ability to vary their attacking structure. Below you can see Gomez occupying a deep role in the beginning of their build-up.
Once Gomez releases the ball, possession quickly switches sides in the pitch. A quick combination on the left side gives Castagne the chance to pick out Gomez once again. The Argentine drifted forwards and found himself in wide-open space on the edge of the box.
Ilicic plays the deepest between the two strikers, often dropping in or pushing wide to link up with teammates. This was a key tactic to break down Shakhtar’s defence. Ilicic would get his defender Mykola Matviyenko to play tight to him as he dropped deep.
This tactic could be seen before Atalanta’s first goal. The attack begins through Gomez dribbling down the left side of the pitch.
Once possession is regained, Gomez receives the ball on the right touchline and brings it forward for the hosts. He cuts inside and finds Mario Pasalic, who in turn lays it off to Ilicic. The striker has dropped deeper to support the midfielder.
After making the pass, the Croatian midfielder steps into the forward line. When Ilicic beats Alan Patrick in midfield, the centre-half Mykola Matviyenko steps forward to press him. This leaves a gap for the striker to put Pasalic through on goal.
Duvan Zapata is Atalanta’s true number 9. The forward excels at getting on the blind side of defenders and getting open for crossing opportunities. The Colombian found success getting wide left before coming inside when the attack reached the final third. This was effective because when possession was held on the left side, Atalanta could create overloads. In the image above showing Gomez receiving a pass at the edge of the box, you can see that Zapata, Castagne, and Masiello combined in the left channel. They had success because they only had two Shakhtar defenders to beat.
When the ball was on the right side of the pitch, staying wide proved successful for Zapata as well. Because of the positioning of the two forwards, the centre-halves did not have a player to mark. You can see both of them drifting towards their respective strikers due to having no one central. This gives De Roon the space to make a run from deep through this space.
Zapata sees the potential chance for a cross and bursts towards the centre of the box. He comes off the back of right-back Sergiy Bolbat and arrives in the perfect spot for Gomez’s cross. The Colombian striker got goal-side of his marker multiple times throughout the match and will be frustrated to have only scored once.
Shakhtar’s Attacking Focus
The Ukrainian champions are well known in their home country for their attacking style. In the Champions League, they adapt their style of play depending on the opponent. In the past calendar year, Shakhtar holds 64.61% possession on average in the FAVBET Liga. This drops considerably in their Champions League group stage matches to 46.56% possession, via Wyscout. This is accompanied by a drop in expected goals from 2.22 down to 0.74.
Shakhtar rely on the individual brilliance of their attacking players to make up for the fewer possession. In this match, attackers were encouraged to find spaces to get one-on-one with Atalanta defenders. Shakhtar engaged in 104 attacking duels Tuesday night, with 46 being successful. Marlos, Junior Moraes, and Taison combined made up half of these duels.
The purpose of these take-ons was to open space for themselves or teammates. When possession was won, Luis Castro wanted his team to look for quick counter opportunities, and Atalanta would emphasise winning the ball back quickly. If this first press was bypassed, the rest of the team was out of shape as Shakhtar looked to attack.
Above you can see Marlos has received possession after an Atalanta turnover. He dribbles from right to left, dragging the press along with him. He then quickly cuts back, taking three defenders out of the game at once. Kovalenko makes the run into the space left vacant and Shakhtar have the opportunity to attack into open space.
Another result of these take-ons Shakhtar looked for were fouls. Atalanta conceded 21 fouls in comparison to Shakhtar’s 11. If possession was won in a dangerous area, drawing a foul allowed the side the time to get into shape and force Atalanta to drop back.
Once possession was moved up the field, Shakhtar looked for areas around the box for shooting opportunities. The average distance per shot for the away side was 25.47 yards. Luis Castro put an emphasis on getting into this area, typically between the midfield and defensive lines, and look for a chance at goal. Above you can see Taison using a one-two with Junior Moraes to find this space and get a shot on target.
Atalanta’s Defensive Downfall
A common trend in this match was Marten De Roon dropping into the defensive line. Gasperini used this tactic to change his side’s options during their build-up. The wing-backs pressed higher up the pitch, and one of Gomez or Ilicic would drop deep in line with Pasalic. Their shape transitioned from a 3-4-1-2 into a 4-2-4 in possession. Below you can see this new set up.
De Roon’s tendency to drop back into defence also allowed Rafael Toloi to act as an outlet when they returned to their 3-man formation. However, when possession was lost, Atalanta struggled to return to their normal shape quickly. Shakhar’s first goal came from an error in this tactic.
Rafael Toloi pressed forward in an Atalanta attack. Possession was given away and the defender conceded a free-kick high up the pitch. It was taken quickly and possession came to Taison out wide. As you can see above, Rafael Toloi is still behind the ball trying to recover into position. Taison identifies the pass centrally into Alan Patrick unmarked, where De Roon is then given the option to either step forward or hold Atalanta’s defensive line.
The Dutch midfielder chooses the former option but is unsuccessful in winning possession. Alan Patrick receives the pass and turns forward. Junior Moraes is already making the diagonal run between the two remaining centre-halves into the vacated space. The striker gets through on goal and makes no mistake.
De Roon’s lack of positional awareness defending at centre-half was a weak point for Atalanta. In the 68th minute, Luis Muriel was introduced for Andrea Masiello, and to accommodate this switch, De Roon was brought deeper to occupy the left centre-half position.
With two minutes remaining, Atalanta’s attack broke down and Shakhtar got the opportunity to break. Substitute Dodo was found in space out wide, and he started running at De Roon in defence. As you can see above, the Italians have enough men back to cover the player in the middle in the event of a cross. De Roon made the mistake of stepping to the full-back, however, rather than forcing him out wide and into the corner. Once the Dutch international was beaten, a second defender was forced to come out and defend Dodo. This gave the Brazilian the time and room to find a pass into Manor Solomon, who stole all three points for the visitors.
With Shakhtar having to settle for much less of the possession than they are accustomed to, Junior Moraes was crucial in helping his side transition from defence to attack. The Brazilian forward completed 20 of his 25 passes on the night and was a consistent outlet for teammates. Below you can see Shakhtar’s pass map.
Taison and Stepanenko specifically were able to find Moraes as an option to get forward consistently throughout the night. Shakhtar’s number 10 normally drifted into the left half-space to work with Taison. Most of the Ukrainian side’s attacks came through the initial combination of Ismaily and Taison.
Above you can see an example of Junior Moraes providing help on the left side. Stepanenko plays the ball out wide to Ismaily. The holding midfielder continues forward into the left-sided space which is open due to Taison’s central positioning. When Ismaily plays Taison inside, the winger finds Junior Moraes who settles the pass well and uses a backheel to play the overlapping Stepanenko through.
Along with his link-up play, Junior Moraes made the most of his chance when it mattered. He was isolated for most of the match but came up with a vital goal when his chance came. The Brazilian will be crucial in the games to come as Shakhtar make their push for the knockout stages.
Both sides executed their tactical plans very well in this match. However, the results could not have been any more different. Atalanta created plenty of chances, but could not find the end product. Their 2.24 expected goals is a testament to the quality of opportunities they crafted.
Shakhtar carried out their plan to near perfection. Aside from his error for Zapata’s opener, Andriy Pyatov had a superb game. His crucial interventions kept his side in the match. On the other end of the pitch, the attack took their opportunities when they presented themselves.
With the double-header against Dinamo Zagreb coming up, Luis Castro will be well aware that his side’s fate in this competition is in their own hands. For Gian Gasperini, Manchester City is one of the last sides he will want to see with his squad on the brink of elimination. The away loss to Zagreb in the first match will have hurt, but this could be the one the Italians could look back to rue in a couple of months.
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