Atalanta had started this season in fine form, winning their first 3 games of the Serie A season convincingly. Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez has begun the season in fine form as well, with 4 goals and 2 assists already to his name. Whilst Atalanta have continued their fine form from the last 2 seasons, they have done so without one of their key creative, attacking talents in the form of Josip Iličić. The 32-year-old Slovenian has largely been absent from the starting XI since March, rarely featuring since then owing to personal issues, which are not up for discussion in this piece.
What is up for discussion is the role of Josip Iličić in the Atalanta side, what he brings to them in their versatile tactical system and how he fits into the team. This piece will also discuss how Atalanta have evidently coped without him, and how Atalanta’s tactics allow for them to play so well without a player of the influence of Iličić. Finally, we will also look to his heir apparent, Aleksei Miranchuk, and how this potential long-term successor to Iličić compares in order to understand how similar these two players are and what Miranchuk can bring in Iličić’s current absence. This tactical analysis and scout report will also draw upon data to better understand what Iličić and Miranchuk bring Atalanta. This analysis will show how this will leave Atalanta moving forwards.
Atalanta’s tactics and where Iličić fits in
Tactically, Atalanta are extremely versatile. Whilst many teams are beginning to work out how they line up and play typically, they have been unable to predict the tactical versatility which they conform to game by game. Atalanta play to a certain system, but the versatility of this system, the players within it and what the players look to do, particularly Iličić and Gómez, is almost impossible for the opposition sides to predict.
When building up into an attack, Atalanta look to play in the wide and half-spaces, playing quick interchanges between players across defence, midfield and attack. Regardless of their typical position on the pitch, these players will continue to play interchanges between each other, and cover each other positionally in their absence. A good example of this is the attacking overlapping runs of their centre-backs. When centre-backs such as Rafael Tolói do make bursting runs down the half-spaces for example, the CM that helps instigate this forward run will cover Tolói positionally, so that if possession is lost, zonally and positionally he is covered. This tactical versatility is highly uncommon in top sides and the team unity and understanding is key to Atalanta’s underrated success under Gasperini in recent seasons.
A player that has been key to this tactical system and fits in extremely well to this style of play, has been the player in question for this piece, Josip Iličić. Iličić has been in sublime form the past two seasons, with many regarding him as one of the best players in Serie A alongside players such as his teammate, Papu Gómez. Iličić’s versatility positionally in the forward areas made him the ideal fit for Gasperini’s system. Under Gasperini’s tutelage, Iličić has made one of the two centre forwards positions more often than not his own, alongside the ever-improving talent of Duván Zapata or the remarkably clinical finisher, Luis Muriel.
Iličić is one of many forward players in Atalanta’s system who floats in the wide and half-spaces, for two reasons. One is so that he can create space for players roaming in the central areas such as Gómez, to press forward and find the ball in open space in the central areas. Iličić’s intention in this moment is to drag players away from the central areas with him.
Another reason Iličić looks to float into wide or half-spaces is in order to find the ball in these areas to help create attacking opportunities. The spontaneity of creativeness of Iličić means more often than not he can be highly influential in these areas, creating opportunities for teammates and himself. A good example of this is showcased in the figure below, with Iličić occupying the wide right half-space, cutting in onto his left to either cross the ball or take a shot on goal.
In attack, Atalanta play a rough 3-2-5 and whilst the players found in the front 5 varies, you will almost always find Iličić in this system. However, Iličić does drop deep when required positionally to allow CMs such as Pašalić to push forward on the attack. When Iličić does push wide to create space and opportunity for teammates, he does this in unison with the rest of the team, who keep their shape across the pitch, meaning play can be switched by player such as Gómez and Iličić with ease. The below figure showcases Iličić occupying the wide right space, finding this space to try and overwhelm the opponent or at least leave them uncertain as to his next move.
Iličić focuses his tactical play on two key areas, roaming and spending time in wide channels, in order to create space for attacking runs from deep, or Iličić drives forward himself, switching play from half spaces into the central areas, through quick interchanges between him and the forward players. The frequency at which he creates chances and gets shots on goal is testament to this being a success.
How Atalanta have coped without him for large periods of 2020
Since March and the arrival of the global pandemic, Iličić has slowly disappeared from the Atalanta line-up, owing to personal issues which meant he was to return to his homeland of Slovenia. He has now, however, returned to training with the squad, and was recently named in their Champions League squad for this season, which is important due to the difficult group Atalanta face, playing Ajax and the 2018-19 champions, Liverpool. This shows that Gasperini is planning on counting on him for this season.
However, regardless of this, Atalanta have managed to cope with ease without Iličić, continuing to perform solidly and coping well without a player who seems to contribute so much to the team. This is not to say Atalanta don’t miss having a talent such as Iličić, far from it. The point to be made here is the team cohesion created by Gasperini. The players have become so unified in a common goal and objective that they adapt to each other’s roles, performing when their teammates are unable to in the attacking and defensive phases. Pašalić, Ruslan Malinovskyi, Alejandro Gómez, Duván Zapata and Luis Muriel have all stepped up their game in Iličić’s absence, improving their attacking numbers even further to supplement the loss of Iličić’s creativity and talent.
Gómez has continued in his free-roaming playmaker role in the central areas, and Atalanta have more often than not supplemented Iličić’s loss with Muriel, who’s ability to finish so clinically means they are not missing the goalscoring capabilities of Iličić. Pašalić and Malinovskyi have played in advanced roles as well in the absence of Iličić, with Atalanta reverting to a 3-4-2-1, allowing for Zapata to play a lone striker role, backed up by the creativity and chance creation of players such as Gómez and Pašalić.
Atalanta have now also looked at ways to cope with the absence of Iličić even further with their summer signings, notably Sam Lammers from PSV Eindhoven and Aleksei Miranchuk from Lokomotiv Moscow. Sam Lammers is worth noting here as an alternative to Iličić, as he offers a different centre forward option to the talent they already have, with his ability in multiple areas making him a highly useful, young and exciting alternative to the older figureheads up front.
His successor Miranchuk: have they planned for a future without Iličić?
However, Miranchuk is certainly a signing made with it in mind that Iličić will either not be available in the short term and/or will become less useful in the mid to long-term. Miranchuk is widely being touted as a long-term successor to Iličić, providing them with an additional alternative and option in the absence of Iličić. It is important, however, before making this assumption, to understand how the two players do compare, and whether Miranchuk is the ideal replacement and alternative to Iličić for this Atalanta side.
For starters, Iličić and Miranchuk do occupy similar positions on the pitch, as the heatmaps below showcase.
They also show however, that Miranchuk finds himself on the right wings more often than Iličić due to the formation and tactics deployed by Lokomotiv Moscow in comparison to Gasperini’s Atalanta. This is showcased in the below figure, with Miranchuk making a driving run into the wide right side in order to drag the opponents away from his teammates in the centre.
When looking at their statistical numbers in the past year in their respective leagues, it is clear Iličić has been performing at a world-class level in recent times, but Miranchuk is showing elements of his play that could allow him to fulfil some of what Iličić brings to the side. Iličić outperformed his xG (expected goals) by a fair distance, scoring 15 on an xG of 9.4, with 0.77 goals on average per 90. The players around him in the rankings were hitting a total of 0.5 goals at most per 90, with an xG much closer to their total goals scored. In the past calendar year, Miranchuk has performed to his xG, scoring 13 from an xG of 12, but his accuracy and conversion rate is much lower than Iličić, on 14.3% in comparison to Iličić’s impressively high 24.4%.
Iličić 0.84 goals per 90 in the past year in Serie A is another impressively high statistic, with his 3.88 shots per 90 being above the league average. He also found himself in dangerous areas frequently, with 5.51 touches in the penalty area per 90. Miranchuk, on the other hand, had more modest numbers, with 0.44 goals per 90, a decent level in the Russian Premier League. His total of 2.9 shots per 90 is again at an averaging level for the league, and 3.21 touches in the penalty area per 90 is again decent, but these numbers need to improve in order to perform at the higher-level competition that is the Serie A. That may happen however, in his expected position in Atalanta’s system. Gasperini is capable of evolving players and utilising them in a different way to find an increase in their outlay.
Another noticeable comparison that can be made between the two individuals up for discussion here, is there penalty area deliveries, showcased in the below figures. They play the ball in similar areas in the final third when passing, crossing and carrying the ball, predominantly in the right-sided half-space. Iličić has 5 passes into the penalty area per 90 at 72% accuracy. Miranchuk comparatively also reaches 5 passes into the penalty area per 90, but at a much lower accuracy of 47%.
Finally, Iličić is reaching 45 passes per 90 at 83% accuracy, high numbers in Serie A. Miranchuk’s compares relatively well to this, with 43 passes per 90 at an accuracy of 79%. Iličić’s 10.96 forward passes per 90 is impressive, but Miranchuk manages to reach 11.47 forward passes per 90, an impressive statistic which showcases Miranchuk capability as a playmaker and chance creator, comparable to Iličić. This is again showcased in Iličić’s 4.66 passes to final third per 90 in comparison to Miranchuk 5.41. The below figure showcases Miranchuk’ final third chance creation, with him floating a ball over the opposition defence into his teammate.
A key difference between the two however, is their dribbling ability. Iličić dribbles far more, at a rate of 9.38 dribbles per 90, in comparison to 6.02 from Miranchuk. The below figures indicate Iličić playing in his ideal area on the counter, making a driving run into the wide right half-space, before cutting inside and aiming for goal from a favourable position outside the box.
Iličić is clearly more of a creator of his own opportunities than Miranchuk, but Miranchuk provides a comparatively high amount of opportunities for his teammates and will look to work on his creativity individually in the final third to fill in this gap created by Iličić’s absence.
Miranchuk has been playing in a system which is reliant on a certain style of play. Iličić has of course, been doing the same, but is given a huge amount of creative freedom by Gasperini, which in turn leads to higher amounts of chance creation. Perhaps the increased creative freedom for Miranchuk will lead to higher chance creation numbers, but only time will tell. The below figure showcases what Miranchuk is capable of and what he hopes to be able to achieve at Atalanta, with him occupying the wide right half-space in order to create an opportunity for his teammate or himself.
Whilst Iličić is evidently highly influential for Atalanta, they have shown it is possible for them to cope without him. He brings a huge amount to the side, but they have alternatives in their system and now have a new player that offers another alternative as well.
This isn’t to say he isn’t important to Atalanta, far from it. He is widely regarded as one of the best players in Serie A, without question. Atalanta just have such a well versed and structured system in place, that they know how to cope regardless of who it is that cannot play, which is the case with Iličić, who hasn’t played for the club since March owing to personal reasons. He is now back in training, in their champions league squad and is almost ready to be playing regular football again. As Gasperini recently noted in an interview, getting Iličić ‘back to his best’ will definitely increase Atalanta’s possibilities and ambitions this season.