In the delayed start to the new Serie A season, Atalanta and Lazio begin their season in solid form, with Atalanta defeating Torino 4-2 and Lazio beating Cagliari 2-0, both away from home. Both sides faced a week’s delay to their starts to the season, and so face each other in the midweek for this game. Both teams are unique and were standouts from last season, playing excellent football that found Lazio even challenging for the Scudetto for a large part of the season, with Atalanta finishing 3rd for a second consecutive season, securing Champions League football. This tactical analysis piece will look at how these teams may line up and play against each other to achieve three points and start the season off perfectly.
Lazio, figure headed by Simone Inzaghi since 2016, finished in 4th place last season following a drop off towards the end of the season, largely due to a crowded fixture list combined with a large number of injuries. However, Lazio impressed last season, being one of the most talked about sides last season due to their impressive play in attack and in defence, an area they improved in remarkably last season. Inzaghi has taken his time to build a side and a tactical system that works for his team, and finally has a system which they implement game after game, a loose 3-5-2 that often looks like a 3-1-4-2 or 3-5-1-1. In this analysis, we will look to discover Inzaghi’s tactics and attempt to understand how it works, in order to gain an idea of how this system could work or not work against Atalanta in this game.
Atalanta, led by Gian Piero Gasperini, also since 2016, started this season in a similar fashion as to how they did the last, scoring plenty of goals, regardless of the amount conceded, with a solid 4-2 victory against Torino, who they beat 7-0 last season. Gasperini’s side have become a feared side and much renowned in world football in the past few seasons, with 98 goals last year being a highly impressive tally. Gasperini’s tactical system is often a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1 variant, with this often being dependent on who they play. They are tactically versatile in many ways, which will discuss in more detail throughout this piece. This analysis will look deeper into this system, to understand better why Atalanta are so difficult to play against and what Lazio will look to do to defeat this Atalanta side.
Lazio (3-5-2): Thomas Strakosha: Patric, Francesco Acerbi, Ștefan Radu: Manuel Lazzari, Sergej Milinković-Savić, Lucas Leiva, Luis Alberto, Adam Marušić: Joaquín Correa, Ciro Immobile
With Luiz Felipe and Senad Lulić both out injured, look for Adam Marušić to keep his place on the left after a fine showing against Cagliari on the weekend. Otherwise, expect a full strength and unchanged side from Lazio, who will look to, like Atalanta, continue a fine run of form going into this season. Felipe Caicedo will, however, look to continue to challenge Joaquín Correa for a place, so don’t be surprised to see him find himself in the starting XI.
Atalanta (3-4-1-2): Marco Sportiello: Rafael Tolói, Mattia Caldara, Boško Šutalo: Hans Hateboer, Marten de Roon, Remo Freuler, Robin Gosens: Papu Gómez: Duván Zapata, Luis Muriel
With Berat Djimsiti and Cristian Romero out due to suspension in the previous game, Šutalo started the first game of the season, but look for Djimsiti and/or José Luis Palomino to potentially start this game. New signing Aleksei Miranchuk will likely not be fit enough to start this game and Josip Iličić continues to work towards match fitness, so look for Duván Zapata, Luis Muriel and Papu Gómez to continue to lead the line for Atalanta. With Pierluigi Gollini still injured, expect Marco Sportiello to continue to deputise for Gollini. With Atalanta’s exploits on their Champions League run, they saw themselves being given an extra week off at the start of this season but will hope to hit the ground running after their extended break.
Lazio’s solid shape and team unity
It is worth noting the remarkable similarities between these two sides as we head into this new season. Both sides have built a solid base and tactical system, with Inzaghi and Gasperini both being at their clubs since 2016, with both building a clear identity and culture at their clubs, slowly building, progressing and rising up the table and just as importantly, in a European context as well, with Atalanta reaching the final eight of the Champions League. Lazio have begun to win trophies as well, winning the Coppa Italia in 2019 against Atalanta. They have both become sides many fear to play against, with tactical systems that are simply a huge challenge to counteract against.
Lazio have identified a tactically balanced system that works for the squad at Inzaghi’s disposal. They play a 3-5-1-1 or 3-5-2 that compliments the players he has greatly, with players available to drift around in their positions such as Luis Alberto, who is able to roam around in order to begin a passing play, with Lucas dropping deep to start their build-up play in transition.
In defence, Lazio look to play a variant of the 5-3-2, with Manuel Lazzari and more often than not, Lulić, looking to drop back and help defend. With a more settled XI and back three, however, Lazio’s defence solidity has meant they can now challenge more consistently for the Scudetto.
Lazio’s typical starting back three are Ștefan Radu, Francesco Acerbi and Luiz Felipe. They rely on the speed and athleticism of Luiz Felipe, the experience and positional intelligence of Radu and the imposing physicality and tactical intelligence of Acerbi. This blend of attributes and skills makes Lazio’s defence a huge challenge to break down, with the cover of former Liverpool man Lucas Leiva just in front of them, shielding the backline, making it difficult for sides to break down. Lucas Leiva’s role as a variant of a ‘No. 6’ is also a clear distinction between Lazio and Atalanta’s style of play, with Lucas’ role as an enforcer of sorts not being found in the current Atalanta side, with Atalanta instead relying on the unity of the whole side in a man-marking system.
When transitioning from defence into building up towards a goalscoring opportunity, Lazio look to play out from the back, with ball-playing defenders such as Acerbi able to invite pressure from opponents, particularly opponents who enforce a high press and use this to find teammates in space to play the ball through the lines. This is a risky tactic, but one which is effective due to Radu and Acerbi’s tactical and positional intelligence.
Lazio and Atalanta are similar in many ways tactically in defence, with their back threes spreading wide when their wing-backs push forward to attack, covering the gaps on the wings. However, Lazio’s centre backs are perhaps a bit more adventurous, with the back three often booming forward to join in the attack, unsettling the opponents with an overload of numbers in attack. Centre backs such as Radu are versatile and able to play a smart ball into the box, where Lazio look to overload in numbers, in the hope the ball will fall to one of their players in terms of a numerical advantage.
Lazio do, however, change their defensive approach based on their opposition. They often play a high press in order to win the ball back fast, through their forward line of Ciro Immobile and Correa. However, they often also operate in mid-block, looking to either force the opposition into long passes, which Lazio know they are comfortable in winning aerially or forcing them short to press. This defensive strength and physicality has meant they can cope in either system.
Lazio’s build-up play and attacking versatility
When discussing Lazio’s build-up play, it is important to focus on two key players to their system, Sergej Milinković-Savić and Luis Alberto. As a box to box player, Milinković-Savić is vital to Lazio’s system being effective, with his attacking and defending ability making him vital to key parts of Lazio’s tactical system. Milinković-Savić’s defensive duties have increased in more recent seasons, as Inzaghi recognised the need for one of his central midfielders to be able to play the role of Lucas or Alberto in their absence on or off the pitch.
Luis Alberto has also changed and adapted to a new style of play in order to fit into this system, with him slowly switching from a number 10 ‘trequartista-esque’ role, into more of a left ‘mezzala’ role now. This switch into deeper positions on the pitch allows Alberto more space and time to dictate the play on the pitch, finding the gaps in between the lines in the centre of the pitch, in a similar fashion to Gómez and his role for Atalanta.
Another key attribute and useful skill for Lazio is their players’ abilities to take shots from distance, with players such as Milinković-Savić being clinical finishers from distance. To put it simply, Lazio look to build play centrally, through Lucas, Alberto and Milinković-Savić, who will then look to press forward and find Correa and Immobile in spaces to find shots on goal. With Milinković-Savić being tall and physically imposing as well, this means Strakosha and Acerbi can easily rely on Milinković-Savić to win the long ball in the air, meaning they frequently dictate play in the centre of the pitch. This is an area Lazio will look to capitalise on and use effectively against Atalanta, as Atalanta often find themselves overloading on the wings and in half-spaces on the attack, and so a quick counterattack from Lazio could see Atalanta look vulnerable through the centre.
Lazio will also look to find space in between the opposition press, and Atalanta’s use of a man to man marking, which will be discussed in more detail later on in the piece, means Lazio can use the impressive ability of Immobile to find space and break into gaps in-between the opposition’s lines. Immobile, Correa and Caicedo also frequently switch their positions in and around the opposition area, confusing the opposition and forcing mistakes in a man to man marking system. Lazio have to play to their strengths in this game to overwhelm the Atalanta defence.
Atalanta’s tactical unpredictability
Atalanta are a tactically complex side, and so are difficult to analyse effectively on a game by game basis, but there are some identifiable tactical decisions that explain what makes them so effective under Gasperini. Atalanta consistently play in a 3-4-1-2 and 3-4-2-1 system, which is dependent on who they play against. This showcases immediately a tactical versatility, with a variety of different styles of build-up, attacking and defensive play. One clear identity Atalanta have in any system, however, is the positional versatility and interchanging that has become a hallmark of Gasperini’s side. Players frequently overlap and play in different areas of the pitch to their starting position, with the understanding that they will cover each other in the build-up, ensuring that if and when the opposition win the ball back suddenly, they have the positions and gaps covered across the pitch.
Atalanta are a positionally functional side, with players covering each other when building up into an attack. A good example of this is the central midfielders, frequently Remo Freuler, Marten de Roon and Mario Pašalić, who drop deep into the centre back positions when a wing-back goes booming forward, potentially alongside one of the centre backs. Atalanta look to build their attacks in the wide and half-spaces on either side of the pitch, with Gómez roaming in the central areas, looking to link up play across the pitch.
When building up and finding goalscoring opportunities, which Atalanta do frequently every game, the centre backs often get involved in the wide and half-space overloads. They carry the ball forward and run into these attacking positions, in order to create a numerical advantage. This is a key and unique difference between both the sides in this game, with Atalanta looking to create numerically overloads in wide spaces, whilst Lazio look to overload centrally. This leaves both sides in the position to attack vulnerabilities in each other’s play, making this one difficult to predict. Atalanta showcased their ability to play in central and wide areas, with the figures below showcasing Gómez finding himself in plenty of space, but also great attacking runs from wide providing Gómez with an option to play through to for a goalscoring opportunity.
Atalanta’s defensive solidity
Whilst the focus and attention is understandably on Atalanta’s attacking ability, it is important to not know how they play defensively, in order to best understand how they will defend against an often free-scoring Lazio side. A key way in which both teams play is again, the wide positioning of their centre backs, with their CBs looking to cover the wide players when going on attacking runs. Atalanta look to play a variant of a 5-2-1-2 in defence, with Gosens and Hateboer tracking back quickly to help in defence. Atalanta’s tactical intelligence means they effectively transition at pace, being able to cope with a counter-attack and then return with a quick counter themselves. They are a compact side, who play numerically advantages zonally in all parts of the tactical system.
It is also worth noting Atalanta’s backline, with them predominantly playing Djimsiti, Tolói and Palomino last season, three players not frequently mentioned amongst the top defenders in the game. The reason this back three and the solid backup they have is so effective is the understanding each player has of each other and what they bring to the side. Their low numbers in shots against and high interception numbers are reflective of a defence that simply understands each other very well, and understand the tactical system they play in, and they continue to improve and learn this year on year under Gasperini. In the following figures, however, it is evident that Atalanta are still learning to be positionally intelligent in defence, with Tolói ball watching and not seeing the attacking run from the Torino player behind him. Whilst Atalanta continue to concede too many, they simply score way more goals to outset this.
Atalanta could be vulnerable to long balls when they press so high and with such numbers, so will look to ensure Milinković-Savić and Immobile don’t find themselves in dangerous positions. Whilst Atalanta’s defence can also be relatively physically imposing, skilful and fast players such as Immobile could be difficult to cope with. As mentioned prior, if Lazio look to clog the middle of the field with players, Atalanta could be overrun. This could be another game where Atalanta are reliant more so on their attacking ability to find enough goals for the victory.
Atalanta’s attacking versatility
Atalanta have become renowned for being a highly efficient and frequent attacking side, with a high number of shots per game and chances created. Their PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) number is also one of the lowest in the league, meaning they press hard and win the ball back frequently as well. They consistently work into attacking positions in the wide and half-spaces, but much less frequently in the central areas. The central area is more frequently occupied by Gómez, who plays very much a free role in this area. Gómez will roam around the central areas to create chances, dropping deep to link up play for the centre midfielders and wing backs, whist also roaming freely forward towards the box, finding himself goalscoring opportunities or in enough space to find that clinical pass to put a player through on goal. This is showcased clearly in the below figures from their first game of the season against Atalanta, with Gómez finding himself in plenty of space, eventually leading to a goal from distance.
However, Atalanta have a lot of different variations and different types of players who can be creative and effective in multiple unique ways. The spontaneity of creative attacking actions from players such as Iličić, Gómez and frequently this season, Mario Pašalić, means Atalanta find players throughout their side involved in goals. Pašalić, Freuler and de Roon are very tactically intelligent players, who roam around in the central areas, finding space to progress the ball forwards, often joining in on the goalscoring opportunities themselves. They cover wide spaces in attack but are quick to react to the opposition on the counter, covering gaps in the defensive line. Their tactical awareness in the central areas will make things difficult for Lazio.
Atalanta also frequently switch play to the opposite wings, with their central midfielders and Gómez often moving across the pitch, preparing themselves to find opportunities in space on the opposite flank. This maintaining of their width also allows Gómez plenty of space in the central areas, and the opposition often struggles to keep up with this tactical optionality. This is evident in the following figures, with de Roon finding himself on the wing, playing in a close-knit triangular shape with his teammates to overload this area, but when he can’t find this chance, the team look to switch the play to the opposite flank.
Both sides will be hoping to continue their fine form from last season and good start to the season on the weekend but will be wary of each other’s strengths. Both teams must have a lot of mutual respect for each other with how they have grown and built themselves over the past few seasons. I expect this to be an open and expansive game, with lots of goalscoring opportunities for both sides. Lazio will be hoping the absence of Iličić means Atalanta will struggle to find themselves in as dangerous areas but will be aware of the danger Zapata and Muriel bring as target men and quick, agile strikers.
Atalanta will be hoping Lazio lose their concentration and focus in this game, with their willingness to allow a high press potentially causing problems for them in dangerous areas of the pitch. As Lazio’s focus is on central areas, the hope for them will be this will leave huge gaps in the wings and half-spaces, with numerical overloads in these areas causing Lazio havoc and allowing Atalanta to get plenty of shots on goal. Whilst I can see Atalanta sneaking a win, I expect this to be a free-flowing game with plenty of goals, so I am going for a 2-2. This will be an interesting early challenge for both sides as we start the new season and will be a key indicator of what both sides will be looking to bring this season.