UEFA Champions League 2020/21: How Atalanta’s smart tactical choices disarmed Liverpool – tactical analysis
Group D of the UEFA Champions League 2020/21 turned out to be full of surprises. The 2018/19 title holders Liverpool started their journey strongly being the favourites for the first place in the group but after their fourth-round defeat against Atalanta, things look completely different.
The other participants Atalanta and Ajax made sure they don’t leave Liverpool with a lot of room for mistakes, closing the gap difference to only two points, which keeps the pressure on for the two upcoming rounds. The only team that has no chances of qualifying are Midtjylland.
Liverpool, who were on the verge of securing their spot in the next round, fell victim of Atalanta’s smart tactical approach and their own squad depth struggles, leaving the final standings in the group way more unpredictable.
La Dea managed to take advantage of Liverpool’s vulnerability and controlled the game from the beginning till the end in a very tactically intelligent game led by Gian Piero Gasperini.
Although this tactical analysis will touch on both team’s tactics and performance, our focus will go to Gasperini’s smart tactical choices in this game. We will use analysis to see how his approach, combined with the players’ impressive execution, allowed them to dictate the tempo, limit Liverpool’s attacking efforts and respectively win 2-0 at Anfield.
Line-ups and formations
Liverpool started the game in their usual 4-3-3 but with quite limited options on some positions as a result of injuries and positive COVID 19 tests. The side who have a very intense schedule lately were missing some of their key players which has partly affected their performance and left the manager Jurgen Klopp with a sour taste after an unimpressive game with a lot of defensive mistakes and lack of creativity in attack.
Alisson started on the goal and was supported by Konstantinos Tsimikas, Rhys Williams, Joël Matip and Neco Williams in the backline. James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Curtis Jones formed the midfield, while Sadio Mané and Divock Origi were joined by Mohamed Salah who was finally available after testing positive for COVID 19 during the international break.
Liverpool lacked their usual pace and intensity in attack and failed to employ their press successfully against a very intelligent Atalanta side. The team managed to create their first goalscoring opportunity in the last minutes of the first half after failing in their attempts to bypass La Dea’s press and break through their well-prepared backline. None of their players stood out in the first half which led Klopp to the unusual decision of making four substitutions at once, in efforts to boost their attacking performance. Despite having some clinical forwards, that didn’t help much in increasing the intensity and Liverpool failed to score until the final whistle.
On the other side, Atalanta relied on Pierluigi Gollini between the posts and a three-man defensive line of Berat Djimsiti, Cristian Romero and Rafael Tolói who were excellent in their efforts to limit Liverpool’s access to their defensive third. Once again, Cristian Romero turned out crucial for the successful execution of their strategy and blocking the opposition’s efforts on the ball.
The central midfield consisted of Remo Freuler, Matteo Pessina and Marten De Roon, who were supported by Robin Gosens and Hans Hateboer on the flanks. The wing-backs were exceptionally solid in their defensive actions and Hateboer’s return to the squad was key for Atalanta’s success. On the left, Gosens was the main passing outlet that helped the team in exploiting the half-spaces and creating opportunities.
They joined Papu Gómez and Josip Iličić in their attacking ventures, helping them in overloading the advanced areas and executing their usual well-measured one-touch pass combinations.
Atalanta didn’t go offboard in any of their actions, moving confidently in transitions and trying to anticipate their opponents’ actions in order to limit their time on the ball. They didn’t underestimate Liverpool’s ability to bounce back throughout the whole game and kept their precision and caution which resulted in grabbing the important three points.
Smart press and confident marking strategy dismiss Liverpool’s efforts on the ball
Although all of Atalanta’s actions were very important for their win, one of the key components of their successful performance was their pressing approach. While they put efforts into pressing Liverpool high than didn’t press to intensely and were very organised in their defensive actions in the opposition half. Being aware of Liverpool’s pace and attacking proficiency they focused on staying quite compact defensively and covering more of their half in efforts to avoid their usually highly positioned defensive line being exposed.
Being cautious with the press intensity was key for them being able to drop back in a timely manner and employ their man-to-man marking strategy successfully. They did give Liverpool the chance to circulate the ball at the back and have a slightly higher positioning and didn’t put too much pressure on the defenders. Instead, they were blocking the passing lanes smartly throughout the whole game. They used the absence of both of the Reds’ regular full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold in their advantage and tried limiting Liverpool’s options for ball progression early on.
The team were very confident in their midfield actions off the ball and were and preferred to increase the press intensity out there and in their own half in efforts to win the ball back. This was a winning strategy since due to their 3-4-1-2 set-up they were able to overload these areas and have a numerical advantage while also drop in a lower block and limit the spaces between the lines. They were very keen on recovering the ball in these areas and focused on anticipating the opposition’s movement and actions on the edge of their defensive third. The combined efforts between midfield and defence allowed them to perform confidently and split the responsibilities correctly, which resulted in a better defensive organisation and fewer gaps than usual.
Atalanta were exceptional in their positional awareness throughout the game which not only limited Liverpool’s ball progression options but it was also the reason for their successful ball interception. The Serie A side intercepted the ball 50 times which only underlines their increased awareness and well-measured actions in aim to gain back possession and keep the Reds away from the danger zones. They intentionally let Liverpool reach their half to avoid the risk of being caught off-guard and controlled the tempo with narrowing them to certain areas where they fill most confident defending in.
That helped them in anticipating the opposition’s actions and manipulating the outcome of the attacks. The limited space between the lines also allowed them to have enough players to cover depth in case they need to put more pressure on the ball carrier and go out of position. Whenever Liverpool tried to create danger, Atalanta made sure to block the passing lanes for the ball career and commit more players into covering the potential receiver. They heavily focused on keeping the ball-close attacker tightly covered and unable to receive while the attacking players Gomez and Ilicic would help by pressing the ball carrier and forcing him back.
Atalanta tend to let one of the centre-backs to step up into midfield in order to challenge the ball carrier, which has been Romero’s responsibility lately, due to his excellence in 1vs1 situations.
The defensive organisation in their third and how the well-measured actions won them the game
The wing-backs had a key role in Atalanta’s actions during defensive transitions. While Liverpool couldn’t rely on their most experienced full-backs they still tried exploiting the wide areas, and that’s where Gosens and Hateboer displayed their intelligence and versatility. They managed to split their responsibilities well and were completely aware of the danger that Liverpool possess on the flanks.
Hateboer’s actions both in holding on to the ball when in possession and pressuring the opposition when out of possession saved the team a lot of trouble in the right. Both players didn’t hesitate to dive into challenges and not only were they pretty successful in their defensive duels but they also performed some well-measured tackles in efforts to keep the ball away from the key areas.
Jones and Milner were quite active all over the pitch, but Liverpool didn’t manage to get use of the wide areas thanks to the wing-backs’ defensive contribution. They were completely committed to positioning smartly so they always have the chance to drop back. While the two Liverpool players tried occupying the half-spaces too and create combinations with the attackers, they would often get stuck there as a result of Atalanta’s positioning that limited the passing options.
Their defensive structure in their own third was executed better than usual thanks to them staying compact and not putting too many efforts in the advanced areas. Their improved spatial awareness helped them in covering Liverpool’s attacking players well and in anticipating their movement, hence coving any gaps that may have occurred. There were, of course, a few occasions where Liverpool were able to break through but the defenders’ confidence in the 1vs1 challenges helped in stopping them.
The Reds’ attacking explosiveness was lacking and they often didn’t have enough bodies upfront in order to keep the dynamics up and pressurise Atalanta’s defence. The connection between the lines wasn’t as tight as usual which didn’t allow Liverpool to successfully counter-attack. Instead of taking advantage of their recoveries and catching the opposition of guard, they allowed La Dea a lot of time to move into defence.
What made the Italians even more efficient and had a huge impact in all phases was their absolute aerial dominance. Four of Atalanta’s players ended up with a 100% aerials duels success rate, while Milner was the player with the highest winning percentage (60%) for Liverpool. La Dea showed solid organisation in the box and didn’t allow Liverpool to take advantage of their set-piece opportunities thanks to their performance in the air. They ended up winning 20/28 of the aerials attempts in the game.
Klopp’s desperate move to increase the team’s explosiveness in attack was making four player changes at once, bringing in Roberto Firminho, Andrew Robertson, Fabinho and Diogo Jota for Salah, Tsimikas, Wijnaldum and Origi. While this helped them in getting more time on the ball in the second half and allowed them to occupy the opposition half better, it didn’t affect the dynamics at all and it didn’t help in increasing the intensity of their attacks.
Half-space movement masterclass or how they took advantage of Liverpool’s mistakes
Liverpool were also very cautious in their pressing, Their didn’t go for the usual intensity which although very smart, having in mind Atalanta’s speed in attack, affected their defensive performance negatively. It allowed La Dea more time on the ball and also different options for ball progression which occasionally forced Liverpool back. This wasn’t a winning strategy having in mind the team’s defensive vulnerability in the absence of their regular starters. On the right, Jones and Williams had the responsibility to cover the wing-back Gosens which quickly turned into their biggest vulnerability.
The German’s attacking flair, smart movement and pace were unbearable for the youngsters, who quickly showed the lack of experience, especially against disciplined and quick individuals. Lack of experience not only on a personal level but also in a partnership. Atalanta quickly noticed that and despite Liverpool’s efforts of blocking the passing lanes, they found the solution in long balls to the half-spaces which Gosens could exploit thanks to spatial awareness and late runs.
Of course, Gosens wasn’t their only weapon for ball progression. Papu Gómez used his exceptional off the ball movement to open the passing lanes and provide the ball carrier with more options for a pass. His tendency of occupying the half-spaces was beneficial again. Not only he was able to engage players and drag them out of position, allowing his teammates more freedom, but was also a constant threat by crossing and sending quality balls in the more advanced areas.
Liverpool were extremely vulnerable in terms of holding on to the ball and La Dea didn’t hesitate to exploit that weakness. They noticed Williams’ insecurity on the left and targeted him, which led to him losing possession 27 times, allowing Atalanta to take advantage and create opportunities.
The importance of the one-touch pass combinations in Atalanta’s success
Atalanta’s success in attack was mostly a result of their patience and confidence on the ball. Despite their dominance in the game, they didn’t manage to create a high number of opportunities. What was key though is that they didn’t push too hard as per usual but were waiting for the perfect opportunity to come. Their positioning and tendency of overloading the advanced areas wouldn’t be enough without their confidence on the ball and strong decision-making.
Both goals that Liverpool conceded were a result of their disorganised actions against Atalanta’s one-touch pass combinations. The Italians are proficient in the quick positional changes and one-touch passes which help them in distracting the opposition and creating spaces to exploit. And what made the difference against the Reds was their confidence and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. They improved throughout the game and didn’t act hastily in efforts to penetrate. This is what made it difficult for Liverpool to react properly on a few occasions.
Atalanta grabbed the three points with a well-thought approach and perfectly measured actions against Liverpool who lacked intensity, pace and creativity. La Dea’s tasteful defensive decisions didn’t allow the Reds too much time on the ball and slowed down the dynamics of their ball progression, leading to limiting their opportunities in front of the goal.
When it comes to attacking, Atalanta’s increased awareness and patience helped them in exposing the opposition on a few occasions. Trusting their own strategy and sticking to their strengths was the winning formula and they managed to take advantage of the opportunities Liverpool gave away.
La Dea displayed intelligent performance against a more vulnerable Liverpool side who didn’t find a way through the opposition’s well-organised defence. The absence of some of the Reds’ defensive players turned out key against the experienced Atalanta forward line.