Atalanta have become one of the most exciting teams to watch, not only in Serie A, but also in Europe. Their creative attacking style of play that combines good team play, but also outstanding individual skills, has turned out to be difficult to resist for many of their opponents throughout the season.
Scoring five and more goals in their games on multiple occasions has proved they not only tend to get the job done but have fun while doing it. The Atalanta players’ confidence on and off the ball is impressive and resulted in some outstanding performances this term.
The manager Gian Piero Gasperini was judged for sticking to one formation, thinking he doesn’t have any backup plans. He, though, proved that working precisely on building a constant approach could be rewarded, whilst coming up with a few in-game decisions showed his and his squad’s versatility. The more impressive thing in these games was that he wouldn’t change the scheme but would assign new roles to some of the players which would change the dynamics in the blink of an eye.
Atalanta are the leaders in Serie A when it comes to goal scoring – having 70 goals in 25 games so far. Similarly to last season, they aim to stay in the top four, securing a European spot and settling as one of the contenders in the league. Despite their solid performance, their ability to continue the uprise is often doubted due to the lack of squad depth and new additions.
This tactical analysis aims to look into their tactics and see what Gasperini’s secret squad weapons are.
Tactical approach and current squad
Goalkeepers: Pierluigi Golini; Marco Sportiello; Francesco Rossi;
Defenders: Robin Gosens; José Luis Palomino; Berat Djimsiti; Rafael Tolói; Mattia Caldara; Hans Hateboer; Lennart Czyborra; Timothy Castagne
Midfielders: Ruslan Malinovskyi; Mario Pašalić; Remo Freuler; Marten de Roon; Adrien Tameze;
Attackers: Josip Iličić; Alejandro Gómez; Luis Muriel; Duván Zapata;
As mentioned Gasperini has a clear vision of how he wants to see his team on the pitch. His favoured 3-4-1-2/3-4-2-1 formation serves his approach perfectly so far. Relying on creating lots of opportunities by using strong off the ball movement and passing combinations in the opposition half has proved to be successful enough to trouble the best defences in the league.
They often tend to shoot from distance too, since they are constantly looking to penetrate different defensive set-ups. Their attacking ventures don’t end with their open play efforts. The team is very strong in taking set-pieces which adds to their efficiency immensely, resulting in them sending 19 shots on average per game.
Their midfield is supporting the frontline well, with the intense contribution of the wing-backs who would often do rotations on the flanks. Atalanta would most frequently attack through the flanks and use those player rotations to either stretch defences in efforts to open spaces or allow the wing-backs to cut inside and add an additional threat in the box.
The midfield players have a huge role in creating counter-attacks. By creating 3,48 counters on average per 90 minutes they are able to break perfectly structured low blocks. The internal players help in retaining possession since La Dea are a team that likes to control the tempo mostly in the opponents’ half.
The connection between the lines and the players’ constant aim to win the ball back is why they do well defensively too. They do have some defensive insecurities though. Their back-three defensive structure expectedly holds some risks. Although one of their most consistent solid performers is a defender (Palomino), they often fall victim to poor work under pressure and are unable to avoid individual errors. Similarly, to their approach of stretching the opposition defence, they also tend to get dragged out wide and get exposed.
What are their options in attack?
Atalanta’s attacking players are among the best yet underrated in Serie A. Scoring 70 goals is impressive but making it look effortless is what makes the difference and sets the team for a brighter future. The only problem in this growing fairy-tale is that two of their creative forces and top scorers Papu Gómez and Josip Iličić are 32-years-old and their future in football starts getting a little uncertain. Especially when it comes to Atalanta relying mostly on their efforts in attack.
Their current approach upfront relies on player movement, passing skills and precise finishing. Iličić is the team’s leading goal scorer with 15 goals (and five assists), whilst Gómez contributed with 10 assists and six goals.
Gómez has the ability to create goalscoring opportunities using lots of perfectly measured through balls. Despite his most frequent position behind the two strikers, he moves all around the final third in search of free spaces. His versatility has helped for building a strong partnership with all three regular strikers Iličić, Zapata and Muriel.
This connection often results in impressive rotations in and around the box, serving for dragging players out of position and exploiting spaces. Additionally, his positional awareness complements the midfielders’ movement in the half-spaces, increasing the team’s explosiveness in attack. Ilicic is also quite versatile when it comes to positioning and picking up the ball which is the perfect addition to his precise finishing. He doesn’t limit his movement and strolls all the way back to the half-line seeking the ball.
Their absence would affect the team’s performance and decrease their effectiveness upfront. Gasperini has other good performers though. He has played Zapata and Muriel next to each other on a few occasions and with adjusting the strategy to their strengths it could be a successful partnership, considering Iličić is gone.
Both Zapata and Muriel have proved to be key players for the team replacing each other on the left side of the attack when needed. They have scored 24 goals combined which is impressive having in mind they both haven’t been regular starters throughout the season.
Zapata is strong in providing key passes and through balls, hence creating goal-scoring opportunities, but also at finishing them. His aerial presence has been key for the team too both when attacking and defending set-pieces. He lacks the ability to hold on to the ball, but that’s what Muriel could assist with. His dribbling allows him to take on his opponents and advance the ball.
When it comes to having a creative force behind them, they could rely on Ruslan Malinovskyi. The Ukrainian has performed solidly so far, despite getting fewer playing minutes. Gasperini often uses him as an attacking boost when things go wrong, and the players have proved he deserves a chance even as a starter. He covers wide areas and supports the forward actions with key passes, although much less than Gomez. Malinovskyi’s impact often shows when the team tries to commit more players in and around the box, against teams with well-structured defences.
The coach has some additional attacking options in the face Musa Barrow who is on loan at Bologna. He joined the team during the winter transfer window and has performed well under Siniša Mihajlović so far scoring three times and assisting once in seven games. He is most frequently used as part of the attacking midfield.
Adrien Tameze arrived at Atalanta on loan from OGC Nice with an option to buy but is yet to play for the team.
Is their midfield versatile enough?
Atalanta’s midfield has proved to be well balanced, managing to support both the team’s attacking and defensive actions. As mentioned, the wing-backs Gosens and Hateboer are greatly contributing to the final third actions. The German has scored seven goals and assisted five more this term. His runs to the box and strong positioning often put their opponents under pressure. He serves both as threat and distraction which adds to the team’s explosiveness.
Hateboer also cuts inside occasionally, but he is mostly responsible for advancing the ball through the right flank and crossing it. He also takes part in attacking triangles on the wings, where the team executes short pass combinations, combined with off the ball movement.
That is one of the areas where Gasperini lacks depth. The only replacement for both Gosens and Hateboer is Timothy Castagne. He initially plays on the left, but as we already saw during the season, he replaced Hateboer on the right on a few occasions.
Castagne is a quite solid option since he is able to focus more on his defensive responsibilities and have higher success than Hateboer. His ability to hold on to the ball and distribute it in the best possible way is key. That doesn’t mean that Atalanta are safe. Lacking depth in one of the most active positions holds risks, and if the team want to remain in the top position in Serie A, they need to find an alternative.
When having everyone up and running, Atalanta’s centre midfield is well covered. One of the most valued players, who is key for their transitions is Pašalić. Apart from his passing, the Croatian contributes well defensively and is a great counterattack threat. Due to his key position, he helps the team in their defensive transition as well as in their build-up. What could be used more often in the future is using him in more in the role of an attacking midfielder, since his flair and finishing could be crucial in the box.
The other two additions in the central areas Remo Freuler and Marten de Roon are also key for the team. On most occasions Freuler is used as a second option for both left and right central midfield, depending on the opposition and Gasperini’s approach. That is due to De Roon’s and Pašalić’s more active contribution in both phases.
It is the same case scenario as on the flanks. If the coach wants to continue improving and dream of the title, he definitely needs to add to his squad.
Considering their three-man backline Atalanta perform well defensively. They aren’t though versatile when it comes to playing in a different than the 3-4-2-1 formation. Defensively they also lack squad depth, which would affect their overall performance immensely in case of injury or suspension. The regular starters Djimsiti, Palomino and Tolói have built a strong partnership and the only available replacement that got some playing minutes is Mattia Caldara, whose decision making and work under pressure are yet to be developed.
Lennart Czyborra joined from Heracles during the winter transfer window but he was mostly used in back-four formations in the role of a left full-back. That means that he is more likely to be available as a replacement of the wing-backs rather than as a central defender. Having in mind that Atalanta’s only noticeable vulnerability is at the back, this leaves them in a bad position, especially with other teams’ more aggressive attacking strategies.
Czyborra is good at stealing the ball from the opposition and dribbling past his opponents which at least makes him a good option for the flank, where he could help in the build-up or in counterattacking.
On the agenda in the summer should be bringing defensive players, since both Toloi and Palomino are already 30-years-old and Gasperini needs to start involving new players so the transition, later on, could be smoother.
Atalanta have had loaned some of their players, but none of them is contributing to their new teams, which most likely means they are not going to be relied on in the future. With the increasing expectations and their contribution in the European competitions, it is most likely that the team are going to have struggles keeping the high tempo. Using the same starting XI will affect their performance at some point, and whilst Gasperini has options in some positions, he quickly needs to find solutions for others.
Whilst he is good at making in-game changes in their approach, it’s a good idea to start building a different strategy, especially against teams that tend to use skilful players in attack. Atalanta might fall victim to that due to individual errors. When it comes to their attacking approach, as long as they stick to their off the ball movement and creativity, despite being quite predictable, their opponents might not be able to resist.