Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Lazio – tactical analysis
In what was expected to be one of the most intriguing tactical battles in the Serie A this season between Atalanta and Lazio, it certainly did not disappoint. With Lazio aiming to put pressure on league leaders Juventus, and Atalanta looking to ensure UEFA Champions League qualification next season, there was all to play for at the Gewiss stadium.
Lazio could not have asked for a better start to the game after going 2-0 up in the first 11 minutes, however, it was Atalanta who maintained their composure and sustained an attacking threat throughout the game ending with an xG of 2.22 compared to Lazio’s 0.47 from which they were rewarded, turning the game around and winning 3-2.
This tactical analysis will dissect how both teams approached the game, and examine Lazio’s attempts to nullify Atalanta using a 5-3-2 formation, as well as how Atalanta managed to eventually overcome this through their notorious rotations, and creative play.
Atalanta (3-4-2-1): Opting for two attacking midfielders and one striker, Duván Zapata lead the line with Alejandro Gómez and Ruslan Malinovskiy behind him. As expected, wing-backs Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens would be heavily involved in attacking play and Remo Freuler and Marten de Roon played as supporting central midfielders. A back three of Berat Djimisiti, José Luis Palomino and Rafael Tolói were in front of goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini.
Lazio (3-5-2): As expected Lazio lined up in their customary 3-5-2 formation with Thomas Strakosha in goal and a back three of Stefan Radu, Francesco Acerbi, and Patric. Jony and Manuel Lazzari played in the wing-back positions with Luis Alberto, Danilo Cataldi, and Sergej Milinković-Savić in the centre of midfield. The front two were Joaquin Correa and Serie A top scorer Ciro Immobile.
Average player position
The graphic below gives us a clearer understanding of each team’s approach to the game. As we can see with Atalanta’s average positions (left), their back three are clustered together centrally to create numerical superiority in a 3 vs 2 scenario against Lazio’s narrow front two Immobile and Correa. What is also noticeable is how high their back three is compared to Lazio’s. Atalanta dictated possession (59%), predominantly operating in the oppositions’ half, whilst Lazio dropped into a mid to low block.
Atalanta’s tactics are often focused around rotations within diamonds created in the wide areas and half-space which can disrupt the oppositions’ defensive structure. Above we can see this begin to form as the central area is vacant, and on either side, there is a group of three players. Zapata, whos’ position provides height for Atalanta will shift across to form the tip of the diamond depending on which side the ball is.
For Lazio, this often meant their central midfielders would have to shift across to prevent overloads in wide areas as can be seen in their average positions (right) as the central space within their half is left largely vacant also. Additionally, Lazio would often drop into a 5-3-2 formation to reduce the opportunity for Atalanta to create space in between the lines, and notably in behind their wing-backs. Our analysis will now look at these factors in greater detail.
Atalanta use rotations to expose Lazio backline
One of Atalanta’s most common traits is their fluid rotations in the half-space and wide areas. These rotations are used to create space opening up vertical passing lanes which can be exploited through positional and numerical superiority. Their rotations often occur between four players in a diamond commonly using a centre-back, wing-back, centre-midfielder and attacking midfielder, or a central midfielder, wing-back, attacking midfielder and striker. Below, Atalanta’s rotation occurs using the latter as their movement creates a vertical passing option for de Roon to Zapata.
Above, as de Roon receive the ball, wing-back Hateboer advances up the flank. Simultaneously, Malinovskiy tucks inside into the half-space dragging a player with him whilst Zapata makes a diagonal run into the vacated wide area. De Roon breaks Lazio’s midfield line as the ball arrives at Zapata’s feet.
Above we can see the diamond created due to the expertly timed rotation as Zapata eventually manages to break free from his defender and link up with an oncoming Malinovskiy on his inside, in addition to having the option of Hateboer on his outside. The rotations within the diamond are often extremely hard to contain as they provide depth at the base of the diamond, height at the tip of the diamond, and support on either side at all times.
In the image below, once again we can see Atalanta create a diamond. The fluidity and adaptability of their rotations give them a huge advantage as they can be extremely unpredictable at times. In this situation, Gosens moves off the touchline and inside to receive a pass from Gomez. As the ball is played in Gosens attracts a Lazio defender inside with him and Freuler arrives into the half-space. The ball is set back instantly to Freuler before Gosens makes a run in behind the wing-back to receive a return pass into the space highlighted below.
Once again Atalanta has managed to engineer a vertical passing option to penetrate the Lazio back five. Gosens’ run is extremely dangerous as he has exploited the space in behind the wing-back and to cover this, Lazio’s right-sided centre-back must come across leaving a 2 vs 2 situation on the edge of the box (see below). What is also critical in this move is the occupation of the touchline after Gosens comes inside. This forces a Lazio player to remain wide on the touchline creating a passing lane and essentially be taken out of the game when Atalanta play inside into Gosens. Subsequently, the deep-lying Lazio wing-back must come out and engage with Gosens and eventually gets too tight, Atalanta takes advantage of this getting in behind the Lazio backline and creating a scoring opportunity.
Lazio’s defensive structure
Minimizing the impact of Atalanta’s rotations in wide areas was going to be a key factor which Lazio did manage to affect in the early stages of the game. Often Atalanta reaps the rewards from these rotations by creating and exploiting space in behind the opponents’ full-back or wing-back as mentioned previously. To prevent this, Lazio dropped back into a 5-3-2 formation evident below.
The 5-3-2 formation in a low block adopted by Lazio allows them to create a situation of numerical equality or superiority if a diamond is formed, in addition to reducing the space available in behind the wing-back and in between the lines. In the picture above Lazio striker Immobile marks de Roon, Alberto moves out of his central position to engage the player on the ball Malinovskiy, and Jony can match up with Atalanta wing-back Hateboer. Furthermore, if Zapata attempts to make a diagonal run across the centre-back, this can be picked up by left-sided centre-back Radu who is currently the free man.
If the ball is advanced further, Lazio’s midfield drops leaving minimal space in between the defensive and midfield lines for Atalanta to combine in. This can be seen in the image below as Lazio crate a diamond of their own around the ball leaving Gomez with little space to manoeuvre.
This situation is advantageous for Lazio as they have created a 3 vs 1 situation between their backline and Zapata, in addition to a 4 vs 3 around the ball which reduces Atalanta’s attacking threat down the right side, leaving them with superiority on the weak side instead. If the ball is switched, Lazio should have enough time to shuffle across again. This is how Lazio attempted to stop Atalanta’s rotations for the large majority of the game.
Lazio attempts to exploit disorganised Atalanta in attacking transition
Atalanta committed numerous men forwards and as evident in the image below, always leave players on the weak side to afford opportunities for them to change the point of attack. This can leave them exposed in transition at times. As a result of absorbing Atalanta’s pressure in their 5-3-2 defensive shape, opportunities were available for Lazio on the counter-attack.
Lazio commits players on the ball side to prevent Atalanta combining in wide areas or switching the play. Hateboer looks to play inside but on this occasion, both Atalanta players make the same run in behind the Lazio wing-back. The pass is misplaced, and Atalanta now has six players on the wrong side of the ball and is vulnerable.
Lazio breaks away committing three forward runners who attempt to penetrate a disorganised Atalanta backline (see below). A through pass is played centrally and although not scoring directly from a counter-attack, Lazio maintains possession of the ball. Before Atalanta can get organised, Milinković-Savić finds space on the edge of the box and scores from a long-range effort.
Lazio attempted to disrupt Atalanta’s fluid rotations by reducing spaces available for them to exploit in their mid to low-block as mentioned previously. Upon regaining possession, Lazio would aim to exploit the spaces left by an open and disorganised Atalanta as quickly as possible. This did reap some rewards early on in the first half however as the game progressed it was Atalanta’s man-orientated press which stifled many opportunities for Lazio to be effective in attacking transition.
Atalanta exploit the weakside
Lazio attempted to match Atalanta numerically on the ball side to prevent spaces in between the lines. This, however, meant that if the point of attack was changed efficiently by Atalanta they would have to get across quickly to avoid the risk being exposed on the weak side. Although this means at times when dispossessed they can be left vulnerable to counter-attacks, there can be high rewards for this tactic also. Atalanta’s wing-back on the opposite side poses a significant attacking threat despite being so far away from the ball and this is something that Atalanta look to use when in possession.
Above we see Malinovskiy play through Lazio’s midfield into an oncoming Zapata. Zapata’s movement across the centre-backs drags them across as they try to reduce the spaces in behind their wing-back. This space is available as Hateboer remains high and wide in his wing-back position which forces the Lazio wing-back to stay with him, opening a passing lane in between the Lazio wing-back and centre-back. Gosens prepares to make his move on the opposite side of the pitch.
As the picture below highlights, all Lazio players’ eyes are on the ball with their main concern being the Atalanta players in the box on the strong side of the box where the cross is coming from. Unmarked and unseen, Gosens ghosts in at the back post to dispatch a powerful header into the bottom corner which gets Atalanta back into the game. The ball speed of a cross such as this (or any effective switch of play) is critical and leaves the opposition with minimal time to react and adjust to get across to the weak side and affect the play.
Atalanta’s man-orientated press disrupts Lazio in possession
With regards to pressing intensity, Atalanta had a PPDA of 8.2 compared Lazio’s 14.3 which is understandable considering they sat deeper in a mid-block. Lazio’s approach contrasted with Atalanta’s man-orientated press which caused problems for them when in possession. Lazio was often unable to sustain periods of possession due to Atalanta’s aggressive press in their half as evident below.
As we can see above the only player left free is Lazio’s goalkeeper however they do not recognise this and in an attempt to clear the ball away, have their clearance blocked allowing Atalanta to pin Lazio into their half. If the ball was cleared successfully, Atalanta would normally deal with this comfortably due to the numerical superiority (3 vs 2) between their backline and Lazio’s front two.
In the image above Atalanta engage in a man-orientated press once again with Gomez curving his run intelligently and using his cover shadow to prevent the Lazio goalkeeper from playing to his right-hand side. This eliminates the Lazio centre-back from the game and means Atalanta can press aggressively man for man. This forces a clearance from Lazio goalkeeper Strakosha which Atalanta manage to intercept. Lazio struggled to break Atalanta’s press and often were forced to clear the ball which was easily dealt with and allowed Atalanta to regain possession and remain high.
Atalanta’s threat from corners and Palomino, in particular, had been noted in the Atalanta vs Lazio preview by Lorihanna Shushkova, also available on TFA. Throughout the match, Atalanta won 11 corners compared to Lazio’s zero. In the 80th minute, their probing finally reaped its rewards as they were able to capitalise on some poor marking from Felipe Caicedo in the box and Palomino was able to head home at the back post.
This win puts Atalanta in a very strong position in their bid to secure Champions League football next season, however, for 2nd place Lazio, the loss leaves them four points behind Juventus which could prove costly in the title race at this late stage.