UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Valencia vs Atalanta – tactical analysis
Atalanta reached the Champions League quarter-finals in their first season in the competition, knocking out Valencia after a 4-3 show. Both teams lacked concentration and allowed some defensive errors, which allowed them to scored that many goals.
It was clearly difficult for Atalanta to break through the well-structured Valencia. Both teams made some changes in efforts to bring more explosiveness to their performance and that immediately resulted in more intriguing battle, although all goals were conceded in a chaotic manner.
Albert Celades set Valencia up in a 4-4-2 formation, although he was forced to make some in-game changes later on. Jasper Cillessen covered the goal supported by José Luis Gayà, Mouctar Diakhaby, Francis Coquelin (replacing the suspended Gabriel Paulista), and Daniel Wass. In midfield, the manager relied on Carlos Soler, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Dani Parejo, and the best performer for the team that night, Ferrán Torres. The attacking duo contained Rodrigo and Kévin Gameiro.
Gian Piero Gasperini didn’t surprise anyone by using his favoured 3-4-1-2. He picked Marco Sportiello for the goalkeeping spot, with a three-man defensive line of José Luis Palomino, Mattia Caldara, and Berat Djimsiti. No surprises in the midfield formed by Robin Gosens, Remo Freuler, Marten de Roon, and Hans Hateboer. The coach though opted for quite a different attacking line, placing Mario Pašalić right behind Alejandro Gómez and Josip Iličić, leaving Duván Zapata on the bench.
Valencia’s defence and build-up
Valencia struggled to resist to Atalanta’s speedy attacking actions since the first minute, which resulted in committing some individual errors. Their tendency of failing to defend against skilful players, in this case against Iličić, resulted in conceding a penalty early on.
As per usual, Atalanta tended to apply high press and try to gain back possession in the opposition half. The front duo were responsible for the centre-backs, whilst Pašalić was highly involved in covering Kondogbia and limiting his space. Valencia, though, looked aware of their intentions and used Cillessen for distributing the ball directly to La Dea’s half. The use of these long balls helped them to bypass the press and advance the ball, distributing it mostly on the right-hand-side to Torres.
When they had the chance to build-up from the back, Wass would spread out wide to Torres, who would then combine with Gameiro, due to Parejo being pressed by De Roon. Soler tried exploiting the half-spaces and would cut inside frequently, rather than exploiting the flank. This would trouble Djimsiti, who was covering him, especially in the moments when Hateboer failed to press Gayà and so he’d join.
Valencia’s coverage on the flanks forced Hateboer and Gosens to stay closer to the central line, rather than deep in the opposition half as they usually do. This decreased Atalanta’s efficiency in attack and increased their vulnerability in defence. Gosens was the main responsible for covering Torres which seemed like a tough task for him. Due to his lowered positioning, Freuler occasionally had to press Wass in order to bring back the balance.
Due to the decrease of movement on the wings, Atalanta’s crossing numbers weren’t quite high. Valencia did well in occupying the flanks and sending 17 crosses, although the lack of precision in them didn’t allow them to create many goalscoring opportunities. Atalanta performed poorly in their defensive duels, mostly due to Valencia’s press and player commitment upfront.
Due to Soler’s movement in the half-spaces and Torres’ positioning in line with the strikers, Valencia often created 4 vs 4 situations in the final third. This was possible thanks to Gayà’s movement further engaging Hateboer who would fail to drop back. The front duo’s positioning in the half-spaces aimed to drag players out of position and exploit the freed-up spaces via the wide players. Despite finding a way to penetrate Atalanta’s defensive line, they would often shoot from distance too.
Valencia would counter-press effectively, although they fell victims of many individual errors which Atalanta used to take advantage.
How the in-game changes affected their performance
Gasperini had to make a change half-time, taking off De Roon, and playing in Zapata instead which forced some positional changes. La Dea switched to 3-4-2-1 with Zapata at the tip of the attack on paper, but he tended to move all around the half-spaces and the wing.
Pašalić had to drop back in midfield, which wasn’t a bad decision since that’s his most common position. He didn’t have the needed freedom to contribute to the attack well enough, but even when he did, he was lacking precision due to the amount of pressure put on him by the opposition’s players. Zapata immediately brought freshness since his teammates consistently started looking to send him through balls. They had troubles in their build-up but continued their efforts to switch play and penetrate this way.
Celades made some changes too in efforts to increase their attacking force by taking off Diakhaby for Gonçalo Guedes which resulted in switching to a 3-4-3 formation. Kondogbia dropped back in the three-man defence, making space for Soler to more centrally. Gayà then moved in a more advanced position as a wing-back, right behind Guedes, who completed a three-man attacking line.
It was quite a risky one, keeping in mind the lack of natural central defenders, but it immediately increased the team’s explosiveness upfront. Valencia tried to control the game and use off the ball movement to be able to create opportunities. Los Ches were poor when defending in the box throughout the whole game due to the lack of good positioning and strong decision-making when under pressure.
Both Valencia and Atalanta didn’t manage to employ their game plans properly. Valencia managed to apply some resistance due to their straightforward structure, whilst Atalanta suffered from some defensive insecurities. The hosts’ struggles against skilful players had a huge impact on the outcome too since their poor work under pressure resulted in some mistakes. Atalanta went through thanks to Iličić’s outstanding performance, who managed to transform their chances into goals.