This weekend the best defence in Serie A met the best attack in the league in the face of Inter and Atalanta. Inter made a little step back failing to keep their advantage against Atalanta as the game ended in a 1-1 draw. The Nerazzurri played a well-structured and entertaining football, but Pier Luigi Gasperini’s second half changes made it harder for them to keep the clean sheet, hence the lead.
Atalanta‘s defender Palomino looked well-prepared to go against Lukaku, knowing his incredible off and on the ball abilities and was the main responsible for the team conceding only once. As it has happened on multiple occasions this term, despite the tremendous creativity upfront in the likes of Papu Gómez and Josip Iličić, the team had a difficult time converting their chances into goals.
Antonio Conte opted for a 3-5-2 formation in possession. On the goal was the best performing goalkeeper in Serie A at the moment, with seven clean sheets and only 16 conceded goals, Samir Handanovič. In front of him was a three-man backline consisted of Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan de Vrij and Diego Godín. When in defensive transition were joined by the wing-backs in the game Cristiano Biraghi and Antonio Candreva. Roberto Gagliardini, Marcelo Brozović and Stefano Sensi were controlling the central midfield, supporting the front duo of Lautaro Martínez and Romelu Lukaku.
Gian Piero Gasperini made a couple of interesting changes in the starting XI. He left the team’s leading goalscorer, Luis Muriel, on the bench and starting with the long-awaited Duván Zapata on the tip of the attack in a 3-4-2-1 formation. He also started Mario Pašalić instead of Remo Freuler in the midfield. On the goal was Pierluigi Golini with a three-man defence of Berat Djimsiti, José Luis Palomino and Rafael Tolói supporting him. The midfield four included Robin Gosens, Mario Pašalić, Marten de Roon and Hans Hateboer. Responsible for the attacking actions were Alejandro Gómez, Josip Iličić and Duván Zapata, who would do their regular rotations upfront in order to use their creativity and create chances.
Inter’s defensive shape and why Atalanta’s strategy didn’t work at first
Inter defended deep in a 5-3-2 formation executing a great special control and well-structured lines. The three midfielders would actively support the backline when out of possession and be responsible for counter-pressing and block the passing lanes. Their compact shape allowed the players to go out of position and challenge the ball carrier but still have a good coverage behind.
Having the midfield support allowed them to go out wide and cover the flanks where, as per usual, Atalanta committed more players in attack. Instead of many players covering the likes of the lone striker Zapata centrally, the Nerazzuri constantly moved smartly around the dangerous area. When Atalanta tried to exploit either of the wings, the central-backs would partner with the wing-backs and cover the players out wide getting the support of one of the central midfielders.
Atalanta’s wide forward players would constantly move all over the opposition half. They would drift out wide, cover the half-spaces but cut inside and switch positions too. That’s been the key to the team being the top scorers for far this term. The other players would frequently contribute to the attacking actions too. Gosens and Hateboer would support them on the flanks and stretch the defence, opening spaces for Pašalić and De Roon to combine with the front players.
The key to their build-up is their constant positional movement. Pašalić and Iličić would drop back, whilst Djimsiti and Gosens would go forward and the four of them would create short pass combinations and move the ball. Brozović would be the one to press Pašalić and Iličić to trouble the build-up.
Due to the above mentioned covering strategy by Inter, Atalanta would often try to switch play using Gómez, who would try to drift into the free spaces. He would try to combine with the wing-back, whilst Atalanta would commit more players on the other side ready to receive a cross or a pass and use quick runs to the box to escape their makers and create chances.
Having Zapata as their dominant striker in the first half didn’t work out exactly due to Inter’s well-executed split of responsibilities and marking strategy. He would often be isolated and unable to combine with his teammates. What the team needed was more players able to switch positions, pick up the ball and position in the box. Which is exactly what Gasperini did and I’ll explain it later in the analysis.
Inter would always aim to win the ball back and apply intense pressure on the ball carrier, although they would lose possession quite easily too. They were applying high press trying to force La Dea into mistakes.
The Nerazzurri attacking ventures and how Atalanta coped with it
Atalanta also relied on a well-structured five-man defence. They would position in a flat low-block and focus their actions centrally where they tried to block Lukaku’s efforts off and on the ball. The main responsible for covering Lukaku was Palomino, who would constantly put him under pressure and follow him all over in order to get him out of balance and win the ball back. He wouldn’t leave too much space for him to move around. Palomino made 21 recoveries and won 21 of his 30 duels (defending and aerials).
Due to Atalanta’s defensive positioning, Inter would often be forced to shoot from distance – 75% of their shots. But Atalanta would sometimes overcommit players to marking Martínez and Lukaku centrally, which caused chaotic actions and allowed them to use their technical abilities to escape the pressure and attack the goal.
That’s exactly what happened for Inter’s opener. Both strikers combined well with Sensi’s help from behind who helped to drag players out of position. The midfielder would be a key contributor to the team’s build-up, getting all the support from Candreva too. His role was to serve as a passing option but also drag players out of position centrally or stretch them out wide.
What helped Atalanta defensively were their efforts in the opposition half. They would apply high press too and force Inter into sending the ball back or use long balls to build-up. They also have a better record (57.69%) when it comes to winning aerials duels, which affected their defensive performance. La Dea were very solid winning aerials in the box, whilst Inter lost almost every aerial duel in theirs.
The easier way for Inter to penetrate was counter-attacking. Martínez would drop back helping with defensive actions and counter immediately after winning the ball back. Lukaku was extremely quick switching to attacking actions, especially after defending set-pieces. Atalanta’s defence conceded five counter as they weren’t able to structure properly and outplay Inter’s front duo.
Gasperini’s second half changes
Gasperini realised that he needs to make a change in the team’s attacking strategy since they couldn’t convert their chances into goals. The manager subbed Zapata for Ruslan Malinovskyi which immediately meant switch of positions and tactics. Gomez and Malinovskyi would stay on both sides with Iličić acting as a false nine from behind, although they would still move around and do what’s best.
The main idea was overloading the final third and using their one-touch pass combination to break Inter’s structure. The Ukrainian was useful due to his movement back to pick up the ball, but also being an additional man disturbing the opposition around the box.
Later on, Gasperini made one more change, getting Pašalić off and playing Muriel. This transformed the team’s structure for the better and allowed them to execute the abovementioned idea even better. The front three started moving in a similar manner and their teammates would offer support on the edge of the box, sneaking between Inter’s players. They pinned the Nerazzurri back and switched play frequently, combined with moving off the ball in order to score.
Gasperini’s substitutions could’ve resulted in winning the game, but an impressive performance by Handanovic left them with only one point. Inter lost their aggressiveness in the second half and couldn’t find a way to escape the pressure, which could’ve cost them a lot. The draw seems like a logical result after the shown tactical set-ups.