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Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Cagliari – tactical analysis tactics

Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Cagliari – tactical analysis

The Serie A coaches offer more and more exciting tactical decisions to analyse and the game between Atalanta and Cagliari was another proof of that. Teams with an intriguing but different approach, who might be the main candidates for European football next season.

Atalanta, a team with clear attacking strategy and relying on their striking force, were expected to control the game with their possession-football. Cagliari, though, broke their plans with an outstanding game plan and execution of it.

They managed to limit Atalanta’s exposition in front of the goal and are the first team to keep a clean sheet against them in Serie A this term.  A solid defensive structure and a perfectly-executed marking strategy were the key to their 2-0 win.

In this tactical analysis, we will break down both team’s tactics and how Rolando Maran outwitted Gian Piero Gasperini’s famous set-up.


Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Cagliari – tactical analysis tactics
Both team’s starting XIs.

There were no surprises when it comes to formations. Gasperini used his favoured 3-4-1-2. Pierluigi Gollini covered the goalkeeping spot, with a back-three of Rafael Tolói, José Luis Palomino and Berat Djimsiti as support. As a right wing-back he used Timothy Castagne, and on the left Robin Gosens. The central pair contained Remo Freuler and Mario Pašalić. The coach relied on Luis Muriel and Josip Iličić in attack, backed up by Alejandro Gómez.

It was possible for Maran to use 3-5-2, but he preferred to stick to the 4-3-2-1. Robin Olsen was the keeper and in front of him were positioned Fabrizio Cacciatore, Fabio Pisacane, Ragnar Klavan and Charalampos Lykogiannis who were the heroes in Cagliari’s performance. They got the needed support by the defensive midfielder Christian Oliva and the central duo of Lucas Castro and Marko Rog. Radja Nainggolan served as a creative force for his attacking teammates João Pedro and Giovanni Simeone.

Cagliari’s game plan caught Atalanta by surprise

Atalanta perform well when they are allowed to control the game, build-up from the back and impose their own pace. Once a team match their strategy, apply possession-football and attack on speed, they experience struggles to find the balance between the lines and defend.

Pre-game, Gasperini mentioned how good Cagliari are on speed and how his team need to increase their awareness during defensive transitions. Easier said than done. Cagliari started the game strongly and were able to create a couple of opportunities in the first five minutes of the match with the exact same approach.

Both teams tend to attack using the flanks and it was clear that the ones that take control out there, are the ones that are going to succeed. Atalanta usually form their attacks on the left, while Cagliari use their right side, and it was a matter of timing and control to see who’s going to take advantage of the opposition’s mistakes out there.

Unlikely, Atalanta were the team pinned back and forced to defend, allowing the opposition in their own half quite frequently. Cagliari implicated man-oriented pressing, which was enough for the Atalanta players to crack and lose the ball on many occasions. The guests managed to block the passing lanes and limit the players’ movement. Due to the intense press, Atalanta were forced to send the ball back which affected their build-up immensely.

Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Cagliari – tactical analysis tactics
Cagliari’s players covering their target-men.

This also tired the Atalanta players, since they were constantly trying to escape the press and despite it was their third game in a week, Cagliari definitely looked better at the end of the first half.

Gasperini also mentioned that it’s going to be physical and pacey battle. And it was. But Atalanta weren’t allowed to dictate the tempo. Cagliari were controlling the game and even without looking at the stats it was clear that they are winning most of the duels in the first half, no matter in what area of the pitch. Cagliari had better control on the ball and smoother build-up. This was mostly a result of the player’s perfect positioning and well-measured movement.

Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Cagliari – tactical analysis tactics
Cagliari used five-men during defensive transition. The image shows how perfect their structure is.

Atalanta, on the other hand, were lacking good structure. They allowed their opponents to reach the edge of the box on a few occasions, due to the lack of counter-press. Giovanni Simeone’s speed, control and improved work under pressure bothered La Dea’s defenders.

Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Cagliari – tactical analysis tactics
Simeone made a speed run on the ball and managed to stretch Atalanta’s compact three-men defence. This caused space opening in the centre and Cagliari managed to take advantage of it.

Atalanta’s efforts

Atalanta’s full-backs and wingers were neutralized. They tried to do internal rotations, but it didn’t increase their productivity, because they were tightly marked by their opponents. Papu Gómez and Ilicic were constantly moving around, trying to drag players out of position and exploit the opened spaces. But it seemed like their movement wasn’t enough to fool the extremely focussed Cagliari defence. They tried to used smart passes and through balls as per usual, but Cagliari’s defensive structure and positioning were solid enough to block their efforts.

For the opener, the Atalanta players’ work under pressure proved to be poor. Gasperini mentioned that their positioning in the box is often wrong which could be seen in that situation too. They didn’t react fast enough and the ball went through three Atalanta players, which resulted in scoring an own-goal, all result of poor decision-making and wrong timing.

Most of their conceded goals come from outside the box, and Cagliari, as a team who often relies on shots from distance, tried to expose that weakness.

Atalanta increased the pace in the last 10 minutes of the first half and created a couple of dangerous opportunities. That’s all to make them five (all off target) which is extremely poor, having in mind they create 20 shots on average per game.

Ilicic saw red and it was expected that it would affect Atalanta’s attacking actions greatly, but it actually sparked more creativity and drive to win the ball back and attack.

There were no changes in Atalanta’s defensive structure. But Gasperini did a double change, subbing Gómez for Ruslan Malinovskyi and Gosens for Hateboer. They started doing more pass combinations and used one-touch passes, trying to bring back the creativity and increase the pace. They were also trying to create a numerical advantage on the flanks and managed to break Cagliari’s block on a few occasions, but due to their well-measured actions and clear strategy, they managed to stop them on time.

Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Cagliari – tactical analysis tactics
Atalanta committed more players upfront. They tried to numerically match and engage the Cagliari defender’s and force them into mistakes. As in this image, they let a player sneak behind the defensive line. Malinovskiy was positioning deeper in order to make runs and bring explosiveness. He partly managed to do it, despite being tightly pressure by the opposition.

Cagliari are usually not that solid when defending set-pieces, but there was a huge improvement in their positioning and reactions. Atalanta took 11 corner kicks during the second half and managed to deliver the ball more easily to the opposition half, but Cagliari’s defence was unbreakable. Every player was positioned perfectly in order to avoid mistakes.

Atalanta’s changes

Luis Muriel wasn’t very active in the first half, but he earned more time on the ball in the second half. He was constantly trying to create chances by picking up the ball from deeper positions but his rarely succeeded.

Ruslan Malynovski was the first half-time change and made a better impression than his fellow players. He showed great control on the ball and was the only player that managed to take on two/three defenders on a few occasions, the only thing lacking was his finishing. Castagne moved on the left flank once Hateboer came on, this increased their effectiveness on the flanks.

Hateboer and Tolói tried to engage their markers on the right in order to open the half-spaces, which was a good approach. They sent many crosses but they weren’t accurate enough, which was the reason for the missed opportunities.

Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Cagliari – tactical analysis tactics
Atalanta’s crossing scheme. Only 38 of their crosses were successful.
Serie A 2019/20: Atalanta vs Cagliari – tactical analysis tactics
Despite coming in on half-time, Hateboer was one of the most active players. A proof of Atalanta’s right-wing occupation – the most frequent passing links are between Hateboer, Freuler and Tolói.

La Dea increased their press and managed to shoot 13 times in the second half, but only two of these shots were on goal. That’s partly a result of Atalanta being more confident in their duels. Gasperini played on Musa Barrow, who showed good movement around the box. The midfielders instantly started looking for him in order to finish the attacks and he finished with two shots.

Cagliari didn’t make any noticeable change in their strategy. Their players were perfectly positioned and gained even more defensive confidence, despite the dangerous chances.


Rolando Maran’s players executed his game-plan perfectly and made Atalanta’s impressive attack look fragile. Despite being ten men, the hosts managed to improve their performance in the second half, since Gasperini boosted the creativity with some changes. It wasn’t enough, though, since the Cagliari players went out well-prepared and stayed steel until the end.

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