Serie A 2020/21: Lazio vs Atalanta – tactical analysis
3rd vs 4th; Atalanta and Lazio have had a massive 2019/20 and that’s the position both the teams finished in Serie A respectively. Lazio were in contention to win the Scudetto giving Juventus a tough fight till the Covid break. At the other end of the break, Lazio could not hold the momentum thus slipping down the table and finishing 4th at the end of the season.
3rd vs 4th was bound to be a mouth watering fixture in Serie A. However, the scoreline might sound otherwise. Lazio 1-4 Atalanta, might seem like a thrashing of Le Aquile, but if we take a closer look at the xG chart, the scoreline doesn’t seem to be a kind reflection of Lazio’s performance.
Simone Inzaghi started with his preferred 5-3-2 and made only one change to his lineup that started against Cagliari at the weekend. Felipe Caicedo replaced Joaquín Correa to partner Ciro Immobile up front owing to his amazing ball holding ability and ability to win aerial duels, which we will discuss later in the analysis.
Gian Gasperini made a flurry of changes to the lineup as well as altered his formation. He shifted from his 3-4-1-2 against Torino to 3-4-3 against Lazio. Ruslan Malinovskiy started alongside Alejandro Gómez and Duván Zapata up front. Mario Pašalić replaced Marten de Roon and partnered Remo Freuler in the midfield. Robin Gosens and Hans Hateboer provided the width and acted as the left and right wing-back respectively. Rafael Tolói, José Palomino, and Berat Djimsiti had the job of shielding the goalkeeper, Marco Sportiello.
Atalanta’s press and Lazio’s 3rd man principle
Atalanta pressed Lazio high adopting a strict man-marking approach. The front three pressed Lazio’s three centre-backs. Pašalić (LCM) and Freuler (RCM) generally marked Lucas Leiva (Pivot) and Luis Alberto (LCM) respectively. Sergej Milinković-Savić (RCM) was marked by Tolói (LCB). The Lazio wing-backs were pressed by the Atalanta wing-backs, however, the La Dea wing-backs stayed a bit away from the Lazio wing-backs and pressed when the Le Aquile wingbacks received the ball.
Lazio tried to play through the goalkeeper and since Atalanta uses a strict man-marking Gasperini instructed his forwards to press the goalkeeper and apply co-ordinated jumps when the Lazio goalkeeper had the ball and not give him enough time to look for a perfect long pass. Inzaghi instructed Milinković-Savić, Immobile, and Caicedo to stay up and win the long balls from the goalkeeper and the centre-backs owing to their ability in the air and since Atalanta uses a man-marking approach, it was always a 3 v 3 situation, if the ball was played to them.
When Zapata (CF) moved up to press Thomas Strakosha (FK), the goalkeeper played the ball to Leiva and Lazio intended to initiate the 3rd man principle by playing the ball to the centre-back (in this case, Francesco Acerbi). To negate the 3rd man principle of Lazio, Atalanta adopted co-ordinated jump and Malinovskiy (RAM) was instructed to shift from pressing Ștefan Radu (LCB) to the man Zapata was marking. If the pass was made to Radu, Malinovkiy would easily change his path and press the LCB again and Zapata would return to his initial position and mark Acerbi. However, since the ball was played to Leiva in such a tight space, the former Liverpool man had no option but to play a backward pass to Patric (RCB, not in the frame). The basic idea of Gasperini was that the toughest passing option for Lazio in the safest place for Atalanta could be left open by his players and the other would be strictly man-marked.
The other aspect of Atalanta’s pressing was that if the ball was played on one flank, the attacking midfielder of the other flank would keep distance between him and the opposition centre-back whom he should have marked and drop into a space between the Lazio centre-back and the midfielder. With the attacking midfielder in the space between the two players, the central midfielder has the option to drop deeper and provide cover to his defenders to prevent a 3 v 3 situation.
Here, the ball was being circulated on the left-flank (from Atalanta’s perspective). Malinovskiy (RAM) dropped a bit deeper in between Radu (LCB) and Alberto (LCM) and now has the option of marking both the Lazio players depending upon the dynamics of the game. Freuler (RCM) dropped deep to provide cover to his centre-backs. Others maintained strict man-marking.
I Biancocelesti mixed their build-up with two-man backline pushing the central centre-back (Acerbi) up alongside Leiva (pivot) or built-up with the three-man backline. The major idea was to use the 3rd man principle as discussed earlier.
When the home side was building out from the back, generally, Immobile, Caicedo, Milinković-Savić, Alberto and the ball-far wing-back would be pushed up. Alberto would drop deep from the height in the half space or the central channel and initiate the 3rd man principle, and Leiva would move aside dragging away his marker. If the dropping deep of Alberto doesn’t open up passing lanes for the Lazio goalkeeper and centre-backs, Milinković-Savić too would drop deep to the other half space.
Here, you can observe the sequence of the 3rd man principle which uses the up back and through method. The Lazio goalkeeper passes the ball to the dropping Alberto, who lays off the ball to the first 3rd man, Acerbi (CCB), who instead passes the ball to the second 3rd man in Immobile (LCF). Lazio mostly built-up short using the 3rd man principle extensively.
When the home side were incapable of building out from the back they adopted a long ball route to the three attacking players (especially Milinković-Savić and Caicedo) who have created a 3 v 3 situation with the Atalanta centre-backs.
However, Atalanta centre-backs are known for their aerial ability and won approximately 70 % of the duels.
Lazio’s press and Atalanta’s diamond
Lazio mixed their press with high pressing as well as occasional mid-block. The home side pressed in 5-3-2 and the whole unit moved relative to the ball. Generally, the two forwards pressed the ball near centre-backs, the ball-near wing-back pressed the opposition wing-back, and the ball-far centre-back would be left open.
Here, Immobile and Caicedo pressed the subbed in Cristian Romero (RCB) and Palomino respectively (CCB) keeping a cover shadow on the two Atalanta midfielders and Tolói (LCB) wasn’t pressed by anyone. Adam Marušić (LWB) moved up to press Hateboer (RWB) and when that happened, Radu (LCB) too shifted to the left and pressed Malinovskiy, basically the entire Lazio unit shifted left.
When the ball was circulated to the right, the entire unit shifted right with Milinković-Savić (RCM) pressing the initial ball-far centre-back, Tolói (LCB). Manuel Lazzari (RWB) pressed Gosens (LWB) and Patric too moved up to press Pašalić (acting LAM). Immobile and Caicedo stayed in their positions to cut off the passing lanes to the centre-back, Leiva (CDM) marked the dropping Gómez (LAM). Basically, the entire unit shifted right and the short passing options of Atalanta were cut off.
When the wide centre-back enters the middle third, the Lazio forwards instead of staying with the other centre-backs drops to mark the double pivot.
In a similar situation, the ball was circulated from left to right (from Lazio’s perspective). When that happened, Milinković-Savić pressed Tolói (LCB), Lazzari marked Gosens, just like the previous instance. But in this case, Caicedo and Immobile looked to drop down and mark the double pivot to cut off the passing lanes to them.
Atalanta’s build-up play is now known to all where they use a lot of rotation and diamond to build-up using Gómez as the free man. The Argentinian is the most important piece in Atalanta’s build-up when it comes to the positional play. With him help, Atalanta creates numerical and positional overloads on the opponent.
Atalanta believes in overloading each phase of play. When Atalanta is in the first phase of build-up, Freuler drops to the backline in between the centre-backs or mostly in between the RWB and the RCB and pushes the RWB forward.
When this happens, a diamond is formed among Freuler (anchor) (RCM), Hateboer (RWB), Malinovskiy (RAM) and Gómez (LAM). Gómez is the free man who creates overload in this sequence. Leiva can’t move up to press Papu as it will distort Lazio’s defensive shape. By creating a numerical overload of 4 v 3, Atalanta progresses the ball to the opposition half.
When in the left vertical half, Pašalić does not drop to the backline rather he forms the top of the diamond.
Again, in this screenshot, we can see, Gómez joining in to form a diamond along with Tolói (RCB), Gosens (LWB), Pašalić (LCM). As stated earlier, when in the middle third the strikers drop deep to cut off the lanes to the double pivot. In this case, the double pivots are Papu Gómez and Freuler. However, Caicedo can’t keep on marking Papu, if he moves out of his zone/space as Lazio defends with a space-oriented man-marking. It is a mix between man-marking and zonal-marking where each player is assigned a space and he has to mark an opposition player who enters his space/zone.
Atalanta’s diamond in the opposition half
Lazio defended with a 5-3-2 space-oriented man-marking in their own half too. The space-oriented man-marking is effective when an opposition is to be marked in a certain space but when the opposition overloads a certain space, there lies the problem.
Atalanta build-up with a lot of rotations and Papu becomes the anchor of almost all the positional play. Malinovskiy was used very judiciously in the build-up against Lazio. The Ukrainian is a menace when given space and can unlock any defence with his impeccable penetrative passing. Atalanta devised a strategy where Malinovskiy would be used to create an overload as well as provide him enough space and time to play in a perfect pass.
This screenshot vividly describes the dilemma of the space-oriented man-marking. Here, Freuler and Malinovskiy created an overload on Alberto. The Ukrainian was just at the blindside of Alberto and did not drop in between the lines. If he dropped in between the lines, he would enter the zone of Radu (LCB), and thus it won’t create any numerical superiority. Once he received the ball and entered Radu’s space, the Lazio defender moved up to press Malinovskiy.
Other than creating a decisional crisis by creating an overload, Atalanta created chances by their most used method, by creating a diamond on the flanks. Atalanta uses the same method in every game, yet, they execute it so beautifully that the opposition even after knowing what’s going to happen next, falls into a trap.
A diamond coupled with rotation, and pass and move if executed properly can dismantle any defence and Atalanta did it quite well whenever the away side got the chance.
The screenshot is just on the verge of forming a diamond. Hateboer and Papu make a countermovement with Hateboer now at the top of the forming diamond.
Freuler makes a bounce pass to Papu, who plays it back to Freuler and after passing it back, he vacates the area in order to occupy an advanced space.
Freuler then uses Malinovskiy as the bounce pass and receives the ball in an advanced area.
Along with moving in an advanced area Freuler helps in creating a decisional crisis for Marušić. The left wing-back now has both Freuler and Papu to cover. He fails to cover both Freuler and Papu and Papu becomes a ‘free man’ ready to exploit the space and create a chance for his team.
Atalanta have had only 34% possession of the ball but whenever La Dea got the chance they used their tried and tested method and exploited Lazio. Malinovskiy may not have scored in this fixture but he was one of the most influential figures in this lineup. He played the most number of through passes and his penetrative passes led to two goals for Atalanta, directly or indirectly.
Lazio’s overload and 3rd man runs
The scoreline doesn’t draw a clear picture of the performances of both the teams. Lazio had an xG of 3.40 compared to Atalanta’s 1.58 which clearly suggests Lazio has had the best of chances but the home team failed to convert their chances.
Atalanta adopted a man-oriented zonal coverage which is similar to space-oriented man-marking but the difference is that in this principle, reference is the opponent and not space. So, a player sticks to his immediate opponent player till a certain area and do not have to worry about the space vacated by him.
It looks like 5-1-3-1 in the image owing to the shape of Lazio’s build-up. Each player closer to the goal marks the immediate opposition player in their space closely and follows him. The players (Pašalić and Malinovskiy) a bit away from the goal, did not mark the immediate opposition closely and waited for the opposition to enter their zone and then they engaged.
To counter this man-oriented zonal coverage, Lazio used a lot of rotations, overloaded one vertical half of the pitch, and implemented the 3rd man principle.
In this scenario, each Atalanta player man marked each Lazio player in their zone and Milinković-Savić (RCM) drags out Tolói (LCB) from the backline. Caicedo is not closely pressed by Freuler, who uncommonly, finds space to play a ball to Immobile who is one on one with Palomino in the most dangerous area. Immobile wins the duel but shoots it wide.
Lazio attacked from the left channel mostly with 25 out of 46 positional attacks coming from this side of the pitch generating an xG of 1.76
Below is a sequence of pass and move and 3rd man run.
Marušić passed the ball to Alberto and continued his run. Again Milinković-Savić dropped deep from the height dragging out Tolói from his position. The Serbian played a first time ball to the wing-back after receiving the pass from Alberto and Marušić’s shot is saved by the Atalanta goalkeeper.
In the second half, Lazio brought on Danilo Cataldi in place of Leiva which improved Lazio’s ball circulation and even pushed the wide centre-backs up and the overload did confuse Atalanta a lot of times and Lazio could have scored more than one, which could be understood by the xG chart.
Here, you can see six Lazio players engage six Atalanta players in the last line of defence. Bastos plays a pass to Immobile and continues his run. Immobile lays off the ball to Bastos and this sequence led to a shot by Lazio which was blocked by Atalanta.
It was a great game of football in which both the teams had equal chances of sealing the win. However, Lazio’s poor show in front of the goal and Atalanta’s brilliance in it led to a huge win for La Dea.
It’s just the start of the season and it’s very hard to take anything for granted but La Dea don’t seem to stop a bit.