Serie A 2021/22: The textbook off-ball movements demonstrated by Inter and Atalanta – tactical analysis
A clash between the Serie A top four was played on Sunday as Atalanta took on Inter at the Gewiss Stadium. It was a tense, careful, technical, energetic battle as both sides prepared excellent tactics to try cancelling each other out. Despite the teams not scoring, the process was not boring as the teams demonstrated very good movements to open spaces. This tactical analysis investigates the build-up, off-ball movements of Inter, and how Atalanta combated without a proper right-back.
Gian Piero Gasperini might have had a headache when choosing his defenders as there were so many wing-backs injured, including Joakim Mælhe, Hans Hateboer, and Robin Gosens. He kept Davide Zappacosta on the bench, started Giuseppe Pezzella and Berat Djimsiti as the full-backs as his side played in a back four. This 4-3-3 is a proper formation to adapt to the opposition shape as La Dea were defending in a man-oriented scheme.
Simeone Inzaghi chose a 3-5-2 formation as usual, but he was not starting Lautaro Martínez. Instead, Alexis Sánchez started alongside Edin Džeko. Matteo Darmian started over Denzel Dumfries – the coach wanted a deeper right wing-back in this game. The former Manchester United defender was more competent on the ball, so he could involve in the construction phases more as I Nerazzurri wanted more control in this game.
Inter’s careful build-up
In this game, Inter were so careful and they avoided giving away cheap possession to a larger extent. They knew what exactly the Atalanta man-oriented system would do and so they have strategies to gain an upper hand. Before digging into the movements, we show the general structure of both sides first in this section.
As usual, Atalanta came with a man-oriented system as their 4-3-3 shape could match the opposition. They had the front three on the three centre-backs, three midfielders to man-mark three midfielders. At the beginning, it was Teun Koopmeiners on Marcelo Brozović; Remo Freuler on Nicolò Barella; and Marten de Roon on Hakan Çalhanoğlu. However, the tightness of marking depended on the contexts as Gasperini had small adjustments to that.
On the left side, the markings were generally tighter, with Freuler checking Barella very frequently to make sure the Italian international does not sneaks into spaces behind. But La Dea must not concede spaces in the centre, so, the striker could be a bit closer to his midfielders instead of staying around Milan Škriniar. Also, Matteo Pessina was also deeper to balance the structure as we indicated above. Therefore, the spacing (white zone) was narrowed centrally, and Inter could not play inside the block easily. To avoid spaces being opened early, the markers would allow the targets moving out of the formation to receive, but the players on the same side must be pressing together.
But Inter also capitalized on the man-marking as well, they played with three deep midfielders to pull the entire Atalanta midfield out, so the spaces in front centre-backs (blue zone) was very big, we will explain more on that later.
Inzaghi’s side was flexible to switch between a back four and a back three. Sometimes, D’Ambrosio could stay wider to allow Barella dropping deeper. Usually, the marking on wide centre-backs were relatively loose as Mario Pašalić and Pessina needed to balance the shape, closing down the centre. Through the movements of Çalhanoğlu and Barella in this image above, Inter were intentionally stretching the Atalanta block and separating the midfield line and last line, so they knew which space to exploit.
Atalanta’s engagement line was slightly deeper in this game as Luis Muriel would not press in the opposition box. This gave the Inter centre-backs more spaces to play but the La Dea block was also more compact in the centre.
To disrupt the man-marking system, apart from movements, another solution could be players interchanging positions. For example, Brozović dropped to the first line to get rid of Freuler on this occasion, so he could face the opposition goal. Meanwhile, the other two midfielders were also staying deep to make sure the blue zone was big for the second ball battles. Again, Pessina was not marking Alessandro Bastoni tightly as he should balance the structure in a narrower position.
Another part Inter did well was to involve the goalkeeper in the build-up. Samir Handanović made a couple of good saves, and his participation in the construction of the attack was very impressive too. He was comfortable to leave his frame and played as an extra man, in the above image it was a 6v5.
Handanović’s participation was not limited to only a numerical concept, he actually played the ball with his feet to help the team cancel the Atalanta press. There were a few times Inter did very well to move the ball around, made the opponents move instead of breaking the lines recklessly.
For example, here, Pessina did a clever pressing as he first went to Bastoni. When Bastoni passed the ball to Handanović, Pessina followed the pass so he could close the return passing lane while pressing the goalkeeper. This was a way to eliminate the numerical advantage of Inter as Pessina was defending two players simultaneously.
Usually, the goalkeeper would kick the ball away in such a case, but Handanović managed to connect Çalhanoğlu with a short pass. The Turkish international also did well by checking the marker’s position upon his arrival. Then, just one clever touch to find Bastoni, who became free after Pessina went for the goalkeeper. The whole sequence was a textbook counter-dynamic passing route to cancel out the press, this made the pressing of Atalanta in vain and Inter cleverly switched the free player from Handanović to an outfield player, who had a greater autonomy to bring the ball forward.
Textbook off-ball movements
Apart from structures and positions, by nature, football was a dynamic game as the players had the freedom to move. For example, players move to seek for the ball, or even better, move to open spaces for teammates. In the construction phases, I Nerazzurri demonstrated football as a team sport as the players were cooperating with each other to open spaces, or even facilitating ball progression.
The first image of the section shows the Inter midfielders were helping each other, and using movements to manipulate the man-markers, so to open spaces. Although Brozović was the 6, he did not stay. Instead, he made runs from deep to bring away his marker, this was always the intention. When Çalhanoğlu moved to the outside spaces to play and opened his body angle, his right foot can pass the ball back to the centre. With the vertical run of Brozović, the marker was brought away so Barella could come to receive. Note that the movement of Barella was lateral as he travelled across the half-spaces to get rid of the marker.
Barella, as the right midfielder of Inter, was roaming all around the pitch with purposeful runs and movements. Here, he initially passed the ball to Bastoni, and this time the left wing-back was deep in the build-up. Then, Barella continued his run, but he could not receive it back from the centre-back as Pessina blocked the passing lane. While Bastoni moved the ball wider to Ivan Perišić’s feet, the Croatian winger did not release Barella with his first touch, so the momentum was gone as there was a marker tracking. Nevertheless, Barella did very well by continuing his run all the way forward, which brought away the marker so the passing lane to centre was vacated again, another Inter midfielder could come laterally to receive.
Therefore, in this game, a loud voice kept shouting “move”, “move” was easily heard. Maybe it was Inzaghi or his assistants’ voices, which shows the energy to run and bring away the opponents were the keys of Inter’s attack.
So far, we gave examples of Barella’s fantastic moves, they could be forward, vertical, and lateral. But sometimes moving backwards could also be a solution, the 24-year-old Italian International was very good at making functional runs to open spaces for teammates. In this example, he dropped very deep to draw the marker away from the centre. So, Perišić had spaces to play as the distances between Atalanta was enlarged, indicated by the blue zone.
The dynamic is strong, in such a case, Perišić could pass into the centre, a midfielder was going to receive. Another solution could be the striker using that space by dropping deep, and playing in front of the centre-backs.
Also, it was about the angle of press Perišić confronted as well. Since Djimsiti mostly engaged from a vertical angle, he was unable to shut the stronger foot, hence, the diagonal passing lane of Inter’s left wing-back.
On the right side, the centre-back also played a hybrid role as he had the freedom to join the attack. D’ Ambrosio’s runs were more vertical instead of being lateral, Inzaghi just needed his energy to force the marker going away. In this game, the first run (vertical) was usually the decoy, as the intention was to bring away the marker, opening the lateral passing lanes into the centre.
Initially, Atalanta switched off on the above occasion as Pašalić was marking the wing-back initially, which was not exactly what they planned. It became an Inter 2v1 as Pezzella did not step up to close Darmian either. Very easily, D’ Ambrosio could find Darmian after inviting Pašalić to go inward. Then, D’ Amboriso must continue the run after the initial pass, which the innerlap could provide Darmian a passing option when the centre-back travelled on Pašalić’s blindside.
Remember the sequence we explained above. The first run was vertical, but it was also a decoy to bring away the opposition. Instead of going back to D’ Ambrosio, Darmian had the ball for another second as Inter did not rush in the attack. After the vertical run, diagonal and lateral options were created for the wing-back again. Džeko dropped from a higher position to support, and Brozović was there as well. Both passing lanes were opened as the decoy run brought the marker away. The drop of Džeko was posing a question to Merih Demiral as the Turkish defender must leave the backline by far to mark him tightly. If Demiral stayed, then no one could mark the Bosnian striker in the centre as this was a man-oriented system from Atalanta.
Atalanta – principles > formation
Atalanta used to play a 3-4-2-1 or a 3-4-1-2, but even Gasperini changed the formation into a 4-3-3, the team did not look very different as the team was guided by the principle of plays.
The PPDA of Inter was 8.76, much lower than Atalanta’s 12.24 in this game. It means Inzaghi’s side were more intense against the ball than the opponent. They defended in a 5-3-2 with a pair of asymmetrical wing-backs to close the wide spaces. In the first half, the 8 would jump out from the centre to press the full-backs as Çalhanoğlu pressed Djimsiti above. However, that would leave the centre or half-spaces (white zone) exposed as the 8 pulled wide. To avoid that white zone being exploited by the opponents, Inter strikers had a good awareness to cover de Roon, while the wide centre-backs were stepping up early to close that space as well.
Also, the wing-backs would be going for the Atalanta wingers when they dropped to make sure they could not turn easily. Here, Perišić was on Pessina to make it a 2v2 in the wide spaces and gave Pessina minimal time to play. Inter forced the opponents to play long balls into the half-spaces, which was favourable considering Muriel was lacking the physical dominance for the aerial duels.
But Atalanta also had solutions to open up Inter. Apart from keeping a conventional 4-1 shape in the build-up, the players also interchanged to stretch the Inter second line. Gasperini’s midfield three was very flexible as they roamed a lot on the pitch with clear purposes. On the left side, they wanted Pezzella, who was less competent technically to play higher, and dropping Freuler to the outside spaces. The positioning of the Swiss midfielder pulled Barella out, and exposed Brozović in the midfield. To make it a 3v3 in the midfield, Brozović was higher to close the square pass towards Koopmeiners, but that also means Inter were without the 6 in front of the last line. There would be more 1v1 scenarios against the centre-backs as the Brozović might not be able to close spaces early. For example, Pašalić had a 1v1 against the marker if Brozović was not covering.
In this scenario, Inter reacted well as the last line was always early to close spaces, both D’Ambrosio and Darmian stepped up to mark the dropping Pezzella and Pašalić, they made sure the receiver could not turn easily.
Compared to the likes of Ruslan Malinovskyi and Aleksey Miranchuk, Pessina had less quality and creativity on the ball, but one thing the Italian international could provide was the off-ball movements to open spaces for teammates. Pessina started as the right-winger on paper but he mostly played infield, and using his movements as decoys to draw an opposition away from the original position, so spaces were opened elsewhere.
For example, here, de Roon went to find Djimsiti. In this attack, Pessina oriented himself towards the centre-back initially, and dropped to pull Bastoni away from the last line. That resulted in a big gap between the wing-back and Škriniar, and it would only be bigger as Perišić would come out to press Djimsiti. But Atalanta did not generate huge threat by playing those balls as Muriel was not going behind of the defence at the right moment.
Instead, Atalanta preferred to play short passes and combinations in the final third to create the chances. When the players dropped, they brought defenders away from the last line to open the channels with runners sneaking in from different angles.
In the above situation, the midfield three of Atalanta once against stretched Inter backline, this was a very good combinative move involving the inverted-winger as well. As we indicated, Freuler and de Roon were at the outside of the Inter second line, and Freuler was always comfortable to slice the diagonal pass from a deeper position given he was a right-footed player. To further open the space, Pessina moved laterally towards the ball, which fixed Çalhanoğlu’s attention. When the Turkish midfielder went for Pessina, de Roon travelled on Džeko’s blindside to receive in the white zone, where Inter did not have enough player to protect.
Inter went wild
In the second half, Inter became more aggressive both offensively and defensively as they wanted three points to win back-to-back Scudetto.
Defensively, they changed the way of pressing a bit as the 8 no longer jumped from the half-spaces to press the wide players. Instead, the wing-backs came high and vertical in the wide pressing to close the wide spaces, and they let the centre-backs to deal with the Atalanta wingers.
As a result, Inter had more players in the centre, as they had at least three midfielders in that area, so the Inter strikers did not have to stay deep to cover. They could go high, match the centre-backs and press without worrying spaces behind. Here, when Sánchez pressed José Luis Palomino, Darmian made the sprint to close the wide spaces, and so Palomino did not find de Roon. When the 32-year-old Argentinian defender went back to the keeper, Džeko jumped out immediately to chase the backward pass, forcing a long ball.
In the attack, Inter were more fluid as players might be ending up at a place far away from their positions. But that large scale of positional interchanges also created chaos for the defending side as Atalanta could only chase. For example, Bastoni was literally one of the highest players in this image as he looked to attack the wide spaces on the left. Atalanta had three players in the last line, but the one who competed for the long ball was not Djimsiti, instead, it was Bastoni’s marker: Pessina. When the Atalanta players were following the opponents, they might be in the positions where they were not competent to play, this might be a reason for Pessina misjudging the header, and let the ball bounced to Bastoni.
Also, Peršić manipulated Djimisiti’s position more by moving deeper. Inter tried to exploit the outside spaces of centre-backs a lot in the second half. In the construction phases, Sánchez made more runs into that space behind Djimsiti and outside of Demiral.
While in the final third, this was also a source of chance creation as they used the wing-backs to pull the full-backs out, the Atalanta centre-backs were more exposed. For example, Darmian’s high and wide position dragged Pezzella out here, and there was a gap between Pezzella and Palomino.
The last big chance of the game also came from this tactic, that might also be a reason for Inzaghi replacing Darmian by Dumfries as the former PSV player had better qualities in the offensive third. Here, the Atalanta last line was stretched, and Barella came inward to exploit that gap. Palomino could not defend that huge space, and Inter managed to reach behind the last line with D’ Ambrosio’s run in the half-spaces.
But Inter were also exposed in the transitions. As the wide centre-backs could be very high or very wide, they were unable to narrow down the spacing with Škriniar when there was a turnover. At times, Atalanta had chances by Muriel running into that outside spaces of Škriniar, and they managed to reach the final third at least by slicing the ball into that channel. In the above image, we indicated how Muriel could go behind through the channel between Škriniar and Bastoni, as the left centre-back of Inter took up an advanced role in the attack.
As our analysis pointed out the details of tactics by Gasperini and Inzaghi, this was a close game. Inter, despite dominating possession and the ball for some periods, were unable to generate more threats in the final third. While Atalanta started the game slowly, they showed patience and defensive efforts to cancel the attacks of the opponents. Offensively, they also carried threat by teamwork, as we suggested how Pessina opened spaces for teammates with his runs, and they also harmed the opponents via transitions. It was a difficult season for La Dea as the team had so many injuries, but they could carry on with some positive results if the mindset was right.