Serie A 2021/22: How Mourinho’s counter-attacking strategies saw Roma thrash Atalanta – tactical analysis
The 18th game week of the 2021/22 Serie A season saw top-4 challengers Atalanta host Roma in a crucial clash for both teams ahead of the Christmas break. Both the teams come on the back of a 2-1 victory in their previous game.
Atalanta, despite not being at their best like in the previous seasons continue to still impress by posing a very good challenge and is one of the early contenders to take one of the top-4 positions too. Roma, meanwhile, have struggled for consistency after a strong start to the season. They even suffered a 6-1 defeat to Bodo/Glimt in the conference league last month. Both teams would be looking to get the 3 points and Roma especially would be more desperate to get back into the top-4 race and lessen the gap between them and their opponents.
Atalanta made 5 changes to the lineup that beat Verona last week with Muriel, Miranchuk, Koopmeiners, Zappacosta and Demiral making their way out for Zapata, Ilicic, Freuler, Hateboer and Palomino respectively.
Roma, on the other hand, made 2 changes to the lineup that beat Spezia last weekend where Mancini and Zaniolo came into the lineup for Kumbula and Borja Mayoral as Mourinho stuck with his 3-5-2 system again.
Roma’s 3-5-2 shape gives them the edge
After suffering some very heavy defeats and also seeing a steady drop in the performances of the team, Jose Mourinho decided to shift to a 3-5-2 / 3-4-1-2 shape a few weeks back ahead of some very big games. Though the results have been mixed where they also lost heavily to Inter Milan. This time Jose’s plan worked right and the 3-5-2 system was able to dismantle the Atalanta defence steadily. With the 3 defenders at the back, they were able to match the 3 Atalanta defenders man-man. And also having 3 midfielders at the centre of the park meant that there was a 3v2 overload and advantage for Roma.
This also meant that whenever there was second balls or duels in the midfield, Roma were able to reach it and win it due to their advantage. We can see that in the image above where Roma has a 3v2 advantage in the midfield and when they also had Zaniolo drop deep it would give another extra man for them. This would be made possible with Abraham keeping himself in the last line and pinning the CBs. Coupled with the Roma midfielders’ ability to win the duels compared to their opponents gave them the edge on the day.
The key thing for Roma was Abraham’s positioning which facilitated them to allow Zaniolo to drop deep where the former would pin the backline that would give the space in between the lines. This meant that a 2v1 overload of the midfield like in the image above could happen and Zaniolo’s ability to hold the ball will give the opportunity for Roma’s midfielder to play Abraham with through balls.
Zaniolo would especially start himself on the back of a defender and would drop deep once the ball comes to the midfield. This would mean that one of the Atalanta defenders would follow him to engage in a duel. This is a downside of the man-man marking that Atalanta uses where the use of a double-striker and double movements would easily open gaps in their defence. Along with that when one of the defenders does not step up along with the line it would lead to Abraham and others being played onside like in the above image.
Roma would often do this and they would use Atalanta’s man-man marking to good effect by dragging them all over the place. This was done especially in the buildup to their second goal where Abraham would drop deep and would look to drag the wide CB with him. The whole Atalanta defence would then shift to the ball side when it went down to the wings. This meant that Zaniolo is isolated with just one CB and with Atalanta’s far side wing-back very high. Roma’s CM can make a run like in the above image.
Roma players would also employ double movements to drag the defenders around the pitch. Especially these double movements would trick the Atalanta defenders to come forward for a moment and vacate their position opening space that would then be immediately be attacked by the same set of Roma players. This was clearly seen in their 4th goal when a long ball was played to Abraham while the other Roma players around him would drop and immediately change their direction to the opposite. Abraham would then lay it off to them to carry it past the Atalanta defence.
Defensively, after scoring the first goal Roma would set in a 3-5-2 mid-block where the front-two and the 3 midfielders would stay very compact and occupy the central zones like in the image below to stop Atalanta from penetrating through the central regions like in the image above.
The front two of Abraham and Zaniolo would position themselves covering the Atalanta double pivot. This cover shadowing of the midfield by the strikers would ensure that the Roma midfield can sit more deep than usual and control the spaces in between the lines. In the image above, Atalanta right-winger drops into the half-space to receive the ball. When he looks to lay it off to the side for the midfielder next to him, Abraham is able to intercept the ball back.
Roma were also good in closing down the Atalanta players from multiple angles and winning the ball back. The body orientation and angles were good from the Roma players when they pressed the Atalanta ball carrier. They would often do this in the wings where already the options to pass is constrained due to the touchline. We can see a proper example from the image above.
The Roma backline were good in spacing themselves better too both in staggering as well covering the channels in between them. We can see how well the spacing is when the ball was in the centre of pitch before going to the wings where they would shift very well and accordingly cover their markers very well.
Atalanta’s possession structure fail to give them a spark
Atalanta are known for their expansive football under Gasperini where they often overload all the phases of the pitch and look to play the ball in behind the Roma defence. But their structure was slightly flawed or was dealt with very well by Jose’s men as they placed very good counter-attacking strategies.
Usually, Atalanta would use the flanks to play through the opposition’s defence and would use constant rotations in the wings to make way into the opposition’s box. Their wingers would often position in the half-spaces occupying either the opponent’s wide CB or the gap in between the FB or CB when the opposition play a 4 at the back-formation. When the wingers would drop he would drag the defenders with him. This would open spaces for the team’s striker to make a run into like in the image below. Atalanta tried to do this in many situations throughout the game but Roma’s CB were very disciplined and focus to cover these players as well as the zones very well.
We can see a better example below when the Atalanta winger dropped deep to drag the wide CB with him. There is a huge opportunity to play a bounce pass back into the space and play the striker in behind the defence. But Smalling is very close the striker and keeps him on his tabs without giving him many opportunities for him to make a run or receive it in space.
They would often play around the opposition’s block instead of through them even when the opposition do not remain compact centrally. But with Roma playing very compact, this meant that it would play right into how Atalanta would want to play. But Atalanta’s structure and synergy among players were not at the level they expected it to be and that gave them a lot of issues. We can see how both the midfielder who has stepped out of his position from the centre to move to the wings is at the same line as that of the wing-back while none of the other players occupies his vacated position to pin the Roma midfield. This meant that Roma can easily have their block shifted to the wings without anyone pinning them.
Atalanta would often build by asking their wing-back to be slightly deeper when compared to the other teams who play back-three systems. This is usually done by them to drag the opponent full-back or wing-backs forward before looking to exploit the space behind them using their forwards in 1v1 against the CBs. But Roma were aware of this and decided to keep their wing-backs deeper as usual. We can see this in the image where the Roma WBs are not going up to press the Atalanta WBs.
The key to breaking a 3-5-2 system is to constantly switch the ball to the opposite flank and look to exploit the opposition with a numerical advantage. Atalanta’s best chances came from these situations but they often didn’t do this and looked to use the ball near flank to make their way forward into Roma’s defensive third.
The result is a much-needed victory for Jose Mourinho and his men to keep up in the race for a top-4 spot. With this win, they move ahead of Juventus and stay in 5th due to their goal difference and 5 points behind Napoli who also have a game in hand. Atalanta, on the other hand, stay in 3rd but can move down to 4th if Napoli manage to win their game in hand as they are in the title challenge with both AC Milan and Inter Milan.