Serie A is blossoming in the last few years and offers very attractive football to watch combined with deep tactical knowledge. Italian football lovers could be happy with how the league is developing and how more and more teams become a constant threat to the first places. With this happening even more analysis of the coaches football vision, the teams’ performance will appear.

One of these teams is Atalanta and the reason behind that is their manager Gian Piero Gasperini. The Italian specialist came in charge in 2016 after a disappointing finish in the 2015/16 campaign in the bottom half of the table.

A huge improvement followed which resulted in turning the team into one of the most exciting to watch, home of young talents and intriguing football vision.

Starting from the 13th place in 2016, Gasperini built a team capable of getting everyone in trouble and able not only to play European football but be considered a threat. They have actually managed to reach a Champions League spot for the first time in their history.

The home of young talent and captivating tactics Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia has become a place not many have the courage to conquer.

In this tactical analysis, we will dive into Atalanta’s tactics and what they could look like going into the 2019/20 Serie A season.

Formations

The most noticeable tendency in the team’s structure is sticking to a three-man defensive line. Gasperini has a pretty direct approach and has made it clear he is going to put all efforts into their attacking force rather than their defensive ventures. The clearest example of all is their leadership in Serie A when it comes to goals scored. Atalanta have scored an impressive 77 goals last season, finishing third, topping Juventus and Napoli in that indicator.

Most frequently La Dea have played in a 3-4-1-2 formation, sometimes switching to a 3-4-2-1 and the more simplified 3-4-3. The front lines’ structure often depends on the opposition’s formation and approach. What makes an impression is that despite their attack-minded approach, they haven’t fully neglected their defensive responsibilities. Even though there is room for improvement.

Atalanta 2019/20: Season Preview - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Atalanta’s most frequently used formations throughout the 2018/19 season.

The Bergamo side tend to play possession football, although they sometimes get stuck when it comes to outplaying teams that match their approach. They use lots of lateral passes with a high pass accuracy in order to retain possession and distribute the ball to the more advanced areas. They like to keep the ball in the opposition’s half and apply intense pressing with their 519.37 passes on average per game.

They build-up from the back and use possession in order to distribute the ball further as quickly as possible. Atalanta also frequently use the half-spaces as a way to provoke creativity and attack. This takes place mostly when they meet resistance in the central areas and are forced to send long balls in order to reach the final third.

Gasperini relies a lot on the width, fulfilled by the wing-backs and also always requires a clear positioning and approach in terms of the central midfield. They like to surround the opponent’s central midfielders and block all passing lanes in order to stop any attacking actions. That is how they try to support the defensive actions. Due to the back-three, they get exposed in the wide areas, and the wing-backs have the responsibility to drop back and cover these spaces.

The back-three efficiency

Despite not being completely consistent defensively, there is no lack of defensive players. The manager has a few options that perfectly suit his favoured formation.

The team’s defensive actions start from their attacking players. They tend to apply a high press and try not to allow counter-attacks. They do allow 3.39 counters on average per game, but the positive thing is that they manage to take control at some point and only 29.5% of their opponents’ counters end with shots.

Their defensive strategy includes the high pressing of the wingers who try to block any passing options on the flanks. This is done in order to force the opposition into the middle where the midfielders would use their positioning to close the spaces between the lines and block the passing lanes. Taking control in the midfield area is their way of avoiding attacks on the wings where they are vulnerable due to the three-man defence.

Atalanta 2019/20: Season Preview - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
The back-three is vulnerable on a counter. In this case, the three central defenders stay too compact which exposed them on both flanks. The wing-backs not only didn’t drop back on time but also were unaware of the opponent’s positioning who could easily sneak behind their back. In this situation, they didn’t close the gap between the lines and the midfielders didn’t put enough pressure on the ball carrier. This allowed Sassuolo to take advantage of the gaps and deliver the ball in the final third.
Atalanta 2019/20: Season Preview - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
A showcase of the team’s lack of awareness after attacking set-pieces. Lazio won back the possession and managed to counter. Atalanta didn’t have any defensive players covering behind which resulted in Lazio having lots of space to exploit.

They are good at stealing the ball from the opposition and forming counters on their own. Although it helps more for gaining back possession and delivering the ball in the final third, rather than scoring goals. Atalanta have scored five goals directly from a counter and have allowed only one.

Expectedly, the back-three gets them in trouble from time to time. The defence is often caught off guard in the wide areas as the wing-backs fail to split their defensive and attacking responsibilities. They would not have the perfect timing which would allow their opponents to take advantage of the freed-up spaces on the wings.

This would often force the defenders into individual mistakes due to the high pressure which results in them being unable to stop the opposition from creating chances. Atalanta have scored three own goals in the 2018/19 season. They often fail to defend set-pieces too, as the players turn to be unaware of their opponent’s positioning.

The defensive line often experiences struggles when it comes to switching between man-marking and zonal marking which would leave gaps due to miscommunication.

Build-up and attack

As already mentioned, Atalanta tend to build-up from the back and rely on intense pressing in order to deliver the ball further quickly and smoothly. Not only would they frequently use the defenders’ passing abilities, but the central midfield would provide support in picking up the ball and progressing it from deep.

The central defenders would go higher and wider which would allow the wing-backs to cover the more advanced areas and help for an easier transition. Once the centre-backs leave their area wide open, a midfielder would drop deeper to cover it and an attacking player would drop back to give more passing options.

Atalanta 2019/20: Season Preview - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
The players are retaining possession in their own third with pass combinations between the defenders and the goalkeeper.
Atalanta 2019/20: Season Preview - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Then, once they decide to build-up, the ball carrier Toloi would go further, whilst in this split second Castagne moves off the ball and De Roon covers depth in defence. These rotations allow the team to smoothly build-up and create quick attacks.

Their front line is pretty active all over the opposition’s half but often get stuck due to the lack of good support from behind. Although it is the midfield players that often make the difference with runs from deep right into the box, exploiting the tiniest spaces and receiving through balls. That is why the passing abilities of all attacking players should not be doubtful.

That’s what Duvan Zapata tries to do. He provokes the central midfielders to do runs to the box and uses his creativity and vision to provide the perfect ball to them.

Atalanta 2019/20: Season Preview - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
In this situation, the captain had a couple of options to pass back but instead saw the uncovered area and went for a smart pass to Iličić, who then couldn’t cross properly. These sparks of creativity are hard to be defended by their opponents, but they need to work on their accuracy as it is often the reason for their failure in finishing the attack.

Alejandro Gómez, for example, would often have the role to cut inside or drop back in order to open more options for a pass combination and overcome the defenders. Their strategy of doing so is overloading the box area and relying on dragging players out of position and forcing them into individual mistakes. This is not that difficult as not only should the defensive line cover the overloaded central area, but also be aware of the wide players’ positioning as they hide constant threat.

Atalanta 2019/20: Season Preview - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Atalanta’s attacking players are often rotating, which results in constantly having one of them uncovered and ready to pick up the ball.
Atalanta 2019/20: Season Preview - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
The players are good in dragging their opponents out of position, as in this case, and allowing the uncovered players to take advantage of the situation.

The connection and the versatility of the attacking players are immensely important as the key is in constantly moving around the box and switching positions. This extreme versatility in terms of forming an attack and creating scoring chances has resulted in Atalanta becoming the top goalscoring team in the league.

Most of their attacks appear on the wings, which has been Gasperini’s approach since day one. That’s why the wing-backs’ role is extremely important. They are used for speed runs on the flanks and delivering crosses into the overloaded box, where they often rely on taking advantage of the second ball. They often do pass combinations with the internal players in order to move off the ball and penetrate even deeper in the final third, before the central players spread the ball out wide again. Their role is important, especially when the opposition tightly cover the wingers as there would still be someone offering passing options.

Atalanta 2019/20: Season Preview - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
The wing-back Castagne’s 2018/19 heatmap. It shows his importance on the flanks as he would often find himself in the opposition’s half and provide more options for finishing the attacks.

Room for improvement and expectations

Atalanta need to find a solution to their defensive vulnerability. Improving their reactions and awareness during defensive transitions would increase the team’s resistance and lower their opponents’ chances. As per usual, the role of the wing-backs is immense and they need to be more aware of the opposition’s positioning in order to avoid leaving gaps behind their backs.

Positioning smartly enough and blocking the passing lanes as well as closing the space between the lines would be the right approach when it comes to defending the middle channels. But if they want to be less vulnerable in the wide areas they might need to drop a midfield player back and form a four-man defensive line when out of possession.

The team haven’t been very active during the summer transfer window so far and this might affect their performance in the new season. Some of their players, especially the attacking ones are in their 30’s, which means that the board either needs to buy someone new or continue the tendency of bringing up academy players to the first team. This would be another reason for more scout reports on our end.

The selection might turn out to be a problem once Atalanta try to split between Serie A and Champions League. Gasperini needs to make sure he rotates the players smartly enough, otherwise, he risks losing chances for good performance in both competitions. With that many managerial changes among the Italian teams, La Dea could use their advantage as a team with already settled tactics and start the season strongly. Otherwise, Inter with Conte and Milan with Giampaolo could easily take their place should they have the needed time to get used to their new strategies.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #11: July 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

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