Champions League 2020/21: Atalanta vs Ajax – Tactical Preview
Matchday two of the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League group stage is just around the corner, and this tactical analysis will give a preview into some potential occurrences and outcomes in the Group D fixture between Atalanta and Ajax.
Team form & news
Atalanta made an impressive start to their European campaign when they picked up a 4-0 victory away at FC Midtjylland. Since then, however, they have fallen to defeat in Serie A, losing 3-1 at home to Sampdoria. The Italians will be keen to return to their emphatic Champions League form when Ajax visit. Duvan Zapata, who scored in both of the mentioned fixtures, will look to exploit Ajax’s defensive issues with the support of players such as Alejandro Gomez and Josip Ilicic. The only notable absence for Atalanta is goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, who remains sidelined by a cruciate ligament injury sustained in August. Gollini, who featured heavily last season, has so far been replaced by Marco Sportiello.
Ajax will come into this game in high spirits following their historic 13-0 win against VV-Venlo in the Eredivisie over the weekend. Striker Lassina Traore may be given the nod to start after netting five goals in that game, while other in form players such as Dusan Tadic and Antony will also look to have an impact on this fixture.
Left-back Nicolas Tagliafico will be seeking some Champions League retribution following his own goal in the club’s previous group game against Liverpool. However, Ajax will be desperate to get off the mark in Group D, having failed to score at home in that first game defeat. The Dutch visitors will be without exciting young midfielder Mohammed Kudus, who misses out through injury.
Atalanta in defence
Having conceded 48 goals in 38 league games in 2019/20, Atalanta had an area in which they needed to improve if they’re to continue their impressive rise to the level they’re currently at. Despite just being five games into this season’s campaign, they’ve already shipped 12 goals – something Ajax will look to exploit with their attacking variety and pace. However, do not be entirely fooled by the stats. Atalanta are not an awful team defensively, they just realise that their strongest asset is their attacking unit.
One attractive element of their game is their ability to unpredictable and versatile with their tactics, both in attack and defence.
This first example, from last season’s Champions League campaign, shows exactly that. They altered their shape to deal with the attacking threat and pressure from Valencia, moving to a 5-3-2 formation temporarily. This gave them strength in numbers in and around the penalty while leaving very little space to be exploited. The compact shape also allows Atalanta to force their opponent to focus their possession and attacks to wide areas. Deploying this tactic against Ajax this season would have its benefits – Ajax have shown a weakness and lack of venom in attack to break down a defensive unit that is deep and narrow.
This is not always reliable, however, as Atalanta have demonstrated defensive struggles this season.
Here we see a calamitous defensive shape. Yes, they have a good number of players present for a defensive scenario, but their positioning, both individually and as a unit, is poor and open to being exploited. Whether this is down to a lack of on-field leadership, a lack of understanding of defensive duties, or general defensive consistency, a team of Ajax’s quality going forward will likely punish this type of defending.
Atalanta’s attacking force
In a Serie A that has the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Dries Mertens, and Paulo Dybala to name a few attackers, Atalanta’s front unit is one of the most fearsome – not only in Italy, but in all of Europe. They impressed many in reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, while finishing 3rd in their league season, scoring a phenomenal 98 goals, and 116 goals in all competitions. Five players reached double figures in all competitions, unsurprising when their system allows for a high presence in attack.
A total of five players are present in this attack for Atalanta, and their positioning and overall unit shape is brilliant. With Zapata and Muriel in a central position occupying the defenders, Robin Gosens finds himself in plenty of space on the left. The technical talent in the attacking unit allows for versatility and rotation to confuse the opposition defence, and it also allows them to sustain pressure and attacking influence.
A similar outcome is achieved in this image too. A high volume of players being present makes it difficult for the opposition to constantly defend – it also makes it hard for them to counter-attack if they win the ball as Atalanta’s individual positioning allows for an effective counterpress should a turnover occur. Atalanta also like to create diamonds in attack, as seen above. This lets them utilise a large space while providing several passing outlets for the man in possession.
Off the ball, Ajax are a side that prefer not to give their opponents time and space on the ball to build an attack – sitting deep is simply not their style. However, as we will see below, this does not mean they press in a reckless manner, with each unit of the team having its own role to play.
The image above shows Ajax’s favoured approach when the opposition has possession deep in their half. Setting a team to act in this fashion has the potential to limit what the opposition can do with the ball. More often than not, pressing with a structure like this results in the goalkeeper going long, giving Ajax a good chance of recovering possession.
If a turnover in possession does occur through such a scenario, there is a strong chance that the opposition are not initially defensively set up to combat the oncoming attack, giving Ajax more gaps to exploit to build a more threatening move.
Being the away side in this fixture and perhaps being careful as to not give a goal away, we may see a more relaxed version of this press, or at least this press executed less frequently than we would in an Eredivisie fixture.
Counterpressing is another important element of the Ajax system and something we have seen them deploy in numerous Champions League ties in recent years. They use triggers (a bad touch, a sloppy pass etc) to which they react in a way that forces the opponent to rush their next move. The tricky thing with counterpressing, especially in the Champions League, is to pick your moments – applying this type of pressure constantly at every chance for the entire game can be dangerous. We may see this on occasion against Atalanta to prevent the Italian side involving some of their star players i.e Zapata, Gomez etc.
Pressing from the front has been an element of the game that Ajax have been able to undertake impressively for a number of seasons now. Their biggest defensive concern is how they react if either A) the press is beaten and opposition bypass the attacking and midfield unit or B) Ajax have invited pressure on and the opposition find themselves in dangerous territory, or C) Ajax find themselves defending a counter attack of sorts. If Atalanta were to go at Ajax’s back four from a wide area, we could see a few things, including panic, from the Dutch side.
Here we see a recent example of Ajax struggling to defend a quick break, with a number of things going wrong. Firstly, there is no pressure being applied to the opponent on the ball, who is allowed to dribble further away from his own goal with the time to pick out his next pass – a fault of the midfield unit (highlighted in yellow), who enabled this.
Furthermore, the poor defensive organisation at the heart of the back line between Daly Blind and Perr Schuurs is enough to make the mouth of any striker water as there is a lot of space to be exploited, especially with the lack of pace between the defenders, and the absence of the full-backs. Making a series of mistakes like this cost Ajax a goal in an Eredivisie fixture – if they were to make these mistakes at Champions League level, against a side with the attacking firepower of Atalanta, they’ll struggle to pick up a result.
Ajax’s young star – Antony
While Ajax’s side possesses several vastly talented players – the likes of Andre Onana and Nicolas Tagliafico for example, but one of their most promising players is one they signed to essentially replaced the departed Hakim Ziyech – Antony. The young Brazillian arrived for a club-record fee, and has impressed many so far with his pace, dazzling dribbling ability, and deadly left foot.
Antony is pictured on the right-wing making a run into space in this analysis. Tadic, the man on the ball lofts a pass over to the winger, who demonstrates great ability and confidence to turn this attack into a goal after beating the Sparta defender in a 1v1 situation and cutting inside on his left foot to shoot, finding the back of the net.
Although he is the type of winger who thrives on cutting inside and driving into a central area, he does also possess the ability to impact the play from a wide position.
In this example, we see Antony on the ball out wide on the right-wing, with Ajax in the middle of a quick attack. With Noussair Mazraoui making a darting run towards the byline, Antony assessed his options and calmly played his teammate through at the perfect moment. This pass from the youngster was the first in a move that saw Ajax score.
In a position where many would’ve either failed to execute the pass correctly or opted to take the attack on solo, Antony’s decision making and composure prevailed. In six Eredivisie games this season, he has netted four goals and made two assists – a very good addition to an already-dangerous attacking unit at Ajax.
Both sides possess dangerous factors that could prove to be pivotal in this fixture. From Ajax’s clever pressing system that could result in a transition to attack Atalanta’s out-of-positioned defence, to Atalanta’s dynamic attacking threat that could cause 1v1 issues for Ajax due to their lack of pace in some defensive areas, this game could easily be a goal fest. Atalanta will look to their attacking unit to get the better of Ajax’s back line and continue their strong start to the Champions League. While Ajax will probably look to unsettle the home side, not allowing them any time or space on the ball, especially in Atalanta’s own half.