Coppa Italia 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Lazio vs Atalanta
Ahead of his side’s semi-final second leg against Fiorentina, which saw Atalanta go through to the Coppa Italia final 5-4 on aggregate, Gian Piero Gasperini said the following:
“The characteristics of the team remain the same. In any case, we know what their strengths are. We’ll need to concentrate on our performance.”
The coach was unphased by his opponents’ recent managerial reshuffle, this was mostly about what his side could do.
Atalanta and Lazio go into the final with a great understanding of one another’s styles and attributes. The two sides are determined to put their own chapter in the Coppa Italia’s monograph, however, they’ll aim to do this through optimising their own qualities, rather than taking account of one another’s.
In this tactical preview, we shall examine the strengths and weaknesses that each side will bring into this exciting Coppa Italia final. We shall conduct a tactical analysis by studying their two previous battles this season in Serie A, as well as contextualising this in relation to their season as a whole. Atalanta’s record against Lazio makes them the favourites, but the Roman side have enough about them to cause an upset.
Potential formations and starting lineups
With confidence, we can say that there shouldn’t be too many inspired changes in shape heading into the final. In each of their contests together this season, both Gasperini and Simone Inzaghi have tried to force their counterpart to compromise their own style. Gasperini has had his side line up in a fluidly attacking 3-4-1-2/3-4-2-1 in both fixtures. Inzaghi, on the other hand, has seen his stooges consistently shape up in a 3-5-2.
Gasperini’s 3-4-1-2/3-4-2-1 has been used 33 times this season in Serie A. We can expect that Atalanta’s forward and midfield lines will be largely consistent. The biggest question will be over who starts on the left wing. Whilst both Robin Gosens and Timothy Castagne sandwiched the Atalanta central midfielders from either side against Genoa last time out, this seems unlikely to continue tonight. Hans Hateboer has been excellent on the right wing this season and looks certain to return there for the final. Castagne’s recent scoring streak, which includes a finish against Lazio last week, may see him get the nod.
Lazio’s three at the back has been a season staple. Inzaghi has entrenched this defensive set-up deep into the I Biancocelesti mindset. They’ve deployed the 3-5-2 18 times this season in the league and they’ve hardly shifted from this defensive shape. In terms of personnel, there could be some variation. Ștefan Radu has had his four-match ban, for pushing a referee against Inter Milan, halved so he should return to action alongside Francesco Acerbi and either Bastos, Wallace or Luiz Felipe.
Lazio’s attacking depth
Ciro Immobile has had a decent season, scoring 14 goals and contributing five assists in Serie A this season. His form in the Coppa Italia has also been excellent. He’s scored three times in Lazio’s unexpected cup run this season, but his teammates’ reliance on him is telling. Immobile’s three Coppa Italia goals equate with 50% of Lazio’s overall goal output in the competition.
But this doesn’t mean that Lazio are one-dimensional. Immobile was partnered up front with Felipe Caicedo when Lazio lost 3-1 to Atalanta in Rome a week ago. Despite scoring just over half of the goals of his teammate, with fewer assists, Caicedo has been ever so slightly more threatening. Caicedo’s xG90 (expected goals per 90 minutes) measures in at 0.51, beating Immobile’s by just 0.01. This is the highest in the Lazio squad.
If Caicedo starts, expect lung-bursting, intelligent running from deep into advanced positions. This could harm Atalanta’s defence, as their reliance on Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler blockading them could be scythed apart. Caicedo is powerful and domineering – the ultimate catch-22. His freneticism could encourage a greater defensive concentration on him, drawing men away from his partner, or Atalanta will risk him overpowering his designated marker. As seen in the graphics, he is an unpredictable foe.
The third potential inclusion to crowbar into this tactical preview would be Joaquin Correa. The Argentinian has had slightly more game time than Caicedo. However, the two can contribute in different ways. Correa is constantly moving between the lines and linking play. This season the forward has made more dribbles than anyone else in the Lazio team, with 5.8 per 90 minutes. Amazingly, 3.3 of these are successful. His quality of assists speaks for itself. His xA90 (expected assists per 90 minutes), is 0.31. This is the seventh highest in Serie A.
Atalanta’s dangerous left
Conversely, one area which Lazio will need to be hyper-wary of will be their right side. The reason for this is that Atalanta love attacking down their left. It’s undoubtedly been their strongest region of the pitch this season.
In the first fixture between the two sides this season, a 1-0 victory for Atalanta, the left-hand side of the pitch was the primary area of attack. In this game, La Dea launched a whopping 59% of their attacks down the left side of the park. Indeed, Duván Zapata’s first-minute goal found its origin from a cross launched from this side of the pitch. The below pass maps show how crucial Robin Gosens, their forward-thinking left wing-back, was as an attacking outlet.
But regardless of starting either Gosens or Castagne, Atalanta will still look to attack down their left side. One of the biggest reasons for this is that it is the usual portion of the pitch occupied by attacking dynamo, Alejandro Gómez. The Argentinian has been Atalanta’s key contributory player this season. He leads the club’s key passes and assists crosses.
Despite his obvious danger on the left side, the playmaker is constantly making intelligent use of space, both horizontally and vertically. Furthermore, his implicit understanding with Zapata and Josip Iličić borders on telepathic. Gómez’s presence makes the left side a specific target, but this says more about his brilliance than anyone else’s weaknesses. Lazio will (likely) struggle to counteract Gómez’s inspired positioning and creativity.
Lazio’s organised retreat
Despite conceding three goals to Atalanta just over a week ago, when transitioning into a defensive shape, Lazio looked quite assured at times. From the outset, Lazio sought defensive rigidity. Inzaghi arranged for his wing backs to sit much deeper and attack with caution. This effectively limited the amount of time and space which their opposite numbers had on the ball.
While this did perhaps encourage Gómez and Iličić to move more into the channels, it did greatly limit the influence of Atalanta’s wide players. Furthermore, it’s impact was felt in the middle of the pitch. Lucas Leiva, Marco Parolo and Luis Alberto, their midfield trio, racked up 11 of Lazio’s 20 attempted tackles. Additionally, six of Lazio’s 12 interceptions were made in the middle of the pitch.
In the below graphics, we can see how Lazio managed their lines and the spaces between them excellently. The wing-backs were withdrawn, but with a watchful eye on their opposite numbers. As Iličić tried to move into the channel, Bastos could follow him with sufficient cover behind. The midfield were then perfectly positioned to engage and clear the danger.
Atalanta’s defensive disparities
Arguably Atalanta’s attack has been so good this season that it has also managed to shroud their defensive inequities. Statistics from this season show that despite currently sitting in third place in Serie A, Atalanta have an xGA (expected goals against) that should put them in fifth place.
Atalanta are only one of two sides in the top 10 with an xGA deficit. The other side is Sassuolo, in 10th. Atalanta are a defensive anomaly this season; they should have conceded more goals. This is not to begrudge them of anything. An xGA deficit could owe much to excellent goalkeeping, effective defensive transitioning, and even mental stress when facing their defence. All the same, Atalanta’s backline does have its insecurities when isolated.
Worryingly for Atalanta, they concede their highest xG shots when an opponent attacks quickly, with 0.23xG/Sh. This all plays into Lazio’s hands. Lazio look their strongest when the ball is moving. Lucas Leiva and Milan Badelj have been two of Serie A’s most successful defensive midfielders in terms of winning back possession. Atalanta will be vulnerable when forced to backtrack by Lazio, particularly if Lazio’s midfield terriers have overcome their midfield blockers.
Furthermore, Lazio attack most dangerously when they break quickly, with 0.17xG/Sh from fast attacks. Lazio should look to strike on the counter, having drawn Atalanta out before totally blindsiding them. Fiorentina’s goal, as shown below, demonstrates the frailties of an exposed Atalanta back three, after they have been abandoned for a gung-ho attack.
Judging purely on their recent head-to-head record, one would assume that the Coppa Italia is already sewn up. However, this would do a disservice to Inzaghi’s side. Lazio have had a recent run of good form. Their coach has dug deep and exploited all areas of their squad. Whilst we can assume that Inzaghi will opt for a 3-5-2, we should be aware that their playing personnel make them highly malleable. Their forward options are diverse, yet interchangeable, and their versatility at the back could also frustrate Atalanta.
Gasperini, on the other hand, can take confidence knowing that his side have the formula to beat Lazio on their own patch. His European-chasing, silverware-summoning hit squad will be crucial when ramming attack-after-attack down Lazio’s throat. With Gómez regulating the pulse of their attacks, it seems irrelevant as to who will accompany him on the left side. However, expect this to still be the main corridor for their attacks, with overloads aplenty. All the while, Atalanta must not get carried away under the bright lights of immortality. They’ll need to measure their attacks in line with adequate defensive cover if the trophy is to go to Bergamo.
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