UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Atalanta vs Valencia – tactical preview
Atalanta achieved a major milestone last season, securing UEFA Champions League play for the first time in the club’s history. A frantic rally in the group stages now has the Italian side playing in the knockout rounds of the competition.
On the other side of the docket is a club that’s no stranger to the European knockout rounds. Valencia enters this tie as the group winners, finishing ahead of Chelsea and ousting Ajax, last season’s Champions League semi-finalists.
Heading into the first leg, these two sides are heading in opposite directions in the form table. Atalanta has turned its season around, currently sitting fourth in Serie A after a massive result against Roma. Valencia has struggled with consistency in 2020. A loss to Mallorca was followed by a win against Barcelona, yet now the club finds itself winless in the past three games in all competitions.
In this tactical analysis, we will preview the first leg between Atalanta and Valencia. The analysis will show the expected tactical approaches for each team, with Atalanta likely to dominate possession and attack Valencia’s central vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, we’ll also point to Valencia’s tactical trends, share significant statistics and show you why you can expect Valencia to get numbers behind the ball in an effort to keep this tie close for the second leg.
Gian Piero Gasperini will likely start with his preferred 1-3-4-1-2 formation. Though he likes to rotate his side, expect Pierluigi Gollini in goal with a backline featuring Berat Djimsiti, José Luis Palomino and Rafael Tolói. For the line of four midfielders, I’m calling for Robin Gosens on the left, Hans Hateboer on the right, and the pairing of Marten de Roon and Mario Pasalic in the middle. Remo Freuler is another strong possibility to play holding midfield, but de Roon is typically featured in big games and Pasalic offers a better attacking alternative to Freuler. With Valencia expected to sit back and absorb pressure, Pasalic can give the side the attacking edge it needs. Rounding out the formation, Duván Zapata and Josip Ilicic will play up top with the sensational Alejandro Gómez underneath them.
For Albert Celades and Valencia, Ezequiel Garay is out with an injury and Gabriel Paulista misses the game due to suspension. These are heavy losses for Els Taronges, who are likely to miss Rodrigo Moreno and Francis Coquelin as well. The injuries will likely move Mouctar Diakhaby and Eliaquim Mangala into the starting lineup to protect Jasper Cillessen’s goal. Expect them to be flanked by José Gayà and Alessandro Florenzi. With Valencia featuring its typical 1-4-4-2, expect youngster Ferran Torres and Carlos Soler on the wings. Geoffrey Kondogbia and Daniel Parejo will start in the middle with the former in a more defensive role and the latter pushing higher up the pitch. Finally, at the two forward spots, Kevin Gameiro could get the start with leading scorer Maxi Gómez, but I expect Celades will opt for the pace of Gonçalo Guedes instead of the Frenchman.
Atalanta will dominate possession
Given the backline issues facing Valencia and the fact that this is the away leg, they will drop off and concede possession to Atalanta. Ranking 11th in La Liga with an average of 48.3% possession per match, getting numbers behind the ball and countering is more conducive to the side’s philosophy. Much like the recent game against Barcelona, Valencia will be happy to influence the tempo through defensive measures.
This works out perfectly for Atalanta. Ranking fourth in Serie A with 55.7% possession per game, this is a team that prefers controlling the game through the attack. The Italians will lock to pin Valencia deep in its defensive end, disconnecting the midfield from the forwards. Ideally, one of those two Valencia forwards will have to drop in to help defend against Atalanta’s possession. The home side can achieve this organically, playing the same system it has implemented all season. The two central forwards will stay connected centrally, the two wide midfielders will provide the width while playing high up the pitch and the two holding midfielders can move high into the half-spaces to pin the Valencia midfield. That opens up space for Gómez, who likes to drop deep to receive in front of the opposition. When the opponent has to move forward to pressure him, Gómez has the ability to beat them on the dribble or deliver a killer pass. Plus, with the numbers high up the pitch, the opponent must commit more players in man-marking, giving the shifty Gómez the power pick on opponents who don’t have adequate coverage behind them.
If Atalanta’s possession isn’t producing enough quality chances, look for the Italians to concede possession to Valencia, defending in a middle block. Getting the Spaniards into a more expansive attacking shape will allow Atalanta to utilize the counterattack, any area where the side is lethal. As the leaders in Serie A with 133 key passes, La Dea confidently and fluidly switches its tactics in answer to the problems posed by the opponents. In fact, this is the top attacking side in Serie A, leading the league in 1 v 1 dribbling (793), touches in the box (664), deep completions (347), progressive passes (2054), shots (453), goals (63) and xG (57.92). The diversity of the categories, not to mention other top five attacking rankings, offers a glimpse of the versatility of Atalanta’s attack. This side is a fantastic study, but a nightmare opponent. Valencia will have its hands full fighting off the waves of Atalanta’s diversified attack.
In a recent match against Fiorentina, we saw the holding mids take charge of the build-up. Here de Roon played the ball behind the defender to Pasalic. Once the Croatian received the ball, he immediately took an aggressive touch forward into space. As the Fiorentina defence retreated, he continued his run well into the attacking half of the pitch.
Now, with the defence pinned, Pasalic played Ilicic who set to Luis Muriel. The major tactic teaching point here is the movement of the forward to pull his defender higher up the pitch, creating a running lane for a willing runner.
Pasalic was the willing runner on this occasion, taking advantage of Fiorentina’s poor backline shape. He managed to break in on goal, only to see the goalkeeper, Pietro Terracciano, put a goalless end to the 80-metre run. Even though Atalanta didn’t score, this sequence gave us a glimpse of the pinning, play to high targets and central movement underneath the forwards that are so important to Atalanta’s attack.
Valencia will defend in a low block
Given the quality of Atalanta’s attack, as well as playing away without its two starting centre-backs, expect Valencia to get numbers behind the ball and counterattack. With loads of pace on the wings and up top, countering is the most likely source of goals for Valencia. Since Atalanta circulates possession quickly and with a variety of movements, defensive discipline is key for the away team. At times this season, too much space between the lines, both horizontally and vertically, has allowed opponents to run at the backline, pinning them and leaving the side at the mercy of the opposition’s attackers.
In La Liga, Valencia is losing the shots battle (8.92 for vs 14.38 against) and xG (1.26 for vs 1.72 against). This is not a team that presses high up the pitch. On average, Los Ches has only 9.71 high recoveries per game. For the most part, it looks to sit deep and counter, but the numbers show that, even with two healthy starting centre-backs, this isn’t working in the team’s favour. The current bottom half of the La Liga table has recorded a higher xG than Valencia in seven of 12 matchups this season. It’s not the most effective tactic for a side with little defensive presence in the midfield. Still, that’s the way Celades will set out his side and, at this point, he doesn’t have many other options. His starters will have to prioritise the defensive side of the game and have a cautious attacking approach. Parejo, in particular, will have to support Kondogbia for 90 minutes.
In the Spanish Super Cup semifinal against Real Madrid, we see Valencia playing a low block. On this occasion, the lines are tight, both horizontally and vertically. The only real outlets are wide, which doesn’t bother Valencia.
Upon recovering the ball, Valencia played directly to the high target, Gómez. Once the ball was in flight, Gameiro, playing the second striker, and three of the midfielders sprinted up the field in support of their teammate. You see the Madrid defenders hustling back on the near side of the field as Valencia aims its runs to the far side. Look for Valencia to take a similar approach in the away leg against Atalanta.
Valencia’s counterattack vs Atalanta’s counterpress
We’ve already discussed Atalanta’s attack and the need for Valencia to sit deep, absorb pressure, and cautiously counterattack when the opportunity presents itself. Watching films on each team, one matchup that will deeply impact the outcome is Valencia’s counterattacking against Atalanta’s counter-pressing. If your only exposure to Atalanta are the three early losses in the UEFA Champions League, you’re missing out. This is one of the better counter-pressing teams in Italy. In fact, I Nerazzurri rank third domestically in PPDA (8.17), second in challenge intensity (6.7) and first in shots against, holding opponents to an outstanding 256 shots in 24 matches. Opponents average only 1.03 xG per game, which is largely down to the team’s counter-pressing and tackling ability. The more advanced players do their part, forcing turnovers and hopeful balls forward, gifting their teammates with easier recoveries against fewer opposing players.
While Valencia is a quality counterattacking team, it can be a bit sloppy playing from the back. The Spanish side averages 21.58 low losses per game, meaning a side with Atalanta’s high pressing and counter-pressing capabilities can wreak havoc throughout the match. For Valencia to have success in this match, it might have to bypass the midfield. The two forwards must reliably hold up play, allowing the wingers to get forward in the attack. How Valencia uses the forwards is another area of intrigue. Will Guedes start up top and, if so, will Celades have him and Gómez stay connected or move them into wider areas to present easier outlets and utilise their pace? Early in the match, we have to see how the forwards operate and if Valencia are willing to take its chances playing through the Atalanta counterpress.
In the recent 2-0 win over Barcelona, Valencia recovered the ball in the 54th minute and played high up the pitch to its targets. After a moment to secure possession, Valencia played a long switch to Gayà. The long switch of play cued the Valencia midfield and forwards to get higher up the pitch and attack the box, trusting the delivery of the cross to Gayà.
Gayà did get his cross into the box, but it was promptly cleared by Barcelona.
Lionel Messi was able to win the ball and run at the backline. With so many of the Valencia players sprinting forward to join the attack, Barcelona were inches away from escaping the tactical foul and running 3 v 2 at the backline. Valencia’s mad rush to counterattack left it vulnerable to a Barcelona counter. As mentioned, Atalanta is a highly capable counterattacking team. The Spanish side will have to protect against the counter in this fixture, protecting against the numbers the Italians will have higher up the pitch.
During Atalanta’s match against AC Milan, a 60th-minute sequence saw an aggressive Atalanta counterpress win recover the ball from Milan within six seconds on four separate occasions in a one minute span. The quick recoveries stifled the Milan attack, but also allowed Atalanta to keep its winger higher up the pitch. As you can see here, the two forwards are positioned six metres in front of the Milan backline while the wingers are providing the team’s width and height. A long switch of play from Gómez to Pasalic (who had switched roles with Gosens).
Pasalic was afforded time and space to progress into the box and run at Andrea Conti. With no coverage for Conti, Pasalic made a quick move to the inside and finished at the far post. Notice the three options Pasalic had in the box. With Atalanta’s attackers running into the box, the Milan backline had to simultaneously brace for a pass to an oncoming runner while also protecting against the shot. Suffice it to say, the guests didn’t do either well. If Valencia is unable to break the Atalanta counterpress, it will spend a great deal of the game playing recovery defence as the home side runs at the backline.
Atalanta will pick Valencia apart in the central channel
Sorry, Valencia fans, but I just don’t see this starting XI keeping Atalanta’s attack at bay. Losing the two starting centre-backs is a deathblow for any team. It’s especially significant because the midfield doesn’t offer much protection for the backline. Among the four midfielders, only Kondogbia is a real defensive presence. The only hope is that the full-backs contain the Atalanta wingers, allowing the four Valencia midfielders to stay compact and central to account for runs of the holding mids and Gómez. Furthermore, Valencia’s midfield can’t get caught too high up the field, even to pressure Gómez. The moment Valencia’s line becomes disconnected to pressure higher up the field, Atalanta will look to pin the midfielder and get between the lines.
While Atalanta are among the Serie A leaders in crosses per game, those crossing attempts are born from the numbers the team commits centrally. As mentioned, Gómez prefers to start from a deeper position in the midfield, allowing him to run at opponents or operate as a deep-lying playmaker. As he drops deep, his holding mids push higher, driving defenders away from the Argentine. If central penetration is an option, Atalanta will take it. If not, the ball will get kicked out to the wings and crossed. With the two forwards and two holding midfielders crashing the box, Atalanta is able to contest crosses with a great deal of success. Expect them to target the central channel in this match, taking advantage of Valencia’s makeshift backline and poor midfield protection.
Going back to the match against Fiorentina, we saw Gómez run at his defender, leaving him helplessly on the ground, then assessing his options higher up the pitch. This is a great example of Atalanta’s shape in an open possession as it enters the attacking third. The team has width through Hateboer and in this instance, the centre-back, Masiello, who joined in with the Fiorentina defence pinned in. Notice the line of two forwards playing off of each other centrally with the line of four midfielders joining them. Gómez likes to receive in front of the defence, meaning he’ll drop deep, allowing his two holding midfielders to push higher up the pitch. This action will either generate a central numerical superiority or drive the opponent’s midfield further back, disconnecting it from the forward line.
Atalanta’s central prowess is a major concern for Valencia. In the match against Villarreal, which this Champions League fixture could certainly mirror in terms of tactical implementation, Villarreal found loads of space between the Valencia lines. Though Villarreal lost 2-1, it produced the better xG, beating Valencia 2.41 to 1.54. Villarreal doesn’t have the defensive capabilities of Atalanta, so it’s reasonable to think that xG number could more heavily favour the Italians. Regardless, I Nerazzurri will have its chances if Valencia struggles to stay organised.
In the UEFA Champions League fixture against Ajax, Valencia really struggled with defensive structure, tracking runs and recovering the ball. Here, the young American, Sergiño Dest, was at the end of a long switch of play.
After running onto the ball and cutting inside, Dest found Dušan Tadić who split the defence with a simple through ball. Despite three Valencia defenders in a position near the ball and the runner, they failed to track the run of Donny van de Beek, leaving him to slot home the third goal. The battle in Atalanta’s zone 14 could well decide the outcome of the match and the tie.
Form and injuries have been an issue for Valencia during the past couple of months. In the 11 La Liga matches since the middle of November, Valencia has won the xG stat category four times and lost on seven occasions. The chances just aren’t coming as often and the side is still conceding too many. With both of the typical starting centre-backs out, this fixture is really poorly timed for Celades’ side. Los Ches will hope to keep this one close, giving themselves a chance to seal the result in the second leg.
For Atalanta, this game couldn’t have come at a better time. La Dea is in scintillating form and the side carries minimal squad concerns heading into the match. As opposed to Valencia’s dreadful xG performances, Atalanta has only lost the xG statistic once in the last 13 Serie A matches. In fact, after that poor start to the season – which includes the humiliating Champions League scorelines, the Italians have since played remarkably well on a consistent basis.
After an analysis of form, tactical matchups and playing philosophies, I’m going out on a limb and calling for a lopsided affair with Atalanta securing a 3-0 victory in the first leg.