UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Atalanta vs Liverpool- tactical preview
Matchday three of the UEFA Champions League group stages gets underway on Tuesday evening, with group D seeing first-placed Liverpool take on second-placed Atalanta in Italy. Both sides are coming off the back of 2-1 victories in their respected leagues, and a victory for either side here would put them in good shape to qualify from the group. Atalanta are a side famed in the analysis community for playing an aesthetic, offensive style of football with a focus on rotations and overloads, while Liverpool are likely to tactically line up as they usually do. As a result, this tactical analysis will focus on Atalanta’s style of play and how Liverpool can look to combat it both in and out of possession, as well as looking at how Atalanta’s creative build-up could interact with Liverpool’s pressing.
Out of possession Atalanta operate in a 3-4-1-2 structure, with their central midfielders usually man oriented. Strikers press the centre backs, wing-backs push higher to press the opposition full-backs, while the central midfielders mark their player tightly and look to prevent central progression. This man orientation from the central midfielders means Atalanta’s midfield can often become a 3-3-2-2 of sorts depending on the midfield staggering, as two central midfielders stay higher here to mark their opponents.
We can see an example of their ideal pressing structure below, with the wing-back applying pressure on the ball while the central options are marked by the strikers and central midfielders. Again the opposition drop into a double pivot, and so Atalanta follow them with two high pressing central midfielders. The deepest midfielder therefore protects the back four, and so can monitor any players dropping to receive. As a result of this three man midfield, it is difficult to overload Atalanta centrally without the use of either a diamond or a forward dropping to receive, both of which reduce the attacking teams options highest up the field.
We can see an example below of their 3-4-1-2 formation being flexible again here, with their number ten Papu Gómez here dropping back as the deepest midfielder with no one to mark, while the two other central midfielders Martin De Roon and Mario Pašalić press higher.
We can see another example of strict man marking in the defensive phase here, where Atalanta don’t mark situationally or ‘transfer mark’ and instead have players follow specific players. We see here that a centre back has stepped very high into midfield to form that midfield three. This player is closest to the ball near player, but rather than passing his man on to the oncoming Atalanta midfielder, he leaves it to the deeper midfielder to get forward and press quickly, while the centre back stays with his original man.
We can see here also that as the ball goes backwards and players drop, the Atalanta central midfielders are aggressive in their marking and will sprint back with markers to prevent them from receiving.
Weaknesses in Atalanta’s pressing
Atalanta’s pressing is generally successful, although as with any press it has its weaknesses. One such weakness is the ability of the opposition to manipulate their central man-marking, as this man-marking can of course open lanes elsewhere on the pitch. We can see a basic example below where the split positioning of the two central midfielders opens the central lane for a higher central midfielder to receive. This player is marked quite tightly by the Atalanta holding midfielder, but this option still offers a penetrative pass which could be used.
Napoli used this pass extremely well in the build-up to one of their goals against Atalanta, with again central midfielders positioning themselves in a wider position in order to manipulate their man markers. Napoli drop a forward deeper, and this player is able to turn and pick out a vertical pass. This pass draws in a wing-back into a narrow position, before the ball is then played wide for Napoli to escape pressure and eventually score.
When the ball goes into wider areas, man orientation from the central midfielders can leave the half-space open as it does here, with the pressing wing-back unable to prevent a half-space pass from the full-back. We see the central midfielders and holding midfielder stay tight to their players due to their high level of man orientation, and so this vertical pass is available.
Napoli here are able to manipulate Atalanta’s man orientations with the use of an up, back, through pattern. We see central players vacate the half-space in an attempt to open the lane in, and the ball far central midfielder then makes a darting run to get ahead of his marker and receive a pass from Mertens higher up.
Napoli consistently looked to test their man markers on an individual basis, with players like Fabián here using feints to try and dismark his opponent. Again though, Fabián takes up a more central position in order to pin his marker and create a lane in the half-space.
Pinning the wing-back
Another weakness I have noticed within Atalanta’s pressing is their response to a wing-back being pinned. One of the generic disadvantages of the 3-4-1-2 is that it requires wing-backs to press over a large distance, which obviously takes time and energy. As a result, if teams place players higher up against a wing-back, it can cause decisional problems for this wing-back, as they do press and leave the player high up, or do they allow themselves to be pinned and cover this higher player.
Atalanta have shown on occasions that they are willing to allow their wing-back to be pinned, and so when the ball is in a deeper area and the opposition commit players higher around this wing-back, they can pin this wing-back deeper. As a result, the opposition full-back now has to be pressed by somebody.
This role has often fell to one of the nearby central midfielders, which not only increases the chances of creating a midfield overload but also makes that central midfield very narrow and too compact. We can see an example below where De Roon has to move forward to press the full-back, with the wing-back behind him (highlighted) being pinned back by an opposition player. As a result, the central midfielders are all compacted into this tiny space, and opportunities for switches can come about.
The best example of a team exploiting this is probably Napoli in their 4-1 victory, where in this sequence of play they draw this particular press in and then switch the play. We see Napoli pin the wing-back with a winger, and so a central midfielder is forced to press the Napoli full-back, while the Atalanta central midfielders mark the Napoli midfielders, who remain relatively close to the ball. Napoli then play the ball backwards and switch play.
Once the ball is switched to the other full-back, a winger pins the other Atalanta wing-back, and with the central midfielders being so compact initially, they can’t get across to the other side to press effectively.
The Napoli full-back therefore gets lots of time on the ball to drive forward and progress the ball, and it ultimately falls to a wide centre back to go and press, with the wing-back here out of shot remaining wide and pinned by a winger. Napoli then attempt to get in behind using the space left by a pressing centre back. Liverpool could utilise this kind of idea well considering their impressive track record of switching play to progress forward, and their use of a 4-3-3 means that Atalanta’s central midfielders should always be occupied.
One other general trend I noticed from my analysis of Atalanta is how they can be hurt through simple vertical passes. Against Napoli in particular, Victor Osimhen was able to hurt Napoli with his hold up play and general bullying of the centre backs. In this example here, Napoli do a poor job of attracting pressure before going long, and so Atalanta are able to keep a holding midfielder in front of the defence to cover them. Despite this, Atalanta still miss the header and Osimhen is able to get through on goal. This wasn’t the only time in the game that the centre back missed a header leading to a goal-scoring opportunity, and with vertical passes along the floor Atalanta looked equally uncomfortable.
The key idea for Liverpool then is that they engage all of Atalanta’s central midfielders in order to reduce the cover in front of the back four, so that they can play vertically and support the ball. We can see an example below Osimhen holds the ball up and lays it off to a supporting player, and so Napoli are immediately able to attack Atalanta’s last line.
Thankfully for Liverpool, they are excellent when playing vertically, and all of their usual front three are elite players when facing away from the opposition goal. Mané and Salah are excellent at holding up the ball and progressing it through the half-space, as is Roberto Firmino, and the Brazilian is also deceptively good in the air. Divock Origi put in a good showing regarding hold up play in Liverpool’s last Champions League game, and so for rotation, we could see him or the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri used.
We can see an example below of Salah’s superb hold-up and ball progression skills while facing back, as he is here able to find Keita with a pass behind the lines for a goal.
We are also likely to see Liverpool’s half-space occupiers do their usual backing into players tactic, where they force opponents to get tight before backing into them in order to draw fouls. Salah does this excellently here as he forces a battle between himself and the defender, and Salah’s strength allows him to prevent the defender from nicking the ball, forcing the defender to foul Salah to retrieve possession. With Atalanta’s press opening up opportunities for vertical passes into the half-space, Liverpool could use this to their advantage.
Atalanta’s buildup against Liverpool’s press
Atalanta also attack in a fluid 3-4-1-2, but it is their rotations and dynamic space occupation which makes them a threat. In an analysis (linked here) of Atalanta’s positional play, David Seymour summarised Atalanta’s in possession system as this 3-4-1-2 seen below, with diamonds formed from each wide centre back helping to aid positional play.
The key idea behind Atalanta’s play is pass and move. When players pass, they must try to break lines with their movement or get in a position to receive the ball again, and this helps for them to progress play effectively. We can see an example here where striker Duván Zapata receives the ball in the half-space and initially has no immediate support. The wing-back overlaps to continue his run, and importantly, the number ten Papu Gómez arrives into the space to receive the ball. This dynamic space occupation, or arrival into space, means that his body orientation is forward-facing, and so he can progress play more effectively due to having better vision, and he can also move at speed. Atalanta use these third man runs often and so teams have to be aware of this and prepare to close space.
We can see another example of good dynamic space occupation here, with Gómez initially dropping into the back line to vacate the pivot space slightly. Upon the wide centre back playing the ball into a midfielder, Gómez is triggered to make a forward run into the empty space to receive, and so if he can receive the ball he can immediately play forwards.
We can see another example of Gómez vacating and arriving into the pivot space below, which again allows him the same advantages. In this image as well we see a nice rotation between two players, who make opposite movements from high to low. This seeks to confuse opposition markers and open space for one of these players within the rotation, depending on how the opposition react.
It is not just their number ten who uses dynamic space occupation for Atalanta, Atalanta’s central midfielders will also push forward should they see an empty space, and we can see an example of this below against Ajax. Gómez and Zapata move wide, and so the half-space is left vacant for a late run and third man combination.
One final common rotation used by Atalanta is one which creates space in the wide lane. The wing-back will invert while the centre back is on the ball, which vacates this wide lane. A striker will then drop into this area, and number ten Papu Gómez will look to arrive into this central space left by the striker.
All of this begs the question of how do Liverpool prevent these excellent combinations. Man marking the heart of the system, Papu Gómez, would be the obvious choice, however this will likely only play more into Atalanta’s ideas around creating overloads and rotating to dismark opponents. In terms of the pivot space, the role of Liverpool’s striker is likely to be of importance in the game, as this player is usually tasked with cutting the lane into a pivot while pressing against a centre back (against a back three). As a result, if Atalanta attempt to empty the pivot space in these examples, it is vital that the striker continues to cut this lane, and prioritises cutting access to the pivot over-pressuring the centre backs.
The central midfielder of Liverpool can situationally mark a dropping central player if they come from high to low, as you would normally see, but for Liverpool it is likely vital that they cover passing lanes into dangerous areas where players may rotate into. Liverpool match Atalanta up 3v3 in the middle of the pitch, and so Atalanta’s midfielders will have to use their rotations and movement in order to escape Liverpool’s press, and so Liverpool are likely to behave more zonally to prevent being manipulated by Atalanta’s movement.
We can see a theoretical example below where Atalanta try to create a passing lane into a wide area for their number ten with a central midfielder dropping narrower. We can see here it would be important for Liverpool to not commit too early or become man oriented on this deeper midfielder, otherwise the passing lane opens up. In theory, the defensive midfielder could just follow this player in these situations, however central occupation is then lost which Atalanta could exploit.
Liverpool going away to Atalanta was probably the pick of the games in Group D, as Atalanta pose a rare and unique challenge to Liverpool. A win for Liverpool here would likely see them require only one more win to qualify, but with Man City away at the weekend it will be interesting to see how they line up personnel-wise. The most interesting aspect of this game in terms of tactics is how Liverpool adjust (if at all) their pressing to deal with Atalanta’s build-up, as I don’t really remember Klopp’s Liverpool ever coming up against a side so diverse in their build-up, and so it will be interesting to see how the two sides interact.