Josip Iličić 2019/20 – scout report
Atalanta have been the team to watch these past two seasons. Back in 2011, they were promoted to Serie A from Serie B, although since then, they struggled to find consistency in the league, finishing as low as 17th in the 2014/15 season, and as high as 4th in the 2016/17 season, securing a spot in the Europa League. Last season, under Gian Piero Gasperini, Atalanta finished third in the league, qualifying them for the Champions League for the first time in their history, a huge accomplishment. Their Champions League run so far has been exciting to watch, as it looked like they would have been out in the group stages after three losses in a row. However, two wins and a draw secured them second place in the group, allowing them to advance to the next round. In the round of 16, they were able to beat Valencia with an aggregate score of 8-4, which advances them to the quarter-finals should the competition continue. The team is on track to finish in a Champions League spot this year as well, and the hope is that a top-four position becomes consistent for them. Gasperini may not have a team of well-known superstars, but he has a mix of youth and experience that all buy into his tactics, and how he wants them to play, making them a very special squad. One of these players is Josip Iličić. Iličić has been a key part of Atalanta’s side since his signing in the summer of 2017. He contributes massively to how Atalanta play, and he is, without a doubt, one of the reasons why Atalanta have been on a steady rise these last couple seasons. This tactical analysis will be a scout report on Iličić during the 2019/20 season and it will look at his strengths as a player, and what he brings to Atalanta.
One of the attributes that make Iličić such a dynamic player is his flexibility. At Atalanta, he predominantly plays as one of two strikers up top. However, throughout his career, he has played as a second striker, a right-winger, and an attacking midfielder. Iličić is able to take the attributes that make it necessary in each of those positions, and combine that all into one, which, in my opinion, is what makes him such an invaluable player, especially when he is in the form that he is in currently. These attributes are what will be explored below.
As mentioned, Iličić plays as one of two strikers in 3-4-1-2 formation at Atalanta, making him one of two strikers, usually alongside one of Alejandro Gómez, Luis Muriel or Duván Zapata. However, it is a bit more complex than that. What usually tends to happen is that Gómez, Muriel, or Zapata will be playing as an out and out striker, while Iličić will be positioned slightly behind him. He is essentially the link between the midfield and the forward line.
The heatmaps of Gómez compared to Iličić shows this. While both put in the effort both on and off the ball (neither would be considered poachers), Gómez’s heatmap showcases that he does spend lots of his efforts centrally in the final third, compared to Iličić whose heat map shows that he puts more effort on the byline, and past the halfway line, in his own half.
The link that he provides is important as it allows as it puts down the likelihood of there being a gap between the midfielders, and the strikers, a play that opposing defences will try and create by attempting to isolate Iličić and the striker playing alongside him. When there are times that Atalanta struggle to get the momentum going, and are unable to get to the final third, Iličić will drop in as deep as the halfway line to attempt to get the ball and start attempting to play make and create chances form himself or his teammates.
One of Iličić’s main strengths is playmaking. He is second only to Gómez at the club for most assists this season, with Gómez at nine, and Iličić at six. However, in most other playmaking stats, he is well ahead of his teammates: smart assists per 90 (2.87), key passes per 90 (1.91), and final third pass accuracy (100%) among others. Part of what makes him Atalanta’s main playmaker is his positioning as mentioned above, as he always is aware of what’s around him, and where he is needed to best help his team. But a part of it is pure skill. His ability to work in tight spaces and his vision allows him to see the best possible situation while playmaking. He can navigate in tight spaces, which is difficult to defend against because, if the defender gets to close to him, it gives him the free reign to essentially get the defender away from him, and the other defenders are forced to compensate. However, giving him space (the alternative) allows him to run into that space without much work. It really is a lose-lose in most situations.
His vision allows him to make passes that many do not expect. He tends to favour through passes when he receives the ball at a central position and crosses when he is out wide, on the right. As mentioned earlier, his final third pass percentage is 100% this season. Yes, he has completed every final third pass this season. These accurate, progressive passes guarantee chances for Atalanta to convert into goal-scoring opportunities, and goals.
Shooting is the one aspect in which there is a huge improvement when looking at Iličić from previous seasons and Iličić in the 2019/20 season. He has always been versatile in his play, he has always had a good sense of positioning, and he has always been a good playmaker for his team – all three of these aspects in his play have had steady improvements the more seasons he gets under his belt, especially at Atalanta under Gasperini. This season, however, there has been a massive trend upwards in his shooting, which has elevated his game to another level. Iličić is Atalanta’s top scorer this season, with 21 goals in all competitions, and 15 in the league. Iličić is left-footed, and unlike many other left-footed forwards, he is comfortable with both feet. Because it is a rarity to be left-footed, many left-footed players are more one-footed, whereas the more common right-footed players are likely to be somewhat comfortable with their left. Iličić has the advantage of having the less common dominant foot and being comfortable with his other foot, which makes it difficult for defenders to mark him.
Iličić is also quite brave in where he shoots from, something we have seen as of late. This season, he has the highest number of goals he has ever scored in a season. As the season has gone by, Iličić has taken more risks in where/when he shoots and it has paid off. This analysis can be shown when looking at his percentage of shots that are on target. This season, Iličić has shot 48.7% of his shots on target. Last season it was 33.1%. It is also shown in his xG, with last season being at 0.39, and this season being at 0.50. With an average of 0.79 goals per 90, he is up there with some of the best strikers in the world who almost average a goal per game. It is an impressive output, especially for someone who is not a full out striker.
Role at Atalanta
Gasperini could not ask for a better player when looking at the players necessary for his tactics to work at Atalanta than Josip Iličić. Gasperini has allowed him to flourish with his playstyle, and Iličić has gotten better and better under his coaching. Iličić has always had the versatility, and the flexibility to his game, which is shown in his ability to play multiple forward positions. That being said, this season, in particular, he has combined all the different assets that are needed for those different positions (positioning for a traditional winger, playmaking for an attacking midfielder, and shooting for a striker), and has improved in all of them, essentially making him a hybrid player. As long as he continues to excel, and his form from this season, specifically the latter half of the season, stays consistent, then Atalanta will always have a fantastic player to build a team around. The one worry for Atalanta fans stems from Iličić’s age. At 32 years old, he is a player that is playing at the back end of his career, and Atalanta will have a hard time replacing him. The hope is that his minutes are controlled, and his health/fitness is maintained properly so he can remain at the club for several more seasons.