History has been littered with examples of those who have swooped in when backs are against the wall; when things aren’t going right; when the people need a hero. Cometh the hour, cometh the man (and the accompanying tactical analysis).
But how does one define Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez? His Atalanta side have not needed their talismanic captain to save them this season. Rather, they’ve subjected Italian football fans and opponents to a season-long flurry of blows to the head. Gómez has been the ringleader of an Atalanta side which have bullied the first division. They look set to have outmuscled both Milanese sides for a third-place finish, and their run to the Coppa Italia final saw a 3-0 takedown of Juventus.
This player tactical analysis shall look closely on what has made Gómez a leading orchestrator in Atalanta’s remarkable 2018/19 season. To do this, we shall primarily focus on how Atalanta have used the Argentine as the architect for their attacking foundations.
Rolling in the deep
Serie A offers some of the most cramped defensive zones in all of Europe. Italian top division sides faced 230.65 completed passes within 20 yards of their own goal this season. Defensively, their opponents average 10.797 passes in their half before an intervention occurs. Whilst not matching the English Premier League, these statistics demonstrate how far the Italian game has improved. Italian sides attack with ferocity but must contend against equally able defences.
A tactical analysis shows that Gómez has found an excellent way of mitigating Serie A’s defensive prowess, however. His place in the floating free role enables him to come remarkably deep, even when Atalanta are in advanced areas. Gómez is their attacking lynchpin, but it’s often from deeper positions that his presence is seriously felt.
According to understat.com, in both xGChain (28.94) and xGBuild-up (16.23), Gómez ranks second-highest in each for Atalanta. Essentially, any moves where Gómez is involved, Atalanta look extremely dangerous.
Gómez’s intuitiveness allows him to make manipulative movements. He can see the areas the ball should travel to before his markers even realise the significance of his deft manoeuvres. The below graphics demonstrate Atalanta patiently building a single attack against Udinese. Gómez constantly moved into areas to relaunch attacks, whilst his marker frequently underestimated his threat.
A little help from my friends
Whilst attempting slightly more tackles per 90 minutes than his fellow Atalanta attackers, Gómez ranks as one of the least successful ball winners in the squad. Gian Piero Gasperini clearly forgives lackadaisical defending, though, mostly due to his captain’s capabilities in going forward. A tactical analysis will show that even in attack, however, Gómez can not work alone. Gómez’s season statistics have been amplified by his remarkable telepathy with both Josip Iličić and Duván Zapata.
Frequently the two are the designated targets of any Gómez-structured attack. Indeed, from comparing each of the trio’s season heat maps, we can see how there are elements that complement one another.
The Argentine is dispersed across the width of the pitch, which corresponds with his eight assists from a more central, less rigid positioning. Zapata lingers much closer to the left, enjoying the tight-knit passing and dialogue which boosted his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Capocannoniere. Iličić is much more restricted to the right.
Gómez is clearly comfortable on this left side. His fantastic footwork and dazzling changes of pace mean that he essentially becomes a one-man overload. A low centre of gravity means that he also creates space for himself.
These abilities combine with an excellent crossing ability. His colleagues, therefore, expect excellent deliveries into the middle of the box. Gómez makes 3.1 accurate crosses per 90 minutes. This is a whole 2.2 more than the next closest Atalanta player, Emiliano Rigoni, who left for Zenit St. Petersburg in January.
Get up, stand up
Gómez’s dribbling statistics are incredible. He makes 2.2 successful dribbles per 90 minutes, making up around 61% of his total. Not picked up by the statistics or a team tactical analysis, however, is how he melts defenders into emotional puddles of helplessness on the edge of their own penalty area. Gómez doesn’t just know how to dribble; he knows how to make it a devastating part of his armoury.
Without trying to be tedious, the Argentine’s movement with the ball is exemplary. He nearly always looks to get square on to defenders and loves running at them. By opening up his body and coming at them with his shoulders facing forwards, defenders are unsure where he will target beyond them.
There is more to just squaring up to defenders, however. Gómez’s running is both scintillatingly quick, but also has the effect of slowing down time. He enables players to overlap him but still keep defenders guessing. This relies much on his quick-footedness and close control. Rarely does the ball move far from his reach, even when deciding to traverse a tackle himself.
Lurching back to generations of diminutive Argentine enganche and playmakers, Gómez’ pocket-rocket dynamism is wildly unpredictable when facing up to a retreating opponent. He’s able to pass with either foot, quick with the turn, and happy to tease with feints before offering a simple lay-off. This overwhelming number of options leaves defenders baffled.
Eye of the tiger
Whilst we’ve analysed three crucial areas of his performance, his final ball is Atalanta’s money-maker. This season he leads the Serie A xA table with 11.15. He’s assisted 10 actual goals this season. If anything, the slight prolificacy of his teammates have denied him the chance of knocking Dries Mertens off of the top-spot for actual assists.
The key to Gómez’s high xA this season is his excellent decision making. He likes to play close to ball carriers and collect the ball, giving them an easy outlet. This is reciprocated, too. He also makes short passes into dangerous positions. Consequently, he has garnered an abnormally high successful short passing average for an attacker, of 39.6. This ranks fourth within Serie A.
A tactical analysis, on the other hand, shows that he’s also accomplished when needing to attack quickly. He can smell the movement of his attacking colleagues into dangerous areas. The below graphics further demonstrate the strength of his relationship with Iličić, as well as his penchant for well-timed, piercing, long passes, when required.
Questions do persist with regard to his own goal-scoring exploits, however. Gómez has only scored six goals in the league. Yet, his xG deficit is 8.35 (so he’s scored 2.35 goals less than expected), is pretty consistent. On average, he makes 1.9 shots per 90 minutes from outside of the area. This may explain why he’s not so efficient at finding the net. Clearly, he prefers the orchestration role in Atalanta’s attacking opera, more than a front-row bassoon solo.
There is much to Gómez’s game which can be divulged and discussed. This tactical analysis has chosen to focus on his abilities as a goal provider, simply because it incorporates many of his innovations and techniques. Through doing this, we’ve found links to wider trends which have carried Gasperini’s whole side through the season admirably. Whilst they’ll reach the conclusion of the season empty-handed in terms of silverware, this shouldn’t detract from their performances.
More than anything, however, we’ve seen that Gómez is the purest embodiment of what Gasperini has tried to implement. His mobility, slyness in the final third, reliance on an exceptional attacking threat, bravery and faith in individual talent, teamwork and yes, a preference for attacking flair over defensive stability are all hallmarks of their remarkable campaign. Papu Gómez stands apart from his brilliant team, as he has ironically come as close as an individual can to personifying the club’s identity.
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