Atalanta 2019/20: Their defensive principles in action – scout report
When looking at their defensive statistics there are some key areas which make Atalanta worth focusing on. Firstly, in Serie A this season, only Bologna and Torino have a higher PPDA, but Atalanta’s is still just 8.31. This ranks them 11th overall in the “Top Five” European leagues for PPDA. They also have the best defensive duel win percentage in Serie A, with a highly impressive 60.9%. In the top five leagues, only Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, and Paris Saint-Germain rank above them for both PPDA and for having a better defensive duel win percentage.
Of course, with data, context is key, so to see how Atalanta measure up against the best in the top five leagues for both of these metrics, I took the data of the 25 best teams for each metric, and then cut out any teams with a lower defensive duel win percentage of 57, and a higher PPDA than 12, which left us with the following graph below.
There are some expected names, but also some less so. RB Leipzig have the highest defensive duel win percentage out of anyone in Europe’s top five, and it’s unsurprising to see the defensive duel win percentages generally increase the higher a team’s PPDA is, however, if we look at those with similar PPDA’s to Atalanta – let’s say nine or lower, it is clear to see that along with Bayern Munich, PSG, and Leverkusen, Atalanta are one of Europe’s elite pressing sides, and that to have such a high defensive duel win percentage alongside these PPDA numbers is somewhat of an anomaly.
They also have the lowest xGA of any team in Serie A and the sixth lowest in Europe’s top five with an xGA of 25.35. They are allowing 9.92 shots against per game, with only Roma recording less domestically, yet their 97.26 ball losses per game, the fifth-highest in the league, belies a team that beat their opponents through suffocating them with possession, even if their 55.9% average possession is the third-highest in the league. Napoli and Sassuolo both average 58.8% and 56.2%, respectively, whilst Roma just 0.1% less than Atalanta with 55.8%, yet those three teams all record more than 10 fewer ball losses per game, well under the league average of 91.99, and all average in the bottom five in the league for ball losses, along with Inter Milan and Juventus.
This, along with their ability to prevent a great number of shots on target, once again would suggest they are strong defensively across the field particularly in their pressing, and with their ball losses so high would suggest their counter-pressing, and overall defensive transitioning, is of a very high standard too.
Throughout the course of this tactical analysis and scout report, I will break down how Atalanta set up when out of possession, as well as highlighting their key defensive principles and how these are applied across the pitch when without possession.
Atalanta are pretty loyal to the 3-4-1-2 formation, although they sometimes field a 3-4-2-1. Either way, a back three is what Head Coach Gian Piero Gasperini favours, only using a back four on two occasions this season (in a 2-2 draw with Genoa in February, and a 4-0 loss away to Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League back in September). In the 3-4-1-2 he operates with three centre-backs, two orthodox wing-backs, two central midfielders, and two forwards. The number 10 role is filled by the instrumental Papu Gómez and just as he is a key component in linking the midfield and the forward line when in possession, Gómez also has an important role between both of these lines when out of possession too.
He is the bridge between midfield and the frontline, and in what is already a pretty flexible defensive shape, he has to be the most flexible of all. Throughout this analysis you will see images of him dropping deep into central-midfield, pressing past the forward line, or dropping in as a left-sided forward when pressing high.
However, even though there are plenty of intriguing intricacies within Atalanta’s shape, much of what they do can be seen in plenty of back three formations across Europe and beyond
For example, in deeper areas, we will see them drop into a back five, with both wing-backs joining the three centre-backs (or should a wing-back be caught too far forward, a central midfielder will join the back three to comprise this back five).
Preventing the opposition from building from the back
One of the key themes we see throughout Atalanta’s pressing is the importance of stopping the opposition having time to play forward. This is the case across the pitch and with the ball deep inside Atalanta’s half, you will still see their midfielders and defenders prioritise preventing forward play and pushing the opposition backwards. I will come onto that in more detail later on, but in this section, we will look at how it’s applied when the opposition is looking to build from the back. An outcome of this is encouraging teams to play long too, something which Atalanta are comfortable dealing with.
Long passes are invariably hit forward to the forward line, and with Atalanta having three centre-backs they are at an advantage to win these aerial duels. Atalanta have won 50.7% of their aerial duels in Serie A this season, the fifth-highest in the league, with left-sided centre-back Berat Djimsiti their leader in this metric with an outstanding 67.24% win rate. The likes of Robin Gosens, José Luis Palomino, and Rafael Tolói are all excellent in this department too and join Djimsiti in ranking in the top 30 in the league for aerial duel win percentages.
With the ball hit long, you will often see these centre-backs look to head to either a wing-back or a central-midfielder, depending on who is in space, the flight of the ball, and the positioning of opponents, which allows Atalanta to begin their own attack immediately.
In the image below as the opposition play long from the back, Atalanta have three centre-backs against one forward, whilst they have a pivot ready to receive the header.
With the opposition keeper in possession Atalanta will, as mentioned above, look to prevent the opposition from playing out and will encourage the goalkeeper to play long immediately. With the goalkeeper in possession we will see something similar to the image below in the way in which Atalanta will line up.
The centre-forwards’ positioning can vary, however, against a back four with two wide centre-backs looking to split, stretch the press, and potentially create space for the pivot, whilst the full-backs push on, we will generally see the Atalanta forwards operate in a space-oriented press, where they are close enough to the centre-backs to prevent the keeper from playing to them. However, they are directly in line with the keeper’s passing lane to the full-backs, and should the keeper play the ball over the top to the full-backs, they are not far forward enough where they can’t press the full-back either.
We can see this in practice below as Duván Zapata and Josip Iličić are able to block two passing lanes through their positioning to the Roma centre-backs and full-backs.
When centre-backs split they leave space centrally for a pivot to drop into. The pivot can help them break the press and aid ball-circulation. We can see there is space between the two forwards in the image above for such an opportunity. Gómez will follow the pivot as they drop in to prevent them receiving possession, whilst the two central-midfielders behind him, in this case, Mario Pašalić and Marten de Roon, man-mark their midfield counter-parts to prevent the opposition from being able to play through the press centrally. We can see Gómez close to the pivot in the image below.
Atalanta are generally pretty aggressive with marking the opposition pivot, however, they won’t follow him too deep if it leaves space behind centrally and will instead join the forward line in a front three shield. Torino, another high-pressing side who operate in a 3-4-1-2, are less concerned about this and will have their number 10 follow the pivot no matter how deep they go, perhaps making it easier to bypass, whereas Gómez will stop short of passing his centre-forwards in this instance.
With the pivot receiving so deep, there is no real benefit to them being in possession in this area compared to the goalkeeper other than that they are likely a better passer. But even then, with Atalanta engaging in such an aggressive press, and with the wing-backs positioned just behind this front five ready to press either centrally or on the flanks, any forward passes, specifically centrally in this scenario, are incredibly dangerous.
Atalanta are adaptable and as they are with most things, are pretty fluid in their approach to their press, with it based more upon a set of principles, rather than any rigid instruction of “if they do this, then you must do this…”. So what they do may vary from situation-to-situation, but nevertheless when pressing it will be based around the principle of preventing forward play, and forcing the opposition into making a bad decision, in this case playing the ball long.
The examples shown so far have been against a back four. When they play against a back three, which is frequently used in Italian football, their pressing principles remain the same, again looking to block off easy forward passing lanes and encourage the long ball, albeit there will be a change in their overall structure.
Below we can see Iličić and Gómez each side of the 18 yard-box ready to press the centre-backs or the full-backs depending on whom the goalkeeper passes to (the left-sided full-back is just out of the frame). At first, it seems a little odd in this instance to have Gómez in the position you would expect Iličić’s forward partner, Zapata, to operate. However, Zapata’s closeness to Iličić in this example (he is to the left of the forward on the edge of the 18-yard-box), would suggest Gasperini uses the presence of these two forwards on this side to discourage the opposition from playing this way.
Inter have used a double pivot in this case with one of their three centre-backs, Stefan de Vrij, pushing up to operate as one of the pivots. Again we see similar ideas despite the different formation. The centre-backs and full-backs are pressed in a space-oriented press, whilst the central players are man-marked, and in this case, they push players forward to ensure the double pivot cannot receive possession.
It’s interesting to look at Inter’s losses just from the first half in comparison to Atalanta’s.
There is an obvious juxtaposition between the two in where the ball has been lost, with Inter heavily inside their own half, and Atalanta inside Inter’s. This points towards not only how aggressive Atalanta’s press is, but how successful it was in this game in not allowing Inter to play out from the back.
This brings us on nicely to the next defensive tactic we see Atalanta use. If we revisit the earlier image of Inter looking to play out from their goalkeeper, with Atalanta pressing with a front four, the goalkeeper’s decision to pass to one of his centre-backs inside his 18-yard box gives us a perfect example of this.
At the beginning of this analysis, we saw how the forward’s positioning when the keeper was in possession, blocked the passing lane to the full-back. Atalanta continue with this theme as they press.
As the ball is played to one of the centre-backs, the forward, Ilicic in this case, curves his run to block the pass to the full-back and with no other option, the centre-back is forced to go long.
When using a back three, one of its great advantages comes in building from the back where the back three can stretch the press, and the two wide centre-backs are able to operate in the half-spaces, increasing their options when playing forward, and importantly increasing their chances of playing through the press. If you can remove this strength, it nullifies much of the way a team sets up when playing out and disrupts the rhythm.
As much as Atalanta use this tactic to block a passing lane, it’s reflected by an overall defensive principle that we see in much of their defending and we will see more of in the preventing central play section.
They want to make the opposition’s pitch smaller and therefore decrease their passing options, whilst making everything more crowded and therefore increasing the likelihood of disrupting the opposition in possession and winning the ball back.
The forwards don’t force the curved runs to make the pitch smaller, however, if the opportunity presents itself it is something you will see Atalanta do, notably when the keeper or defenders are in possession. Yet there is plenty of lateral pressing when the opposition have the ball in their midfield or forward line that shares this principle.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be one of their two forwards either, and this highlights Atalanta’s commitment to pushing players forward in the press. Below, against Lecce, as right wing-back Hans Hateboer, originally pressing the left-back, he continues his run as the left-back plays back to the keeper, allowing his forwards to stay on the centre-backs, whilst closing off the keeper’s entire left side.
Overall pressing shape
Moving on from the forward line, the rest of the team obviously has a part to play in preventing the opposition from successfully playing out from the back and making the pitch smaller. We have seen examples already where the wing-backs, number 10, and central midfielders have all pushed forward into high areas to close down the opposition defence, pivot, and further forward midfielders.
The image below is an example of what we might see from Atalanta should the goalkeeper play to one of his centre-backs. At this point I must put in a disclaimer saying that this is just an example and most definitely isn’t something they do every single time, in fact, the next section will explore Atalanta using pressing traps to force the opposition to play wide.
However, in this example, we can see that there is a mixture of space-oriented pressing and man-oriented pressing. The two forwards look to prevent the lateral pass to the left-sided centre-back, as well as the inside pass to the pivot. Gómez is close enough to the pivot where he can press should they receive the ball, yet deep enough to drop quickly and provide support centrally should the opposition play long. One constant we will see throughout all of the example is that Atalanta are man-marking the oppositions eight and 10, whilst Hateboer in the right-wing back position is occupying space where he can prevent the diagonal to the number 11, whilst press the left-back should the centre-back look to play that risky pass.
This is just an example of the mixture we might see and below, as Lecce’s goalkeeper plays long, we can see the central-midfield pair are man-marking whilst Gómez and the left-wing back are operating in a space-oriented press.
Preventing central play
Atalanta want to avoid having the opposition play through the middle. From these areas the opposition has more passing options, can specifically get the ball into the centre-forwards in better positions to set up attacks, and in more advanced areas central shots have a higher xG value.
As much as it is to prevent these potential outcomes of playing centrally from occurring, there is more space to escape the press centrally, and if they prevent them from playing in these areas, then the only place to play is on either flank. The advantage of pushing a side out wide is that there is less space, and by making the pitch smaller it is easier to close off any forward, or even lateral, passing lanes and once again win the ball back.
To facilitate this process we will see the pivot marked tightly, not just when the opposition keeper or centre-backs have possession in deep areas, but during the majority of build-up play. This is to stop the pivot being used to break the first line of press. As mentioned earlier if they drop deep in line with their centre-backs that is less of an issue, as although they could potentially break the lines with a pass, they are much less dangerous having the ball in line with their centre-backs than they are between the first and second line of press.
We saw earlier how Gómez occupies the pivot when the keeper has the ball. In a more developed build up phase, albeit still within the opposition half, one of the central-midfield pair will sit tight on the pivot to allow Gómez to press higher.
As mentioned earlier, if the keeper goes ahead with playing a lofted pass to the full-back then the forward line can press the opposition full-back along with the help of their wing-back (in this example Hateboer), and Gómez from the 10 position, as well as the central-midfielder (in this case de Roon). The image below demonstrates that further passes from this position are difficult to come by for the opposition, and increases the likelihood of Atalanta winning the ball back in a high area.
This is just one example of how they look to prevent the opposition playing centrally and how they benefit from pushing them wide. This isn’t going to always work, nor be the case every time, and they use pressing traps to force the same outcome.
The subsequent images will demonstrate a pressing trap which involves nullifying the threat of the pivot and capitalizing on a team playing wide.
Inter have possession, and we can see their pivot, Marcelo Brozović, being tightly marked by Pašalić, whilst de Roon pushes high to engage the ball-carrier, ensuring Pašalić can stay tight on Brozović. To the left of these two we can see Gómez balancing this press in a slightly deeper position, however, he is ready to mirror de Roon’s movement should the ball be squared to the other side, again allowing Pašalić to stay on Brozović.
Also in the picture, Zapata occupies Inter’s centre-backs, yet he is close enough to the pivot that it would be dangerous for Brozović to even receive this ball goal-side, whilst the centre-back is also a dangerous option for the ball-carrier.
This is another example of Atalanta applying a mixture of man-oriented and space-oriented presses, with the space-oriented press being used to take two passing options out of the question. Iličić has also dropped and is preventing the left-sided centre-back, operating in a left-back position, being an option too.
Therefore with no other option, Inter switch the ball to the centre-back deliberately left open and Gómez instantly moves to pressure the new ball-carrier closing off any central passing options, whilst Zapata and Pašalić once more ensure that both the centre-back and pivot are removed from the equation. Therefore the ball-carrier’s only option is to play to the right wing-back.
As the pass is played this triggers Atalanta’s left wing-back, Robin Gosens, to push forward and support both Gómez and Pašalić and ensure the Inter defender has to make a swift decision, whilst also preventing any easy forward passing option, whilst Gómez and Pašalić have now closed off any easy backwards or lateral options. His only possible passes or to go long, or to play a difficult lateral pass to the central-midfielder highlighted. He does go for the inside pass, and Inter lose possession.
It should be noted that the wing-backs aren’t completely cavalier in their attitude to bombing forward in the press. Their first priority is to block any forward passes before they pressure the ball-carrier into making a decision.
We can see an example of this below from the same game where Inter’s goalkeeper plays the ball to the right wing-back. Gosens is in a position where he could press the wing-back, however, he doesn’t want to open a forward passing option in doing so, aware of the Inter midfielder behind him. We can see him checking his shoulder to see if support is coming.
Once the support arrives he is then able to press the wing-back.
Aggression, intensity, and defending in deeper areas
We see aggression and intensity in almost everything that Atalanta do defensively and there’s always a desire to win the ball back as soon as possible. They do not want the opponent to have time to relax on the ball and make decisions, but instead, they want to rush these decisions and force errors. To do this effectively they have to close off easy passing options, which I have gone through in detail, and secondly, they have to press the ball-carrier at the right angle and speed to force them into a decision they don’t want to make.
We see this in their counter-pressing too. It’s rare to see Atalanta players isolated in possession, and as much as this is to ensure there are always passing options, it makes it easier to counter-press effectively too.
The image below shows the Lecce centre-back intercepting an inside pass. All three central midfielders Remo Freuler, Pašalić and Gómez recognise this and instantly push forward, closing the space, and removing the central passing options.
They are in his face in a matter of seconds and the centre-back is rushed into making a hopefully long pass which Atalanta recover and begin their attack once more.
In deeper areas Atalanta still have similar principles to when defending from the front. They want to make the pitch smaller, which we can see from the image below where they are particularly narrow against Juventus, whilst positioning themselves to block any easy passes, particularly going forward.
If the opposition bypasses the press and gets prolonged possession inside Atalanta’s own half you are going to see certain tactics that are pretty commonplace within most back three formations, as I alluded to earlier. However, still the principle of intense defending to force the opposition into making rushed decisions on the ball can be seen throughout also.
Atalanta are quick to press the ball-carrier almost anywhere, let alone when in possession near or inside the Atalanta half. They work in tandem with one another, ensuring there is a balance as one presses, with teammates dropping into positions behind to protect that space from passes or dribbles. With them operating with a back five in deeper areas it means Atalanta’s defenders can be more aggressive in coming forward, as they still leave a solid back four behind them when doing so. We can see that in the image below as the Atalanta centre-back pushes forward to press the Fiorentina midfielder who has just received possession.
Atalanta play a relatively high line and will use it to prevent counter-attacks or at least delay the opposition in order to allow their midfield and wing-backs to arrive back to defend should there be a loss of possession and a counter.
We can see below how Fiorentina’s ball-carrier is unable to play forward due to Atalanta’s high line, with Atalanta’s left-sided centre-back Djimsiti engaging him and looking to push him backwards.
As he does this successfully we can see from the image below that Atalanta now have plenty of players back in support and the counter-attack has been successfully thwarted whilst they are now pushing the opposition backwards as well.
When defending particularly deep we can see Atalanta’s back five very closely supported by their midfield three in the image below from the game against Juventus. They are narrow and importantly leave no space between the two lines. For good quality possession in this situation, Juventus will have to look to slip the ball behind the defence, operate on the wings and look to cross, or take the ball centrally but in a position where there will be eight defenders behind the ball.
As mentioned above, due to the numbers in the backline, Atalanta can afford to be particularly aggressive from the back when coming out of the back line, far more so than if they were playing a back four, where if a defender were to do this it would leave a sizeable hole in the defence. When a member of Atlanta’s defence does this it still leaves a back four and importantly a centre-back pair to ensure any central spaces aren’t exploited.
Being able to come forward, as Palomino does in the image below, closes the space which the onrushing attacker has and importantly forces them into making a decision quicker than they would if they were just receiving pressure from the midfield behind tracking them.
The example above is with the opposition breaking forward at speed and from a central position. However, when Atalanta are set defensively we will see a 5-3-2 or a 5-4-1 formation, yet even within this set-up we will see the defenders look to push up aggressively.
Atalanta’s central defenders are constantly looking for the opposition aiming to play passes between the midfield and defensive lines, and will seek to push up into these spaces in order to push the opposition backwards.
We can see a perfect example of this in the image above, and subsequently in the image below, where Juventus are frustrated in the forward approach and are forced to play backwards once again.
As they are with most things, again Atalanta are pretty fluid with these actions and the defence is very much in tune with one another as to when to push forward and when to balance the press.
If the opposition leaves one forward up, then three or even just two defenders will be needed to remain close to the forward, if they leave two then three of four defenders will be needed, and so on. This is whilst the others have more freedom to engage with attackers in areas further away from goal.
Below we can see how aggressive Palomino is again in ensuring Juventus are forced to play backwards, rushing far out of the backline to a point where he is in line with Atalanta’s midfield, creating a midfield four. Atalanta have two defenders occupying Juventus’s sole forward at the time, Gonzalo Higuaín, whilst both Djimsiti and Gosens drop back in to provide cover for Palomino in case Juventus push players forward into the space left by the centre-back.
Atalanta have rightly received plenty of plaudits for their performances this season, with much attention being given to their easy-on-the-eye possession based football. However, their defensive efforts deserve as much credit and are a big contributing factor to their success domestically and in the Champions League.
With a back five and a narrow central three sat in front of them, they are always going to be difficult to break down, providing such little space between the defensive and midfield lines and even less between the defenders themselves for any through balls. With teams forced into taking shots from further out or from more difficult angles, with Atalanta players behind the ball, it would go some way to explaining their incredibly low xGA and why the expected points table for Serie A has Atalanta sitting at the top.
When discussing defending it is obviously so easy to immediately think of the defenders, yet Atalanta’s attackers and the supporting group of midfielders that are part of a very robust pressing system deserve their share of the plaudits too, as they make it so difficult for teams to play out against them, and often leave sides either resulting to the long ball or losing plenty of possession in their own half, as the ball loss images from the Inter Milan game testify.
Throughout this analysis, there have been examples of Atalanta’s defensive ideas prevalent through different phases of defending.
Firstly they look to prevent building from the back and force the opposition to play long. They do this through a mixture of man-oriented and space-oriented pressing and stopping the pivot from receiving between the lines. They want to make it difficult for teams to play in general and make it easier for the press to win the ball back so close off areas of the pitch through angled pressing, as well as defending in deeper areas with a narrow shape.
They look to win the ball back in high areas. They do this by committing numbers forward to the press, blocking forward passing lanes, and setting pressing traps to force the opposition into wide areas with nowhere to play.
Finally, we see an eagerness and intensity in their defensive work, as well as their counter-pressing, showing a desire to win the ball back as soon as possible and importantly pressure the ball-carrier into making a decision before they are ready, as they look to force errors in possession and win the ball-back.
If the season resumes, it will be interesting to see how Atalanta fair towards the end of the season, especially in the Champions League, as if their 8-4 aggregate win over Valencia is anything to go by, there could be some fascinating high-stakes European encounters that involve Gasperini’s side as the competition progresses.