Serie A: Atalanta’s underperformance in possession – scout report
Gian Piero Gasperini and his Atalanta didn’t start the new season with the usual confidence and consistency. While they established as one of the best Serie A teams over the last few years and have also earned respect in European tournaments, they are yet to reach a significant milestone. Their ambitions are high, and they have shown their capabilities on the pitch, but the start of the 2021/22 season seems more like a step back, rather than a step forward to achieving their goals.
This isn’t necessarily reflected in their record of three victories, one draw and one defeat, but it is indeed noticeable in their style of play which has changed, and their identity is blander than before.
The team have improved defensively and have increased their press intensity, but things in possession don’t look that good for them, especially compared to their last season’s performance. La Dea are known for their distinguished attacking style of play that has left even the best defences in awe, but this season they seem less threatening than usual.
For comparison, they have scored just six goals in their first five Serie A games, while last season they score 15 goals for the same number of games. And it is easy to think that this is just a coincidence, but it is actually a result of their changed performance in possession.
The team’s participation in Champions League’s Group F didn’t start perfectly as well. The team only got one point out of their meeting with Villarreal, despite taking the lead early on.
Our tactical analysis in the form of a scout report will examine how have Atalanta’s tactics changed and why do they underperform in possession. What is the reason behind their decreased efficiency in attack?
What did the player departures mean for La Dea?
La Dea’s performance started to change inevitably at the beginning of 2021 with the departure of their key player Alejandro Gómez. While they managed to adjust well to the changes for the rest of the season, it was clear that they might have difficulties replacing him in the long run. His presence was crucial for their performance in possession – from their build-up play to their actions in the final third and in front of the goal.
Gómez’s confidence and control helped the team in retaining possession and in executing their infamous attacking combinations that would break through the oppositions’ pressing structures and penetrate defences successfully. The Argentine’s link-up-play and his dribbling skills were fundamental for the team as he wasn’t only supporting ball progression and creating chances for his teammates, but was also a direct threat to the goal at all times.
With his departure, Atalanta lost a bit of their attacking identity and explosiveness. There’s wasn’t a direct replacement in his position and Gasperini started experimenting with the starting XI as we saw Matteo Pessina get more playing time. While his performance was solid, he wasn’t able to provide that much flexibility in front of the goal as Gómez did.
The summer transfer window was also eventful for the Bergamo side. Along with a few other departures, they had to let go of the centre-back Cristian Romero, who was one of their best performers last season, as he joined Tottenham in the Premier League. This left the team with José Luis Palomino as the only decent option in the centre. Palomino is an experienced player and was among their best performers in the 2019/20 campaign, but with him being 31 years old and not having enough playing time last term, relying on him as a first-choice defender this year would have been a risky approach, especially having in mind their Champions League participation.
Romero fit Gasperini’s tactics well and seemed like the more suitable option as the accuracy of his actions in and out of possession was better and his approach was less risky than Palomino’s in both phases. Palomino does have his advantages though, as he is more efficient in his marking and in being a shadow of the opposition’s most creative players, which saved Atalanta on many occasions. That’s why, the team made sure to secure a new addition in defence, which we will discuss later on in our analysis.
The team also reached a loan deal with Spurs on their starting goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini. This immediately raised the question of is Marco Sportiello could be a successful starting XI option. Gollini was preferred as he had more confidence with the ball and would go out of his line more frequently, supporting the team in building up from the back, especially when it comes to sending long balls, something that Sportiello wasn’t able to provide. Gollini was also more solid in terms of saving shots.
Sportiello conceded 33 goals in 21 games in all competitions last season with only two clean sheets, while his fellow keeper conceded 32 goals in 32 games and kept 13 clean sheets.
It seems like the team weren’t sure if Sportiello would be the best option in their new season and went on to find a player with a similar performance, which led to bringing Udinese’s goalkeeper Juan Musso on board.
What are the changes that came with the new signings?
Atalanta increased their depth in a few positions over the summer. Starting with Musso, who already started in four of the team’s five Serie A games. The keeper has conceded twice and kept two clean sheets. His numbers so far are decent and he managed to adjust and replace Gollini well. He is contributing to the team’s build-up by providing both short and long passes. He currently averages 2.8 saves per game and provides the most passes on average compared to Gollini and Sportiello last year.
His good performance, though, also has to do with the team’s improved strategy out of possession. It looks like Gasperini has re-considered the team’s defensive actions and has decided to build on a more resilient team with an improved pressing strategy and increased awareness.
Merih Demiral joined the defence on a loan deal from Juventus and while he is yet to get enough playing time for his performance to be judged, it seems like he could be a decent replacement for Romero, who can even outperform him in certain areas. The Turkish international increases Atalanta’s efficiency in the air. So far, he has averages 8.02 aerial duels per 90 with a 52.2% success rate. This provides more support against long balls over the top and also in defending set-pieces. Demiral is also more efficient in his defensive duels as he not only has a better success rate but his actions are well measured and result in fewer fouls compared to Romero.
In possession, he manages to meet the expectations and it is expected that he would improve on that, having in mind his contribution to Juventus’ actions in the build-up phase last season.
An important addition to the team is also their ex-player Davide Zappacosta, who was their player from 2011 to 2015. He joined as a much-needed option in the right wing-back position, considering Hans Hateboer’s injury struggles in the last year. La Dea have always relied a lot on Hateboer’s runs on the right and he was crucial in ball progression in attack. His absence has affected the team’s efficiency on the right immensely and it was only right to try to find another player who can help them in that matter.
Zappacosta is quite experienced in that position which makes him a valuable addition to the squad, although he is indeed a different type of player which brings some changes in their performance. His presence isn’t as beneficial for the team’s ball progression compared to his contribution to the final third actions.
While Hateboer is a better passer and has a great positional sense, he wouldn’t focus on crossing the ball and dribbling. His strength was finding pockets and making short pass combinations with his teammates in effort to advance the ball. Zappacosta, on the other side, is more active in crossing the ball, dribbling and threatening the goal. So far, he averages 4.94 crosses per 90, compared to Hateboer’s 1.5 per 90 last season. The newcomer also averages 3.77 dribble attempts and 2.61 shots, while the Dutch player had 0.65 and 1.07 respectively.
This means that Atalanta need to change their ways and attack differently if they want to benefit from Zappacosta, which expectedly might have affected their efficiency.
Gasperini also unexpectedly brought another defensive midfielder into his team. The 23-year-old Teun Koopmeiners arrived from Eredivisie’s AZ Alkmaar where he was fundamental for the team in possession. His arrival most probably has the purpose of providing more passing versatility and helping the team in ball progression. Koopmeiners is a distinguished passer who can support the team in retaining possession and also in breaking through the opposition’s pressing structures. He also contributes with crossing and shooting efforts.
He hasn’t been able to show his full potential so far, though. He is used to playing in front of a four-man defensive line in a deep-lying position where he has better visibility and can orchestrate the game. He is now used as a part of the centre midfield and is yet to adjust to Atalanta’s playing style. He does contribute well out of possession. He is proficient in ball recovery and has so far averaged 8.64 recoveries per game with 47.1% being in the opposition half. This also underlines La Dea’s changed pressing strategy as last season’s the team’s PPDA was at 11.11 on average, while now it is 9.09.
Experimenting with what the 23-year-old could bring to the team is another step out of the ordinary for Atalanta. All of the changes in the regular starting XI are expectedly leading to a decreased performance in possession due to the differences in the players’ strengths and weaknesses.
What is the difference in their performance?
Pretty much all La Dea’s numbers in possession have changed. Unfortunately for Gasperini, most of them have decreased noticeably which has affected the team’s overall performance. It wasn’t difficult to predict that any significant changes to their squad would affect their usual performance. The manager’s distinguished coaching style and his high reliance on certain players certainly was their strength, but the change of circumstances quickly took off of the team’s identity.
It is early to say if those changes will affect the team in the long term, but the decrease in their attacking efficiency would definitely make it harder for them against certain opponents, despite the defensive improvement. While previously, they had some defensive struggles, their unstoppable actions in possession always gave them an advantage and now the team might lose their momentum and find it hard to penetrate.
The team’s average possession rate has changed a bit but not that is the reason for the decrease in their efficiency. It is their actions per possession that have affected their performance. Firstly, their passing frequency and accuracy have changed. While last season they averages 526.03 (86%), the number has now decreased to 465 (84.5%). This is partly a result of Gómez’s and Hateboer’s absence, combined with Josip Ilicic’s limited playing time, as the team are moving away from their usual triangular attacking shapes and their short pass combinations that aimed to bypass the press and progress the ball.
The decrease in all of their numbers is relatively connected.
As shown in the chart above, the team are now completing fewer positional attacks, which is again a result of the change of dynamics and having different types of players, that don’t necessarily ask for the ball that frequently. With the fewer number of positional attacks, the percentage of the attacks that have finished with a shot has decreased from 24.9% to 23.6%.
The change of movement off the ball has affected their build-up-play and they manage to deliver the ball to the final third less frequently (56 passes per game) than before (67.13). Again, the change in their midfield set-up to the difference in the attacking movement and players has resulted in a different playing style and expectedly change of numbers.
The fewer passes to the final third, combined with the fewer crossing attempts (as shown above) have immediately affected their shot frequency. The absence of some players has decreased the number of crosses, despite Zappacosta’s contribution. When it comes to shooting, the team do have quite a few good options upfront, but it has more to do with the positioning and finding better goalscoring positions rather than the players’ finishing.
Their movement in the final third is not that fluid which has affected both the shot frequency and shot accuracy with the team barely averaging 12.2 shots per 90, compared to 15.53 last term. Since the start of the season, only an average of 29.5% of their shots have been on target, while previously they had reached 39.7% accuracy.
Atalanta went through quite a few changes in 2021 and the decrease in their numbers in possession is what adjusting to the circumstances looks like. Gasperini is slowly moving away from their well-known playing style, trying to find solutions to the squad changes. He usually tries to fit the players to his tactics but he now makes sure to make his tactics suitable for the players, even if that means a slight change of plan. Sticking to his old ways isn’t possible with the change of personnel as the connection between the lines changes, so the manager needs to find a way to use the players’ strengths in the best possible way and get the most out of the situation.