Atalanta B.C have graduated from being relegation candidates to regulars in European competitions. Their acclaimed academy has served them well, but it is Gian Piero Gasperini who has helped them break out of their cocoon. After making some smart investments here and there, they are now borderline outside contenders in Serie A.
Gasperini is not a typical Italian coach; he is not afraid to take risks. His tactics prove that. Defensively he instructs his players to intensely man-mark the opposition to force transitions:
The marking scheme is rigid; the marker doesn’t often pass on the marking duty to his teammate unless Atalanta are defending close to their box. What’s unique in Gasperini’s system is that the proximity to the ball decides when a player should attack it:
2 vs 1
In Atalanta, the defender will attack the ball as long as he has access to it, even though he is marking someone else and the ball handler is covered by his teammate. The ball is given priority over coverage. A defending scheme like this is hard for the ball handler because the tackle can come from any direction: Atalanta have forced the opponent to commit ~1 turnover per 10 passes in two seasons under Gasperini, the 6th/7th highest in Serie A since 2016/17.
Offensively Gasperini favors a 3-4-3 that sets up two rhomboids to support the striker in the offense:
The backward movement of the central midfielder creates a pocket in the half-space for the wide forward. The sided centre-back pushes up to support the wing-back, and the wing-back can attack the flank or hit the box depending on the situation. The central midfielder, in this case, is expected to provide the defensive cover.
Bringing Joseph Iličić and Duván Zapata into the fold makes them even more dangerous than they were; both players bring the creativity that used to come solely from Alejandro Papu Gómez. All three of them can attack the defender in a 1 vs. 1 situation:
They created the highest Expected Goal Chain (xGC) per dribble among all the qualified forwards since 2016. Furthermore, the next graph highlights what a strong player Zapata is because of his physique:
Zapata doesn’t go for the header a lot, but he does it as well as anyone – including the man he has replaced – Andrea Petagna. A target up top like Zapata means you can transition quickly using the second ball:
Sometimes you need this kind of play to break a high press or to counter-attack. Petagna or Andreas Cornelius could do that as well, but neither could single-handedly attack the open space. Zapata is a massive upgrade over them.
Iličić is an odd player; he doesn’t have Gómez’s speed nor Zapata’s power. He is nonetheless big (6’3”, same as Mario Mandzukic) and he uses his body well:
Josip Iličić Positioning
Iličić is excellent at using his big frame to hold the position. He can then either get past the marker or open a pass/shot angle with his dribble, making him as dangerous as Gómez and Zapata.
Gasperini modifies the offense to accommodate them; the team is instructed to use most of the trio’s touches when Atalanta are on the attack: ~34.5% of all the passes in the opponent’s half have gone through Gómez/Iličić/Zapata this year, the highest since 2016. Isolating them with the opponent’s defenders with plenty of space becomes a priority:
Over-represented Atalanta pass cluster in 2019/20
The k-means clustering of passes identifies the types of passes that are over-represented for Atalanta this season. Two changes stand out: more sideways passes to the flank and more vertical long balls directly from the initial third.
These passes are the means to create space up top by drawing out the opponent’s defenders using the wing-back or Papu Gómez:
Instead of pushing the wing-back up to attack the flank, Gasperini has him drop deep to the initial third to pull out the opponent’s full-back/wing-back:
The strategy works especially well against a back-three (which makes up >40% of the formations used in Serie A this season) with a high block. When the opponent’s wing-back moves out of their position, Ilicic will often be left alone with a single marker.
Gómez always demands the opponent’s close attention. He makes a great prey to pull an additional opponent’s centre-back out of the position:
Positioning Gómez, their most important player, so far away from the opponent’s goal seems counter-productive, but it isn’t; Zapata and Iličić are so good at getting past the opponent’s defenders in the open space. Isolating them against a few defenders always triumphs trying to solve a stable defense even with Gómez directing the play.
Zapata and Iličić spare Gómez from shouldering all of the attacking responsibility in the final third; instead of trying to release him in the half-space, Gasperini can have him receive the ball in the typical position where a playmaker operates:
Playing in a typical 3-4-1-2 now, Gómez’s teammates often find him in the middle close to the initial third. Atalanta’s attack becomes unpredictable and doesn’t just run the same rhomboid position exchange over and over. And even when they do, Zapata can serve as a pass target in the half-space for his teammates to develop the attack.
The central midfielder is relieved of the play-making duty and is free to move into the box: in the open-play, 25% of their crosses aim at the central-midfielder this season, five times more than they did last year.
The strategy required creating a hole in the midfield on purpose:
Atalanta have also avoided attacking through the middle area of the pitch under Gasperini. The new tactics though also help to form a wall of players, the midfielders and the wing-backs, behind the ball. They can become a secondary wave that attacks via the second ball is knocked down by Zapata and Iličić as highlighted in the video below:
With two ultra-aggressive wing-backs, Gasperini can’t afford to field a purely technical player in the central-midfield. Their attacks are usually always directed to the flank/half-space where Gómez and Iličić operate. To release and support them, Atalanta need to push their centre-backs extremely high. The movement can overwhelm the opponent, but it also creates a lot of gaps for the centre-backs to cover.
A playmaker solves some of that problem; finding him early during the build-up means you can transition into the attacking shape easier than they do with Gómez and Iličić in the half-space in the opponent’s half. Gómez, now the playmaker, decides how and where the ball and hence his team-mates should go. The mechanism to find Gómez is still the same: the central-midfielder dropping to create the room for him to operate. But the point of transition is different. It is close to the centre-back, as opposed to the opponent’s half right behind the first line. The structure gains stability.
Bryan Cristante made his name playing behind the two forwards in Atalanta. But he was an atypical fit, being closer to Arturo Vidal than a traditional creator. Gomez is perfect playmaker Gasperini just never had the chance to put him there. Iličić, and to a lesser extent Zapata, gives him that chance because they can hold on to possession on their own in the opponent’s half.
Written by Cheuk Hei Ho [@Tacticsplatform]
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