First published 22 February
When Atalanta lost their first three group matches in this seasons Champions League, many expected that their first foray into this competition would end at the first hurdle.
Instead, despite being forced to play home matches in neighbouring Milan we saw something remarkable happen. Atalanta drew with English giants Manchester City and then beat both Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk to pull off an unlikely qualification from the group stage.
This led to the Italian side playing at home (well, in Milan) this past week to Valencia in the first knockout round. The match that followed enthralled watching neutrals from around the globe as Atalanta won an open match 4-1. A result which gives them every chance of qualifying for the quarter-final stage.
Whilst for many people this match represented their first real introduction to the incredible game model implemented by their coach Gian Piero Gasperini, those that follow the Italian game were not at all surprised by the quality of this performance.
They play in an extremely attacking manner with every player coached to look forward at every opportunity. This leads to open matches and to the opposition having chances, but such is the attacking threat that they routinely outscore their rivals.
In order to better understand this style of play and the coaching of Gasperini, this match against Valencia provides us with the perfect snapshot to break down to gain insight into their tactical concepts.
The first, and indeed overriding, concept that we see from Atalanta under Gasperini is their fluidity in the attacking phase. Gasperini clearly favours a back three with each central defender being comfortable in possession of the ball. This leaves seven outfield players with which the Italian side will attack.
While many sources listed Atalanta as operating in a 3-5-2 formation, as is so often the case, this does not tell the full story. The two main creators in this team,
Alejandro Gomez and Josip Ilicic, were listed as the strikers but in fact, their movement and positioning pulled Valencia completely out of position.
Half-Spaces: When splitting a standard pitch into five areas, you have two wide areas and the central area. The areas in between are known as the Half-Spaces.FC Definition
As Atalanta were building their attack these two players would typically pull out into the half-spaces.
Along with Expected Goals, the half-spaces are becoming more and more common in footballing language. As Gomez and Ilicic then pull into these areas of the pitch it gave the Valencia defensive line a real problem; do they track the run, and risk being pulled out of position, or do they allow these players freedom to move into space.
In the end, the Valencia defenders did the latter and Gomez and Ilicic were
constantly free to pick up possession in dangerous areas with space to run.
While these movements from Gomez and Ilicic appear to have left Atalanta without a focal point leading the line of the attack but that did not matter. As the ball invariably found one of these two players moving into pockets of space, the entire attacking structure of the home team appeared to flow around them.
In the central spaces, the on-loan Chelsea star Mario Pasalic was generally the first player to offer support, but Remo Freuler and Marten de Roon, ex of Middlesborough, were never far behind. In effect, these five players formed a strong central shape that allowed Atalanta to force overloads on the ball side of the pitch as the Valencia midfield were overrun again and again and again.
This superiority in the centre for Atalanta forced Valencia to move players from elsewhere to try to prevent the overload. This tended to mean that the full-backs would play more narrow than would otherwise have been expected and this is when the next stage of Atalanta’s attacking gameplan came into full effect.
The two Atalanta wing-backs, Hans Hateboer, who scored twice, and Robin Gosens were constant attacking threats but they timed their runs expertly. The first pass would tend to go centrally and this would pull Valencia in towards the ball as they feared Atalanta breaking through in these areas.
This, however, allowed Hateboer and Gosens to then make delayed runs forward and the Atalanta midfielders were able to find these wide passes with ease.
When the ball was on one side of the pitch we would also see the opposite side wing-back move high in order to offer an opportunity for a switch of play. Indeed, there were points in the match, including with the first goal, when Hans Hateboer was actually the furthest forward Atalanta player on the pitch. His willingness to stretch the play when Ilicic dropped back into the half-space further confused the Valencia defenders.
By having no fixed striker and encouraging players to move high and low in the same area of the pitch, Atalanta create what feels like constant chaos with opposition defenders being constantly forced to make decisions.
This is very much deliberate, with Gasperini and his coaching staff working to teach the players how to achieve these movements and patterns in order to progress the ball through the thirds. Every movement of the ball triggers runs from supporting players and when Atalanta are on-form the ball seems to flow seamlessly from one area of the pitch to another. This ability is not due to chance but to the hour-upon-hour of work that they put into teaching these patterns on the training pitch.
This match was, as already stated, incredibly open and Valencia actually accrued a higher xG than Atalanta with Maxi Gomez, in particular, being guilty of missing one huge chance when he shot straight at the goalkeeper when unmarked on the edge of the six-yard-box.
When the opposition have possession of the ball, Gomez and Ilicic tend to not track back and instead they stay in the half-spaces and wait for the ball to be won and for Atalanta to enter the attacking transition. The two wing-backs drop back to form a back five and the three central midfielders press and move effectively as a single unit to deny the opposition the space that they want to be able to attack down the central spaces. In this match,
Atalanta were caught in moments of quick transition when their wing-backs were high and out of position. The young Valencia-born winger Ferran Torres, in particular, impressed when receiving the ball and driving towards the central defenders who were isolated and in space.
This difficulty when defending in transition, however, is something that Gasperini accepts as the price of the attacking football that he wants them to play. At the time of writing, Atalanta are the top scorers and most impressive attacking team in Serie A. They currently sit, once again, in fourth place and are fresh off an impressive win over fifth-placed Roma.
While the likes of Inter and Napoli spend in order to keep up with the seemingly endless resources of Juventus at the top of the table, we see Atalanta promoting a model of development and sustainability as the key to challenging the accepted order of Serie A. As long as the club can keep Gasperini there is no reason they can't continue to build and challenge at the top of the Italian game for years to come.