If you had told Gian Piero Gasperini at the start of his reign in charge of Atalanta that he’d make the Black and Blues into one of the most lethal attacking sides in European football within three years, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. But with a stellar recruitment process and hard work on the training pitch to deploy some of his tactical upheavals, Atalanta are firmly on their way to becoming a European giant. Gasperini’s men finished in 3rd place in last season’s Serie A to secure Champions League football, and they are now into the last eight in the 2019-20 Champions League thanks to a thumping 8-4 aggregate score over Valencia in the Round of 16. Gasperini hasn’t just improved practically every single player he’s come into contact with since joining in 2016, he’s improved remarkably, at least statistically, as a manager himself. The Italian manager has won 51% of his matches with Atalanta in comparison to 36% at his previous job with Genoa, highlighting this massive improvement in his career. For the most part, he hasn’t won those games in close 1-0 score-lines. He’s completely blown away his opposition on the way to scoring 70 goals in 25 Serie A matches this season, just six away from beating the tally that his team managed in all of last season when they finished third. The result of this attacking flair has caused analysts everywhere to try and study what they are doing in attack and how they are pulling off such remarkable feats. The Mastermind Site is now the latest to get in on the act and try to explain the tactical nuances of Gian Piero Gasperini’s incredible Atalanta B.C.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-1-2
Atalanta’s favoured formation the past two seasons under Gian Piero Gasperini has been the 3-4-1-2. Atalanta are one of many teams in Serie A to deploy a back-three formation, but they do so in a truly unique way that cannot be rivaled by any other team in the league.
Twenty-five year old keeper Pierluigi Gollini is the first choice in between the posts, as the back-three is most frequently made up of Argentinean Jose Luis Palomino, Brazilian Rafael Toloi and Albanian Berat Djimsiti. These are not the names of a defensive unit one might normally expect to find in a UEFA Champions League final eight team. But the trio have a massive understanding of each other and Gian Piero Gasperini’s tactical insights, keeping the likes of Mattia Caldara, and the experienced Andrea Masiello and Simon Kjaer out of the lineup at different points this season. Although 34 goals conceded in 25 Serie A matches is 10 more than any other of the top four teams in the league, it hasn’t really made a massive difference as their 70 league goals scored is conveniently 10 more than the next best team in the scoring department, Lazio.Embed from Getty Images
The midfield four is stacked with Atalanta mainstays Hans Hateboer, Remo Freuler, Marten de Roon and Robin Gosens. All four have been at the club since at least 2017, with Freuler also being a part of Gasperini’s first season in charge (2016-17). Robin Gosens took a few seasons to break into the side thanks to the work of now Roma defender Leandro Spinazzola, but he has now firmly established himself as one of the brightest wing-backs in the league. With 7 goals and 5 assists in 22 matches this season, Gosens has been a transformed man this season and has made a massive contribution to Atalanta’s stellar goal tally. Finally, the trio responsible for much of the incredible 70-goal tally, Alejandro Gomez, Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic have formed one of the most fruitful attacks in European football this season. Their link-up play, positional interchange and overall understanding is something that should be feared by any team anywhere in the world. But as if that isn’t enough, they also have the likes of speed demon Luis Muriel and silky smooth dribbler Mario Pasalic as additional options. Muriel has scored 13 goals this season despite only starting 9 matches, while Chelsea loanee Pasalic has contributed with 5 goals and 5 assists, better than both de Roon and Freuler combined. Simply by looking at the formation you can see why Atalanta score so many goals. They can simply hit you from anywhere or any player on the pitch.
POSITIONAL INTERCHANGE & ROTATIONEmbed from Getty Images
One of the key elements to Atalanta’s play under Gasperini is their positional interchange and rotation. The reason why I use both terms here is because I think there is a notable distinction between the two. I have never actually heard someone else describe it this way, but this is my thought on the difference between the two… Positional interchange involves an in-the-moment reaction to the positioning of another player, such as on the counter attack when a number 9 might suddenly be on the right wing and so the right-winger decides to make a bursting run through the middle. Positional rotation on the other hand is more tactically ingrained into training as a specific pattern of play. It involves the rotation of positions based on specific scenarios that may happen on the football pitch. In the case of Atalanta, this may involve for example the movement of a central midfielder out wide to pick up the ball, taking the space that might normally be occupied by a wing-back. This could create a number of benefits for Atalanta. It could allow them to create a numerical advantage in a wide area, allow the wing-back to drift inside as the opposition don’t know who to mark, or afford a danger man like Papu Gomez the opportunity to pick up the ball in the middle with space around him to roam. This has been a very long way of saying: Atalanta utilize both.Embed from Getty Images
Alejandro Gomez has a key role in the side as the lone ‘1’ in the 3-4-1-2 formation, playing as a number ’10’ in behind Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic. He is the reason why the formation is not a traditional 3-5-2, as he’s very much separate from the midfield in the positions that he takes up, but also distinct from the front two. On occasion, Papu Gomez will take up positions on the left of the field, as the team shifts more into a 3-4-3. When this happens, Duvan Zapata will take up a position more centrally as Josip Ilicic shifts to the right. The ability of the front three to change positions on the drop of a hat is something that simply cannot be stopped by opposing defenders. Just ask Torino, Udinese or Lecce, who have each seen seven goals soar by them in a Serie A match this season against Atalanta. With the front three, this is where we see more of Atalanta’s positional interchange. It’s a bit more sporadic and although organized, it’s more like organized chaos on behalf of the players in charge rather than organized brilliance on behalf of Gasperini. The most common time for Atalanta to engage in positional interchange is when they are on the break or when Gomez consciously decides to drift over to the left, causing Ilicic to have the desire to either ping the central defender back in their own area, or come in field as right-wing-back Hans Hateboer gallops forward.
Atalanta also use positional rotation as part of their build-up. As referenced earlier, their central midfielders can typically be found picking up possession in wide areas, as can their centre-backs. The most frequent of the positional rotations that Gasperini seems to deploy within his side is that of the centre-backs and wing-backs. As the centre-backs go wide, the wing-backs tuck inside. Both positions are also frequently used as part of a quartet that includes the near-sided central midfielder and either the near-sided forward or Gomez, causing further chaos for the opposition. If all four of these players were to rotate positions, the defenders would get a headache the size of Atalanta’s goal tally. Unfortunately for the opposition, this is something they actually seem to coordinate. At any one time, you could expect the central midfielder to be in the position of the centre-back, the centre-back to be in the position of the wing-back, the wing-back to be in the position of the inside forward/attacking midfielder and that more advanced player actually more central. What a headache! Amazingly, all of Gasperini’s players seem to understand their role in this positional rotation and he comes off looking like a tactical genius!
CHEMISTRY OF THE FRONT THREEEmbed from Getty Images
Josip Ilicic, Duvan Zapata and Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez have formed something of a back-line’s worst nightmare. Gomez, a silky dribbler and intelligent play-maker, is one of the best around at retaining possession of the football. He loves to dribble, and although many associate Atalanta with this intense, counter attacking style of play, Gomez is actually quite patient with his attacking flair. He doesn’t just make cheeky passes for the sake of doing so. In longer spells of possession, he will often roam around with the ball at his feet as he pleases until he sees the best option. This is evidenced over and over again this season, but look no further than the first goal on the team’s recent 4-1 victory over Valencia. Gomez picks up the ball on the left-side of the field and slowly advances forward for about 10 seconds. He has his head up the entire time and after one jolting cut, he whips in the ball at the exact moment that Hateboer makes a run on the blindside of the Valencia defender to get on the end of it. This is a great example of the 32-year old’s intelligence in possession of the football and his ability to time the pass at the right moment for his teammates to score.Embed from Getty Images
The Argentinean’s love for dribbling is equalled by his love for creating chances and he has certainly had a role in the transformation of both Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata across the past two seasons. With the intelligent movement of both of the forwards in front of him, not to mention the pace and power they have to offer, Gomez’s flicks, tricks, through-balls and passes off the ground all seem to come off. Those two men in front of them are none other than Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic, two players who have been part of Serie A for most of the past decade, but have never been more successful than right now. Prior to last season, Zapata’s best goal-tally in the league was a mediocre 11. But he has been a transformed man under Gasperini more than arguably any other player, scoring 23 goals with 7 assists in 37 Serie A matches in 2018-19, and now 11 goals with 5 assists in only 15 Serie A appearances so far in 2019-20. Ilicic meanwhile has also taken his career to new heights since joining Atalanta from Fiorentina. It’s not as though Ilicic wasn’t good last season. He was actually quite spectacular, and his tally of 12 goals and 7 assists in 31 league matches was highly commendable. But this season Ilicic has been a completely different animal. With 15 goals and 5 assists in 21 appearances, the Slovenian must be one of the most improved players anywhere in Europe this season. He’s become unplayable at times this season and has been one of the deadliest goal-scorers in both the Serie A (5th highest scorer) and the UEFA Champions League (tied for 6th).Embed from Getty Images
Sure, Zapata and Ilicic are aided by the creativity and composure of Papu Gomez. But it’s the understanding that the three of them have together that has been so incredible to watch. Zapata is far from your typical target man and in another life was probably an Olympic sprinter. He is lightning quick and somehow manages to get his body under control when running at top speed to be able to shoot the ball with a greater combination of power and accuracy than most strikers around. Ilicic meanwhile is equally powerful and is an absolute pest for opposition defenders. Not only is he constantly on his opposition defenders like the gnat that just won’t go away, he’s also a highly intelligent dribbler and chance creator. With the qualities of these three players put together and the positional interchange that they engage in on the fly, Atalanta have been absolutely unstoppable this season. This is evidenced by their 70 goals scored in the league this season and 16 goals in the UEFA Champions League. We won’t go through all the comparisons that can be made, but yes, that’s more goals in league play than Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus…you name it. Virtually only Bayern Munich and PSG have scored more goals in league play this season in Europe’s top five leagues and both Bayern and PSG have players that you’d expect to see at the top of every “best strikers in the world” list. Atalanta meanwhile have a front-three that the majority of the footballing public might struggle to name.
PRESSING FROM THE FRONTEmbed from Getty Images
When defending, Atalanta implement a high-pressing system. One player (usually closest to the ball) acts as the trigger by a quick and immediate press on the opposition player the moment they receive the ball. As this is happening, the other players stick to the nearest opposition player like glue. If the player who is being pressed manages to complete a pass, it then becomes very difficult for the next player in possession to have the ball for long before the Atalanta player gets a foot in. The man-to-man press may have some drawbacks, such as leaving gaps in the field due to a desire to follow the player rather than cover the space. But when done correctly the glue-like marking always forces the player in possession of the ball backwards upon receiving it. At the very least, this is an effective method of delaying the attack and winning the ball back higher up the field.Embed from Getty Images
Atalanta’s shape in defense routinely becomes a 5-2-1-2, with Hateboer and Gosens joining the back-three and Gomez remaining slightly detached from the midfield two, sometimes to the detriment of the team. If Gasperini’s men are playing their other favourite formation (3-4-3), the defensive shape will become very naturally a 5-4-1.
With their high-line at the back and high-press at the front, Atalanta can be susceptible to balls over the top if the press is broken. But due to the organization of their press, this usually is not the biggest issue for La Dea. The bigger issue is actually how the big men at the back sometimes have a difficult time defending against skillful players and that the midfield two can at times be over-run by teams who can clog the middle of the field. 49% of the shots that they’ve given up this season in Serie A have come from outside the eighteen yard box. Sure most teams would prefer this, but when you have players who can score from distance, it doesn’t really matter where they shoot from. Although Atalanta were brilliant in both UEFA Champions League matches against Valencia, they had a bit of difficulty defending and keeping out shots from distance from the likes of Denis Cheryshev and Kevin Gameiro. If the Black and Blues are to advance into the final four of the Champions League, it is certainly something they are going to have to sort out. They might need a third man in midfield in order to effectively defend against that weakness, but the balancing act of that would mean one of their potent front three would likely need to be left out.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTSEmbed from Getty Images
Atalanta have been one of the supreme attacking outfits in European football over the course of the last two seasons and in time could continue to grow into one of Europe’s elite if they keep up this formula for success. Their reliance on positional interchange of the front three is matched by the brilliance of their positional rotation elsewhere on the field in their build-up. Their man-to-man high press may have some drawbacks, but also has implications for their ability to win the ball back higher up the pitch and score even more goals, contributing to the overall excitement of their play. Gian Piero Gasperini has been an absolute revelation in Serie A since joining Atalanta and hopefully for the sake of all of us football fans, he continues to innovate this Atalanta team further in the future.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Gian Piero Gasperini’s flamboyant and energetic Atalanta. 70 goals in just 25 matches is absolutely unreal and has been something only betterd by Bayern Munich and PSG this season in Europe’s top leagues. We hope you’ve been enjoying this tactical series and we look forward to hearing your thoughts on which team/manager you want us to cover next! Be sure to follow us on Twitter @mastermindsite to share your thoughts or comment below in our ‘Reply’ section. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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