After successive back to back third-place finishes in Serie A, Gian Piero Gasperini has firmly established Atalanta as one of Europe's most lethal and tactically fluid teams. Despite losing their star player Alejandro 'Papu' Gomez halfway through the season due to disagreements between player and coach, Atalanta look set to finish inside Serie A's top three once again, with the highest tally of goals for the third season running. Here is a tactical analysis of Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta in 2020-21.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-1-2 / 3-4-2-1
Throughout his time in charge of Atalanta, Gasperini has predominantly favoured a 3-4-1-2 formation, utilizing Alejandro Gomez in between the midfield and forward lines. Since the departure of Gomez and the subsequent rise of Ukrainian attacker Ruslan Malinovsky, Gasperini has been relying more and more on a 3-4-2-1. However, in time, Atalanta may look for a proper Papu Gomez replacement. The Black & Blues have only drawn 3 and lost 1 match out of 17 playing the 3-4-1-2, compared to drawing 6 and losing 4 out of 17 in the 3-4-2-1.
Regardless of the results, Gian Piero Gasperini's principles of play remain the same between the two formations. The back-three structure is integral to his team's success, as are high-flying, goal-scoring wing-backs, and a double midfield pivot to provide the necessary steel and stability behind the illustrious front-men.
Other than the departure of Gomez, Gasperini has also been able to maintain a very consistent eleven from last season. Gollini's continued in goal, while Freuler and de Roon have continued on in central midfield. In between them, the Italian manager has four solid centre-backs to rotate in and out of his back-three: including Jose Luis Palomino, Rafael Toloi, Cristian Romero and Berat Djmsiti. 23-year-old Romero has impressed in particular this season, winning the most aerial duels in the side, while also making the most tackles per game, and winning the most interceptions.
Integral to the way Atalanta play are the wing-backs, Robin Gosens and Hans Hateboer. Gosens is the third-highest scorer at the club this season, with 10 goals and 6 assists from his wing-back position. Hateboer on the other side is slightly less adventurous and influential in both attack and defence, but still one of the best wing-backs in the league nonetheless. He has however started to be replaced this season by the young Danish international Joakim Maehle from time to time.
Up-front is where Gasperini has the most options and the most rotation, with Duvan Zapata, Josip Ilicic, Ruslan Malinovsky, Mario Pasalic, and Luis Muriel all fighting for a spot. While Muriel was second-favourite to Ilicic and Zapata in the previous campaign, he's become one of Gasperini's go-to men and the side's top scorer this season, with 21 in 33 appearances. 33-year-old Josip Ilicic is beginning to show signs of decline, but Duvan Zapata's continued his positive form, scoring 14 goals with 7 assists in 34 matches. So those are the players within the system, but now let's uncover what makes Atalanta so unique, and so worth greater examination.
POSITIONAL INTERCHANGE & ROTATION
One of the key elements to Atalanta's play under Gasperini is their positional interchange and positional rotation. First, let's explain what this means. 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 order to uncover space. In the case of Atalanta, this may involve 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. Positional rotation offers Atalanta a plethora of advantages, from wide overloads to the creation of space. If for example, a central midfielder finds themselves covered, they could move into the half-space normally occupied by an inverted winger, drawing the covering player with them. This would then allow for free space for the inverted winger to roam into and pick up the ball. It's the exact same position that was once unavailable, but the positional rotation unlocks the space and allows it to become available again.
Atalanta also use positional rotation as part of their build-up. Not only can their central midfielders be found picking up the ball in wide areas, so too can their centre-backs. In fact this is the most frequent of the positional rotations that Gasperini deploys during build-up phases. As the centre-backs go wide, the wing-backs tuck inside. While they may not exactly be rotating positions per say, they are taking up space that normally would be occupied by the other. Although certainly coordinated and practised in training, Atalanta's positional rotation can also be a bit more random and sporadic. 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 advanced player more central. If that seems confusing, just imagine how their opposition feel. Amazingly, all of Gasperini's players seem to understand their role in this positional rotation and he comes off looking like a tactical genius.
When it comes to positional interchange, this is more commonly done on the break, as players make varying runs to complicate the decision making of the opposition. In either shape, the front three remain in close proximity, which allows natural interchange to take place, as they move about the pitch at will. It's a very narrow front-three, and as one drifts wide the others will follow to the same side, letting the wing-back and far-sided central midfielder hold the width on the opposite side instead. The front three are all fantastic in tight spaces and link up with each other with ease in the final third. Many of their goals are scored through quick connections, bounce passes, and incisive movement in and around the penalty area, no matter how many defenders attempt to stop them from playing through the gaps.
Although their attack can become narrow in the final third, Atalanta also place a large emphasis on width. The outside centre-backs come very wide during build-up phases, while the central midfielders are free to roam all over in both attack and defence. As far as the central midfielders go, this is more so systematic, such as a near-sided central midfielder drifting toward the side of the ball, but it can also be more random and involve positional rotation with a wide player or attacking midfielder to create space. But it's not just the central midfielders. All of their players will drift toward the wide areas at different stages in the match, apart from the goalkeeper and central centre-back. Emphasizing width in this manner offers Atalanta two advantages in possession. Firstly, Atalanta can create overloads down one specific side, allowing them to either continue to progress down that side or switch play to the other. Secondly, it stretches the opposition, and therefore allows less time for the opposition to react when the Black & Blues eventually make the field smaller again and combine at the edge of the eighteen.
Atalanta don't utilize their width for any particular principles of crossing or attacking wing-play, instead of more so to open up their opposition and eventually return the ball back to the centre of the pitch for their front three to do damage. They are then particularly fluid and exceptional at finding the right pass into the box, making more passes into the penalty area and more passes that lead to a shot than any other team in Serie A this season.
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 nearby teammates 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. Their 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 often forces the player in possession backwards upon receiving it. Their press has improved over time under Gasperini and is now an integral method for them in delaying the attack and winning the ball back high up the field. Atalanta have won the most interceptions in the league this season (14 per game), and the third most tackles (15.9 per game). They've also taken on a very aggressive approach to their press, conceding the second most fouls in the league, 15.3 per game.
The likes of Zapata, Malinovsky and Muriel are very energetic right from the front, while Freuler and de Roon in behind never stop running. Atalanta's opposition simply must feel as though they're constantly underwater, as there's never any room to breathe. While a few opposition teams have accumulated more pressures than Gasperini's team, none have been more successful at winning the ball after applying that pressure. And while their possession and interchanges in the final third are quite outstanding, Atalanta also constantly create chances for themselves through this intense pressure. It's not just a mechanism for winning back the ball, but also one for scoring goals.
So they press high and they press aggressive, but how do they set up? Well, in either formation, the shape may take on more of 3-4-3 / 3-4-2-1, as the wing-backs and central midfielders push up and the entire team remains compact and close together. The shape is specifically geared towards funnelling opposition players out wide. The danger of opposition teams accepting that and playing into wide areas lies in the presence a wing-back, centre-back and central midfielder all ready to pounce in a triangular shape; not to mention the inverted winger higher up the pitch. In other words, their 3-4-2-1 is particularly useful for pressing. It does not necessarily create natural diamonds like many other formations suited for pressing, such as a 4-2-3-1, but it is very good at covering space in all areas of the field and leaving a team well set up to defend, even if the opposition are able to unlock pockets of space and gain traction. Pressing in this kind of shape is one of the reasons why Mainz have had so much success in 2021 in steering clear of relegation, and why Chelsea have had greater defensive prowess under Thomas Tuchel this season, en route to a Champions League final. For Atalanta, it's no different and has been a major reason why their numbers stand out above the Serie A pack.
Lower on the pitch, if the press is able to be broken, Atalanta may adopt more of a 5-2-1-2 or 5-4-1 shape in defence, depending on whether they're playing 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1. Occasionally, Atalanta will adapt this to look more like 5-3-2 in either shape, with an attacking midfielder dropping in alongside the defensive midfield duo, to help shuffle play into the wide areas. However, opposition teams have found it increasingly difficult to bypass Atalanta's press and overall defensive structure in the past few years. One of the many reasons for their high amount of interceptions comes from the centre-backs easily recycling the ball following longer passes over the top. They've won the second-highest percentage of aerial duels this season to only Parma, and typically have no problem dealing with longer passes that opposition teams may utilize to break the press. The Black & Blues also concede the fewest shots from outside the eighteen-yard box, a further illustration that they often stop their opposition from having a chance to shoot before it's too late.
Atalanta have been one of the supreme attacking outfits in European football over the course of the last three seasons. So long as Gasperini stays at the helm, they could in time develop into one of Europe's elite sides altogether, and potentially even win the Serie A title in the near future. Their reliance on width, positional rotation in the build-up, and positional interchanges further up the pitch make the Black & Blues one of the most unique sides in the world, and actively aids in their ability to score so many goals. Their man-to-man press has also drastically improved the team, as Gasperini's men have won the ball after applying pressure more times than any other team in Serie A. In short, Gian Piero Gasperini has been an absolute revelation since joining Atalanta in 2016, and although they haven't won a trophy yet, one certainly may be on the cards for the Black & Blues in the future.
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