How Atalanta has become one of the most enjoyable teams in Europe
Atalanta‘s remarkable form this season has been one of the most enjoyable stories in European football. Currently sitting fourth in Serie A and having made it all the way to the Coppa Italia final, where they’ll face Lazio after amazingly ousting Juventus 3-0 along the way, Gian Piero Gasperini deserves immense credit for how he continually gets the best out of his team.
Entertaining, high octane and proactive on both sides of the ball, La Dea have been an absolute joy to watch this crusade, as they’ve defeated and outclassed many of the elite teams including Inter Milan, Napoli, Lazio, Fiorentina and the aforementioned Juventus.
To start with their offensive exertions, and they play an exciting, effective and swashbuckling style of football that persistently poses questions of their adversaries. Capable of hurting their opposition in a variety of ways, their attacking mechanics have been so difficult to combat.
Playing predominantly in a fluid 3-4-2-1, that sometimes morphs into 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2, they play with boldness, confidence and enthusiasm. Building out from the back whenever possible, their back three allows them to often create a numerical superiority over the opposition’s first line of pressure. In addition, by spreading themselves wide, this effectively stretches the pressing structure, giving opponents plenty of ground to cover.
This often allows the side centre-backs plenty of room to dribble upfield to support the attacks and cause problems for their foes on who should leave their post to mark them, with this subsequently creating a free man or opening up pass lanes.
The sides backs’ (and at times the central centre back) impact doesn’t stop there, however, as they are actively encouraged to venture upfield past half way and even as far the final third. This tactic, which closely resembles what Sheffield United do, gives Atalanta another advanced option and regularly gives them an overload in wide or central areas to help bypass their opposition’s stopping structure smoothly.
Shifting the focus to the role of their wingbacks, and the athleticism and energy of the likes of Timothy Castagne, Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens is a key component of their attacking armoury. Marauding forward relentlessly, they provide great width and depth to La Dea’s moves by stretching and disrupting defensive structures.
Strong on the ball and all tidy dribblers and passers, plus excellent at firing crosses and cutbacks into the box, their wingbacks are an enormous threat. Speedy and instructed to surge into advanced locations, they time their runs brilliantly to latch onto switches of play, where they can go 1v1 with their man. Moreover, the complementary relationships they share with their colleagues enables them to perform slick rotations and execute sharp underlapping runs.
Moving onto the midfielders and they’ve undertaken their multidimensional roles beautifully, with Remo Freuler and Marten de Roon being the mainstays here. Full of tenacity, power, determination and smarts, these two have provided essential balance, physicality and attacking drive.
Coherent distributors who keep things ticking over nicely on their way to connecting and constructing Atalanta’s attacking patterns, Gasperini gives them much responsibility in helping pass out from the back and progress through the thirds. Also influencing proceedings with their penetrative vertical runs into the box from deep, that are so hard to track, the duo is quite the handful to contain.
Unquestionably the most eye-catching component of Atalanta’s upfield work comes from the efforts of attacking midfielders, Alejandro “Papu” Gomez and Josip Ilicic, who bring so much creativity, artistry and imagination into Gasperini’s team. Granted licence to roam across the final third and to drop deep to link midfield and attack, Gomez and Ilicic both read the play expertly and are wonderfully intelligent at exploiting space. Whether it be openings in between the lines, the halfspaces, in behind or in true central midfield locations, they take up fantastic positions to be an outlet.
With both being elite technicians who are so masterful at unlocking defences with their ingenuitive passing and wizardry on the dribble, this has seen them torment defences and wreak havoc across the country. Two of the finest chance manufacturers in the division, they crucially accompany this with their goalscoring prowess, for Gomez has bagged 10 and Ilicic 12 to go alongside their combined 20 assists in all competitions. Producing many memorable moments of magic, the Atalanta fans have been spoilt watching their maestro’s strut their stuff.
Roundings things off with towering Colombian centre-forward Duvan Zapata, who’s been one of the premier frontmen in Europe this crusade, and he serves as a terrific spearhead for their attacks.
So strong and athletic, Zapata uses his physical traits to good effect, with these holding him in good stead to get the better of his adversary. A top header with an enviable leap, his aptitude in this regard sees him reach the ball first to win knockdowns, flick-ons or when powering his headers at goal. Moreover, if Atalanta needs an out ball when they can’t break through the press, his target man qualities are vital in enhancing their chances of winning the second ball. It’s worth noting when he challenges for headers, Gomez will usually coordinate his runs in behind to anticipate flick on so he can maintain depth and receive the ball on the move.
Meanwhile, the former Sampdoria striker’s explosive runs in behind are of huge benefit too. Not only does he time them brilliantly so he can gain separation while putting himself into advantageous scoring zones, but they also are excellent in terms of stretching opposition backline to create space between the lines for his colleagues.
Very smart at pinning and drawing his marker away from potentially dangerous space, his quality in doing so generates room for runners from midfield too.
A lethal finisher to boot, who can score in many ways, his 22 league goals place him second in the Capocannoniere race behind only Fabio Quagliarella but incredibly ahead of some highly fancied stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Krzysztof Piatek, Edin Dzeko, Mauro Icardi, Ciro Immobile, Andrea Belotti, Dries Mertens and Arkadiusz Milik.
Such a threat from set-pieces too, Zapata joins the likes of Andrea Masiello, Gianluca Mancini, Berat Djimsiti, De Roon, Jose Luis Palomino and Mario Pasalic in making them formidable customers to manage from dead ball situations.
Some other notable collective mechanics that deserve mention come from how they create diamonds and triangles to form ideal passing angles, pour numbers into the box for crossing scenarios, occupy the 10 spaces strategically to unlock defenses with quick combination play, use opposite movements, shrewdly target wide areas from goal kicks to create a 2v1 with their onrushing wingback and ball near attacking midfielder and through their free-kick taking specialists of Gomez and Ilicic.
With all this in mind, it’s hardly surprising the electrifying Atalanta are Serie A’s top scorers on 71, are second for shots per 90 with 14.94, attempt the most dribbles of any team with 32.81 per 90, are first for touches inside the box on 22.39 p90, are sixth for key passes p90 on 3.04 and lead the division for progressive runs p90 with 19.
It’s been impressive to see for a team that is so relentless and ambitious going forward, they’re actually very good in the defensive phase too. Operating with a high line and accompanying this with a high press, Gasperini makes life extremely tough for opponents when playing out from the back. Compressing the pitch with their high line and ramping up their intensity once the ball is in wide areas, this sees them suffocate their opponents by giving them little time on the ball, which subsequently forces them into low percentage long balls or turnovers.
Very adept at using their cover shadows to block passing lanes behind them, this amplifies this constricting effect by cutting off potential options for the ball holder.
In an attempt to overcome the press, opponents will often instruct their striker to drop deep to help, but Atalanta’s central defenders are awake to this, as they press their man vigorously so they can’t enjoy an easy touch to link play or turn them.
Indeed, the way they react so sharply to pressing triggers like when a player receives back to goal, in an open body posture, near the touchline, plus when they are about to inherit a sloppy, underhit or backwards pass, has been so fruitful in winning back possession. Predominantly pressing in a man-oriented fashion, they’ve done a splendid job in this area, something their solid 8.94 PPDA depicts.
Another significant element to their stopping output comes from their fearsome counter-pressing, where they apply dogged pressure once they lose possession. By swarming on their opposition and shutting off nearby pass routes as the opposition are preparing to counter-attack, Atalanta looks to regain possession immediately so they can attack again against an unset, disorganised setup. The sheer velocity of their harrying and lighting fast reactions consequently mean they generate many turnovers and conjure up many promising openings for themselves.
A key byproduct associated with this is that it protects the defence, as it limits the success of opponent transitions by stopping them before they can develop. Special mention in this regard must go to midfield warriors Freuler and de Roon, for the pair are absolutely integral in breaking up attacks with their harrying, forcefulness, tireless running and timely interventions. Even though they can be exposed on the counter at times through their combative and assertive attempts to win the ball back, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
So well drilled and familiar with Gasperini’s meticulously tailored game plan, they defend adequately in a mid-block too while still maintaining their pressing strategy if the ball moves into certain zones or when specific triggers arise. Positioning themselves soundly and with cohesion, they move up, drop back and shift across in unison to try to stay compact and organised to give themselves every chance to snuff out whatever is thrown at them.
Admirably, when La Dea is faced with teams who whip crosses into the box, launch long balls and are well equipped for set pieces, they’ve competed manfully to deal with this due to a combination of positional sense, astutely picking up the ball flight and having defenders who are tall. By the numbers, they duly punctuate their stopping quality, as they lead the league for least shots against with 9.61 p90, have the highest percentage of defensive duels won and are fifth in aerial duel success rates at 46.35%.
Considering what a sensational season they’ve enjoyed, it would be truly special if they could reward themselves by making the top four and triumphing in the Coppa Italia. Wouldn’t that be the perfect way to cap off their crusade, which has been littered with upside under the tactically marvellous guidance of Gasperini who’s remarkably got the best out of the smartly recruited players at his disposal?