After almost 3 years with Gian Piero Gasperini at the helm of Atalanta, they finished 3rd in the Serie A this season, securing European football yet again for the third year running but this time in the Champions League, for the first time in Atalanta’s 111 year history. Since Gasperini has taken over the Bergamo side, they have entertained fans playing some of the most entertaining and tactically innovative football in Europe with their swift passing, energetic pressing and a large number of academy players promoted to the first team by Gasperini. This article will touch on Atalanta’s recent transfer business and the current squad as well as highlighting a number of key characteristics of Gasperini’s Atalanta, their strengths and weaknesses and where the club could potentially go moving forward.
Atalanta spent big by their standards this summer, breaking their record transfer fee for the second year running with the arrival of 27-year-old Duvan Zapata on a two-year loan with an option to buy from Sampdoria for €12.60 million. Now in April and with 26 goals to his name in all competitions, the €12.60 million spent on the Columbian now looks like a bargain and with West Ham being linked to the forward in January to the tune of €40 million, it looks like Atalanta could turn over a tidy profit on him if they wished. Bryan Cristante was brought in for €5 million following a successful loan spell the previous year however Atalanta, thanks to the ingenious Giovanni Sartori, yet again conducted smart business, loaning the midfielder to Roma for an initial €5 million and later selling him permanently making a €21 million profit off of him. Youngsters Davide Bettella, Marco Tumminello and Marco Carraro made up the rest of Atalanta’s significant arrivals in the summer. Departures were pretty quiet for the club selling 2 and loaning one to SPAL however the eventual departures of Bryan Cristante and Frank Kessie will bring in a very handsome €45 million in the summer.
With all the summer dealings wrapped up, Gasperini had a squad of around 30 men to see him through the 18/19 campaign. The squad does seem slightly unbalanced with only 6 midfielders and 6 attackers and an ageing front line to rebuild in the upcoming transfer window, however, Gasperini had a plethora of defensive options to choose from which suits his 3-4-3 formation that he is wedded to. Gasperini does sometimes use a 3-4-2-1 formation or a 3-4-1-2 formation depending on the circumstances and opposition, however, by in large it would be fair to say he favours a 3-4-3. The front 3 are relied on heavily by Gasperini who’s high press is very physically demanding and there is a lack of quality depth behind that front 3 that perhaps is worrying. Musa Barrow is an extremely exciting prospect however behind Gomez and Pasalic there is only really youngster Piccoli and veteran Ilicic so Atalanta have some rebuilding to do in the summer.
Chance creation from midfield and combinations
Atalanta’s diminutive number 10, Alejandro Gomez, is known for his quick feet and ability to find space on the edge of the box and get his shot off. To create high-quality chances, Atalanta often rely on him to drift in centrally and combine with one of the midfielders in an advanced position. Their combinations rely on Atalanta overloading the opposition centrally with their attacking midfielders, striker and advanced midfielder all within very close proximity of each other in and around the box. The combination of dangerous combination play centrally and the threat from wide areas make Atalanta a tough team to defend against since they can hurt you in different ways. They’ve also scored 10 goals from set-pieces this season, which makes up for 15% of their goals, a small decrease from last season where their 14 set piece goals made up 25% of their goals. However, it’s fair to say Gasperini has made them a threat from all angles.
Similarly, Atalanta create a number of chances from combination play between the front-three and/or an onrushing midfielder making a run from deep into the box. Unlike the previous method of chance creation I explained that relies on 3 central players all being very close to each other and moving in and around the box, this method relies more on the striker holding the ball up and playing a through ball into the path of a player making a run into the box. Players like Alejandro Gomez, Josip Ilicic and Mario Pasalic are key to this method with their creativity and passing quality. Duvan Zapata is often used as a target man up front and tries to link up play with the players around him, often trying to bring Remo Freuler and Marten de Roon into play from their deep midfield runs. Freuler has five to his name this season and his partner in midfield Marten De Roon has three and they play an important role in joining the attack with these types of deep runs. Last season it was Cristante who’s brilliantly timed runs into the box and partnership with Alejandro Gomez caused defences havoc, and despite not scoring as many as the Italian last season, it is Remo Freuler who has taken up that role of supporting the attack with his deep runs from midfield.
Use of wing-backs and positional exchanges
Atalanta are known for their formidable attack, sitting behind only Juventus by one goal in goals scored in Serie A this season with 66 and this is largely due to their excellent use of the wide areas to create chances. Only 24% of their attack occurs in the middle of the pitch, the third lowest in the league which shows Gasperini clearly wants his side to utilise the wings more. Atalanta’s wing-backs are instructed to stay as wide as possible at all times in order to find space behind the oppositions defensive line and deliver low crosses into the box or cut back. To allow the wing-backs as much space as possible out wide when attacking, Atalanta often pass to their number 10 in the half space to draw the opposition’s full-back. This allows Atalanta’s wing-back’s space and time to get in behind the oppositions defence before the number 10 releases the ball out wide. Interestingly, Atalanta almost exclusively cross the ball low or cut inside. High crosses are rarely seen due to the difficulty of finishing them, especially when one of your front 3 is 5’4.
Atalanta don’t always use this method however, sometimes using positional exchanges to advance the ball and isolate Gomez and Ilicic in the half-space just outside the box where we all know they are most lethal. The positional exchanges usually take up a rhombus shape and begin with one of either the left or right centre-backs carrying the ball forward to the wing-back position before releasing the ball to the wing back who takes up a more advanced position on the wing. The number 10 then drops deep into midfield to cover for the midfielder who would drop back into central defence to cover for the central defender who’s roamed out wide. These rhombus-like positional exchanges prove to be extremely effective in advancing the ball but also allowing Gomez and Ilicic space just outside the box as I mentioned earlier. Ilicic ranks 3rd in Serie A for dribbles completed per 90 and Gomez 6th and can be extremely dangerous from that area of the pitch in 1on1 situations. Gomez, in particular, can shoot and pass with either foot, making him a nightmare for defenders. Another reason the exchanges are so effective is that if the defenders closely mark Gomez and Ilicic, the centre-back and the wing-back can create overloads on the flank. Moreover, the rhomboid positioning of the players maximizes the passing lanes between them. The cleverest thing about these positional exchanges, however, is that they can happen anywhere. Due to the 3-4-3 formation, the players can find rhomboid shapes all over the pitch and any player can initiate the move. A winger can run to the byline while the midfielder can move into the half-space outside the box. Any combination is possible. This freedom in positional interchanges increases the unpredictability of the tactics or in general, the attacking patterns exhibited by Atalanta and is one of their biggest strengths.
High pressure at a cost
Atalanta are just as well known for their attack as they are for their aggressive and highly demanding pressing. Gasperini employs a man-orientated zonal defence, trying to enter the offensive phase immediately and create transitions as quickly as possible. In the defensive phase, the wingers press from the outside, using the cover shadows to block off any passing lanes to the flanks, and instead forcing the opposition into trying to play through the middle of the pitch where the Atalanta midfield can condense and create a high-pressure area with little room for the opposition to manoeuvre. This comes at a cost however as due to Atalanta’s extremely man-orientated zonal marking; defensive shape often flies out the window. Closely following men leaves a lot of gaps in their defence and players often get confused when and where they should exchange marking-duties leaving gaps in the defence. Immediate and constant pressure is required for Gasperini’s system to work effectively and when it does work it’s extremely hard to play against, however, for a club like Atalanta with a limited amount of resources and lack of quality depth, it is too difficult to maintain throughout the season. If the players are not in peak physical and mental state, the whole defensive strategy collapses. Player rotation and depth become critical when they participate in multiple competitions and this is something Atalanta struggle with. Atalanta’s defence is intimidating and extremely effective when working well but risky and can come at a cost.
Atalanta like to play out from the back, playing with short, swift passing. Remo Freuler often drops deep into the vacant wing-back position in an attempt to progress the ball from deep and this proves to be very effective. Freuler ranked 5th in Europe’s top 5 leagues last season for deep progressions per 90 and despite dropping off somewhat this season still ranks a respectable 12th, averaging 10.3 deep progressions per 90. Ilicic and Gomez usually stay in each half space and play short passes when receiving the ball always looking to go forward and attack. Gasperini’s possession philosophy appears to be entirely based around getting the ball forward as quickly as possible in a controlled fashion. Atalanta are sometimes forced to play long when under pressure but by in large prefer to play out of the back when possible. They usually have a plan when being forced to play long, and hit a certain area, usually, the right half-space, in which their physically more dominant forward operates so he goes for the challenge to win the ball and the players close to him can concentrate on going for the 2nd ball. Gasperini tends to set up in a 3-4-2-1 shape in possession and therefore always maintain width through their wing-backs as well as having four players at different heights in central midfield. This box midfield creates further problems for the opposition as the midfielders will have two Atalanta players in front of them as well as two behind them.
What next for Atalanta?
Gasperini’s target this season was to guide Atalanta to Champions League football for next season and he’s delivered that in brilliant fashion. It was a tricky run-in to finishing 3rd in Serie A this year, with Gasperini’s men remaining fully focused as they played Juventus and Lazio away from home, as well as the Coppa Italia final against Lazio in mid-May. As mentioned earlier, Atalanta do have limited resources to work with and an ageing front line with poor depth behind them to try and rebuild, however with Atalanta securing that 3rd place, there will be significantly more resources available for Gasperini to rebuild his side for next campaign. As well as this, Atalanta’s famed academy will continue to churn out very promising young Italian players that Gasperini can mould into his side and who can keep up with his physically demanding style of play. Next season will be Atalanta’s biggest yet in their 112-year history after booking a place in the Champions League and we can expect great things from Gasperini and his Atalanta side.