In recent seasons, Atalanta and their coach Gian Piero Gasperini have had a massive impact on European football with their bold and aesthetically pleasing play.
In this article, Spanish coach and analyst Fernando Nuñez digs deep into the Italian team’s game and analyses just what it is that makes Atalanta such a tantalising prospect.
So, ladies and gentleman, here’s Fernando with the news...
There are two ways to go in the annals of footballing history. The first is to win a tournament and be an undisputed champion. The second is to leave a mark so indelible that your name becomes synonymous with the sport. Think Cruyff’s Ajax, Sacchi’s AC Milan or Ferguson at Manchester United.
Gasperini’s Atalanta, a club that until recently were an unknown quantity to many outside the borders of Italy, are currently making their own claim to a throne in the footballing Olympus.
This team is a breath of fresh air, ploughing their own furrow with bold ideas and inspirational play. Gasperini has created a footballing dream team, a squad that surprises and delights on a daily basis, not just in domestic competition, but also throughout the continent.
Gasperini’s team is characterised by their fast attack, arriving in the opposition’s box with dizzying speed and loading it with numerous players. This tends to make their games fast, frantic and extremely fun to watch.
Add to this their propensity for applying high pressure on their opponents, defending as high as possible, a tactic which brings with it many opportunities on goal. This is truly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it football at its finest.
So, let’s get down to business and look at some of their tactics.
Generally speaking, Garperini effectively goes with a 3-5-2 formation that transforms into a 3-2-3-2 in attack.
During a build up, the wingbacks give depth and width on the wings, pulling the game towards them and making more room for the midfielders. They position themselves on the edges of the box whilst the central defender enters the box to receive the ball and create superiority with the keeper. All of this allows them to create enough space to be able to drive the ball forward in this phase of the attack.
Two midfielders position themselves in the middle of their own half, moving inside to receive passes, but always leaving free space to open passing lines that drive the game forward.
The attacking midfielders take up a position between the opposition lines to receive the ball in a danger zone. The two forwards, meanwhile, share the work. One gives deep support to whoever has the ball, again getting between the defensive lines to receive passes in dangerous positions. The other breaks wide, creating space and pulling the opponent’s defense out in the process.
Atalanta's build up from the back
Supporting triangular formations
The attacking progression in the build up phase of the Italians is very clear. The player on the ball transfers it to the opposition’s half where the forwards alternate break away from their markers to create spaces and be able to continue driving. There is also support provided for when the player in possession attracts an opponent in order to give an alternative to continue driving.
The wingers are held at the same height, providing numbers and support for the less populated areas of the opponent’s half and, if the team cannot continue moving forward in the centre, they do so on the wings. The other midfielder and playmaker have great mobility, attacking the spaces between the lines, waiting to receive the ball and jump forward.
Creativity in midfield
In the last third of the field, it’s worth noting the sheer number of players getting into the penalty area. We counted up to six different players at a time: forwards, midfielders and one of the wingbacks.
This floods the opponent in their own area and, therefore, increases the finishing options since the attacking players arrive in a staggered manner. When arriving in the area with so many players, covering them all defensively becomes next to impossible and, usually, there is at least one player in a free and open scoring position.
Overwhelming the opposition defense
When it comes to scoring, the plan is clear: the forwards break between the centre backs and wingers hold off, generating space between centre-back and full-back which can be attacked by two of the midfielders if they aren’t holding the ball.
If the opponent closes this space, the winger receives it, generating one-on-one or one-on-two superiority. If the centre-back closes the space, this frees up the striker to attack. If a midfielder closes the space, it opens up space in the centre for Atalanta to attack. Every road leads to the goalmouth.
Finding gaps in defense
Atalanta’s offense doesn’t end there. During offensive transitions, they have a clear strategy. The first pass forward comes from one of the midfielders who drives forward at top speed while the strikers and at least one midfielder push up in front of the ball. Their movement out front pulls players towards them meaning that the player with the ball can continue to drive forward.
Additionally, the wing-backs will be incorporated into this strategy and, although they are not in front of the ball, they are close, threatening the outside spaces, generating doubt in the minds of the opposition who don’t know whether to close or who to mark.
Driving forward after recovering the ball
Driving forward with support
Ok, let’s take a look at the Italians in defense. Although their defensive system isn’t complex, it is intense and effective throughout the course of a game.
Being a team with such a determined offense, any small defensive errors can seriously penalise it.
Defensive transitions are, without a doubt, absolutely key. Atalanta are most at home when applying pressure. The player closest to the ball will immediately close the space between themselves and the opponent, trying to force them to play it backwards and, from there, they will increase the levels of pressure closer to the opponent’s goal line.
Intense pressure after losing the ball
Applying pressure high in the field
Pressuring opponent's near their own area
If the opponent manages to overcome the first line of pressure, Atalanta will fall back to at least the half-way line, holding up play and giving the rest of the team time to get behind the ball. And then the pressure starts again.
This tactic means that the opponent can’t easily get behind the defense and they never have to defend with numerical inferiority, which reduces the amount of free space available to the attacking team.
The defensive retreat begins
The defensive lines are redrawn
If the loss occurs when too many players are caught out of position, such as the wing-backs too far forward, and there are too many gaps in the defense, Atalanta has another strategy which involves the midfield dropping back to a central defensive position and the full-backs pushing out wide, thus redrawing the five-man defense.
Without a doubt, the mechanisms at play in Atalanta’s game are worthy of admiration for anyone who loves football and its tactical foundations. Gasperini has started a revolution at Atalanta and set the footballing world alight. You just need to look at his successes in the Italian Serie A and in Europe to see this.
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