With just two points between them in the league table, Atalanta and Roma went into this game knowing the importance of a win in their push for European spots. Both head coaches prefer a protagonistic style of play, meaning it was sure to be an intriguing battle. Just as in the reverse fixture in August, the tie ended 3-3. This analysis will attempt to dissect one of the most exciting matches of the Serie A season thus far.
Both teams adopted their regular formations for this match. Atalanta lined up in a 3-4-1-2 with Papu Gomez operating between the lines as a roaming player. Josip Ilicic varied his game between playing on the last line with Duvon Zapata and dropping into the right half-space to create. The wing-backs were deployed high and wide as per their usual roles.
Roma were without Cengiz Under, instead playing a supporting trio of Zaniolo, Pellegrini, and El Shaarawy behind goal-shy Edin Dzeko. Full-backs Karsdorp and Kolarov spent much of the game in conservative roles, supplying passes into the final third from deep.
Struggle for control
As stated already, both Gian Piero Gasperini and Eusebio Di Francesco are coaches who usually seek control over possession. Atalanta are the league’s highest scorers with 47 goals, but started the game in eighth place due to their defensive frailties, conceding 30 in 21 games. Roma have scored 40 goals this season while letting in 29.
The defensive strategy was clear from both sides early on, pressing from the front and forcing their opponents long. This seemed to suit Roma more than it did Atalanta, who struggled to build anything sustainable in the first half. Their defenders were forced into playing direct to the strikers in search of the second ball. Manolas and Mercano dealt well with most of these attempts.
Roma were more accepting of this game-state, using their full-backs to play direct into the channels or off Dzeko for the supporting attackers to get on the end of. They rarely committed too many players forward, hoping to retain some stability against transitions. The image below highlights Atalanta’s stifled attempts to build in their preferred approach. Roma retain access to the deepest players in Atalanta’s build-up phase, while also shutting off passing lanes. Berisha decides to play it long towards Zapata, who fails to win the aerial battle with Kostas Manolas.
Roma enjoyed more success with their direct play, and often capitalised on their host’s lack of organisation at the back. They took the lead just three minutes in after Dzeko ran onto Zaniola’s knockdown to slot home calmly inside the area. Atalanta defender’s lack of focus from the off was to be a theme throughout the first half.
In their defence, they weren’t given much help from the wing-backs and were often left struggling to defend the spaces to either side of their three-man line. Roma’s second goal came after a simple vertical pass from Steven N’zonzi, allowing Dzeko to score again. The Bosnian striker had notched only two times before this game, meaning he doubled his tally for the campaign on Sunday. Atalanta have just two defenders on the last line against Roma’s two attackers. The third centre-back is in no man’s land in midfield, meaning there is no covering defender to support following the pass in behind.
Atalanta’s attempts to pin Roma back into their own half in search of game control proved their undoing in the first 45. They were regularly left too exposed at the back and poor positioning from their defenders made things too easy for the visiting attackers.
Transitions decide first half
Roma settled into the game as the more defensive of the two, and their counter-attacking was clinical. While they continued to press during Atalanta’s build-up phase, they retreated well to establish their defensive phase on the occasions where the home side managed to progress.
This process was, however, made easier by Atalanta’s inability to move the ball quickly in the final third. Their main outlet in these instances was Ilicic, who consistently held onto the ball for too long, allowing the opposition to get back. The Slovenian endured a frustrating opening half, with Roma managing to crowd him out and shut off his passing lanes.
When Atalanta looked to counter-attack, Roma’s somewhat conservative established attacks meant they were well placed to get back and cope. Ilicic failed to capitalise on the limited space afforded to him in any case. The image below highlights the home team’s failings in the offensive transition, as well as Roma’s impressive mechanisms in their defensive transitions. The attacking players are all accounted for, with three Roma players also blocking off the passing options of Ilicic. The image represents a common theme in the game, with Roma effective in nullifying Ilicic’s threat in the right half-spaces.
On the occasions when Roma transitioned from defence to attack, they were far more effective than their opponents. Atalanta pushed their wing-backs high and wide, looking to pin-back Karsdorp and Kolarov. This left big channels of space down the sides of the back-three. With Zaniolo and El Shaarawy both possessing the right profiles to exploit counter-attacking scenarios, Roma broke through with ease at times.
Their third strike came in the 40th minute, courtesy of their Egyptian born winger. Following a turnover in possession, Dzeko was able to drive forward with an immediate 3v3. He recognises the space before playing a perfectly timed ball through to Zaniolo. The channels are wide open for the Italian youngster to carry to the edge of the box. El Shaarawy is arriving on the far side unmarked. Zaniolo picks him out before he places the ball past Berisha in goal.
Overall, the first half was defined by both team’s transitional play. Roma were effective in re-establishing their defensive organisation following a loss of possession, while also being clinical on the counter-attack. Conversely, Atalanta were too slow on their own breakaways, and too disorganised to cope with their opponent’s counters.
Roma change tact
Following their third goal, Roma began retreating further and further into their own half. Just before half-time, Atalanta were able to find space on the right side of the penalty area. Gomez played a lofted cross towards the far post, where Castagne arrived on Karsdorp’s blind-side to head past Olsen. It set the game up well for the second half, with the home side giving themselves a fighting chance.
Although they began the second 45 with the same pressing approach as they had used in the first, Roma slowly sacrificed their proactive approach in place of a low-block. This allowed Atalanta to build more comfortably as they looked to set up camp in the opponent’s half. From here, they patiently circulated possession in search of gaps to play through.
Ilicic was again the focus of frustration early on as he failed to take a huge chance inside the area. Despite receiving a perfect lay-off to the side by Gomez, he once again took too many touches and spurned the opportunity to finish first-time.
With 35 minutes left on the clock, Atalanta decided to allow central defender Toloi to roam forward as the free man. He was no longer needed at the back given Roma’s conservative set-up. After Gomez found space in the right half-space, the playmaker got his head up to see the run from Toloi into the box. Gomez was able to pick out the defender, who headed home from close range. Roma’s defensive line was occupied, and they failed to cope with the run from the roaming defender across the front of Manolas.
Having had 12 shots on goal in the first half, Atalanta brought that number to 23 by the end of the game. Roma, meanwhile, didn’t take a shot on goal after the break, having recorded eight in the opening 45. Their change of approach mid-way through this game proved a costly error in judgment. Concerns about their ability to defend in a low-block for long periods of time were not unique to this fixture. Perhaps a slightly more conservative continuation of their first-half approach would have been more appropriate. The possession stats at the end of the 90 illustrate Roma’s progressively defensive game on the day, with Atalanta having a 61% share.
Mercurial Ilicic proves decisive
Despite frustrating for much of this game, Ilicic was left on until the 84th minute. Gasperini is clearly aware of the attacker’s ability to produce decisive moments, even when he isn’t at his best. The decision to stick with him was rewarded in the 71st minute, with the 31-year-old providing the final pass for Zapata’s equaliser.
Following a turnover of possession, Atalanta’s attack progresses quickly into the final third. Ilicic finds himself in familiar territory in the right half-space, but this time Roma fail to prevent the through ball. His pass is met by the run of Zapata, who fires in at the near post to make it 3-3.
Just before the goal, Zapata had ballooned a penalty into the stands. The foul leading to the spot-kick was also committed on Ilicic, who dribbled his way through a crowd before being taken down inside the area. His talent came through in the end and proved crucial to his side’s comeback.
Despite a near-perfect first-half display, Roma threw away their lead and only managed to come away with a point. On the flip side, Atalanta redeemed themselves to snatch the draw following a disastrous opening 45. If either side is to have any hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League, their defensive organisation needs to take priority on the training ground.
Atalanta’s impressive attacking style continues to be tarnished by their lack of cohesion in the defensive transitions. The draw means they remain two points behind Roma and three off the top four. Roma’s inconsistency deprives them of a title challenge once more. If both teams can improve on these issues, the race for European spots is sure to be an exciting one as we head into the final months of the Serie A season.
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