The UEFA Champions League tie between Atalanta and Dinamo Zagreb ended in a 2-0 win for the Italians which is most notably their first-ever victory in the Champions League. The campaign will not be what Atalanta wanted, but they are still in with a chance of qualifying for the next round of the competition, assuming Manchester City win their tie with Dinamo Zagreb and Atalanta can beat Shakhtar.
This tactical analysis will dissect each team’s tactics examining the key tactical talking points from this match.
Atalanta set up in a 3-4-2-1 which they have only done so in 15% of the games this season. On the last occasion they did so in the Champions League, they lost the reverse fixture 4-0.
Dinamo Zagreb lined up in back three for only the fourth time this season. All previous times have come in the Champions League, and they had been unbeaten in these three games. Unfortunately, it did not work this time around as they switched to a back four in the second half.
The only change to the squad for the Croatians from their home tie versus Shakhtar Donetsk was the introduction of Ivanusec. Ivanusec and Ademi played deeper to allow Olmo to join the attack.
In the first couple of minutes, Atalanta had two wonderful chances to take the lead. The first was through the right centre-back Toloi launching a direct ball into Gomez who had found himself in between the opposition centre-backs and midfield. This meant that the centre-back had to come out and try to win the header which therefore opened up space for Muriel to attack. He played a fantastic ball across which was received poorly by Hateboer.
The second chance in the opening minutes was again a direct ball from the centre-backs into space behind Zagreb’s defensive line. Muriel was very quick to sense the opportunity. He outmuscled the centre-back, played the ball back to Gomez who whipped a delicious ball into Pasalic who made a hash of the finish.
These long balls were only really played in the first 30 minutes of the match and were very effective as during this time, Zagreb played their highest line as I will discuss further on.
In general, Muriel played as a complete forward – sometimes he would make runs through the opposition backline or would drop to support the midfield with Pasalic taking his place in attack.
Zagreb started in a 3-5-2 in the first half, with Ivanusec and Ademi playing slightly deeper to allow Olmo to join the attack but the shape did not work. This was down to several factors:
- Atalanta’s defensive positioning and aggressive defence.
- Zagreb’s poor support to the ball carrier
The following image shows how Zagreb attacked in the first half. They pushed five players forward but Atalanta had so many players back Zagreb couldn’t create any big chances. It also shows that Zagreb were pretty static – rather than move to create space, they would run forward into zones, but then not manoeuvre themselves to create more of a threat.
In the second half, Zagreb seemingly gave up. This sounds drastic, but they only produced a measly 0.02 xG from two long-distance shots: which means it would take 50 more of those efforts to produce just 1 xG.
The image below shows how, on many occasions, Zagreb would get to their particular zone and not move in to support the man in possession. It culminated in the player on the ball having to dribble to their colleagues, or drive at goal and then losing it.
Atalanta were effective on the counter-attack in the central areas. 80% of the counter-attacks ended in a shot which in turn produced a 0.57 xG (30% of Atalanta’s total non-penalty xG in this game).
On the flip side, Dinamo were very poor on the counter. None of their three counter-attacks ended up with a shot.
Out of Possession
Out of possession, Atalanta set up in a 5-2-2-1 configuration with Muriel ready to pounce on any clearances. De Roon was very clever in his defensive positioning. When Zagreb played long from goal-kicks, he was positioned in the space between the target, Petkovic, and Ivanusec to sweep up any second balls. Atalanta were fantastic at winning the ball in the low-block zone whether through winning headers or tackles.
Although most of Atalanta’s duels were won in the low block, they played various blocks at various points in the game. They were pragmatic in their defensive positioning to ensure that Zagreb were not given time on the ball. This lead to Zagreb only completing 78% of their 323 passes, which is by far the lowest total they have had in the Champions League this season.
The image above shows how Atalanta positioned themselves so that the goalkeeper had to kick long. As soon as the ball is kicked, the front three get into a more defensive position to pick up second and third balls.
Zagreb played a very high line and pressed very intensely. The first 30 minutes was a sustained high press, as shown by the Passes Allowed per Defensive Action (PPDA) chart below.
After Atalanta’s second goal, the press dramatically dropped off into a medium to the low block.
When Zagreb did sit deep to defend, there was no real out-ball. While it was compact defending, realistically, there was nowhere for Zagreb to go as Atalanta were ready to counter-press if they did lose the ball.
We’ve seen in this analysis that the statistics do not lie and the game between Atalanta and Dinamo Zagreb shows how true that statement is. Atalanta ended the game with a non-penalty xG of 1.93 whereas Zagreb’s was only 0.45. Playing this game twice and Zagreb would still not achieve 1 xG. The highest xG from any shot was that of Orsic’s (0.25 xG), which was not even on target.
Moving on to the 6th game of the group stages and it will be hard to see Dinamo not being eliminated with Shakhtar going through to the Europa League, and Atalanta and Manchester City progress in the Champions League.
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