The last match of the group stage in the UEFA Champions League is always intriguing. It decides the teams that qualify for the next round, teams that are relegated to the so-called second division of European championship, Europa League and the teams who can no longer take part in any European competition that season.

Atalanta had to beat Shakhtar Donetsk away from home and the other result of their group too had to go their way in order for La Dea to qualify. Shakhtar, on the other hand, had a much easier task. The Hirnyky just had to hold Atalanta to a draw for them to qualify, considering Manchester City would at least claim a draw against Dinamo Zagreb.

This tactical analysis focuses on the tactics of both managers. This analysis also focuses on the intricacies and nuances of the do-or-die fixture.


Luis Castro sprung no surprises as he started the game with his preferred 4-1-4-1 in the Champions League. The Ukrainian veteran Andriy Pyatov started between the sticks. Luis Castro kept faith in his usual back four of Ismaily in left-back, Mykola Matviyenko and Serhiy Kryvstov in central defence and Dodô in the right-back position. Taras Stepanenko acted as the lone pivot positioning himself just in front of the back four.

Tetê replaced Marlos in the right-wing from their previous fixture against Atalanta. The other four attacking options remained the same for Luis Castro.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

Gian Gasperini keeps fluctuating between 3-4-2-1, 3-4-3 and 3-4-1-2. However, in most of the UCL games, Gasperini preferred 3-4-1-2. Luis Muriel and Alejandro Gómez acted as the two strikers. Gómez, though started as the striker had a free role and usually dropped deep to open up passing lanes. Mario Pašalić sat behind the two strikers in the hole. Timothy Castagne and Robin Gosens assumed their positions either side of Martin de Roon and Remo Freuler, who started in the heart of the midfield. Andrea Masiello, José Luis Palomino, and Berat Djimsiti were the three centre-backs for the night.

Defensive setup of Atalanta

Atalanta under Gasperini have almost perfected the man-marking approach when out of possession. Atalanta usually press high and man-to-man whilst maintaining a high defensive line.

Against Shakhtar too, Gasperini’s side adopted the same approach. When the opposition was in possession in their defensive third, the two La Dea strikers locked the opposition centre-backs (one, not in picture) and the player in the hole, marked the central defensive midfielder. Freuler and de Roon remained very close to the two Shakhtar midfielders.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

From the picture, it’s evident that when the ball is on one side of the play, the full-back on the other side is not closely marked. However, it is not much of an issue. When the ball is switched to the other side, either one of the midfielders moves to mark the full-back and the vacant space is covered by another La Dea player or a centre-back pops up leaving the three-man midfield to mark the full-back. The wing-backs generally do not move up to mark the opposition full-backs instead they keep tabs on the opposition wingers.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

Atalanta players had marked each player except the left-back, Ismaily. Pyatov saw the opportunity to pass the ball to Ismaily. As soon as the ball was played to the left-back, Djimsiti instantly moved up to mark the Shakhtar left-back. The right-back of Shakhtar was not marked and Ismaily could have switched the flanks. However, the La Dea centre-back was aggressive in his approach and gave Ismaily no time and space to switch the flank and the other Shakhtar players were also heavily marked. Ismaily unable to take a successful quick decision looked for a safer option and intended to pass the ball back to his goalkeeper. Gómez who was the furthest upfront, was quick to the action and intercepted the ball. Unfortunately, Atalanta couldn’t take advantage of the situation.

The high press and man-marking approach paid dividends as Atalanta forced Shakhtar to make such errors on regular occasions. Atalanta allowed 6.98 passes per defensive action (PPDA), which gives a clear indication of La Dea’s high press.

Defensive setup of Shakhtar

Shakhtar did not press high, rather they maintained their defensive organisation and tried to maintain their midfield compact. Júnior Moraes wandered around at the edge of the middle third. The midfielders generally kept a compact shape in the middle and maintained a 4-5-1 or the usual 4-1-4-1 formation out of possession.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

However, there was a little modification to the usual compact midfield. The winger on the other side of the play generally stayed a bit wide in order to cover the wing-back. In this case, Taison stayed a bit far from the other midfielders to cover the attacking-minded wing-back, Castagne, in case the ball was played to him.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

This screenshot gives a perfect example of the reason Taison was far from the other compact midfielders. If Taison would have been narrow to the other midfielders, Castagne would have been completely free.

After the first half, Castro adopted a more conservative approach to see out the game and thus qualify for the next round.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

To deal with the marauding runs of the Atalanta wing-backs, the wingers of Shakhtar often dropped deep to form a five-man backline, sometimes even six- especially Tetê who had to deal with the attacking-minded Gosens.

Attacking aspect of Atalanta  

Atalanta are very flexible when it comes to the attacking aspect of their game. La Dea started the game in 3-4-1-2 formation, but when in possession they seem to shuffle a lot more than other teams.

Generally, Gómez drops deep to open up a passing lane for the defenders and another midfielder falls back from their original position and pushes the wide centre-back a little up and towards the flanks to act as the pseudo-right-back and the wing-back is pushed further upwards to the final third.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tacticsThis screenshot will give a vivid idea of La Dea’s build-up play. When in possession Gómez is usually the one who drops deep. Palomino receives a ball from Gómez, de Roon drops deeper and pushes Djimsiti towards the flanks and the movement of Djimsiti helps Castagne to take a more attacking role.

The essence of the Atalanta attack has always been the use of the flanks. Generally, the two forwards occupies the half-space between the centre-backs and the full-backs, thus engaging all the four defenders. Atlanta wing-backs would be completely free and they would make daunting runs towards the final-third, or the opposition box. When Atalanta are in the opposition half it is often seen that La Dea players form 3-3-4 or a four man-attack.UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

When Atalanta are in possession, Gómez usually occupies the position in the final-third and looks for runs of the wing-backs and he delivers crosses into the box. Here, Gosens is completely unmarked as Pašalić engages both the centre-back as well as the right-back by occupying the half-space. Freuler pins the right-winger, Tetê. Muriel engages the left-back and it gives the opportunity for Castagne to make a run into the box. Although Taison follows him, the Brazilian could not prevent Castagne to head the ball towards Muriel. Muriel took a shot but hit it wide.

Another aspect of Atalanta’s build-up is that when in their own half, a forward or a midfielder would often position themselves in such a way that it gives two short and safe lateral or forward passing options and a backward passing option to the ball carrier.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

Masiello had the ball and as seen in the screenshot, he had two forward lateral passing options in Gómez and Pašalić. Both forwards dropping deep to open up the passing lanes and he had the safe backward passing option in Palomino.

Life after Malinoviskiy’s introduction

Malinovskiy was subbed in the 61st minute for Masiello to change the complexion of the game and he did it brilliantly. Atalanta had to win against Shakhtar to qualify for the next round of UCL and La Dea were unable to break the home team’s solid defence. It was the Ukrainian youngster who changed the game completely with his dribbling ability. He occupied different positions (No. 18) in his 30 minutes stint.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

Atalanta scored their first goal using the space left behind by the Shakhtar defence on the left side. As previously mentioned, Atalanta wing-backs often found themselves enough space on the flanks.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

After a beautiful build-up play with Gosens and Freuler, Gómez found himself on the left side of the box. Ismaily is completely unaware that Castagne is lurking behind him and there is no one marking him. The Argentinian crossed the ball to Castagne’s path and the Belgian slotted it in.

Atalanta too avoided their traditional man-marking approach and took a more conservative path to see out the game after the first goal. They maintained a 5-4-1 or 5-3-2 formation and man-marked only in the middle third.

UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Shakhtar Donetsk vs Atalanta – tactical analysis tactics

As you can see in this screenshot. La Dea maintained a proper five-man backline, which is very rare. Gómez acted as the lone forward and Pašalić pressed the ball-carrier in the middle third.


The tactics of Luis Castro was very simple – sit back and hit Atalanta with a counter. Shakhtar earned themselves few opportunities through counter-attacks but the Hirnyky couldn’t convert those into goals. Shakhtar kept Atalanta at bay until the Ukrainian youngster, Malinoviskiy was introduced and them earning a red card in the 77th minute.

Atalanta continued with their aggressive, man-marking, high press approach and troubled the Ukrainian side in their defensive third. Atalanta have polished themselves in a certain way to attack the opponents and it often paid dividends. The slow build-up and then crossing the ball towards their wing-backs who more often than not find themselves in free spaces.

With the win, Atalanta goes through to the next round of UCL and Atalanta earn themselves a Europa League berth.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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Nasim Akhtar