Atalanta have been on a scoring spree this season, scoring seven past Udinese, five past AC Milan and Parma on both sides of the winter break. La Dea have scored 48 goals this season, most in Serie A, eight more than Lazio, who rank second in this particular category.
Parma were the talk of the town due to Dejan Kulusevski signing for the league leaders, Juventus, who happens to be on-loan from Atalanta.
Parma scored five past Milan and was on a similar spree against Parma. Let’s dive deep into the tactical analysis of the nuances and intricacies of the game. This analysis will focus on the tactics of both the managers and the reason Parma lost by such a huge margin.
Gian Piero Gasperini has switched between 3-4-2-1 and 3-4-1-2 throughout the season. Against Parma, he started with the later. Josip Iličić and Luis Muriel were the two forwards with Alejandro Gómez slotting in just behind them in the hole. Robin Gosens and Hans Hateboer positioned themselves on either side of the two midfielders in Remo Freuler and Martin de Roon. The backline had similar faces as against AC Milan where La Dea kept a clean sheet in their massive win against AC Milan.
Roberto D’Aversa started with his tried and tested 4-3-3 formation. Luigi Sepe started in goal and he was given cover by the defensive line of Giuseppe Pezzella, Bruno Alves, Simone Iacoponi and Matteo Darmian. The midfield three constituted of Antonino Barillà, Hernani and Alberto Grassi. The midfield three failed to maintain their shape and were constantly breached throughout the game. Juraj Kucka, Dejan Kulusevski, and Mattia Sprocati were trusted up front but failed to make any impact.
Atalanta’s man-to-man marking and Parma’s strategy to breach it
La Dea is well-known for its man-to-man marking. Currently, many teams have adopted man-to-man marking and high pressing, but very few teams, if any, do it better than Atalanta.
When Parma were in possession, the strategy was that the two forwards would mark the two centre-backs. Gómez would mark the central defensive midfielder. The two midfielders in de Roon and Freuler would take on Parma’s two midfielders. Hateboer and Gosens would mark the Pama left-back and right-back respectively.
Unable to find any option upfront and them being heavily marked, the Parma left-back had no option but to go back to his goalkeeper, Sepe, in this situation. Even Sepe could not find any short option upfront and resorted to long balls. Sepe played 16 long balls in the match while his average for the season is 7.66. The entire marking system can be closely observed in the image below when Sepe played a long ball to his forwards.
The man-marking strategy adopted by Atalanta is not one dimensional. It can vary according to the players in close proximity to the opposition. Like in the situation below, when Kulusevski moved right, Gosens stayed on him. Darmian was then marked by Freuler.
There may be a question arising if Freuler leaves the space in midfield and moves up, who marks the midfielder? The image below gives a clear indication of how Atalanta have mastered the art of man-to-man marking. When Freuler leaves the space in midfield, Berat Djimsiti moves up leaving his defence line to mark one of the Parma midfielders.
Parma struggled with the high press and man-to-man marking playing long balls whenever pressed. The Crusaders played 18.73% of the passes through long balls. Darmian especially struggled due to the strategy adopted by Atalanta. The right-back played 12 long balls in the match with an accuracy of a mere 25%.
Now let’s focus on how the man-to-man marking can be breached. When a team is playing with such a strategy, there is always a risk with individual skills and movement of the players. Parma showed a glimpse of it in the entire match but could not come up with a result.
In this situation, Sprocati maintained a wide position and the left wide centre-back, Djimsiti, followed him. Kulusevski dropped deeper and drew out José Palomino along with him. It created a space for the midfielder to attack and Grassi did exactly the same. Freuler was behind him and a good pass could have seen Grassi through. But Darmian was too slow to his task and when the ball was played, the midfielder was already in the offside position.
When in possession, Atalanta love to play out from the back and hardly go for long balls. Gómez drops deeper opening up a passing lane for his defenders and the two midfielders stay slightly ahead or parallel to him to help in the build-up.
However, it’s not always the same. There are many variations to it. Occasionally, one of the midfielders drops to the defensive line and pushes the wide centre-backs to act more like full-backs. The wing-back moves further up due to this and acts as a winger.
This style of play is vivid in the screenshot above. Here, Freuler drops to the defensive line pushing Djimsiti wide towards the flanks and the movement of Djimsiti helps Gosens to take a more attacking position.
Another variation of it is when one of the midfielders move to the flanks in the middle third and pushes the wing-back further upwards. The positioning of players is almost same during the build-up. It’s just the players occupying the positions changes.
Parma’s defensive conundrum
Parma maintained narrow blocks of three, three and four players in the three defensive lines and prevented Atalanta from progressing through the middle, which La Dea is very good at, for the first ten minutes.
However, it was difficult to understand the formation of Parma after a certain time or whether they were trying to man-mark or maintain a formation.
In this screenshot, it’s clearly visible what was wrong in the midfield that led to Atalanta’s first goal. Barillà and Hernani maintained a narrow position but Grassi was out of his position or far away from maintaining a narrow midfield block. Gómez occupied the space between Hernani and Grassi and scored Atalanta’s first goal.
After the goal, Parma too followed a man-to-man marking approach but the midfield again started to look unorganised after a few minutes.
The main problem Parma faced was in the form of Gómez. Gómez troubled Hernani by constantly dropping deep. It looked like Hernani was in charge of marking Gómez but wasn’t competent enough in dealing with it. When Gómez dropped deep, Hernani doesn’t get too close to Gómez in marking him, it left Gómez with time and space to think of the next pass.
The sequence of events described below would explain the incompetence of the Parma midfield in dealing with Atalanta’s build-up.
Here, Parma try to man-mark Atalanta players. Barillà marks de Roon, Sprocati keep a tab on Rafael Tolói, Kucka marks the other midfielder, Freuler, and Kulusevski sticks to marking the wide left centre-back, Djimsiti. As you can see, Hernani moves up from his defensive midfield position and follows Gómez. The major flaw of this setup is who marks Palomino? Since no one marked Palomino, Gómez took the help of the centre-back to progress the play.
When the ball is progressed to the midfield third, Hernani surprisingly doesn’t stick with Gómez and rather marks Iličić who too dropped deeper to open up a passing lane. Gómez plays a one-two with Iličić. Iličić after passing the ball to Gómez, made a forward run losing his marker, Hernani. Gómez passes the ball back to the Slovakian, who has a lot of space to dribble the ball and this sequence of play resulted in a save from the Parma keeper.
The other problem Parma encountered during man-to-man marking was that even when the offensive unit moved up, the defensive line stayed back and it left a lot of space in the middle. Atalanta took full advantage of it and made six counter-attacks, with three resulting in a shot.
The basic of man-to-man marking was missing from Parma’s setup. When you look at Atalanta, if an Atalanta player sticks with the opposition player, he remains with him until and unless they win back the ball or when an Atalanta player leaves his player and gets back to his defensive shape, another player immediately moves to the position to fill the void.
Below is another situation from the match which shall vividly describe the conundrum of Parma’s man-to-man marking.
Here, Muriel moves to the left and draws out centre-back, Iacoponi, from his position. Seeing this Hernani moves deeper and fills up the centre-back position.
Instead of Iacoponi sticking with Muriel, he leaves the Colombian completely free and tries to get back to his position, which is already occupied by Hernani. After two interchanges in the left-flank, Gosens found Muriel who had enormous time and space to shoot.
The abysmal result was Parma’s own doing. The Crusaders neither could maintain a defensive structure nor could adopt the man-to-man marking approach potently.
Parma were troubled from the very start with Atalanta’s man-to-man marking. The Crusaders could not play out from the back and often resorted to long balls.
Parma could hardly trouble Atalanta’s defence and the match was handsomely won by La Dea.