Fiorentina hosted Atalanta in the round of 16 of the Coppa Italia.
Giuseppe Iachini’s men held on to earn their second consecutive victory on home ground as they halted the free-scoring Atalanta to reach the quarter-final of the tournament.
Fiorentina opened the scoring early in the first half – against the run of play target man Patrick Cutrone got on the end of an excellent combination to finish low from inside the box.
Gian Piero Gasperini made a few changes early in the second half to help his Atalanta find the equaliser. Substitute Josip Iličić found the target, converting to make it 1-1 on 67 minutes. Fiorentina were reduced to 10 men after 70 minutes as defender and captain Germán Alejandro Pezzella was shown a second yellow for simulation. For all of Atalanta’s superior ball possession and creative attacks, surprisingly it was Fiorentina who got the game’s third and final goal in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Although they were a man down, a combination of high intensity in their transition, as well as a moment of poor defending from Atalanta, were enough to allow Fiorentina to convert their second goal to seal a spot in the quarter-final.
In the tactical analysis below, we will take a look at the tactics deployed by both managers and how they matched up throughout the match. The analysis will highlight key aspects of both teams’ style of play as well as where the game may have been won or lost.
Fiorentina: 3 – 5 – 2
Giuseppe Iachini lined out a strong starting XI with a shape that offered Fiorentina numerical superiority in midfield. Pietro Terracciano commanded the goal while in front of him captain Germán Alejandro Pezzella, Federico Ceccherini and Nikola Milenković completed the centre-back-trio that marshalled the defence.
Central-defensive-midfielder Erick Pulgar sat in front of the defence while just up ahead in centre-midfield were the Italian duo Marco Benassi and Gaetano Castrovilli. The prominent wing-backs were Dalbert Henrique playing from the left and Pol Mikel Lirola from the right. Patrick Cutrone and Dušan Vlahović completed the striking partnership upfront.
Atalanta: 3 – 4 – 3
Perhaps the only surprise exclusion from Gian Piero Gasperini’s side was in-form striker Josip Iličić who is on nine goals in all competitions. Iličić featured later in the game and got his side’s only goal. Recent team sheets might suggest the manager is undecided on his strongest XI, however, none that featured in this game could be accused of underperforming.
33-year-old defender Andra Masiello returned to the side as the left side of the back three. Ruslan Malinovskiy and Mario Pašalić made up the left and right side respectively, offering vertical rotations in midfield to create forward passing options while the club’s top goal-scorer this season, Luis Muriel, lead the line as the highest point of attack.
Atalanta’s patient build-up play
Atalanta exercised a lot of horizontal passes from deep in the aim that progressive passing options would become available as they moved their opponent with the ball. Atalanta averaged 65% possession and had a significantly lower long pass average in comparison to Fiorentina, indicating they aimed to get success starting with short, efficient passing combinations from their third to the opponents final third.
Above we see that the three centre-backs and the wing-backs offer width and depth while the central-midfielders and the left-forward occupy the spaces to receive passes that play through Fiorentina’s block. Fiorentina’s extra player in central-midfield nullified Atalanta’s central threat which subsequently forced Atalanta’s attack into wide areas.
Above we see data which accounts for Atalanta’s passing network. This passing network accounts for combinations of three or more passes only in the last 60% of the field. This gives us a good indication based on players average positions in possession and the density of the lines over short distances that Atalanta were patient and efficient in their build-up play.
Atalanta’s wing-backs stretch Fiorentina’s defence
As Atalanta’s build-up play graduated into the wide areas, the wing-backs were crucial in offering width to the attack and stretching the opponent’s defence. This is to allow the central players to make penetrating runs from the half-spaces on both the near side to the ball and the opposite side of the field. Should a moment to penetrate Fiorentina’s compact defence from wide areas not present itself, then possession would be retained and switched to the opposite flank. There the other wing-back would offer a high-wide passing option on Fiorentina’s weak side ultimately to identify and exploit any opportunity to penetrate the defence.
Above we see an example where the left-wing-back takes a very high position on the opposite side of the play in anticipation that the ball will be circulated across for Robin Gosens to continue the attack. Notice the movement of the forwards as they make short horizontal movements to cause Fiorentina’s centre-backs some marking issues as play is circulated as well as looking to offer penetrating runs to break the lines of defence.
Atalanta’s movement to penetrate
Above, notice the starting position of the right-centre-back as he occupies an orthodox position as he lays off a short pass. The wing-backs are wide, serving to stretch the opponent while the forward in the middle of the image comes from a high position to create space by pulling a Fiorentina defender with him.
Only a few seconds later notice the position of the right-centre-back as he makes an unconventional run into the left half-space to break the lines of the defence. The left-wing-back makes a diagonal run to enter the box, and the left centre-back arrives to offer support from behind.
Atalanta often made creative and effective runs to penetrate the lines and get into more advanced positions in and around the box. Consider the following, width and depth to stretch the opponent: As the centre-forward occupies the highest central point of attack, the wing-backs occupy the widest positions of both sides of the field, and the centre-backs offer depth opposite to the forward. This allows the remaining unmentioned players to make vertical, horizontal and diagonal movements within the central area and half-spaces to undo their opponent.
From the back three, one centre back generally joins the attack in a midfield position to advance the attack and offer an overload needed. In possession, this was the basis of Atalanta’s play from which most penetrating and goal-scoring opportunities were born. It is a forward-thinking system that we do not see reflected from most top European sides. Considering the efficiency and potential of this style of play, it is easier to understand how Atalalanta boasts an impressive average xG of 2.33 per game this season.
Atalanta’s defensive transition
The trade-off to having much of the possession in your opponent’s final third is that you are susceptible to the counter-attack should you lose possession of the ball when many of the attacking players are more advanced than the position of the ball. Atalanta’s deeper-lying players in attack seemed precautious to the chances their opponent may conjure from a quick counter-attack as they reacted quickly and aggressively moments after possession had been turned over to press and isolate the opponent in possession of the ball.
Above we see an example where many of the Atalanta attacking players moved forward to attack a cross into the box, the cross was defended and so began Fiorentina’s counter-attack. We see the nearest players on the edge of the box for Atalanta tracked the run of the Fiorentina attacker as he picked up the ball in a central area. He was devoid of any passing options in all directions so that he was isolated, outnumbered and regaining possession was imminent for Atalanta. Especially higher up the field, Atalanta have done this superbly well at times such that Fiorentina was forced into one versus ones in wide areas.
Fiorentina’s defensive quality
Block to press
Fiorentina were superb in blocking Atalanta’s advances in the build-up and dictating the direction of their attack. Such that when Fiorentina formed their block just inside Atalanta’s half, they were able to dictate play so that Atalanta would need to go back to retain possession, even as far as the goalkeeper at times. From here when Atalanta’s defenders were deep, wide, isolated and disconnected from the midfield, Fiorentina would engage the press.
Above we see two images, firstly where Atalanta’s centre-backs develop their attack as high as the halfway line, before having to pass back, away from pressure to retain possession. This meant that as the centre-back for Atalanta receives the ball within close range to the Fiorentina players, he is forced to play back to the goalkeeper and rebuild from deep. The Fiorentina forwards and midfield would follow closely and look to capitalise on a moment when Atalanta’s defenders became isolated.
As for the second image, we see the left-centre-back for Atalanta is about to receive the ball, Fiorentina recognise all passing options are neutralised, and so the central-midfielder engages the press. Fiorentina done well at times to engineer the press in these positions as they knew Atalanta would persist in playing out with short-range passes. Although these moments could not offer much by way of reward for Fiorentina, they did, however, serve to reduce Atalanta’s dangerous attacks.
In the defensive phase, Fiorentina adapted into a 5-4-1 shape. Whereby the two wing-backs join the defensive line of the back three and one of the centre-forwards would drop into the midfield to deny Atalanta any central overload. Fiorentina’s ability to defend Atalanta’s attacks were not due to their shape but rather the intensity and re-organisation of the defence when Atalanta’s approach seemed dangerous. Having reduced an Atalanta side with an average xG of 2.33 to only one goal owes acknowledgement to this Fiorentina sides defensive plan and intensity out of possession.
In the image above we see the reorganisation of Fiorentina in the defensive phase. Wing-backs drop level with the back three, the central-defensive-midfielder protects the central zones while the central-midfielders shift across to deny Atalanta any numerical superiority in wide areas.
Something that is easily overlooked but still very important I see in many top-flight games. As Fiorentina had the overload in central midfield and they forced Atalanta into wide areas in their attacking pursuits the next challenge was denying Atalanta crossing opportunities.
Consider the players highlighted in white at the top right of the image, these are the wing-back and the right-centre-back aiming to meet a cross at the back post, or furthest post away from the crosser. Atlanta would have prepared for this and sought to get success in these opportunities.
As you see in the foreground of the image, it is a momentary two-versus-two. As the Atalanta central-midfielder plays a pass to the wing-back to cross, two players from Fiorentina step out and engage the press. Firstly the wing-back for Fiorentina comes out, however, he does not press the player in possession right away in the risk of being beat in a one versus one. Instead, he takes the position to block the angle for a cross. As we know the Atalanta player is left-footed, the Fiorentina player identifies and occupies the position to block the angle for a cross. After that, the Fiorentina central-midfielder steps out to meet the supporting player in the Atalanta attack, to deny a two versus one scenario as well as denying a second crossing position. Plaudits to the resolve and focus of the Fiorentina defence, to deny such an attacking force any success from these positions.
Fiorentina look to exploit the high line
For all the high possession and high positions the Atalanta defenders advanced to, opportunities, although few and far between, presented themselves for Fiorentina to capitalise on to transition quickly in attack and beat the offside trap. Here we see moments after possession was turned over Fiorentina quickly identify and play for through ball in behind the Atalanta defence.
This moment in particular almost resulted in a goal for Fiorentina but the quick reactions of the Atalanta goalkeeper to come rushing out to the edge of the box and collect the ball Fiorentina almost had a significant moment of good fortune. As the play developed in the middle third of the field Fiorentina even out of possession left two forwards ahead of the ball in anticipation, they may transition quickly to beat the offside line and exploit the space in behind the Atalanta, defence to get a goal.
Fiorentina punish the low-pressure defence
Considering the following: possession, xG dynamics, shots and on-target percentages etc. None of the popular or critical stats favoured Fiorentina in this game, however it seemed to be Fiorentina’s persistence when a man down and mostly a lack of pressure and intensity from Atalanta in the final third which got the home side the win. Atalanta were a masterclass in possession at times, however, out of possession their lack of desire, intensity or maybe even respect for the opposition in the late stages was their undoing. In the closing stages of the game, Fiorentina much like Atalanta pushed hard for the winner, although Atalanta enjoyed much of the possession Fiorentina had to be selective and efficient in the transition to attack. In a moment Atalanta lost possession near the halfway line Fiorentina, countered very quickly, with one pass out to the wing-back the three touches later the ball was in the net.
In the above image, we see the four defensive players for Atalanta, although perhaps in anticipation that a cross may be made, a mixup in communication or a disregard for the attacking threat the player in possession was able to advance deep into the box and strike low past the goalkeeper unchallenged. There were a few more similar moments in the game that Atalanta were not punished for, but the fact that this defensive error led to a goal and a late winner for the opposition only highlighted problem areas of the Atalanta defence.
Yes, it did take a moment of good fortune and quality of execution but that cannot overshadow the fact that none of the closest defenders did not pressure the man on the ball or move to block the angle for a shot. Consider also that had two of the centre-backs not have been withdrawn from the Atlanta team in the second half perhaps the goal might have never happened, but it can be said the issue of pressure and intensity in defence reoccurred quite frequently in the game.
Fiorentina go marching on into the quarter-final of the Coppa Italia. Atalanta no doubt will feel this is a huge chance missed, having hit the crossbar twice and lacked a bit of perfection in front of goal, the opportunity to progress into the quarter-final was narrowly missed. Many learning opportunities for both teams, as the dominant side exits the tournament, it goes to show once again the game is decided by fine lines. Both sides will resume regular League action this weekend, Fiorentina hoping to continue a good run of form while Atalanta will be looking resume their winning run and mount a charge to the European positions. We will follow Fiorentina’s progress very closely in the coming weeks, also be sure to check in to get a comprehensive analysis of every game of every round of the Coppa Italia in 2020.