In the 23rd matchday of Serie A, Atalanta travelled to Artemio-Franchi to face Fiorentina. Despite having good players and a well-balanced side, the home team have struggled since the start of the season, being in the bottom half of the table.
On the other hand, Atalanta were 4th, on par with Roma, before a ball was kicked. With Roma losing to Bologna a day prior to the game, Atalanta had the opportunity to be three points clear in 4th place. After a draw against Genoa and a 7-0 win against Torino, we can say Atalanta were in a better dynamic than Fiorentina who lost three of their last four games.
Both teams started with a three-at-the-back formation. However, Fiorentina adopted a 4-4-2 formation in the defensive phase, something that we have seen a lot throughout the game since Fiorentina didn’t have much of the ball.
On the other hand, Atalanta used a 3-4-1-2 with Alejandro Gomez behind Josip Iličić and Duvan Zapata in front. The use of a 4-4-2 from Fiorentina was probably something they thought would work once again because they won 2-1 against Atalanta in Coppa Italia a few weeks earlier.
As you can see on the picture below, Fiorentina had a very messy 4-4-2 which didn’t allow them to be perfectly compact throughout the game. They did let huge gaps form between the midfield and the forward line. We will talk about it in depth in our analysis below.
Iličić and Zapata used as outlets
Atalanta have arguably two of the best players in Serie A up front: Iličić and Zapata. They are tall and have a large frame which allows them to be outlets for their side, in the sense that they are able to win the ball back high up the field or hold the ball to set up runners in behind thanks to their passing abilities.
They started the game that way as you can see on the picture below. Zapata was used as an outlet thanks to his back-to-goal game. Robin Gosens drives infield to receive and progress the ball thanks to Zapata (red circle) drawing two players out.
Fiorentina reacted to Atalanta’s tactics very well. They countered that by reducing the space in-between the lines with a very narrow 4-4-2 as you can see in the picture below. However, the forward line was a bit disjointed from the rest of the side. Federico Chiesa and Patrick Cutrone failed to track back fast enough to find a solid shape. This neglected all of Fiorentina’s work in other areas of the game.
They also decided to man-mark both Iličić and Zapata to cut their influence on the game. On the picture below, you can see the high risk this man-marking represented with a huge gap being left for Fiorentina’s defenders.
When either Iličić or Zapata got the ball, two or more players came on them to cut their passing lanes. It was very risky to defend this way against them. It did pay off in the first half although Fiorentina were quite lucky to be ahead at half-time.
In the stills below, you can see Iličić and Zapata facing a lot of pressure from their opponents. In the second picture, despite the third man run Gomez initiated, Iličić couldn’t give his teammate the ball due to the pressure his opponents applied on him. It was a well-working plan for Fiorentina in that way.
However, Gasperini reacted to it pretty well in the second half. He instructed his players to be more patient in build-up. They used press-baiting to draw players out earlier in the build-up in order to allow more time on the ball to his forwards.
Press-baiting is self-explanatory. It forces the opponent into pressing you higher up the pitch when you keep the ball close to your goalkeeper. The key for this is patience and technical ability.
In the images above, Iličić drew a player out of his Fiorentina’s backline in order to create space for both of his teammates to run into. Gomez will exploit this same space later on with a run in behind who will see him get the ball to make an assist to Zapata. This top movement was down to Gasperini’s adjustments at half-time.
Fiorentina’s use of pressing traps
Fiorentina used a man-orientated zonal marking for their press. It was done in order to get the ball into wide areas to set pressing traps. They were closing the middle of the park in the first phase to force Atalanta’s centre-backs to play on their wing-backs. However, once the ball was there, their pressing traps were messy – they didn’t close infield which allowed Atalanta to hit them between the lines.
The still below illustrates Fiorentina’s game pretty well. Indeed, they did half the job by forcing Atalanta to play through wide areas but Chiesa should have closed faster on Gomez. He didn’t close infield, which resulted in Atalanta having a solution to hit Fiorentina in the middle of the park. It could have been a very good plan throughout the game but mistakes and these moments with loss of focus from Fiorentina’s forwards wasted it.
Here is another example with the image below. Fiorentina didn’t close infield. That created a triangle with two obvious passing options for the ball carrier. Adding onto that, you can see Iličić attracting a CB with him, which created a lot of space in behind for one of his teammates. Atalanta’s opponents weren’t careful enough in their approach, and that probably did cost them the match.
Second half and Alejandro Gomez’s role at Atalanta
We talked about Gasperini’s adjustments who changed the game. Amongst them, patience through ball retention was key and Gomez, Atalanta’s number 10, illustrated it the most during the game. During the second half, Gomez was dropping deeper than usual to open passing lanes and ping the opposition back thanks to his ball retention. Once he did it, he was making himself available between the lines or in behind the defence. And he did it at an extremely high level with a 93% passing accuracy and an assist.
You can see his quality in the stills below. First of all, he dropped deep to receive and drive forward. Then, he waited for Iličić to get the ball to run in behind in order to receive the ball and set up Zapata to score Atalanta’s first goal.
Then, after Atalanta’s first goal, it was more of an end-to-end game with Atalanta being able to set people up on the counter and Fiorentina trying to launch long balls to get chances through wins of second balls.
Indeed, Fiorentina didn’t exploit Atalanta’s man-marking system in the first half and they started to do it in the second half. It was a good choice to exploit second balls against Atalanta’s man-marking system because it’s easier to create havoc against these kinds of systems. If a Fiorentina player was able to win his duel, one or two players were bypassed and his teammates were likely to get space to create chances.
But again, they came short in terms of execution in the final third. Fiorentina were definitely lacking that certain “something” in this game.
Fiorentina’s game plan aimed towards preventing Atalanta’s strengths. However, they did it in a quite messy way who neglected their initial game plan. Until Atalanta’s first goal, they were very lucky to be up 1-0 and their only real offensive threat throughout the whole game was Chiesa. After Atalanta’s first goal, Fiorentina were more open and it was a rather enjoyable game – something much more in line with what was expected prior to the start of the game.
All in all, Atalanta were quite impressive because they didn’t panic, even after Fiorentina’s goal. They made adjustments and were able to create through positional attacks. They showed Fiorentina and the rest of the league they weren’t a one-dimensional side and were also able to keep the ball for extended periods of time. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season will play out for them as well as in Europe, but overall, they deserved to win this game.