Stadio Via Del Mare hosted another clinical attacking display between Lecce and Atalanta this weekend. This tactical analysis will break down the match which ended 7-2 to Atalanta.
The match saw one side create a plethora of opportunities and that one side take full advantage of their domination. Lecce, led by Fabio Liverani, looked to attack down the left side through Riccardo Saponara and utilise long balls in an attempt to counteract their lack of possession. These tactics have been a staple throughout the season for the Salentini as they tend to lose possession often during their matches, as we saw in their loss the weekend prior to Roma, where they lost 4-0. Liverani got Lecce into a good run of form until the aforementioned match, where they won three games in a row, with a 3-2 away victory at Napoli being the highlight of those. This run of form led his side out of the relegation zone, but certainly not out of the battle, as they sit just three points above 18th place. Atalanta, managed by Gian Piero Gasperini, have been an outstanding attacking unit ever since Gasperini took the reins at La Dea. His side has now scored 70 goals in just 25 Serie A games, which is the most in the league, ten goals more than the second-highest. This analysis will take a deeper dive into this game, and how one side created were so dominant.
Lecce set out in a 4-3-2-1 formation which looked to exploit the spaces left by the Atalanta wingbacks who operated a space high up the pitch. Liverani’s side was fronted by Gianluca Lapadula, and he was supported by Riccardo Saponara to his left, and Marco Mancosu to his right. They looked to take advantage of the new recruit, Saponara, and his promising start to life in southern Italy. He has now provided one goal and three assists so far since joining the relegation-threatened side, in just three games. The Lecce attackers would receive the ball out wide, and then look to cut inside to either take a shot or provide the killer pass.
Regarding the defensive shape, Liverani had three central midfielders who looked to move the ball forward with a long ball as soon as they received it, particularly Antonín Barák and Žan Majer. The role of Alessandro Deiola was more focused upon protecting the back four, which consisted of Marco Calderoni, Luca Rossettini, Fabio Lucioni, and Giulio Donati. Lecce’s old guard (average age of 32) have conceded the most goals in Serie A this term, conceding a shocking 56 goals.
Atalanta played a 3-4-1-2 formation, with Gasperini looking to utilise the perfect chemistry of his attacking players to confuse the Lecce defenders. Josip Iličić and Duván Zapata were the two strikers up front and were supported by the little magician Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez in the #10 space behind them. The two Atalanta wingbacks, Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens were the players to provide width in their attacking unit, giving the Lecce defence another element to contend with. Atalanta also operated with two box-to-box midfielders in the form of Chelsea loanee Mario Pašalić and Remo Freuler, who both do a great job at progressing the ball from defence to attack. Due to the injury to Rafael Tolói, Marten de Roon came in as his replacement at RCB (not his usual position). He was partnered by Mattia Caldara and José Luis Palomino in this match.
Lecce have rarely maintained the majority of possession this season due to the lack of quality midfielders at their disposal. In this match, they came up against a side who keep 56% possession on average in Serie A, and they usually take full advantage of the possession they keep as well. This is not great news for the worst defence in the league. This led to the match finishing with 65% possession for the away side, a sign of their dominance in this match, particularly in the second half. Majer was particularly poor at keeping possession and made a few mistakes throughout the ninety minutes. He completed just 60% of his passes and lost the ball five times in his own half, leaving his side in a truly vulnerable position. The only player with a lower pass completion rate was the Lecce goalkeeper, Gabriel, which is a poor return for a central midfielder. This did not help his side progress the ball forward and potentially create attacking avenues of their own.
As mentioned previously, Atalanta especially showed their domination in the second half, as the game actually went into half-time at 2-2. After Lecce went 2-0 down, they showed great fight and spirit to bring the game back level through the individual talents of their attacking contingency. First, on this occasion, we see Deiola receive the ball after a recovery by his teammate, and he immediately looks to pump a long ball forward. Although this was not a thoughtless long ball like we often see in some lower league sides, it was in fact a splitting through ball towards Saponara. Deiola saw Saponara’s run before he even made it, this was a great display of vision from the Italian midfielder.
Saponara picks up the ball just outside the 18-yard-box and decides to dribble towards the Atalanta defence, forcing them to backpedal. In this position, he does have Lapadula in the open, making a run into the box on his right. This would have been a clever decision to make at this moment but Saponara is a confident footballer who believes in his ability. As a result, he slows down as he enters the box, and aims to shoot. He produces an excellent finish into the top right-hand corner of the net, leaving Pierluigi Gollini stuck to the ground in the process. The strike had a great balance between power and precision, meaning that any goalkeeper across the continent would have struggled to save that particular effort. This was a great individual moment and blame cannot be placed too harshly upon the Atalanta defence in this scenario.
In another instance, we see Saponara decide to turn creator rather than goal scorer. In this analysis, we see him with the ball down the left side, analysing his options after a failed cross into the six-yard box. He notices the raised hand of Donati, who was looking to avenge his own goal earlier on in the game. This a poor mistake by Atalanta, they should have at least one man pressuring the free man.
He produces a pass that slowly travels to the path ahead of Donati. He strolls towards the ball, since there is no player pressuring him, and he strikes the ball low and hard into the bottom left corner. Gollini could have potentially done a better job at protecting his net but it would harsh to place the blame solely on him since it was an unexpected and accurate strike.
Whilst reading this, it would be hard not to notice the amount of time that Saponara has been mentioned in this piece thus far. He was the only shining light in a poor team performance by Liverani’s side. In the game, he took three shots, the most in the side, and he completed seven dribbles in the game as he attempted to push his side up the pitch. Producing three shot assists topped off a quite complete display from the new Lecce signing. Other than that, this was not a good performance by Lecce. They were consistently out of position in the defensive phase and made incessant errors in the midfield as well. This made it really easy for Atalanta to open them up and carve out their own chances.
Atalanta; attack attack!
Throughout the course of this season, Gasperini has impressed in Serie A by producing the best attack in the league consistently. He has done this with a couple of special talents, Iličić and Gómez to be specific, and a group of good players, far outperforming their talent levels. To take a player such as Luis Muriel and have him produce output at the levels he has this season, is a very special feat that few managers could pull off. Muriel has scored a goal every 70 minutes in Serie A this season, a fantastic scoring rate, producing his 13th goal of the season off the bench in this very game. It is hard to single out one individual for their attacking endeavours, as they all work so well together in tandem to score goals at ease. At least, it looks genuinely easy for them to score goals at will as they do. This was the third time in this Serie A season that they have scored seven goals in a single match. An almost incomprehensible feat, as they are certainly the most exciting attacking side to watch in Europe this season, let alone Italy. If they continue at their goalscoring rate, they will finish the season with 106 goals in the league alone, which will be the highest figure for decades in the division.
In the first half, they created chances but only managed to score from two corners, with one of them being a rather odd own goal. They did not score from open play in the first half, so to make up for it, they scored five of them in the second half. They did this through dominating possession by the way of short passes, and when they looked to attack, they did so through the centre of the pitch with through balls. Iličić had a particularly great game in this aspect, progressing the ball up the pitch with his dribbling and passing, and he also provided the final touch in the attacking rhythms of play. His teammates also provided in this aspect, but they could not reach him, statistically, in this game. Further analysis will be complied on Iličić later on in this tactical analysis, as showed again why he might be the best player in Serie A this season.
In this instance, we see Iličić occupying the ball in the opposition half, with relative freedom to do as he pleases on the ball. A basic error by Liverani’s men, they should not allow one of the most creative players in the league that much time on the ball without pressure. He provides a smooth through ball in half-space of the Lecce defence for Pašalić to get on the end of, which is again not met by enough pressure by the Lecce defenders. Pašalić hits a first-time low and driven cross towards the run of Zapata, which is neatly met and eased past Gabriel (see below).
This instance of play started with Iličić and is finished by Zapata within five seconds. This is indicative of how easy it was for Atalanta to cut Lecce open in the second half. It is great vision by Iličić to play that pass towards Pašalić but it is ultimately a basic through ball to make due to the time and space he was allowed on the ball. In these scenarios, Atalanta were just two steps ahead of Lecce mentally, making the plays before Lecce even knew what was happening, and when they did, it was too late.
Later on, in the game, we continue to see these through balls penetrate the Lecce defence, as Atalanta stretched their lead further. After their third goal, we saw Atalanta relax and create chances with frequency. In this image, we see Iličić (again) occupy the ball in the opposition half down the right side. With his technique and skill, he chops past the incoming defender and progresses towards the 18-yard-box.
He eventually lays off the ball to Gómez, in hopes of a one-two. Gómez gives the ball back to him via a beautifully chipped through ball into the box. By way of his genuine ingenuity and skill, Iličić produces a half-volley forward pass towards the path of Zapata, where he dispatches of his effort on a second attempt rebound from the keeper. This completed the perfect hattrick for the Colombian striker, who took his goal contributions to 16 in this Serie A season. This was a great display of their chemistry as an attacking unit and showed off the freedom that Gasperini has allowed them to have in the final third.
By the end of the ninety minutes, Atalanta had outshot their opponents 22 to 8. This second half specifically was Atalanta at their imperious best, with Iličić and Gómez providing their creative spark, whilst Muriel and Zapata provided their clinical attacking edge to finish off the plays. Gasperini’s attacking players are all having great seasons, but one would certainly be sceptical if any of them moved to another club. They are all in their peak years, leaving little room to grow, but more crucially they all understand each other’s games so thoroughly and that is what makes this side special and a superb attacking unit. Think of it as removing one of the men from Liverpool’s front three, they simply would not operate as well.
Iličić; is he the best player in the league?
Quite possibly, he has been beyond tremendous this season, he has been up there with the best players in Europe this term. His performance against Lecce was a representation of why he is so important to Atalanta; he provided the goods time and time again, and he made it look good in the process.
Here, we see the main man drop the shoulder and dribble past the opposing defender with legitimate ease. He slows down the ball as he enters the final third and lays the ball off to Gosens. He receives the ball back from Gosens and decides to dribble at the Lecce defence before playing the through ball for the on-running Papu Gómez. Gómez receives the ball and scuffs his shot straight at the keeper, only for it to rebound towards Iličić, who coolly converts (see below).
Iličić was heavily involved in the play in this game, taking 78 touches, producing four shots, and nine deep completions. He did not let up on the attacking end, dribbling past his opponents six times in the game as well. All these statistics amount to a player who has become an incredibly well-rounded forward. His season statistics are comparable with that of the best in Europe as well. He takes more shots per game than Sergio Agüero (3.6), he provides the same number of key passes per game as a little-known player called Lionel Messi (2.5), and he dribbles more times per game than Son Heung-min (2.6). Very impressive statistics for a player who struggled to make it into the Fiorentina side just a few years ago. At 32 years old, he is unlikely to make the move to another European club, which is good news for La Dea fans, as they get to enjoy him that bit longer.
Overall, we can see that Lecce were deserved losers in this game, as Atalanta really tore them apart. This was reflected in the Expected Goals metric, which leaned 3.60 to 0.73 in favour of the away side. Liverani should try not to treat his team too harshly as this Atalanta side are a superb attacking side. Nevertheless, conceding seven goals to any team is not really acceptable. After conceding 11 goals in their past two fixtures, it may be a good idea to go back to basics and cover some marking and positioning drills. Gasperini will obviously be the happier of the two managers and he should be proud of his team for not letting up even till the last minute of the game. The match was a stalemate at the halfway point, so he should be happy with his team talk as well, it must have done something special.