At the start of the 2018/19 season, Chelsea decided to loan out Mario Pasalic to Atalanta in a two-season loan deal. This decision was made after two mixed seasons with AC Milan and Spartak Moscow, in Russia. At Spartak Moscow, he was only a squad player, making just ten starts for the side in the Russian Premier League. The question was, would he receive the same treatment in northern Italy?
Initially, this was the case at Atalanta. In his first season, he made 17 starts and 16 substitute appearances in Serie A, to result in another mixed season. This season, he has forced Gian Piero Gasperini to take notice of his efforts to learn the coach’s tactics and has managed to find himself to be a regular starter at the exciting Italian club.
In almost every single aspect, Pašalić has improved his game. From his defensive duties to his attacking capabilities, Pašalić has become a useful player on the ball and an even better facilitator for his teammates. He has become a versatile asset for Gasperini, who has used him up and down the centre of the pitch.
In this tactical analysis scout report, we will do an analysis of Pašalić’s performances for Atalanta and how he has made a noticeable impact on his side this season. In this scout report, we will also discover which side of his game he could improve upon.
Style of play
The Croatian is a box-to-box midfielder who doesn’t possess any particular weakness in his game, but he also doesn’t have any outstanding specific strength either. Rather, he has a multitude of attributes which are at a good level, compared to other midfielders in the league.
If one strength had to be chosen as his best, it would certainly be his passing though. He is accurate with his short passing and he rarely misplaces his long balls as well, suggesting he carefully picks his ranging passes. Gasperini usually uses formations which operates with two central midfielder spots, which he has been swapping in and out between Remo Freuler, Marten de Roon, and Pašalić, depending on the opposition. De Roon is strong in the defensive department with limited capabilities to progress the ball forward, while Pašalić and Freuler provide both a fair amount of defensive cover and an ability to progress the ball forward.
Gasperini’s favoured formations are 3-4-1-2 and 3-4-2-1 which suit Pašalić’s strengths very well. They do like to attack down the wings with frequency, however, this usually starts from one of the two midfielders in the middle of the pitch. They are a side who operate a possession-oriented style of play, which suits Pašalić and his preference to play short passes and to only attempt long balls when favourable.
Passing and build-up
Atalanta do not play an aggressive style of football. They prefer to control the game in the opposition’s half through short passing patterns of play. Their style of play is akin to Manchester City, where they play a slow tempo in their build-up play and they don’t press as aggressively as their counterparts, although they are not opposed to a fast break counter-attack.
Pašalić wanders from box to box and finds space to offer himself for a pass with his movement. The Croatian helps during the build-up and is always looking to receive the ball, or sometimes win the ball back himself, and circulate the ball in the centre of the pitch. He often progresses the ball forward too with his passing, although this is not his primary objective on the field. In addition to this, he also frequently makes late Lampard-esque runs into the box to provide an attacking threat. The role which Pašalić fulfils does not require the most talent, however, it does require a high amount of application and awareness.
Here, we see Pašalić occupy space behind the attacking line as an opportunity for support. In this scenario, he also drags away the attention of a Lecce defender, potentially creating space for another Atalanta attacker. It is important in every side to have a selfless individual, who fulfils the role of a facilitator for their fellow teammates. Although, not only do they facilitate, they also provide quantifiable attributes which help the team perform to their best ability.
Attacking approach and defensive contribution
As mentioned, the team’s 3-4-1-2 formation fits Pašalić’s abilities very well. He is equally as much of a goalscoring threat as he is a creative playmaker. He can be used as an additional attacking force through his runs into the box and his ability to find space, due to the low tempo that Atalanta play at.
Above, we see Pašalić approach the box at pace as he sees Alejandro Gómez attempt to cross the ball into the box. The two Manchester City centre-backs are focused on blocking the cross coming into the box, by attempting to cut off the passing lanes. As a result, Pašalić can use his pace to burst past the defenders, to their bewilderment. Gómez whips in the perfect cross for Pašalić to get on the end of with a header which darts into the top right corner past Claudio Bravo.
Across the UEFA Champions League and Serie A, Pašalić takes 1.8 shots per game which is a fair amount for a central midfielder in Gasperini’s system. As with many parts of his game, the actions he does take in this respect are only when he feels like he has a quality opportunity on goal. This is evidenced by the fact that he only takes 0.3 of these shots from outside of the box per game (see below). This is a compliment to his match intelligence as he is great at analysing attacking scenarios and deciding whether or not to drag defenders away to create space for others, or to try to take a shot himself.
The zone where he makes the most significant impact, however, is in the midfield. His vision and match intelligence mean that he finds himself in locations of high significance in fulfilling Gasperpini’s tactics. He is by no means the fulcrum of this Atalanta side, that would be Gómez, however, his selfless nature and tireless application lead to the smooth transition from defence to attack.
Here, we see him on the ball advancing up the field, with very little resistance from Brescia. He had just regained the ball from Sandro Tonali, who seems to be putting little effort in to retrieve the ball for his side. Pašalić makes for a truly inconspicuous figure in midfield, where he is generally surrounded by star quality. This often turns out to be a secret weapon for Atalanta when he occasionally picks up the ball and penetrates the opposition defence with a dribble or pass. In this scenario, he has a variety of passing options which he takes by passing to Josip Iličić and quickly runs towards the box after. The ball is eventually whipped into the box from wide, where Pašalić dispatches of another header.
His xGBuildup sits at 0.31 per 90 minutes which tells us that he is directly involved in the build-up of nearly a third of Atalanta’s goals when he is on the field. This also does not consider his useful off-the-ball movement in certain scenarios as well. From this, we can tell that whenever he is on the field, he is a versatile individual in the fact that he can help start the build-up play, and he can also finish it with his late runs as well. His passing accuracy sits at 88.7% in Serie A, which is complemented by 3.3 long balls, a good figure for a central midfielder in a possession-oriented side. His long ball accuracy is also an impressive 82.5% which is truly remarkable and suggests his carefully picks his passes, which suites the style of play that Gasperini likes to play very well.
When it comes to defensive actions though, things look different. His defensive volume and completion rates could be higher, although as stated before, they are not bad either. Atalanta as a team play a high line with a conservative playstyle. They do not press aggressively, but the teams who do play against them, most certainly do. Therefore, this context must be considered when analysing his defensive contribution to the side. However, one weakness in his game, which has been one for his entire club career, is his lack of concentration during matches at times. This sometimes leads to him losing the ball in dangerous positions.
His lack of concentration can be manipulated by the opposition and transformed into a simple passing triangle to progress forwards, as we can see. Too late to make an impact, he notices that a pass has been made towards Raheem Sterling. In the case that he had seen this pass coming, he would be able to intercept the ball and start an attack for his side. However, in this such case, Sterling receives the ball and dribbles back towards his half, to create the passing lane to Kevin De Bruyne. De Bruyne did what he does best at that moment and ended up creating a chance for one of his teammates to score. This could have been prevented, had Pašalić clocked on to the pass earlier on.
Besides, he is seventh for tackles per game in the Atalanta squad. Though, it should be noted that in this system, the defenders complete the majority of the defensive actions for the team, as seen by the four traditional central defenders who sit above him in that same list. Nevertheless, he is dribbled past 1.1 times per game, which is third in the Atalanta squad. It is not uncommon for central midfielders to be dribbled past with high quantity, however in the context of his team, this is an area he should improve upon to become a more well-rounded footballer. He completes 55% of his tackles which is around the league average for all players, so it is not entirely debilitating in his ability to fulfil his role set by Gasperini (see below where makes a key tackle).
Pašalić has become a vital cog in a fully operational Atalanta team. He does not fully fulfil one specific role, rather, he plugs the gaps where necessary. With a player like him, who brings balance to the squad and gets the best out his talented teammates, Atalanta can simply score at will.