Atalanta and Roma locked horns again for the reverse Serie A fixture that promised nothing short of an intriguing contest. Roma were hoping for a better result after their 2-0 defeat against the Nerazzurri at home back in September.
Paulo Fonseca’s men are still adapting to the attacking style of play that the Portuguese manager prefers. However, several key injuries have caused them to be a tad inconsistent recently. Atalanta, on the other end, have been a story of the season so far. Their fearless attacking play has earned them several admirers this season. Gian Piero Gasperini has transformed this Atalanta side from a mid-table club into a club that challenges for a European competition place consistently since taking over in 2016.
Three points separated these teams before the game. Inter had been inconsistent in the league over the past several weeks. Hence, it was a chance for the fourth and the fifth-placed team to march towards the Champions League qualification finish.
Gasperini made a couple of changes to his side from their win against Fiorentina the previous week. Marten de Roon, who was returning after suspension, replaced Mario Pašalić in the midfield to form a two-man central midfield beside Remo Freuler. Another change was in the right-wing back position where Hans Hateboer came in for Timothy Castagne. Robin Gosens managed to keep his place on the other flans. The back four consisted of the goalkeeper and the three centre-backs, along with the attacking trio managed to retain their places for this crucial tie.
Injuries to key players and suspensions forced Fonseca to make five changes to his side. Moreover, the 47-year-old Portuguese manager was also forced to switch from his favored 4-2-3-1 formation to 4-1-4-1. Three of their back four were shuffled and saw Bruno Peres coming in for Davide Santon on the right, Federico Fazio replacing the suspended Bryan Cristante, and Leonardo Spinazzola on the left for Aleksandar Kolarov. Chris Smalling was the only defender to keep his place. Lorenzo Pellegrini and Justin Kluivert were the remaining changes that came in for Jordan Veretout and Cengiz Ünder, to form the four-man attacking midfield alongside Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Diego Perotti.
Atalanta’s wide triangles and positional switches
While Gasperini’s side is adept to attack from central areas, it is the wide channel that is its strength. This season, Atalanta has attacked only 24% of the time from the center. Only Parma Calcio 1913 and Hellas Verona have lower figures than this. It means that 76% of the Nerazzurri’s attacks have come from the flanks. Excellent use of half-spaces, overloading flanks, forming triangles in the middle and attacking thirds, stretching the field horizontally with the help of speedy wing-backs, and clever positional switches have allowed them to use the wide channel effectively for creating goal scoring opportunities throughout the season. In this game, we saw the home side using a couple of attacking patterns to penetrate Roma’s goal through quick vertical ball progression from the wide areas.
One of the patterns was to create overloads and triangles in the wide areas in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch. This was combined with positional switches. The ball sided wing-back, centre-back, centre-forward, and central midfielders would combine to overload the near flank. This would force Roma players to make a lateral movement towards ball sided flank to maintain numerical equality. Consequently, it opens up space in the centre. This is exactly where Atalanta’s attack would start showing its prowess. A passage of short intricate one-touch passing play would allow one of the attackers to occupy the space freed earlier in the centre. He would then have runners running behind the defensive line to play the killer ball. The figure below shows this pattern.
As we can see in the image above, Hateboer (forward-most player) combined with Josip Iličić, who was in the half-space, and de Roon (number 15) to form a triangle in the final phase of attack for the home side. Observe how Papu Gómez and Rafael Tolói have shifted towards the triangle to overload the right flank and provide short passing options. Roma players were getting drawn towards the ball, creating space in the centre. Also, observe that Iličić, who is a centre-forward and Hateboer, who is the right wing-back, have switched their positions.
A few seconds later, we see Gómez occupying the free central space to progress the ball, as shown in the figure below.
Moreover, Hateboer had continued his run in the final third. This provided Gómez with not one, but two viable options for making the killer ball in the box as shown in the figure below.
Switch of play
Another attacking build-up pattern employed by the home side was the quick switch of play during the first phase.
As shown in the figure above, once Tolói (man in possession) received the ball from Pierluigi Gollini (goalkeeper), he looked to drive towards Hateboer on the right, which shifted Roma players laterally towards the man in possession. Since Roma were set up in a horizontally compact structure (will explain later), Gosens (far left) was completely untracked on the left. Moreover, he had already stationed himself in an attacking position which allowed him to push forward as soon as the ball is shifted on the left a few seconds later.
Tolói turned and made a pass to Gómez who was dropping deep in the centre to receive the ball. After receiving the possession, the Atalanta number 10 laid off a pass to Gosens who was ready to drive forward. Four seconds later, Atalanta transitioned into the attacking third creating overloads on the left flank, as shown in the figure below.
This kind of quick side transitions using only two or three passes created huge problems for Roma because of their slow lateral movements.
Roma’s over-reliance on Edin Džeko in the attack
Fonseca’s Roma, just like his Shakhtar Donetsk, like to play out from the back. The way they do it is by creating overloads in the centre. One of the pivots drops deep to split the centre-backs thus forming the backline of three. The attacking midfielders also drop deep to combine with the backline to create central overloads during the first phase of the buildup. This also allows the full-backs to push high. Having said that, this is not a one-dimensional attacking team. If they are not able to swiftly progress the ball vertically, they employ a direct play towards their target man Edin Džeko.
In this game, Atalanta’s efficient high-press forced Roma to switch to Plan B and rely on the striker’s skills to create chances. Santon on the right, Spinazzola and Perotti on the left, constantly looked for diagonal crosses from half-spaces or flanks towards the Bosnian. This, along with Pau López’s central long balls contributed to 51% of passes that Dzeko received throughout the game.
The ex-Manchester City striker is extremely good aerially and physically. This quality makes him an effective goal-scoring outlet for his team. Not only that, but his excellent hold-up play brings other attackers into the game. Therefore, Gasperini’s plan to use tight marking of two central defenders on the Bosnian to nullify his threat deserves credit. The following figure shows one of such instances. Observe how the central defenders stay close to Dzeko while Santon (man in possession) was trying to create a crossing opportunity. Consequently, the striker was denied any space and time over the ball to threaten the opposition defense
An error from José Luis Palomino allowed him to score his 11th goal of the league. He was not able to create much impact on the game otherwise. Two shots and zero chances created are figures seldom seen from the 34-year old striker. Perhaps, the away side was relying too much on the striker. A supporting partner like Nikola Kalinić would have helped the captain to create more pressure on Atalanta’s defense.
Off the ball compactness from Roma
Off the ball, Roma was set up in a compact 4-1-4-1 or sometimes, 4-3-3 mid-block structure. The line of engagement was medium, meaning Roma players did not press high up the pitch. Rather, they allowed Atalanta’s central defenders to move the ball horizontally without pressure and engaged the press only when the home side entered the second phase of their attack.
Moreover, Fonseca’s men maintained a compact structure horizontally as well as vertically. Vertical compactness meant fewer opportunities for the home side to play in between the lines. The horizontal compactness denied space centrally for Gasperini’s men and forced them to play to the wide areas. The following figure shows this compact structure.
Roma’s plan was to catch the home side in possession in wide areas. After forcing the opposition towards a flank, Roma players would make a lateral movement towards the flank in the wake of overloading the channel for turnovers. This is evident from the fact that Atalanta was dispossessed six out of the seven times on the flanks.
The defensive structure of Atalanta
Gasperini set his players up in a high pressing system, contrary to Roma’s mid-block pressing structure. The aim was to try to regain possession high up the field. Whenever I Giallorossi tried to build up from the back, Atalanta players pushed forward to cut all the short passing options. Consequently, Roma were denied to create swift vertical progressions, forcing them to go long, as shown in the following figure
Atalanta employed a tight man-marking system throughout the field to deny any space and time for the opposition in possession. Additionally, there were a couple of aspects in the individual marking system that was evident in this game. Firstly, Roma’s captain and lone striker Dzeko was man-marked tightly by two central defenders all the time, as established earlier.
The second one is interesting. The wing-backs Hateboer and Gosens were always tracking the Roma wide players to deny any crossing opportunity. In the figure below, Hateboer is tight on Perotti who is stretching the right side of the field. Also, Gosens was tracking Santon’s run on the left in case of any switch of play happens from Roma. The centre-backs were tight on Dzeko. This created a huge gap in the half-spaces between the centre-backs and the full-backs. In order to prevent the opposition to take advantage of this, Atalanta attackers dropped deep to prevent Roma creating numerical superiority in the centre, as shown in the figure. Observe the 3v2 situation in the centre.
Lastly, the home side fell back into a low block 5-3-2 structure whenever Roma were able to break the first and the second-line press, which seldom happened. The figure below shows this structure: –
To conclude this analysis, Gasperini’s tactics were spot on for this crucial tie. The defensive setup nullified Roma’s attacking strengths and reduced their xG from season overall 2.03 to 0.3 in this game. Roma also did well defensively, reducing Atalanta’s season average xG of 2.56 to 1.59 in this game. However, Atalanta’s attack proved to be too good for the Roman side.
With this victory, the Nerazzurri are now 6 points ahead of Fonseca’s men. This is a massive blow to Roma’s Champions League ambitions for next season. This defeat extends Roma’s losing streak to three. Moreover, the Roman side has now failed to keep a clean sheet in nine previous league games. Atalanta, on the other end, continues their excellent run of form. They now have seven wins in the last eight league games, scoring 26 goals and conceding only six.