19th February 2019 has been an awesome night for the “underdog” Italian team, Atalanta Bergamasca, that for the first time in its history, not only it has played a first leg of Champions League round of 16 matches, but has had an incredible 4-1 victory over Valencia.
This match is one of the best representations of Atalanta’s style of play, proposed by its coach, Gianpiero Gasperini, and well demonstrated by its actors, the players. Hence, the purpose of this tactical analysis is to highlight what can be considered key traits of the team in terms of tactics and style of play, emphasizing some key roles and players with the usage of some statistics. On the other side, Valencia players were not allowed to resist and impose themselves.
Atalanta’s starting lineup is set on the pitch with a 3-4-1-2 formation: a very dynamic, flexible, and offensive – but balanced – disposal. Their opponents, trained by Albert Celades, start the match with a 4-4-2 formation, with Guedes and Maxi Gómez as dynamic forwards.
Starting the analysis from the back, the two goalkeepers, Pierluigi Gollini and Jaume Doménech played an active part during the match.
For Atalanta’s tactics, the goalkeeper has an important role, being participative in the ball possession and the first construction of play. During the match, Gollini made 23 passes (78% accuracy) and made four saves from Valencia shots.
Doménech, instead, accomplished 26 passes (88% accuracy) but was not able to prevent Atalanta from scoring four goals.
The tactical analysis moves to the three defensive players – Tolói and Palomino played the majority of games, then Caldara is the option to Djimsiti – are required to be an active part of both phases, attacking and defensive. High intensity, close distance to each opponent are two of their main traits. When Atalanta have the control of the ball, they reach, at least, the midfield, participating to circulation: in addition, thanks to the field coverage that midfield and offensive players can guarantee, right and left backs very often go on the attacking phase, reaching the line set by the strikers. This also happened a couple of times during the match.
Regarding the pure defensive phase, as it appears from this frame, a basic concept is the man-to-man marking, involving all the defenders and the midfielders to focus on each respective opponent.
This image shows a situation that may turn into a serious threat: Caldara, hooped in red, seems to be free from marking a Spanish attacker, but in the upper side of the frame, highlighted with the blue arrow, it appears a Valencia player that could become a danger to the Bergamaschi – of course, in case the Spanish midfielder with the ball would be able to free himself and pass it on the left quite quickly.
Moreover, here below there is the heatmap highlighting the statistics of coverage of the three defenders during the match, plus the goalkeeper, with a total of 180 touches.
On the opposite, looking at the total coverage of the field by Valencia defenders (Wass, Mangala, Diakhaby, and Gayà), this, of course, highlights a more presence on the left and right sides, given by the defensive line made of four players instead of three. Diakhaby has played a more active role, occupying the right centre-back position; left centre-back, where Mangala was acting, is the zone where the main problems emerged: three of the four goals scored by Atalanta were generated by this side.
Moving to the midfield, it is a neuralgic role that involves high intensity, ball recovery, and pressing by the two central-based players, Freuler and De Roon, whose heatmap is listed here.
In fact, when analysing their profile, a higher degree of intensity, physical strength, and dynamism prevail over pure technique: they have to be an active part both in the offensive and the defensive phases, running not only horizontally but also vertically, on the outer fringes.
Another key element of Atalanta’s successful tactics, all over the season as well, is given by the ongoing presence of side backs, both left and right, in the attacking phase. This provides depths, field covering, and numerical superiority. Implications are also required for the defensive phase, where the two “wingers” have to understand the movement of the ball on the field with at least one of them, being the opponent’s attacking phase on the left or on the right, being aligned with the defenders’ line. These two roles typically are represented by Gosens and Hateboer. It is not a coincidence that the latter scored twice against Valencia, and considering the whole season so far, eight goals and five assists have been made by the former. There is also a third player that is commonly used in these roles alternatively, Timothy Castagne, who suffered some injuries this season and only appeared 14 times, but during the past season he scored four goals and provided three assists.
Moving to the Spanish club’s perspective, the two central midfielders, Kondogbia and Parejo were not able to impose themselves, rather they were always marked by Atalanta’s players. Parejo, the playmaker, in the build-up phase was always followed by De Roon, whilst Kondogbia, whose tasks are mainly related to acting as a screen ahead of the defensive line, had to face dynamic movements between Pasalić, Iličić, and Gómez.
On the wings, Soler and Torres, assisted in the offensive phase by the two side backs, Wass and Gayà, tried to provide numerical superiority but their opposing wingers and defenders resisted to their attacks.
The source of the goal scored by Cheryshev, who replaced Guedes in the second half, is ball lost by Palomino, as evidenced in the image below, who did not pass the ball to his teammate De Roon properly. This represents one of the first threats that may turn into goals conceded when a reboot started by a defender is nullified.
Finally, coming to have a look at the strikers, the first point that comes out when analysing Atalanta is the strategic role covered by the number 10, the Argentinian “Papu” Gómez. Even though he is set as a forward jointly with Iličić, very often he shifts to take the place ideally covered by Pasalić as “trequartista”, the role that connects the central midfielders to the strikers. But this is not enough: Gómez is one the most technical players of the team, he builds up attacking phases, provides assists, collects fouls. In order to do this, he shows himself to receive the ball in Atalanta’s half of the field, acting as a playmaker, as highlighted in the picture below (the image refers to the second match against Valencia played at Mestalla, but this is an evergreen for him).
This, on Valencia’s point of view, requires a player to pay attention to him, may he be a central defender or a midfielder, causing potential misalignment in the defensive line. Coach Celades primarily entrusted him to Kondogbia and Diakhaby, but his dynamism caused them a lot of problems.
Very often, he is able to choose a particular side of the pitch that remains empty, being free from being marked immediately. Normally, this area is the left first half of the opposing midfield, as highlighted by the heatmap against Valencia.
This is the outcome of Gómez’s tactical evolution and of his style of play: in the past years, he was performing as a pure offensive winger, when he played in San Lorenzo, Catania, and Metalist Kharkiv. From this position he has been gradually turned into a more central based role, providing him a more view of the phases and a playmaking attitude.
Iličić is the other most technical player that has benefited from coach Gasperini’s vision of play who turned him into a high quality consistent striker, consistency that always has lacked in his past performances at Palermo and Fiorentina. In the first match he scored the 2-0 in the first half, whilst in the second match he scored four goals at the Mestalla stadium. He constantly moves from left to right, alternating with coverage in the centre of field.
As a trait of the offensive and tactical style of play led by Atalanta, the two attackers, jointly with Pasalić are the first to lead a high pressing phase when Valencia tries to build up the game from the back.
As anticipated in the lineups part, even Valencia started the game with two dynamic strikers. Guedes, very often used as a left offensive winger during the seasons, tried not to give any reference point to Atalanta’s defenders, and move all around the field, as highlighted by his heatmap.
To conclude, the tactical analysis of the match said that Atalanta was able to score four goals to La Liga side Valencia in the first leg, repeating the same score in the second, showing his perfect attacking attitude with high pressing. Individual mistakes and positional errors may turn into conceding opportunities that represent their drawback. This represents a perfect image of its seasonal – so far – performances, having scored 70 goals in Serie A – no other Italian team scored more – and eight in the six games of Champions League group stage.
On the opposite, Valencia suffered too much from Atalanta’s style of play and probably did not approach the match in the best way. Furthermore, Valencia players were not able to replicate their performances and capitalise potential situations that they had.