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Deep Into Enemy Lines: Atalanta’s Defense

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Let’s do a stats dive into one of the most aggressive defensive units in Europe.

Atalanta BC v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

When people think about the Atalanta of coach Gian Piero Gasperini, most of the time they think about an all-out attack structure that doesn’t do much defending. While Atalanta are certainly not the strongest defense in Europe, we can highlight a few interesting bits about their defending. Having already covered Atalanta’s offense in this piece, let’s talk a bit about the defense and whether it’s a favorable matchup for Real Madrid.

The Principles of Gasperini’s Defense

Throughout his entire Serie A coaching career, Gasperini has not strayed away from his beloved 3-4-3 shape. He does, however, use variations of his shape (3-4-2-1 or 3-4-1-2) depending on the opponent. Against big opponents, Gasperini likes to use the 3-4-1-2, with a more midfield-y player as a number ten role for increased midfield control and extra pressing on the opposition holding midfielder. This is the role that was previously played by Papu Gómez. Since his departure, the more defensive Matteo Pessina has occupied the position. He is not the most talented player with the ball that Gasperini can field in that position, but Gasperini likes his defensive work and off-ball movement in attack.

Atalanta press man-to-man across the entire pitch. This approach requires significant stamina and can tire players out quickly, and opponents will often try to drag the man markers out of position to disorder the defense. However, Atalanta has rehearsed this system extensively and has multiple variations depending on what height of the pitch they are defending and specific pressing triggers. See the example below, where Atalanta press in a 5-2-3, but the back pass from the opposition defenders triggers a switch from medium press to a more aggressive high press.

Wingbacks join in during this high pressing stage, but they don’t do so blindly. Gasperini likes one of his wingbacks to stay back when pressing so that Atalanta’s backline has an extra player in case that:

  1. The opponent beats the press and starts a transition, or
  2. The opponent sends a long ball and Atalanta defenders must fight for the aerial duels and second balls.

Therefore, the wing-backs only push up to press when the opponent has the ball on their side of the pitch. See the example below of last weekend’s game against Napoli: right wing-back Mæhle pushes up to press the Napoli left back, but as Napoli move the ball to the right side, Mæhle takes a step back while left wing-back Gosens rushes forward to press the Napoli right back.

Whenever an opponent beats the Atalanta press, the players in the backline usually track back in a narrow 3+2 block. They do this to block any passing options through the center and force the opponent into wide areas and further away from their goal, which gives the rest of the defense more time to recover and get into shape. In the example below, notice how they form the 3+2 block independently of what their nominal positions are, with right-wing back Hateboer forming a temporary double pivot with De Roon. Once the rest of his teammates tracked back, Hateboer returned to his normal wingback position.

Atalanta’s Pressing Effectiveness and Tactical Fouling Numbers

To measure how intensely a team press we can use a metric called passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA). The PPDA metric is calculated by dividing the number of passes allowed by the defending team by the total number of defensive actions; both values are calculated with reference to a specific area of the pitch, usually the opposition half. The lower the PPDA value, the more aggressive the press.

Understat data shows that Atalanta has a PPDA in the opposition half of 8.82, which ranks 14th among all the big 5 European leagues and 3rd among Serie A teams. For comparison, the most intense pressing team in this data set is, unsurprisingly, Bielsa’s Leeds United with 6.78, while the team that presses least is Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United with 18.06. Real Madrid ranks 30th with 9.56.

Atalanta players don’t just press intensely and aggressively, they also press effectively and succeed in stealing the ball more often than most. According to FBREF data, their pressures have the 6th highest success rate among the big 5 leagues and 1st among Serie A teams. In this metric, the success of a pressure is defined as winning the ball back within 5 seconds of the pressure action. The scatter plot below shows where Atalanta and Real Madrid rank in terms of pressing intensity and success rate.

This aggressive pressing and man-marking, however, comes at a cost. Atalanta’s defenders and midfielders are not exactly the fastest in the business and one doesn’t need to be Mbappé or Haaland to beat them in a footrace. So to compensate for this and prevent opponents from constantly starting counters, Atalanta commits tactical fouls at a rate that, in the words of my friend John Muller, “would make Pep Guardiola blush”. Among the big 5 leagues, Atalanta rank as the 5th team that interrupts play most frequently through fouls (surprisingly, Lopetegui’s Sevilla ranks first).

When the opponent has the ball, Atalanta commits a foul every 86 seconds. To provide a bit of a comparison:

  • Atletico commits a foul every 102 seconds of opposition play
  • Liverpool every 106 seconds
  • Real Madrid every 107 seconds
  • Manchester City every 129 seconds
  • Cádiz (one of the least aggressive defenses in Europe) every 157 seconds.

When compared to other big 5 league center backs in the last calendar year, Atalanta center backs Cristian Romero, José Palomino, and Rafael Tolói rank among the top 10% in fouls committed. These guys commit a lot more fouls than other center backs because they press A LOT more than other center backs. For example, data shows that Romero presses 3x more than your typical big team center back (think Ramos, Van Dijk, Ruben Dias, etc), while Toloi presses 2x more often. And on the subject of Cristian Romero...

Cristian Romero, the Most Aggressive Center Back in Europe

SSC Napoli v Atalanta BC - Coppa Italia Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

On loan from Juventus this season, the 22-year-old Argentinian center back is loving the controlled chaos of Gasperini’s system. He can join the attack and assist Duván Zapata like he were a classic Argentinian number ten, but he will also cheerfully hack away at opponents. Among big 5 league center backs in the last calendar year, Romero has done the most tackles + interceptions per game (5.35), 2nd most pressures per game (16.08), and ranks within the top 7% of most ball recoveries per game (13.2). To give an example of how high this is, Romero recovers the ball more frequently than Casemiro (3.97 tackles + interceptions, 12.2 ball recoveries).

This is extremely unusual output for center backs, who usually stay back and have the midfielders do most of the tackling and pressing work. Romero’s hyper proactive defensive behavior also comes at a cost: he commits the most fouls (2.80) among big 5 league center backs. Romero represents Atalanta’s defense in a nutshell: extreme ability to steal the ball at the expense of tactical fouling.

Key Matchups Against Real Madrid’s Attack

On Atalanta’s side, the only right-wingback Hans Hateboer is injured. Expect the usual 3-4-1-2 from Gasperini, with these likely names.

  • Keeper: Pierluigi Gollini at goal
  • Center backs: Berat Djimsiti on the left, Cristian Romero as a sweeper, Rafael Toloi on the right
  • Wing backs: Robin Gosens on the left, Joakim Mæhle on the right.
  • Double pivot: Marten de Roon on the right, the more aggressive Remo Freuler on the left.
  • Number ten: Matteo Pessina
  • Strikers: Ilicić on the right, Duvan Zapata on the left

Real Madrid, on the other hand, continues to struggle with a major injury crisis (Carvajal, Ramos, Marcelo, Militão, Valverde, Rodrygo, Hazard) that has now claimed Karim Benzema as its latest victim.

While the personnel selection for defense is very clear, question marks remain about Zidane’s personnel selection for the attack. Zidane could simply choose the standard 4-3-3 with the same lineup that played against Valladolid, which includes a forward trio of Vinicius, Mariano, and Asensio.

However, for big knockout games like this one Zidane often trusts Isco and the 4-3-1-2 midfield diamond, so don’t be surprised if he starts with this one. The main advantage of using the midfield diamond against Atalanta would be press-resistance, with Isco freely floating around the pitch and helping his teammates play their way out of the asphyxiating Atalanta press. The main disadvantage of the diamond is defense, as it would be a narrow defensive shape going up against Atalanta’s extremely wide 3-4-1-2 attack.

Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 buildup structure under pressure by Atalanta.

Real Madrid will want to follow a similar tactical blueprint to the Eibar games, trying to evade the heavy opposition pressure and send passes that can exploit the spaces behind Atalanta’s high line. To achieve this, Kroos and Modrić will have to step up and unlock the Atalanta press, attempting tense, perfectly weighted passes into space that Vinicius, Asensio, and Mariano can latch on to. However, Atalanta will do their very best to prevent the ball from reaching the legendary midfielder duo. Expect double-pivot midfielders Remo Freuler and Marten de Roon to be their man markers.

That being said, Kroos and Modrić will not have an impact on the game if Real’s defense cannot pass the ball to them. Here’s to hoping that Nacho and Varane can handle themselves well under the pressure of Atalanta’s front line, and that Varane can finally show that what happened against Manchester City last year was just a bad night.

At the forward line, watch out for Mariano’s battle against the Atalanta center backs. Mariano has a great jump on him and can consistently win headers in La Liga, but Atalanta is one of the most dominant teams in Europe when it comes to aerial duels: they rank 4th in aerial duel win percentage among the big 5 leagues. Mariano will have a tough night in the office, fighting to get to the end of long balls and crosses.

The best way to break down Atalanta’s man-marking system is, of course, by beating your man, so this would be a great moment for Vinicius to get his mojo back and return to his best dribbling self. As Om Arvind pointed out recently, this season Vinicius has not been dribbling as often or as successfully as in previous ones.

I find this Atalanta game to be somewhat scary because it follows a similar script to the previous two years of Champions League eliminations: Real are once again facing a very aggressive and coherent pressing side that can dominate them, all without the presence of defensive leader Sergio Ramos. However, this season Real Madrid have improved their buildup mechanisms and performed much better against high-pressing sides in La Liga than against deep blocks. Here’s to hoping that this can be the case in Champions League too and they banish the ghosts of the previous eliminations.