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Deep Into Enemy Lines: Atalanta’s Offense

The departure of Papu Gómez has not affected one of the best-drilled offenses in Europe. What can Real Madrid do to stop it?

Atalanta BC v Cagliari Calcio - Coppa Italia Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Alejandro Darío “Papu“ Gómez became an institution of Atalanta and Serie A, the most prolific assist provider in the league for the past six years. At 33 years of age, not only had he not shown any decline, the last two years have actually been the peak of his playing career. Never before did Papu have so much impact on the pitch, and in the past two seasons, he has appeared in the top 10% in Serie A in a wide range of offensive actions, from progressive passing and carrying to dribbling, shooting, and assisting.

With Papu having such a vital role, most of us assumed the worst when the Argentinian playmaker was frozen out of the squad in December and left in January for Sevilla after conflicts with coach Gian Piero Gasperini. We couldn’t imagine Atalanta’s offense being the same after losing their lynchpin, the player who articulated their attack.

Well, it seems that we lacked imagination. In the diagram below, you can see that in the past two months since Papu stopped playing for La Dea, Atalanta’s offensive output actually increased compared to the earlier part of the season when Papu played. They have been picking up more points, producing more shots and goals per game, getting into the final third and into the opposition box even more often.

We underestimated the strength and robustness of the tactical structure created by Gasperini and his men. No player is greater than this structure, not even a player with Papu’s impact. What is Atalanta’s structure and how did it come to be?

The Principles of Gasperini’s Attack

Gian Piero Gasperini had been implementing pressing and aggressive back threes during the mid-2000s, before it was cool and mainstream in Serie A. After several years coaching Juventus youth sides, he took on his first Serie A job at Genoa in 2006, eventually getting Genoa to a 5th place finish (and Europa League football) in the 2008/09 Serie A, with Diego Milito scoring 24 goals. After some rough spells with Inter and Palermo between 2011 and 2013, he returned to Genoa in 2013, spending another three seasons there before being hired by Atalanta in 2016.

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.

The 3-4-1-2 can be split cleanly into two wide diamonds comprised of outside center back, wingback, double pivot midfielder, and striker. Atalanta’s offense focuses heavily on the wings, with relatively little happening through the middle. The number ten role in the 3-4-1-2 is usually expected to move deftly from side to side connecting both diamonds and allowing Atalanta to move the ball quickly from side to side. 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. To compensate, Iličić is now dropping from his striker position more often and taking a more central, creative role

The two wide diamonds of Atalanta’s 3-4-1-2.
GIF by John Muller

To foster more fluidity and flexibility to the buildup and disorder defenses more easily, Atalanta players constantly move out of their position to make third-man runs, and a teammate will take the place of the player who left his position. This means that the wide diamonds of Atalanta feature constant positional rotations.

The players have internalized this system and its principles so well that they no longer have pre-defined movements, they kind of improvise within the framework of the system. The fluidity of these diamonds is a joy to watch and has tons of variations. Sometimes you will see the center back making a third-man run, with the double pivot midfielder staying back and taking the center back’s place. Sometimes a striker or midfielder will receive the ball in a wide area, like a winger, and let the wingback make an underlapping run.

Apart from maybe Iličić, the Atalanta players themselves are not so press resistant, but they know the system so well and move together so cohesively that the team is collectively press-resistant. When a player is pressed, his teammates know how to drag defenders in such a way that they generate more passing options for that player.

Atalanta’s wide diamonds for the most part don’t try to create chances through the middle. Through their player combinations on the wings, they aim to get players into good crossing and cutback positions. Here’s a great example of how that looks in practice, with a goal against Napoli last year.

Last season, Atalanta produced 98 goals in 38 games of Serie A, by far the most in the league. This season, they are scoring at a slightly lower rate (53 goals in 23 games), but at this pace, they would be on track to score 87 goals by the end of the season.

The Forwards: Iličic - Zapata - Muriel

Atalanta BC v Torino FC - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

After a lower-profile and somewhat inconsistent career at Palermo and Fiorentina, Josip Iličić has enjoyed the best football of his career at Atalanta. Iličic is the most impactful forward at Atalanta because not only does he shoot and assist in the final third, he also helps Atalanta move the ball through midfield zones, and it’s incredibly hard to find a player who is elite in all these different kinds of actions. Like the scatter plot below shows, in this 2020/21 Serie A, only Iličić & Ronaldo have managed to be in the top 10% of both ball progression and shot production.

Last season, Iličić’s elite attacking output on so many metrics could only be topped by players like Messi or Neymar. This season he hasn’t been able to reproduce the amazing goal and assist rate of last season, but his impact at Atalanta remains unparalleled. Despite his 1.90m and high center of gravity, he is Atalanta’s top dribbler, with 4.12 dribbles completed per game out of 6.23 attempted. To give you an idea of how good this is, it’s the same dribbling rate Eden Hazard had in his last season at Chelsea.

Iličić is the most creative forward in Atalanta, but the main goal scorers are the Colombian duo of Duván Zapata and Luis Muriel. Zapata has been Atalanta’s top scorer in Serie A for the past two and a half years, with 41 goals in the last two league campaigns, and 9 goals in 1450 minutes of the current season. Zapata is fast and smart at moving into space, but also strong in the air and he makes for a good target man for quick passing combinations near the box. Like the other Atalanta strikers, he moves frequently to the wide areas during counterattacks or during the buildup to provide a passing outlet.

This season, however, the top scorer for Atalanta is super-substitute Luis Muriel, who has scored 14 goals in Serie A from just 8 starts and 755 minutes. In other words, he is scoring a goal every 54 minutes. Compared to his goal-less days in Sevilla, Muriel has made a lot of progress under Gasperini, improving his finishing and instinct in the box while retaining his excellent link-up and dribbling skills.

Do not expect Gasperini to start all three of these forwards. Due to defensive concerns, Gasperini prefers to start just two out of the three forwards, with Muriel normally used as an impact substitute in second halves against tired legs. Considering that Muriel started this weekend’s game against Napoli and Iličić was rested, we would expect the starting striker pair against Real to be Iličić and Zapata, with Muriel waiting on the bench.

Key Matchups Against Real Madrid’s Defense

Real Madrid 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.

There are a few question marks about Zidane’s personnel selection for the attack, but in defense, the names are very clear: we will see Lucas Vázquez at right-back once again, while Nacho continues to replace Ramos as the left center back.

On Atalanta’s side, the only injury is that of right wingback Hans Hateboer. 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

Atalanta are a complex defensive challenge because one cannot simply nullify their attack by focusing on their best attackers. If you throw a couple of defenders at Iličic to take him out of the game, you are conceding extra space elsewhere on the pitch that his teammates will gladly notice and exploit.

The height of the defensive line is key here. Zidane can choose to press aggressively and exploit the relatively low dribbling and press-resistance capability of Atalanta’s double pivot (Freuler-De Roon), but that could generate spaces in the back that can be exploited by Zapata and Atalanta’s wingbacks. Zidane can also choose to defend deep, close down spaces, and try to hit a counter behind Atalanta’s high line, but run the risk of conceding too much initiative and territory to Atalanta. In an ideal world, the best defensive solution would be to mix both pressing and deeper defending.

Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 attempting to press the Atalanta buildup phase.

Real Madrid’s wingers will be key to successfully defend Atalanta. La Dea’s attack is heavily focused on the wings and if the Real wingers (likely Vinicius and Asensio) don’t track back, it will be very easy for Atalanta to overload the wings and get their players into really good crossing positions. The pressing behavior of the wingers will also be vital: if they rush forward mindlessly, Atalanta’s players will move smartly, drag them way out of position, and then exploit the spaces behind them. All in all, pressing Atalanta’s wide diamonds will require excellent coordination between Real’s fullbacks, central midfielders, and wingers.

Beware of the duels between fullbacks and wingbacks. Depending on how aggressively Zidane chooses to press, Lucas and Mendy might be paired up against Atalanta’s fullbacks. When defending deeper zones, Lucas and Mendy will have to be aggressive about tracking the Gosens and Mæhle, because the Atalanta wingback pair often attack the box as if they were forwards.

Varane and Nacho will have a tough duel against Zapata and Iličić. The Atalanta strikers will try to move wide and behind the back of Real’s fullbacks, forcing Nacho and Varane to move outside the box and follow them. In these cases, fast and quick interceptions from the central defender pair will be needed to prevent Real’s defensive line from becoming disordered.

Iličić in particular is a tough threat to defend because of his mobility within the zone of Nacho, Casemiro, and Mendy. This mobility means that no single player can track him, which will require good coordination among the Real Madrid trio to decide who tracks Iličić in which zones. Iličić poses a huge triple threat as he is an elite shooter, assist provider, AND dribbler.

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