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Behind Enemy Lines: Atalanta (2nd Leg)

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Will Iličic play and how will Zidane replace Casemiro?

Atalanta v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg One Photo by Tullio Puglia - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

The following is just a review of the last few weeks of Atalanta’s results and news, if you want a detailed explanation of how they play, check out my previous Managing Madrid articles on their defense and offense.

What did we learn from the first leg?

Thanks to Iličić not starting during the first leg and the red card to Freuler, most of my predictions of how the game would play out tactically were thrown out the window. Instead of this being a duel between two aggressive pressing sides, the sending off turned this game into another edition of Real Madrid vs deep block.

In such a scenario, the lack of elite dribbling and aggressive movement into the box from Real Madrid’s forwards once again reduced their ability to create chances against a deep block. Real looked more threatening against an 11-man pressing Atalanta than against the 10-man deep block version, and Mendy’s right foot miraculously bailed out this stale offense.

However, the first 17 mins of the game before the red card did leave some useful lessons ahead of the second leg: the impact of Isco against high pressing opponents and the importance of having players like Mendy and Vinicius who attack spaces aggressively.

Isco had a significant impact in his very mobile false 9 role. He dropped from his forward position into deeper areas, acting as a passing outlet for Kroos and Modrić and dragging center-back Cristian Romero with him.

Atalanta v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg One Photo by Ricardo Nogueira/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Vinicius and Mendy on the left side had a big impact attacking the space behind Atalanta’s high line. Mendy and Vinicius liked to receive the ball with their back to goal, lay it off to a teammate, and then turn around to dash forward, and whenever they could execute this sequence well enough, their corresponding Atalanta man would be left biting the dust.

This is exactly the movement that led to Atalanta’s red card offense. In the 17th minute, Mendy dragged center back Rafael Tolói with him, laid off the ball to Vinicius, and ran into space. The Brazilian defender slipped, and midfielder Remo Freuler was unexpectedly forced to track Mendy and do a last-ditch tackle on him.

Atalanta pressing Real Madrid’s buildup in the sequence leading to Freuler’s red card. Notice Mendy tucking inside.

How is Atalanta (and Iličić) doing?

In the last month since the first match against Real Madrid, Atalanta has won 3 out of their 4 Serie A games, well-deserved victories against Sampodria, Crotone, and Spezia. They only lost against league leaders Inter (0-1), which despite the defeat was arguably one of their best defensive performances in the Gasperini era. The game could have gone either way and only the set-piece broke the deadlock.

What impressed me the most was the performance of center-back Berat Djimsiti, who had an almost flawless first half marking Lukaku. As of late, Gasperini seems to be placing greater emphasis on defensive performance, but this might come at the expense of star forward Josip Iličić.

Since the Real Madrid game, Iličić has started two of the last four games. Gasperini is rotating him more heavily now and trying to reduce Atalanta’s dependence on him, but after the falling out that occurred between Papu Gómez and Gasperini, it’s hard not to worry if something similar could happen between Iličić and Gasperini.

Perhaps Gasperini can build a stronger collective unit without Iličić, but in my opinion, the very best Atalanta—the one that can dominate and threaten top European opponents—requires an in-form Iličić. Their 3-0 victory against Milan in January is a great example of how dangerous Atalanta can be when the Slovenian is at his best.

And right now, Iličic is not playing at his best. While his passing still creates many chances for his teammates, his dribbling form is way down: in the last four games, Iličić has averaged only 1 dribble completed per game out of 2 attempts, when he normally completes an average of 4 dribbles out of 6 attempts. He played 65 mins against Spezia last Friday and looked nimbler and sharper, which was also reflected in his dribbling numbers (2 dribbles completed out of 3).

What will be Atalanta’s Lineup?

Right wingback Hans Hateboer is still out due to injury and replaced by Joakim Mæhle. Remo Freuler is suspended due to the red card he received in the first leg and will be surely replaced by Mario Pasalić. The only doubt is whether he takes the number ten role while Pessina takes the double pivot, or if the opposite happens: Pessina as ten, Pasalić in the double pivot.

The other personnel selection question is which forwards will start. Muriel is Atalanta’s most in-form striker and has become a consistent starter for Gasperini over the last two months. Thus, the only doubt is whether Duvan Zapata or Iličić will start. Iličić provides more creativity and a more stable possession game, Zapata provides more aggressive movement without the ball and into the box.

Personally, I think it would make more sense for Iličić to start and leave Zapata as an impact substitute, as the Slovenian has struggled lately with having an impact when coming off the bench.

So my starting XI prediction would be a 3-4-1-2 with Marco Sportiello as the keeper, Djimsiti - Romero - Toloi as the center backs, Gosens - Mæhle as wing-backs, Pessina - De Roon as a double pivot, Pasalić as number ten, and Iličić - Muriel as the forwards.

How to replace Casemiro?

Over the last month, Real Madrid has recovered several key players back from injury: Ramos, Valverde, Rodrygo, and Benzema. They should boost the team’s offense significantly compared to the first leg.

Considering how well they have been playing in the last few games, my hunch is that we will see starts for Isco and Valverde. Isco showed against Atalanta and Real Sociedad that his ability to keep the ball and combine with teammates can have a major impact against high pressing sides like Atalanta and Real Sociedad. Meanwhile, Valverde came back from injury in good form and had a major impact as a substitute against Real Sociedad. He can compensate for some of the physicality that the team loses in the absence of Casemiro and make some much-needed runs behind Atalanta’s defensive line.

RCD Espanyol v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

What shape would a team with Isco and Valverde take? It could be a 4-4-2 of sorts with Kroos and Modrić in a double pivot and Isco - Valverde ahead of them, or it could be a 4-3-3 with Valverde playing next to Kroos and Modrić while Isco takes the nominal left winger role he had against Real Sociedad. In practice, Isco wouldn’t play as a left-winger but would constantly drift to the center.

Playing Valverde in a single or double pivot role can be tempting from a defensive standpoint as that would allow him to sweep incoming Atalanta attacks. However, that more defensive role would come with an offensive trade-off: it would be harder for Fede to make those dangerous runs behind Atalanta’s defense.

Real Madrid v Borussia Moenchengladbach: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Assuming Isco and Valverde start, the other tactical question mark is who will be the forward to start alongside Benzema. Considering he was rested against Elche, Marco Asensio seems like the option with the highest chance to start, but out of Real’s current forward options, he would be the least dynamic and would add the least value to the offense. Vinicius can have a greater impact running behind Atalanta defenders, and Rodrygo is perhaps the team’s most in-form winger at the moment, with important substitute appearances against Real Sociedad and Elche. Rodrygo does not run, dribble, and shoot as frequently as Vinicius, but his offensive actions are usually better timed, more precise, and have a higher probability of being successful.

Key Matchups

Isco and Benzema vs Atalanta’s center backs

The biggest threats to Atalanta’s man-marking system are:

  1. Mobile attackers who drag defenders around
  2. Good dribblers who eliminate man-markers like Neymar did last season

Isco checks out on both points 1 and 2, as he is Real’s most prolific dribbler this season after Vinicius and he moves A LOT. He can drag Toloi (his likely man-marker) out of position and thus create spaces that Mendy and Benzema can run into. Benzema is not such a prolific dribbler, but his movements into deeper zones will also drag Cristian Romero (his likely man-marker) out of position, creating spaces that Mendy, Valverde, and Rodrygo / Asensio could run into.

Kroos and Modrić under pressure from Pessina and Pasalić

Real Madrid will want 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 Asensio / Rodrygo, Benzema, and Valverde can latch on to. However, Atalanta will do their very best to prevent the ball from reaching the legendary midfielder duo. Expect midfielders Pasalic and Pessina to be their man markers.

The threat of Muriel in the box

I remember back when Muriel played for Sevilla and looked like he couldn’t score against a rainbow-sized goal. These days are long gone, and under Gaserpini he has fully recovered his confidence in front of goal, to the point he’s Atalanta’s most effective player in the box. Ramos and Varane will need to be at their very best because right now Muriel will likely punish any mistake they make.