A rebel with a cause: a tactical analysis of Atalanta
Atalanta are a rebel of Italian football. They have limited resources, but they are blooming: Atalanta have won their Europa League group, knocked out Napoli in Coppa Italia and remained in contention for the European qualification since the season started. They defy cynicism.
To be successful without a deep wallet, Atalanta need to take risks. They use Italy’s finest scouting and youth development system to find talents for a low cost. They grow and sell these players for a profit. To command a high return on their investments, Atalanta have to play well. So they took two biggest risks; they hired Gian Piero Gasperini and purchased Alejandro Darío “Papu” Gómez.
Gasperini’s idea was deemed too risky to succeed. His tactics are too physically demanding to the players. But this weakness turns into a strength in Atalanta because they have an unlimited supply of young players. They have the ingredients to embody Gasperini’s bold football ideas.
Gomez was considered too diminutive to prosper in the top flight. But the critics were wrong. Gomez is incredibly strong despite his small physique. The constant running of his teammates also allows him to focus on attacking the opponent. Atalanta have the best platform to showcase Gomez’s talents.
The strange but calculated combination of practices and ideas makes Atalanta’s model work. They run against the odds. They are a rebel with a cause.
Papu is the most talented #10 in Serie A
Gomez is the best attacker in Serie A. He is the lifeline of Atalanta’s offense. Papu leads them in assist, dribble, and key pass. He is the best dribbler in Serie A (71% success rate). Opponents need to foul to stop him (3.2 fouled per game, first in the league). The Argentinian is also fifth in assist and fourth in key pass in Serie A. He is an atomic bomb:
Although Gomez is only 5’4 tall (68kg), he is robust and athletic. He often out-muscles regular defenders in 50-50 duels:
Gomez is a dagger that can finish an opponent at any time. He is most dangerous when isolated in a 1vs.1 situation. Gasperini’s job is to implement a tactic that can continuously supply Gomez the ball so that the Argentinian can go for the kill.
Offensive phase: Gasperini’s rhombus and organized chaos
Gasperini had used a distinct 3-4-3 formation since 2006, ten years before Antonio Conte implemented it in Chelsea. He always fields three athletic center backs. The left and right center backs are atypical defenders because they need to support the attack like regular fullbacks. They need to have excellent ball-playing skills. For example, Rafael Toloi averages 1.1 dribbles per game, third highest among all center backs in Serie A. Leonardo Spinazzola and Hans Hateboer are the first choice wing-backs. In the midfield, Remo Freuler, Bryan Cristante, and Marten de Roon compete for the two central midfielder spots. Gomez and Josip Ilicic start as the left- and right-wingers while Andrea Petagna and Andreas Cornelius battle for the striker role. Cristante’s versatility allows Gasperini to play him as the attacking midfielder, adding variety to their offense:
Atalanta’s offensive phase looks chaotic but it is calculated beneath the turmoil. They prefer attacking the flank. Only 22% of their attack occurs in the middle of the pitch, the lowest in the league. On each flank, four players arrange in a rhombus and automatically exchange their positions when advancing the ball. For example, Masiello will surge along the sideline like a fullback. His movement will initiate two positional exchanges: Freuler will move backward to cover Masiello while Spinazzola will push further down the flank. When Spinazzola arrives the final third, Gomez will drop to the half space, re-creating the rhombus.
These positional exchanges don’t just aim to advance the ball but to isolate Gomez or Ilicic in the half-space outside of the box. They are dangerous in the 1vs.1 situation. Gomez and Ilicic are Serie A’s best dribblers (first and seventh in the number of successful dribbles in the league). Papu is the most dangerous attacker because he is explosive and he can shoot and pass with either foot. If the defenders closely mark Gomez and Ilicic, the center back and the wing-back can create overloads on the flank. Moreover, the rhomboid positioning of the players maximizes the passing lanes between them.
Atalanta’s attack is a new example of the “organized chaos” because any player can initiate the position exchanges. The movements of players and the sequences of positional exchange are not fixed. A winger can surge to the byline while the midfielder can move into the half-space outside the box. Any combination is possible. These freedoms increase the unpredictability of the tactics:
Freuler and de Roon are underappreciated. They have excellent passing range. Freuler leads the team with an 88.3% pass success rate while de Roon is third with 84.2%. They are not as powerful and skillful as Franck Kessie and Roberto Gagliardini, but they are tactically more intelligent. Freuler and de Roon always move into the right places to cover their teammates. Their movements are also critical for the team’s ball progression because Atalanta often empties their midfield area to create spaces for the positional exchanges. Moreover, sitting at the bases of the rhombuses, they are responsible for switching the ball between the two flanks. Therefore, Freuler and de Roon are the bridges of the two rhombuses:
Cristante is their star midfield player. He scores five goals this season, fifth highest among Serie A midfielders. He is an atypical attacking midfielder who doesn’t rely on dribble and pace. He is physically strong. A modern analogy is Arturo Vidal in Juventus or Kevin-Prince Boateng in Milan. Cristante isn’t as athletic as them, but he can play more creative passes.
Gasperini’s tactic is brilliant and unique. He allows his players to create turmoil under the rhomboid rule. In this way, he invents his own brand of the “organized chaos.”
A high-pressure but risky defense
Gasperini uses an aggressive man-orientated zonal defense to create transitions and to enter the offensive phase immediately. This strategy is most dangerous when they can isolate Gomez 1vs.1 against the opponent. They create 36 normalized transitions per game, the highest in Serie A. In the defensive phase, Atalanta’s wingers pressure the ball handlers from the outside and use the cover shadows to cut off the passing lanes to the flanks. They force the opponents to pass the ball through the center. Therefore, Atalanta can create a high-pressure area in the middle of the pitch and they can aggressively tackle the opponent:
This type of defense is risky. Because Atalanta’s zonal marking is heavily man-orientated, they rarely maintain a stable defensive shape. They leave a lot of gaps when the defenders have to closely follow their men. Moreover, because their zonal concept is murky, players often get confused when and where they should exchange marking-duties. The opponents can easily assess dangerous areas if any Atalanta’s player doesn’t apply immediate defensive pressure on them:
While Gasperini’s aggressive defense is critical for their transitional offense, it is too difficult to maintain throughout the season. They also play without any insurance from a stable defensive structure and with no room for error. If they are not in peak physical and mental state, their defensive strategy collapses. Player rotation and depth become critical when they participate in multiple competitions. Atalanta’s defense is intimidating but risky.
Atalanta spurn the law
No one expected Atalanta could replace Andrea Conti, Gagliardini, and Kessie, but they found Hateboer, de Roon, and Cristante. No one believed Gasperini to bounce back from the Inter’s nightmare, but he came back and continued his ideas. No one thought Gomez could recover from his Ukraine’s debacle, but he returned to Italy stronger than ever. The team, the coach, and the player all have obstacles, but they also have ideas to overcome them. Together, they are a rebel with a cause.