In Italy, Inter Milan have ultimately won Seria A, a prestigious title they last won in the 2009/10 season. It is also their 19th Scudetto in the club’s history, which arrives after a long period of frustration and disappointment. Inter’s victory also ceases the dominance of Juventus in Italian football. However, the most impressive feat achieved by a club in Seria A this season would probably be of Atalanta B.C.
The Rise from the Mid-Table
When Gian Piero Gasperini took charge of Atalanta on 14 June 2016, the state of the team was poor. The team was struggling in mid-table and lacked quality players to fill key roles. Even their new campaign started with four losses in their first five games. But, a series of victories against Napoli, Inter, and Roma showed just how dangerous the Nerazzurri could be. Under Gasperini, the team was slowly evolving. By the end of the season, with lots of good luck, the team finished strongly in 4th place. It marked one of the most significant moments in the club’s history. Under the former Juventus youth coach, the club had also reached the Europa League round of 32, for the first time in 27 years.
The season witnessed the emergence of exciting new talents from the academy. Atalanta were also able to manage some good transfer activities as well. The change in philosophy was soon visible at the Gewiss Stadium, with the team playing the most exciting and tactically innovative football in Europe. Meanwhile, Captain Alejandro Gomez, one of the standout performers of the season for Atalanta, finished the season with 16 goals.
Following this term, they continued to prosper under Gasperini’s guidance in the 2017/18 season. They also succeded in the Coppa Italia as well by reaching the semi-final. After a series of mixed results, they finished 7th and qualified for European football yet again. Despite the departure of Andrea Conti, Franck Kessie and Roberto Gagliardini, the club still managed to bring in some fresh faces.
Josip Ilicic, Andreas Cornelius, Timothy Castagne and Marten de Roon were all brought in for strengthening the team. Meanwhile, youngsters like Mattia Caldara, Andrea Petagna and Bryan Cristante continued to prosper under Gasperini’s tactical system. Destroying Everton 5-1 at Goodison Park, holding Juventus in a 2-2 thriller were some of the most interesting results of the season.
In the 2018/19 season, Gasperini took the team to new heights, with the club managing a 2nd place finish in the league. The club’s innovative tactics soon created all sort of problems for their opponents. Atalanta were also the most prolific side in Serie A with 77 goals, with summer signing Duvan Zapata scoring 23. However, they crashed out of the Europa League in the play-off qualifying round, losing to FC Copenhagen on penalties. However, Atalanta reached the final of the Coppa Italia after defeating Juventus 3-0 in the quarter-finals before losing out to Lazio in the final.
Atalanta continued to stay relevant in Serie A, with a solid third-place finish. Notably, they scored 98 goals,17 more than any other team in the league. They also improved their previous points tally as well. Gomez racked up a remarkable 16 assists in Serie A, with Iličić, Muriel, and Zapata all scoring over 15 league goals. Through the process, they became the second club in history after Juventus to have three players scoring 15 times or more in a season. Incredibly, they qualified for the Champions League round of 16 for the first time in their history. The season also saw the notable arrival of Luis Murial and Ruslan Malinovskyi.
After a tremendous run under Gasperini, Atalanta started the 2020/21 season with high hopes. Under the guidance of the Italian, they reached the top once again. As it stands, they are currently placed second in the table. Considering there is just a game left to play, their place in Champions League football for another term is guaranteed. Just like the previous season, Atalanta continues to outshine other teams, especially in attack.
They have so far managed 90 goals, with Luis Muriel leading the goal-scoring chart with 22 goals. However, the club’s veteran superstar Alejandro Gomez left the club in the January transfer window to Sevilla after reported rows with Gasperini. Despite these setbacks, Atalanta maintained their form and produced results.
In the Coppa Italia, they defeated defending champions Napoli to cruise past into the final against Juventus. However, they eventually lost another final in a 2-1 thriller. In the Champions League, they were knocked out by Real Madrid in the Round of 16.
There is a striking resemblance in how Atalanta plays in respect to that of Bielsa’s Leeds United. Constantly focusing on attack, is a typical style of Bielsa football, something which Gasperini himself has adopted in his system. However, the Italian has managed to add a little bit more sophistication to the tactics and made them more effective. Rather than all out attack, Atalanta focus upon a system of measured attacking consisting of triangles and diamonds formed in the midfield. This enables a better form of tactical fluidity and guarantees ball possession in crucial areas without losing the ball to the opponents. This comes despite only playing with a progressive back three. So how did this system work?
Atalanta favour a 3-4-1-2 or a 3-4-2-1 formation depending on what kind of opposition they are facing. For example, when they played against Sassuolo at the start of the month, they played with a 3-4-1-2 formation. Now fast forward to their latest match against a Juventus side, they played with a 3-4-2-1. These changes according to the tactics are not unusual in football. However, if you look closer, you will be surprised how they shift their front 3 to form an interesting and complex unit. Against Sassuolo, Colombian striker Duván Zapata was paired with Ruslan Malinovskyi, in a front two with Matteo Pessina playing slightly behind as an attacking midfielder. Players like Alejandro Gomez, Josip Ilicic and Mario Pasalic were the other key members of this method under Gasperini.
The Scope of the Formation
This was quite similar to the way the Italian coach had previously used Alejandro Gomez and Josep Ilicic. Alejandro Gomez in particular excelled under the system, playing more freely in the middle, often tasked with the role of supporting the players and slotting into a different role as it arose. With Gomez gone, Matteo Pessina often fills this role as we pen this article. This fluidity and positional rotation in attack, enables players to widen the scope of their play and to find spaces in the wings, create chances and through balls through quick interplay.
The triangle thus formed upfront makes their attack very unique and refreshing to watch. Not only they were effective, but also help players to shift their roles completely in a span of few minutes. Luis Muriel is perhaps the kingpin of the front three, who was rested in the recent outing with Juventus. Now as per the stats, Muriel has 22 goals and 9 assists, Zapata has 19 goals and 13 assists, Malinovskyi with 10 goals and 12 assists, with several others like Ilicic still making a mark in goals and assists for the season. These stats tells us how they are dependent more on a unit than a player. This dominance also enabled them to manage an incredible 16.4 shots on goal per game this season.
Style of Play
Their strongest attribute lies in the attack for which they had sacrificed much of their defensive shape. In built-up play, Freuler is often tasked with maintaining the space left by the attackers in the midfield. Thus an attacking unit is formed with a front 4 or 5 players quite similar to that of the Bielsa system. Thus the team, often shift to a 3-2-5 in attack, which is tactically very hard to deal with even for those teams that play with a low block.
Now, what makes their attack more dangerous, is their dominance through the wings. As we mentioned earlier, the wings contribute much of their creative freedom. This happens in various ways. In general, teams often rely upon defence, wings or a a holding midfielder to progress attack from the back. However, Atalanta focus more on maintaining the play through both wings rather than through their midfield.
Furthermore, 38% of their attacks this season were through the left and 35% through the right. Meanwhile, through the middle, they only managed 27%. Thus under these progressive tactics, has enabled them to be more dangerous in and around the box. Interestingly, they hold the most touches inside the opposition box of any team this season with an average of 10.8 shots per game.
Importance of Wingers
The wingers play a crucial role here in this system. They form diamonds on either of the wings, with the front three often slotting in to give a numerical advantage. Malinovskyi, Zapata or Muriel often shift their position to support the wings at times when the wingers face a numerical disadvantage. This effectively forms a diamond in the opposition half with the wingbacks joined in the attack. This leaves enough space for players in creating half-spaces and through balls by widening the scope of play. Furthermore, they have also averaged 537.1 passes per game.
Robin Gosens, who plays on the wing, is an ideal example of this system. Through quick interplays, short passes and hold-up play, they easily break the opposition through the wings. The constant press by the team also enables them to win the ball back quickly. The fluidity, as I have mentioned earlier, is necessary for this progressive style of play. The wing-backs also stay wider, behind the oppositions defensive line to deliver low crosses into the box or cut back.
The centre back also plays an active role with their ball-playing quality and progressive passing style in this system. However, this style of play has also left them vulnerable in defence as well. The problem with pocket spaces left by the wing-backs creates an opportunity for teams to exploit. Thus to mitigate this situation, a mid-block with either de Roon or Freuler is often put in place.
Also, their zonal marking relies heavily upon man to man marking, which too have severely impacted their defence. When defending, Atalanta often implement a high-pressing system with a man-to-man press which comes with its own merits and demerits. This form of man-marking drags the defenders out of their position, leaving enough space behind for the opposition to exploit.
To handle this situation, they have adjusted much of their game by holding possession. But this has proved to be less effective, as they have already suffered terribly against through balls, counter attacks and long shots throughout the season. This is the primary reason why they often fail to hold on to their lead. For example, against Genoa in the recent league outing, they were 4-0 up, before conceding 3 back to back goals. So far this season, they have conceded 45 goals, which is the highest among the top five teams in the league table.
Effective utilization of the youth system has favoured many talents to emerge into Gasperini’s system. However, what they require is silverware, something which Gasperini will be trying to aim for next season. With the players following the lead and getting the results, it is not an impossible dream to achieve.