Everton and Atalanta will go into the second game of their Europa League Group E campaigns against Apollon Limassol and Lyon, respectively, in very different moods after their opening game.
Atalanta announced their return to the European stage in emphatic style when the two teams met last Thursday, disposing of Everton in a three-goal first-half blitz to make up for 26 years of lost time.
The Toffees faithful were optimistic in the summer as the new owner splashed the cash to replace outgoing talisman Romelu Lukaku.
However, Ronald Koeman’s squad looks increasingly unbalanced; overloaded with attacking midfielder and devoid of pace and natural width they were put to the sword by Gian Piero Gasperini’s exploitation of the wide areas.
Set up in a contorted 3-4-3 formation in possession, with Gomez and Castante providing either side of Petagna.
The majority of Atalanta’s success came down both wings in the first-half demolition job, and La Dea’s relentless penetration in wide areas was performed with such ease that Koeman’s decision to wait until half-time to match the Italian side’s system defied logic.
Hans Hateboer had the freedom of Bergamo down the right- wing up against the bedraggled Wayne Rooney.
Everton looked ill-prepared for Atalanta’s tactical ploy. They set-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation but they were helpless to stem the overloads created in the opening forty-five minutes.
There were several variations of how the Italians managed to find space in the channels.
The most noticeable and consistent method was the positioning of the ball-far central midfielder to create an overload on the left wing. As the pass map below shows, the lateral spacing of their midfield stretched Everton and made it difficult for Everton’s two wide players to cope with 3v2 situations on the left.
Freuler would drop into a left-back position when the ball was on the opposite wing, and while this is a common build-up mechanism for teams who play with four at the back, it usually dictates that either the left-back or left winger moves in field.
However, Castagne pushed on and Gomez moved into a high and wide position ahead of him too in a system that belied the 3-5-2 attributed to it. Holgate was left exposed to the diagonal switch as Vlasic tucked in to cover the escape ball to De Roon who occupied the space in front of the back three.
While Cristante may have been wasteful in possession in this game, his role was based on mobility and causing imbalances in Everton’s shape to free up space for the wing-back to overlap. He would tend to roam in the right-side channel to offer support to Petagna but it also engaged Baines which was the reason Rooney had to match Hateboer’s runs.
The Liverpudlian desperately struggled to maintain his concentration when tracking Hateboer’s late runs to the back post and was a constant weak link to take advantage of for Atalanta.
Another combination that reaped rewards for Atalanta was when Gomez dropped into the half space. His diagonal runs inside the pitch and away from goal created a void on Keane’s right side courtesy of Holgate sticking resolutely with him, while his intelligent movement in off the line left the space for Castagne to overlap.
Linked to this movement pattern was Atalanta’s centre-backs aggressiveness when bringing the ball out from their own third.
Gasperini could be seen actively encouraging his midfielders to push higher up in order to allow the ball to be played from Toloio Masiello who would push up to offer a passing avenue above Calvert-Lewin.
As Calvert-Lewin was the sole presser against the three Atalanta centre-backs it was simple for the Italian side to shift the ball and gain ground, especially as Everton used a man-orientated system, which saw them drop deeper as the first-half drew to a close.
Massielo sought to drive forward, and in doing so, pushed Castagane so far on that Vlasic had to eventually engage and put pressure on. This, along with Gomez’s free role where he drifted into central pockets, left space for the ball up the line or in the channel.
Petagana’s excellent hold-up play proving to be the catalyst for a lot of the joy Atalanta gained in working the ball to the wide areas.
He dropped deep to collect the ball and Jagielka followed, allowing Cristante to then rotate positions to create a gap in midfield when Schneiderlin vacated the space. Cristante running beyond made the areas Petagna likes to work in less congested as by evacuating the space he was dropping into he avoided pressure in front of the ball.
When Atalanta had secure possession in the opposing half, Everton dropped into a back seven leaving Calvert-Lewin isolated. After the opening goal it soon became an onslaught as wave after wave of attack kept coming due to the lack of any out-ball.
Atalanta defensive set-up
Atalanta pressed with Petagna and Gomez as the two spearheads, applying pressure from outside-in to force Keane and Jagielka inside. Besic and Schneiderlin were man-marked by Freuler and Cristante, which saw Besic often drop to form a three when receiving it.
That shifted the two centre-halves into full-back areas, in turn, pushing the full-backs higher up the park. Rooney and Vlasic then came inside where Massielo and Toloi would follow them into midfield but Calvert-Lewin wasn’t perceptive enough to exploit the space in the channels and so Everton were forced long on numerous occasions.
Koeman’s recruitment has left Everton devoid of pace and any natural width, and this common preference for the ball to feet encouraged the Atalanta players to mark their men tightly as there was no threat of the ball being played over the top.
Baines was often left as the outlet for Besic to chip the ball to and escape the press but his inability to flight his passes ahead of Baines meant that he was instantly under pressure
On the few occasions Baines did receive the ball in space Hateboer pressed intensely and Toloi shifted across to mark Rooney. It often left Atalanta 3v3 with acres of space either side of Palomino.
Beyond Everton’s double pivot, there was a lack cohesion in the stating positions of Sigurdson, Rooney and Vlasic who were regularly thirty yards higher on the next line, making it a difficult pass to play into their feet.
The sheer distance of the pass allowed Atalanta to intercept or disrupt the build-up play over eight times in the first forty-five minutes.
Michael Keane’s awkward nature when in possession encouraged Atalanta to disengage when he was on the ball, and bar one occasion where he strode into the opposition half, his uncertainty and the lack of obvious passing lanes available to him saw the ball overturned six times int he first-half as a result of either his passing being misplaced or the receiver not being in a position to consolidate possession.
The second-half faded into insignificance as Atalanta played in a more contained manner and looked to counter. Everton matched up in a 3-5-2 formation which simplified their marking scheme as the man-for-man approach made it more difficult to create the overloads that came with Everton’s wide players narrowing.
Atalanta corner routines
Atalanta’s attacking corners were consistent in that Gomez’s whipped deliveries targeted the same spot every time. They had six corners in the first-half where the primary target was Cristante. A cluster of black and blue shirts would gather ahead of the front post space before moving towards the corner as it was struck, creating a gap for Cristante to attack. Wayne Rooney was occupying the six-yard line area as the only zonal position.
Each of the first four deliveries caused Everton problems, with the last being the first out swinger where Petagna’s movement from the back post towards the kick-taker was able to drag three Everton players with him as his sudden presence from behind Rooney and Baines, who was on the front post, alerted them to the possibility of a short corner.
This seemed to flummox Everton at the next corner nine minutes later, which was ultimately the opening goal. The ball evaded the players at the front post but there was not a dominant ball-winner to attack the delivery and ended up ricocheting off an Everton leg into the path of Massielo at the back post.
His runs had come from the edge of the box earlier in the game but he found himself spare as he began to retreat to his starting position as so lurked at the back post. Schneiderlin only realised where his man was a couple of seconds before the ball was played but his body positioning made it impossible for him to see Masiello ghost in behind him as he watched the ball flick into his path for a tap-in.