For the last decade or so Serie A has seen its reputation as a competitive league slide downwards. From a peak at the end of the 1990’s and start of the 2000’s where Italian sides dominated European competition attendances and interest has fallen with older squads and outdated football permeating each club.
Over the last two or three seasons however there has been a noticeable shift within Italian football. Clubs are finally coming around to the idea that there are benefits to be had from developing and playing their younger players from an earlier age.
Clubs like Sassuolo and Empoli have impressed with their youngsters in recent years but the most impressive of all are Atalanta from Bergamo, in the north of the country.
Atalanta are the side that bucked the aforementioned trend and they have long had a reputation as a side that develops young players and plays football in line with a set philosophy. This season has seen them build upon that with player like Andrea Conti, Mattia Caldara and Franck Kessie in particular impressing as they challenge towards the European qualification spots.
This match however saw them travel south to face an equally impressive Napoli side who are still challenging Juventus for the title.
Many onlookers (myself included) have been effusive in their praise for Napoli this season. Under the former Empoli coach Maurizio Sarri they play with an attacking style that sees the ball travel quickly through the thirds in transition making it extremely difficult to play against.
Sarri has been getting the best out of attacking talents like Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens as well as ensuring that the side are solid in the defensive phase.
This match would provide an interesting contrast in styles with Atalanta being more methodical and measured in their build up phase whilst Napoli rely more heavily on lightning quick attacking transitions.
Atalanta press man to man
One of the keys to this match was the willingness from Atalanta to press Napoli as soon as they looked to move in to their attacking phase of play.
There was particular emphasis in this as Napoli looked to move up through the left side of the field where they look to utilise the combinations between Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne to access the final third of the field.
As Napoli look to build their attacking phase through the left hand side they are just moving in to the Atalanta half. The man on the ball is being tracked back by one of the Atalanta forward players who is supporting their defensive phase.
There is no easy passing option for the man in possession as Lorenzo Insigne is tracked by Andrea Conti and Marek Hamsik is being closely shadowed by the ever impressive Franck Kessie.
With limited space to play in to and through the left channel Napoli were forced to slow down their transitions and reset the play centrally to try to find a way through the Atalanta defensive structure. This lack of pace in the transition played in to the hands of Atalanta as they were able to fully set their defensive block.
This time Napoli are in the early stages of their attacking phase on the right hand side of the pitch. Once again we can see that Atalanta are happy to commit players forward to press man to man against the Napoli defenders and midfielders.
The most advanced player for Atalanta is pressing from the side of the man in possession of the ball and he is effectively covering the pass across the field with his positioning cutting off the passing lane.
With no clear passing options for the man in possession of the ball Atalanta have again forced the Napoli transition to slow down with the only real options that are open being a reset back to the goalkeeper – which is dangerous given the positioning of the most advanced Atalanta player – or a long ball clipped over the top.
Atalanta movement to access space
While Napoli were constantly looking for quick attacking transitions to stretch the Atalanta defensive structure we saw a more measured approach from the men from Bergamo.
Atalanta utilised their structure in the middle third to draw the Napoli block over to one side before switching it back over in to space on the underloaded side of the pitch. A constant aspect of the attacking phase of play from Atalanta was the use of movement and third man runs to penetrate in to space that has been created by the advanced player’s movement.
In this example Atalanta have been attacking down the left hand side of the field. As the man who had possession is pressed and closed down by the Napoli defensive players he resets the ball back in to a supporting player.
The space is over on the far side of the pitch but instead of immediately hitting the diagonal pass to the man in space Atalanta instead use a more measured approach to move the ball over.
The ball is instead first fed across to Franck Kessie who is supporting in a large pocket of space. As he takes possession of the ball he is able to play the first time pass on the turn out to Conti who is advancing in space.
This is the build up to the second Atalanta goal and it highlights the difficulty that Napoli had with the movement from the advanced Atalanta players.
With the ball on the edge of the penalty area Napoli should still be reasonably comfortable in their defensive structure given that they enjoy the numerical superiority. Instead as the advanced player for Atalanta makes a simple movement across the defenders towards the goal the entire Napoli block is dragged across to follow.
This allows the deep runner to come around on the blind side of the defenders before finishing first time in to the corner of the pitch.
Napoli become more direct in the second half
There was a sense that the initiative of the match had shifted when the excellent Atalanta midfielder Franck Kessie was sent off in the second half of the match.
This saw Atalanta drop back in to a defensive shape with a five man defensive line that opened up space for Napoli as they moved in to their attacking third.
This is an image that was captured as Napoli won the ball back in the centre and looked to transition immediately in to the attack. Instead of looking for combinations around the central area to access the wide spaces the pass was made immediately looking for the Polish striker Milik who had replaced Marek Hamsik.
You can see that the pass is played in to a large area of space between the midfield and the defence for Atalanta. This space is created by the numerical disadvantage from Atalanta as they no longer have the same effective midfield structure without Kessie.
This time Napoli are attacking down the right hand side with comfortable possession.
As you can see the Atalanta defensive structure is stretched with spaces opening up in the wide areas on both sides of the pitch. These spaces and in particular the space on the ball side of the pitch allow Napoli to access the spaces around the Napoli defensive line.
There are two Napoli players who are able to move comfortably in to the highlighted spaces allowing the man in possession to play an easy vertical pass that accesses this space.
In the end the sending off of Franck Kessie did not allow Napoli back in to the game. The side from the south of the country were poor in their attacking play and failed to play as we had seen over the course of the last month.
Atalanta were measured and patient in their play and more crucially they took their chances when they presented themselves.
2-0 then was perhaps a fair result given the match as a whole as Atalanta continue to challenge towards the top of the table.