Atalanta have continued to exceed expectations season on season. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men are one of the most exciting teams in Europe with their attacking prowess. But how do they do it?
Gasperini sets his team up in such a way that they’ve been labelled as Serie A’s most tactically complex side. This means there is a huge emphasis on the players knowing exactly what their role is and what others around them are doing.
They tend to line up in a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1 but will use different movements and plays within them. This has led to them scoring 10 more goals than any other side in Serie A and puts them third in Europe’s top 5 leagues, five behind PSG.
Atalanta take the most shots per game in Italy’s top division and these aren’t just pot shots. The Champions League club will work the ball into dangerous areas to create high quality chances. They do this by attacking the wide spaces and half spaces to create overloads, this helps with combination play which can involve any outfield player. This can leave the centre open where Papu Gómez has free reign and freedom.
The team doesn’t have a set attacking pattern so this will only include their more usual ones. However, this is a team that have a lot of players that can react to situations in creative ways which gives them a lot of attacking variation. A lot of their danger comes from unpredictability.
Their formations lend themselves to use width which puts pressure on their wing backs/wide midfielders. Robin Gosens on the left and Hans Hatenboer on the right are the first choices however, they don’t do this alone. The wing backs mainly stay wide, hugging the touchline, but can drift infield to create an option in the half space especially if a forward has pushed out wide to create space for a run from midfield. The central midfielders tend to push up and wide to offer support and another passing option, this and one of the forwards pushing out wide creates the overload. This means Atalanta will have four or five players occupying the wide or half space on the side where the ball is.
However, the players on the opposite side will still maintain their width. This allows switches in play and makes it harder to defend against. This system’s attack gets a lot of attention, but it couldn’t work if it wasn’t for the defence and the hard-working and intelligent midfield. The central midfield is often occupied by two of Marten de Roon, Remo Freuler or Mario Pašalić. These players are pivotal in Atalanta’s transitional play by moving positions to allow the player in possession always has a passing option whilst also offering protection to the defence.
If the Bergamo side are wanting to build an attack from the back, one of the central midfielders will drop into space in the channel. Not only does this add a passing option but it allows a wider centre back to push wide and allows the wing back on that side to push up the pitch. If the centre back pushes up himself, Atalanta can maintain their shape with the central midfielder dropping into the defence.
If the centre back hold their position, the central midfielders are allowed to push higher and wider and a forward can drop into the midfield to link play. This means that when in possession, Atalanta can still have a rough 3-2-5 formation no matter who is part of the forward five. This does demand a lot of the midfield to cover defensively, progress the ball or making runs beyond the front line.
The centre backs will remain as a wide back three. This allows the wide centre backs and wing backs occupy the same horizontal space. This makes it easier to generate overloads and stretch the opposition’s defence into wide areas, leaving gaps elsewhere for Atalanta to exploit.
Due to the switching and creating overloads there is space for players in dangerous positions or players can make unmarked runs into the penalty box. The rotation of positions and dragging the opponent’s defence about, allows Papu Gómez to space with ease and that is his job. Whether it is dropping deep to collect the ball of the defence or create a passing triangle with two wide player, Gómez is there as a free player.
Gómez’s space and overloads means Atalanta create quality chances in high quantity. A few years ago, they were a plucky side but following their third placed finish in 2018/19 and demolishing Valencia 8-4 in the round of 16 in the Champions League, everyone knows their attacking talent. Despite them being a known threat, no one seems to know how to stop them which begs the question, how far can they go?