Serie A was once a hub for defensive and risk averse tactics but has become a league for youthful and progressive football. Ariggo Sacchi is the forefather for this tactical evolution as Gian Piero Gasperini is now the godfather of a more wholesome Serie A. His commitment to his playing style meant that he had one of the shortest tenures as Inter Milan manager but at Genoa and Atalanta, he has slowly pieced back together his career. The fresh-faced and white haired 61-year-old is a breath of fresh air to the league with his artistic playing style and his preference for developing youth. Atalanta will be in the UEFA Champions League next season as Gasperini will have the same effect on the highest level of European competition.
Atalanta’s build-up structure
Atalanta are stringent with a 3-4-3 with a narrow front three as their back three will form a triangle. The two wide players in a front three will drop next to the midfield two in central pockets of space to receive possession and create combinations to move the ball forward. Atalanta thrive at creating overloads as they are playing out of a 3v1 in the instance above as it is also pertinent that they set triangles all over the pitch. Their wing-backs will also remain deep to receive passes and create overloads to work the ball out of pressure. If the wing-backs push further forward, Marten De Roon or Remo Freuler will drop into the back three to allow one of the wide centre-backs to push up and create overloads on the flank and work wide build-up combinations into the opposition half.
Atalanta’s back three will circulate the ball amongst each other before playing loose balls into the central pockets for the centrally placed attackers to receive possession, turn and work the ball forward. These early balls into the pockets and the attackers receiving the ball will trigger forward runs from the wing-backs to establish width and create passing options.
It is interesting to notice the compact space between the front-three and back three in build-up, especially when Atalanta centre-backs move up in possession. Atalanta are able to work the ball through these situations with excellent interchanges like Freuler dropping in between the centre-backs, astute positional play and well-rehearsed blind-sided movements. Freuler dropping deep, Pasalic moving a marker out wide and Papu Gomez moving another marker out wide allow the centre-back to play a direct through ball to Josip Illcic. The man in possession eventually plays the ball to Papu Gomez who turns and drives the ball forward to spread the ball out wide.
Their player spacing, and movement is so effective that Illcic has direct options for a layoff in possession and for the wing-backs to make timed runs into the wide areas as options to spread the ball. Atalanta have a 4v3 overload on the right flank and are able to work with ball with combination play in tight spaces as they also have an overload on the opposite flank. Their strikers, either Duvan Zapata or Illcic are strong at layoffs and have the freedom to make movements into the wide areas to receive possession. Zapata is stronger and is more traditional with his hold-up play while Illcic is niftier and fleet-footed when working the ball.
Atalanta press in a high and aggressive man-orientated fashion as they adjust to the opponent’s build-up shape. This could normally lead to one of their front three positioning themselves behind the other two teammates to force the ball long. The wing-backs will man mark the opposition fullback as they can also tease the passes into the wide areas for the wing backs to move up and press the ball. Atalanta’s pressing shape can look like a 5-1-2-2 as Gasperini’s side seek to force the ball long into their highly positioned centre-backs so they can utilise possession in the opposition half. Atalanta are also well drilled at winning possession in the opposition half and produce adequate player spacing to establish triangular three-man passing moves into the box.
In Atalanta’s pressure phase, the first and second line of two players will close down the opposition forcing them wide triggering pressure from the wing-backs, back-passes will trigger Atalanta into pressing higher as a unit or more opposition players dropping deep will trigger their direct markers to move forward and continue to assert pressure. Gasperini’s side are also prepared to shift into the wider areas with the ball-near wing-back pushing high and the attacking players closing down the space. They will also situationally press the keeper, especially during loose back-passes to increase the likelihood of long balls which Atalanta will be able to regain. Their back three and deepest lying midfielder are well-trained in anticipating loose passes into their area to push up to win possession and recycle the ball.
Atalanta play loose balls through the channels to evade pressure as their passes can be intercepted as Gasperini’s side will apply instant pressure on the man in possession. The three closest players will squeeze tightly to the player in possession with two directly engaging the man in possession while the third closes out the passing lane as this will be facilitated by the defensive three-chain pushing high to press the ball. Their player spacing in possession allows them to changeover from the build-up phase to the counter-pressing phase quickly while they can also play quick interchanges and three-man passing routines to progress play after winning possession.
Atalanta positional play
Atalanta’s wing-backs make timed runs into space in the attacking phase to stretch play as they use wide build-up combinations to work the ball into space. Papu Gomez would be allowed to roam into the channels and the half-spaces as a playmaker as Gasperini’s team work elaborate triangular three-man passing combinations to create low crossing opportunities. In the photo above, one can see Atalanta’s narrow front three with Mario Pasalic, Josip Illcic and Gomez while the wing-backs create width. Atalanta have representation in the half-spaces with Pasalic and Illcic while they can also destabilize the opposition’s defensive shape with Gomez roaming through the attacking zones to receive possession, create overloads and link play.
Palomino is present at the bottom of the picture as an option for a direct pass where the centre-back can work a pass to the wide areas. The wide centre-back’s wide and high positioning is facilitated by De Roon dropping into the three chain as the back three has also pushed up high to work possession. In the picture above, the two most centrally placed players in Gomez and Illcic are positioned on the blind-side of their markers as Atalanta make blind-sided movements to receive possession in between the lines. Gasperini’s side can also show patience in possession as the player with the ball can work the ball back to the back three to force the opposition to push up creating space in between the lines for Gomez.
Atalanta defensive shape
Atalanta sit in a defensive 5-3-2 shape as they switch from a man-orientated marking scheme to zonal marking assignments. In the above picture, Gasperini’s side are switching to their zonal marking defensive shape as their midfield are currently dropping from their assignments into the zonal shape. They seek to deny the opposition access to the central pockets and force them out wide where the ball-near wing-back and wide midfielder will defend in 2v1/2v2 situations.
The organisation of the three centre-backs is interesting as they will hold their position after ball loss in counter-press situations while retreating if the first line of pressure is beaten. In the image below, Atalanta have lost the ball higher up the pitch and are retreating as they wait for the third centre-back, Palomino to drop back into position. Once he drops into position and the opposition player driving at the defence takes a heavy touch, the ball-near wide centre-back pushes up to regain possession and clear the ball.
One of the wide attackers will drop into the midfield line while the two attackers in the front line will press the ball in a medium to low block. Out of this defensive structure, Atalanta could easily transition into a higher press as the front two will push higher to mark the opposition centre-backs, the two higher midfielders will push to mark the opposition deep-lying midfielder leaving a deeper-lying midfielder as press security. If the opposition play the ball out wide to the fullbacks, the ball-near wingback will engage them triggering a higher press across the pitch while the ball-far wing-back will remain deeper.
Gasperini is a football purist as his teams play an entertaining brand of football while developing youngsters as the likes of Mattia Caldara, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Conti and Frank Kessie have now moved on to the two Milan clubs. At Genoa, he revived the careers of M’Baye Niang and Suso as he has a knack for engaging the younger generation. He has earned his due by taking the Bergamo-based side to Europe’s top table. Many of Italy’s younger managers take inspiration from his methods and style as next season, his innovative style of management will gain more attention across the continent.