Without hard work and labour, beauty is superficial. It may have the desired aesthetic and an illusion of grandeur, but without the graft to lay underlying foundations, it is just that; superficial.
The people of Bergamo say the same of Milan, capital of Lombardy and a western hub of fashion, art, and architecture. Were it not for the working class Bergamasque people who worked the post-war construction sites, Milan would not have been rebuilt to the modern metropolis that stands today.
This idea of the Bergamasque being the hands that build Milan’s beauty attributes itself to their beloved Atalanta B.C. The last eighteen months have seen more eyes turn towards Lombardy with word circulating that it was Bergamo, and not Milan, that was producing footballing art of majesty, and that Atalanta were a side unlike any other.
Yet while many are now enlightened to Atalanta’s scintillating brand, few give its unique and comprehensive model the respect it deserves. Beneath the highlight reels and lightning-quick build-up, there is lesser sung brilliance, that this article will aim to highlight.
Where defence becomes midfield
Let us first begin with Atalanta’s preferred shape. Many Italian sides now adopt a system of playing three defenders, to compliment the hard and rugged type centre back with more expansive libero playmakers. While ‘La Dea’ similarly field three centre-backs, their 3-4-1-2 is unique against many other Italian systems.
All three central defenders are adept ball-players and look to carry the ball out of defence. Right centre-back, Rafael Toloi, best exemplifies this approach, receiving the ball from goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini and feeding into the midfield, before following the pass into the attacking zones. Sheffield United were famed for their use of overlapping full-backs, yet the likes of Toloi are so comfortable on the ball that it barely seeks recognition.
The Brazilian, and fellow centre-halves, Jose Luis Palomino and Berat Djimsiti, all play over 45 passes per game, contributing to the side’s build-up play by splitting wide to overload wide areas. This is the consensus of Gian Piero Gasperini’s philosophy; using centrally positioned players to pull wide and channel the ball through the wings where the opposition are more exposed. The wing-backs are essential in this. Hans Hateboer on the right and Robin Gosens on the left are arguably the key components in the system, providing energy and running to cover the length of the pitch.
Where many wing-backs are proficient in either attack or defence, and require the other wing-back to counteract this, both Hateboer and Gosens are strong and muscular in defence, and dynamic and creative in attack. When under attack, the two pull alongside the centre-backs to make a back five, yet when the centre backs get on the ball, they pull high and wide.
Part of this is to stretch the play into wide areas, however, with the right and left central defenders sometimes tracking their passes beyond the wing-backs and even forwards, it means that every player has to be able to play forward, aggressive passes. Hateboer, in particular, is brilliant at this.
With Toloi willing to roam beyond him into the midfield zone, the Dutchman often finds himself as the deepest player. Therefore his security on the ball must be impeccable so to not be countered. His tall frame imposes him on those pressing him and means he can spin the presser to exploit the vacant spaces both infield and in the flanks.
On the other side, Gosens is a fantastic runner, and uses the forwards hold up play to run beyond the opposition defence and break into the penalty area to cross or shoot. Gosens seven assists are the squad’s second-most, and his nine goals reflect a highly proactive and attacking option on the right.
With this wide approach of attack and overloading the opposition in wide midfield areas, the role of the central midfielders is precise. First and foremost, both Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler are required to guard the ball and not lose it in midfield. Of the goals they concede, Atalanta are most vulnerable to attacks through the middle, as the opposition presses central players into mistakes. Both players boast over 87% pass completion, and both rank within the squad’s top four distributors for passes into the final third. Like the wing-backs, they must be aware of the runs from behind them, as well as runs from the wing-backs and the tendencies of Josip Ilicic and Papu Gomez to drop deep.
De Roon and Freuler define midfield anchor roles, in being the pivots around which everything rotates. This also means that they must be willing to run beyond the forwards to give the side’s creators room to dribble and pick a through ball, but also pull wide to cover the advancing Gosens and Hateboer to find themselves as the two deepest ball-players.
The key to this role? Discipline and never losing sight of where the ball player is.
Alejandro Gomez, referred to as Papu, plays between the midfield and forward lines and is the side’s captain and architect. A diminutive, competitive left-footed dribbler, the Argentine epitomises the team’s spirit and so often drags them through games.
Much like another prolific Argentine, he has a free-roaming role and pulls wide to link the wing-backs to the forwards, as well as sitting deep to grab the ball and run at deeper defences. From a personal perspective, he is one of the most entertaining players in Europe, forever buzzing near the ball and capable of playing the deftest through ball or curling a shot at goal with either foot. He heads nearly every attacking metric within the squad; key passes, switches, crosses and assists. An all-encompassing presence in attack, without him the attack stands still, and Atalanta simply stop being Atalanta.
Like many in this unique squad, Gomez is in his prime and has found his standing in Bergamo. At thirty-two, this is his pinnacle, and many may deem it unfortunate that it took him until the age of twenty-six to reach Serie A, with his career until that point spent in his native Argentina and Ukraine. Such is the adoration of Atalanta fans, it has proven a blessing, and proven the catalyst for Gomez’s recent brilliance.
Ahead of him are Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic, tall, imposing forwards with contrasting styles. The Colombian, Zapata, is dominant in hold up play, taking the ball with his back to goal and moving it outwards to Hateboer and Gosens, or back to the midfielders to pass over the top. His eighteen league goals show a predatory instinct, and his 79.2% pass success is very high for such a muscular centre forward. He brings so much to the side beyond goals, and this passing ability demonstrates his role in the construction of intricate moves.
While Ilicic matches the Colombian’s stature and height; he offers an entirely different skillset. Languid and loose in posture, Ilicic hangs off of Zapata’s shoulder and retreats behind the runs of the wing-back. This is to wait for the cutback and curl distanced efforts at goal, as he did so brilliantly in the 4-3 win over Valencia in the Champions League. In reality he is more not so much a centre forward as he is a creative force, and works best as the second striker, but lacks the energy and busyness of Gomez so operates further forward than his captain. Again like so many of this brilliant side, Ilicic’s career has been one of nomadism, playing for two domestic Slovenian teams before trekking through Fiorentina, Palermo and then Atalanta. He has always shown glimpses of talent, and his unique frame and sensational left foot have long been marvelled at, but as with the likes of de Roon, Gomez, and Zapata, he has found his calling in Bergamo.
So each of this attacking triangle have produced brilliant seasons and offer varied skillsets. The primary indication of this threat is in shot volume. While this metric can be viewed with trepidation, at a granular level, the best attacking sides take the most shots. There are five players with over 1000 league minutes within the Atalanta squad who take over three shots per game, largely seen as the benchmark for good shot numbers from an attacking player. For context, only three players in the Juventus squad hit this mark, two for Lazio and just one Inter player.
This attacking nature is shown in the image below, from their home fixture against Udinese. Ilicic starts his position as the right-sided forward yet has dropped deep into his half to collect the ball from the centre-halves as Udinese transition into their defensive structure. It is rare for a side to counter in this way, with a striker running against the flow of play, and allowing others around him to arrow towards goal. Gomez can be seen on the far left, Hateboer far right, and central midfielders Mario Pasalic and Ruslan Malinovsky through the middle. All four are running at the outnumbered Udinese backline, with Ilicic able to pick a through ball to any one of these players. He arcs a pass to find Gomez, who squares for Pasalic to finish. Atalanta won 7-1.
This backs up their status as the continent’s best scoring outfit, outscoring the likes of Bayern Munich and Manchester City throughout the domestic season. Huge shot numbers, and players such as Ilicic outperforming their Expected Goals (xG) through unparalleled form and outrageous long-distance goals, Atalanta are feverish in attack.
The nature of their setup, forcing play wide and using the central midfielders as shadow runners and anchors in the wings, leaves them exposed when possession is lost. At times only Gomez and the middle centre-back occupy central areas, so opposition breaks through the middle often overload the central zones. The rewards are huge attacking output; the danger is giving up high-quality chances when the ball is lost, and that ultimately is what costs them silverware. This is not a side set up to win at all costs; this is a side built to first and foremost entertain, both in attack and defence.
Strength in depth
Were one to cast an eye over ‘La Dea’s’ squad, they might highlight a lack of squad depth, partly through the unknown quantity of many of these support players. However, what they may lack in status, they make up for in adaptability and variety.
Where de Roon and Freuler provide midfield security, Mario Pasalic is a more progressive option who breaks into the box to finish unerringly. The two aforementioned starters are such efficient ball harriers, especially in funnelling play wide, that Pasalic offers energy and an attacking threat that they cannot in the latter stages of a match.
Similarly, Ruslan Malinovsky is a dynamic long-range passer, switching play to the advancing wing-backs, as well as being aggressive in the tackle. His rocket-propelled distanced shooting is also an added weapon and works brilliantly when the opposition are chasing the game and using the high wing-backs to spread play.
The other substitute for mentioning is Luis Muriel. Zapata’s fellow Colombian, Muriel scored as many as his compatriot despite starting just ten league games. His early season form was electric, offering electric pace in Zapata’s absence, and an alternative option when countering and springing the offside trap to spread defences. Gomez’s deft weight of pass allows the twenty-nine-year-old to thrive when running beyond the defence.
These options first and foremost give Gasperini tactical flexibility within games, to bring on the attacking Pasalic against a low block or Muriel in the final minutes of a game when the opposition are tiring. It also allows him to bring players into the fray that understand his 3-4-1-2 while also bringing these new dynamics, to the point where the shape can alter slightly. Often when Zapata has been absent, playing Muriel allows Ilicic and Gomez free reign between the lines, so the shape resembles a 3-4-2-1. A seemingly minor adjustment, but in using Muriel to stretch the defence and open up further space for the creative powers of Ilicic and Gomez, Atalanta can create more and exploit gaps against teams that man mark.
Breath-taking in attack, with a mechanism of rotating diamonds and intricate off the ball movements, Atalanta are staring to gather traction as Europe’s most exciting side. The lack of silverware, and the higher than desired conceded goals count, might give the armchair fan cause to bemoan their approach. Yet in reality, the style that has brought them two consecutive top-four finishes, and made them Europe’s elite attacking force this season, brings with it the risks high-quality chance concession. The likes of Toloi, Palomino and Djimsiti are very skilled defenders as well as ball progressors, yet the nature of the setup is one fraught with danger.
But this is what characterises Atalanta—daring to dream that the medieval city of Bergamo could produce a modern Serie A title winner, with a squad of overperforming team players who live and die by their manager’s attacking philosophy. They may be remembered as plucky challengers, yet in reality, their quality is far superior to this notion and deserves recognition as one of Europe’s most tactically astute sides.
Written by Tom Underhill – @TomD_Underhill, Feature Graphic by @Arunology
Keen to delve into the murkier waters of Italian football from yesteryear? See the story behind the Calciopoli here, where Serie A’s referee designators were the most desired pawns.