Atalanta BC: defensive process

The moment

Atalanta BC is one of the big surprises in Serie A so far. Giampiero Gasperini’s team is the hottest in Italian football with 6 wins in the last 7 games. That includes victories against Inter and Napoli at home and an away draw at Fiorentina. There’s plenty of individual talents to check in Gasperini’s squad, but their real strength has been the system that the Italian tactician has put in place. After a struggling start, Atalanta’s players seem to have bought Gasperini’s plan and are applying it to a nearly perfect extent.

Gasperini’s ideas are not new. He’s been doing the same kind of stuff for quite some time in Serie A. Did it in Genoa, is doing it in Atalanta. His biggest trademark is man-to-man marking. This type of marking is often connotated with ultra-defensive strategies, but that’s far from the case with Gasperini. He implements man-to-man across the pitch, even in defense. Gasperini wants a proactive backline, that runs up to press opponents and tries to get the ball as fast as possible. At Atalanta, he uses individual marking to disrupt the opponent’s rhythm and fluidity, not to passively protect the goal.

Defensive Organization

The pictures above illustrate perfectly Atalanta’s marking scheme. In this game, Atalanta was up against Genoa, Gasperini’s former team and coached by one of his disciples, Ivan Juric. Although very similar defensively – both Genoa and Atalanta are up there with Juventus as Serie A’s most effective defenses -, Genoa explores a different lane to attack. While Gasperini likes to take advantage of the wings, Juric prefers to exploit more central spaces, especially the halfspaces. He tried to do that in this game by having his wingers (Olivier Ntcham and Luca Rigoni) to cut inside. Besides cutting inside, Ntcham dropped almost to the midfield sometimes and that created some difficulties to Atalanta.

The tactical change

In the first half hour, Gagliardini and Feuler stepped up in the field to mark the opposing CM’s, Rincon and Veloso. With Ntcham cutting inside it was Konko’s responsibility to mark him. When Ntcham beat Konko, he had an open runway to goal, as the picture above illustrates. The same happened on the right with Rigoni and Masiello, which left Caldara alone to face Pavoletti. That’s a lot to ask from a 22-year-old defender, even one as good as Caldara. Atalanta was lucky that Genoa players made too many technical mistakes, especially Rigoni, and weren’t able to exploit this flaw in Gasperini’s marking system. Atalanta’s defenders were always more aggressive and decisive, which is essential for this kind of system to work.

The most underrated abilities that Gasperini has – and one that makes him one of the best coaches in Serie A – is his flexibility and tactical resourcefulness. He likes to mark man-to-man across all pitch, but that is not a dogma for him, unlike what happens with Louis van Gaal for example, another known fan of man marking. If the game asks for a change, Gasperini changes. His team’s flexibility was the key in this game, that ended with a comfortable 3-0 win for Atalanta. Right around minute 30, Gasperini pulled Jasmin Kurtic back. He was playing right winger until Gasperini moved the Slovenian to midfield, in front of Gagliardini and Freuler. With that change, Gasperini solved their defensive problem and ultimately won them the game.

In this new shape, Kurtic marking assignment was Rincon, leaving Gagliardini free to deal with the inside runs from Ntcham. This left a free defender to provide more cover in the backline. In short, Gasperini conceded a numerical equality in front to gain a numerical advantage in the back. That made the team a lot more stable and hard to break. That also ended up being decisive in both goals scored by Atalanta in the first half. First, it created a mismatch in Gagliardini versus Ntcham. The young french winger lost two duels with the Italian (who was called last week to the Azzurri by Ventura) that led to the 1-0 goal. Second, it freed Kurtic to wreak havoc in Genoa’s backline.

Genoa didn’t adapt to that change. Rincon and Veloso kept pressing Gagliardini and Freuler, leaving Kurtic to creep in behind them. Moments before the end of the first half, one of those situations led to Atalanta’s second of the game. Freuler launched a long pass to Petagna on the right, Kurtic slipped behind Rincon/Veloso and entered the area unmarked. Genoa had one extra defender that could have dealt with Kurtic, but when he realized the danger it was too late. The ball was in the back of the net. With a simple change of shape and marking scheme Gasperini solved one defensive problem and found the key to win the game. That’s why he’s one of the best in the business.