In defeating Fiorentina 1-0 on Sunday evening, Atalanta continued their strongest-ever start to a Serie A season. For all the glorious record-breaking attacking football seen under Gian Piero Gasperini in the last six years, it is this current crop that are enduring towards the top of the table.
The curious context is that this is far from a stellar Atalanta side. The blitzkrieg attacking powerhouse has given way to a pragmatic and clinical means of winning matches even when the performances have been sub-par.
When you consider how loathed Gasperini is to defer from his Ajax-inspired ideals in attack, it is clear that a new approach has been enacted in Bergamo. But just what is this new way, and how is it being deployed?
Pragmatism over expression
The first notable change in Atalanta’s approach has been in their shot-taking. In years gone by, La Dea have been a ludicrously high shot-taking side to rank alongside the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain as one of the continent’s most active shooters. In 2019/20 they were taking 18.4 shots/90, and in 2020/21 it dropped slightly to 16.1 and then 15.4 in the two years that followed.
So far this campaign, Atalanta are taking just 11.1 shots/90; the 15th highest in the league. One explanation is the removal of the squad’s most proactive shooters. Papu Gómez and Josip Iličić were among the more aggressive shot-takers in Italy before each departed, and both of Ruslan Malinovskyi and Duván Zapata have had limited minutes this season.
When you consider that Atalanta are also only holding 44.8% of possession during their eight matches so far, a clear picture emerges. This low figure is unrecognisable from what you’d expect from a Gasperini side; over 10% lower than their ball share last season alone. Less time spent in possession naturally means fewer opportunities to shoot. The key is to make the most of those less frequent shooting opportunities.
Penalty box prowess
The major changes to the squad over the last few campaigns have seen fewer of those excitable long-range shot-takers on the field. Each of Gómez, Iličić, Malinovskyi and Zapata are trigger-happy with the goal in sight, regardless of how far away the opposition goalkeeper might be.
With fewer of these dynamic creative players available to Gasperini, the coach has had to rework his attacking system to create high-quality chances little and often. Gasperini has done this by seeking to create almost unmissable chances from within the penalty area, most notably through crossing and squaring across goal from wide areas.
Looking back at Atalanta’s goals scored this season, this pattern is evident. Ademola Lookman’s two strikes have both come from close range, Rasmus Hojlund converted his strike in front of an almost open goal, and Rafael Tolói found himself in a position akin to his younger self in scoring inside the six-yard box on the opening weekend.
Unless you have elite creative players who can open spaces against tightly packed defences, the route to these types of opportunities is difficult to navigate. Atalanta have done this by defending far deeper than they have been accustomed to doing, sitting in a deep block to close any space behind the defensive line and allowing the ferocious pressing of the midfielders and wing-backs to protect the space in front.
In allowing the opposition to have the ball and invite pressure, the exceptional ball-winning capacity of any great Gasperini side can be enacted to steal the ball and transition forward at pace to expose the other team’s disorganised shape.
Atalanta burst forward mostly through the wide channels, and with the opposition stretched and retreating towards their own goal, can pass into space to find those golden chances.
In a disappointing season last year, Atalanta found themselves caught between ideals. Their recent successes have seen opposition teams come to respect their superiority, and drop deep to protect the goal. On the one hand, this is a compliment to the superb work Gasperini has undertaken, but it left his team in a difficult situation without the personnel to break through such deep defences.
The response has been to defend deep themselves, and hit on the counter-attack. The success in doing so, however, is the result of recruiting players to fit this new model; athletic ball carriers that offer power, pace, or both.
Ademola Lookman has impressed so far, but also fits the bill of being a willing dribbler who can carry the ball into the penalty area. Brandon Soppy at left wing-back is still raw and unfinished, but he too has brought a greater threat in carrying the ball forward than the other options Gasperini has to play in that role. Even Teun Koopmeiners; a brilliant all-round central midfielder whose game was once built on his long-range distribution, is powerful and strong with the ball at his feet, and his willingness to carry the ball is growing.
Atalanta rank third in Serie A for overall dribbles attempted, and without this carrying power, their newfound counter-attacking ways would not be possible.
Adapting a philosophy
No one could have expected Atalanta’s unbeaten start to the season. Equally, you’d have been thought mad to imagine Gian Piero Gasperini developing a deep-lying defensive system that sniffs out chances rather than battering teams with a barrage of attacking motions.
Following the 1-1 draw with Milan in August, Gasperini said that to play in this way was befitting of ‘a small team attitude with few ambitions.’ Yet it is impossible to ignore that Gasperini has not only stuck with a style that he would have deemed an evil necessary for a transitioning team, but is now reaping its rewards.
Even at 64 years old and 299 matches into his Atalanta reign, this most stubborn of coaches is showing something new and unexpected. A reflexive and adaptable sense that will no doubt shift and change again when the players within it grow into their full potential.
Gasperini is showing once again that he is one of Italy’s most impressive tacticians.