Long time followers of Serie A will know about Gian Piero Gasperini from his time in charge of Genoa, but the new-found interest in his work from elsewhere might come as something of a surprise.
He took Genoa from Serie B to the top half of Serie A and into Europe, relaunching the stuttering careers of the likes of Thiago Motta and Diego Milito. Genoa only missed out on Champions League football under Gasperini due to a 1-0 away loss against Fiorentina – finishing on the same number of points as the fourth-placed side with a higher goal difference but losing out on head-to-head results.
Gasperini seemed to finally get his shot at the big time in 2011, however he lasted just five games at Internazionale. It was an open secret he wasn’t first choice – with Fabio Capello, Marcelo Bielsa and Andre Villas-Boas all supposedly sounded out – and the coach’s tactics were criticised before a ball had even been kicked, with owner Massimo Moratti’s suggestion that he eventually change to a back four making you wonder why he was brought in at all.
Following that up with two attempts at the Sisyphean task of working with Maurizio Zamparini in Palermo and onlookers could be forgiven for thinking that Gasperini’s career had already peaked when he returned for another solid spell in charge of Genoa.
Flash forward six years and Gasperini’s linked to Juventus, Roma and AC Milan, but opting to stay at Atalanta to oversee their first season in the Champions League, having finished third and made it to the Coppa Italia final in his third season in charge in Bergamo.
So what is it about Gasperini that has caught people’s attention again?
Gasperini’s tactics are based around a 3-4-3 shape, although that can manifest itself as a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1, and within this formation the players defend with heavy man-orientations.
This is still technically zonal marking, as if an opposition striker were to come all the way back to pick the ball up from his goalkeeper for example he would be passed on by the Atalanta centre-back to one of his teammates higher up the pitch. However, compared to more truly zonal systems, the Atalanta players will stay very tight to their man and follow him out of his nominal zone. It’s not unusual for an Atalanta centre-back to step up into midfield to ensure a forward can’t turn on the ball, or for an Atalanta midfielder to drop into the backline when a midfielder makes a run into the box.
This defending is consistent throughout the eleven, with the attackers expected to get tight to the opposition defence, utilising a pressing system that was unusual in Italy until at least fairly recently.
At Atalanta, Gasperini has shown a willingness to give opportunities to players from a productive academy. Historically the academy has produced the likes of Gaetano Scirea, Roberto Donadoni and Riccardo Montolivo, while Roberto Gagliardini, Mattia Caldara and Andrea Conti have all come up through the ranks under Gasperini. As the likes of AC Milan throw around hundreds of millions of euros to get back into the Champions League, Atalanta have focussed on development and reaped the rewards.
Atalanta defend from the front. Two of the forwards will push up close to the centre-backs, while the other will stick tight to the deepest midfielder and the two centre midfielders will follow the opposition centre-midfielders wherever they move.
This obviously severely limits the opposition’s ability to play short or through the centre: it’s very dangerous to play short to someone who is marked closely and if the ball is lost, Atalanta can immediately attack. The opposition can move their defenders, dragging the man-markers into different positions to open up space into players ahead of them, but with the Atalanta midfielders also keeping very tight to their opposite number, those players don’t tend to be any more open than the defenders.
This leaves Atalanta’s opposition with two options. Firstly, they can kick it long to their forwards. A long aerial ball is obviously harder to control than a short pass and there’s a good chance the attacker won’t win the challenge anyway, with Atalanta having five defenders ready to rush out and attack the ball, however it’s better to lose the ball in the opposition half than on the edge of your area and, as Atalanta’s midfielders can be dragged up the pitch, there can be space to work in or win the second ball.
The second option is to pass the ball wide. Atalanta stick very tight to the opposition players through the middle, however they generally leave the full-backs free initially. This pass can be a little bit difficult to pull off, usually requiring an aerial ball over the heads of the centre-backs that could easily squirm out for a throw-in.
If the full-back can be found, Atalanta react in one of two ways: if the full-back is within range of the Atalanta wing-back, he will rush out from the backline to close down the full-back. If the full-back isn’t close enough to the Atalanta backline to really make this feasible, that side’s centre midfielder will move out wide to limit the space the full-back has. Rather than engaging him though, the midfielder will generally look to keep him trapped against the touchline, blocking passes into the middle, enabling his teammates the time to get back and help defend.
Once Atalanta have fallen back into their more defensive shape, they may press again if the ball if the opportunity arises. The opposition defensive line tends to be higher up the pitch if Atalanta have fallen back, meaning there’s less ground for the wing-back to cover to get to the full-back. This means that when the central players press, cutting off the central passing options for the opposition, they tend to force the ball wide, but as soon as the opposition begin to play in one direction, that flank’s wing-back is happy to step up and close down that side’s full-back, leaving them under pressure and without passing options, usually resorting to a ball down the line.
Once Atalanta have dropped back into their defensive shape, the forwards will position themselves to block passes wide from the centre, aiming to force the opponent into playing through the centre, where Atalanta can swarm them from several sides.
Gasperini’s focus on man-marking means that when the opposition does make it into Atalanta’s half, things can look a little chaotic. This marking scheme requires that the backline consist of strong one-on-one defenders as there’s no guarantee of cover if they make a mistake. Defenders stick close to their man and follow him around, meaning they regularly cross over one another or are dragged into unusual areas rather than passing him on to a teammate – for example, the left-sided centre-back could be dragged by his man to the right, continuing to follow him past the middle centre-back, out to the left touchline, or pulled forward into midfield if his man looks to receive the ball short.
Unsurprisingly, gaps can open up. A centre-back could be pulled forward by a striker coming short, leaving space between his teammates for a different attacker or midfield runner to exploit, and as the other defenders are busy with their own men they won’t adjust to close the hole. This is a danger for Atalanta and it’s worth pointing out that their defensive record isn’t particularly good – they conceded 46 goals in Serie A, equal seventh with Lazio, and more than Fiorentina, who narrowly avoided relegation – however it clearly wasn’t enough to stop them from competing in Europe next year.
Part of this is structural. Firstly Atalanta’s back three means that even when gaps open up, they aren’t going to be as big as if they used a back four. The quantity of players Atalanta have in defence means there’s generally at least someone there on hand to scramble across at the last moment and rescue the situation.
Secondly, the man-marking system makes exploiting those gaps quite difficult: if someone attempts to make a run into them, chances are they are being marked by someone who will simply plug the gap by following them. The two midfielders regularly drop into the defensive line to follow their man, meaning there can be as many as seven defenders around the area.
Atalanta can look disorganised because their defensive shape depends entirely upon the opposition, but they are undoubtedly well-drilled. The defenders are all relatively mobile with good solid skills and will aggressively smother the opposition on the ball, but keep enough distance between them and their man so that they can’t get a run on them.
Rafael Toloi is probably the weakest of the centre-backs, not quite as live to danger as the others and can be caught flat-footed, however he is still a good solid defender, comfortable in wide areas.
The young Gianluca Mancini is very aggressive, constantly looking to steal in ahead of his man and intercept the ball, or nip a foot around to poke the ball away. He can also turn so quickly that he’s more than capable of recovering if he misjudges his defending.
Although not as fast as Mancini, Jose Luis Palomino can also turn quickly and is aggressive in bursts. Whereas Mancini will move quickly to intercept the ball before the recipient is aware of his presence, Palomino will steam out of the defensive line to stick his hand in a player’s back, letting him know he’s there before a pass is made – that way the passer will usually pass elsewhere, but if they do pass to Palomino’s man, he’s reluctant to turn with the Argentine on top of him.
Both Andrea Masiello and Berat Djimsiti are slower on the turn than Mancini and Palomino, yet they deal with it in different ways. Masiello will plough into the back of an opponent and attempt to muscle them off the ball, preferring to concede a foul than have a player escape with possession, whereas Djimsiti prefers to sit off.
The Albanian will push up to stop a player from turning if they have their back to goal, but otherwise prefers to give himself a bit of space to ensure the opposition can’t burst past him. This means he is the best-suited to the central position in the back three, as he is most often in a position to cover for the two either side of him.
In midfield Marten de Roon is the more defensive of the pair, going into tackles and trying overpower opponents, trying to reach round his opponents with his legs to knick the ball away. Remo Freuler is less direct – he will get close to an opponent, but generally won’t put his foot in for a tackle, instead waiting until they make the first move then putting his body between them and the ball to win it back. He often utilises similar moves when in possession too, shaping his body to draw in an opponent then letting the ball roll across him and twisting away rather than taking touches to change direction.
Atalanta keeping lots of players back helps them in defence and it helps them going forward too. With seven players in the first two lines, it’s difficult for the opposition to press them as there’s just so many men there that one of them is bound to be available.
The defence and midfield form triangles that allow them to quickly circulate the ball, and with so many options it’s easy for Atalanta to change the angle with a short pass. They also frequently switch positions, making it difficult for the opposition to keep track of them – De Roon and Freuler might drop into the backline or pull wide out to the touchline for example, allowing the wing-back space to run into through the middle or to push on down the flank, while the centre-back can pull wide to act as a full-back or attack the space ahead of him.
All of Atalanta’s defenders are comfortable on the ball. Toloi could easily play as a full-back, often charging into the final third and Mancini bursts forward into any space ahead of him before laying off the ball with a short pass. Djimsiti can pick out long accurate passes if given the space to do so, while Palomino has the courage to hold onto the ball and tempt the opposition into pressing him before passing on the ball at the last moment, opening up space for his teammates.
The wing-back spots are shared between three players. Robin Gosens on the left and Hans Hateboer on the right are both very quick and aggressive, often jumping into slide tackles when tracking back.
Hateboer’s pace causes the opposition problems going down the outside, as he will happily kick the ball down the line and fancy his luck in a footrace, but dropping off to limit his space there doesn’t really help, as he will simply chop inside (and back outside again if needed) whenever there’s space for him to do so, playing a short pass inside to a forward.
Gosens’ crossing is hit and miss however he can pick out good passes along the turf if given the chance, whether that be playing a diagonal ball inside from deep or attempting to get round the outside and squaring the ball to a teammate at the back post.
Timothy Castagne is also an aggressive defender but doesn’t go to ground as quickly as the other two. He’s not quite as dynamic with the ball as Gosens and Hateboer but his comfort at using either foot means he can play on both sides and makes it harder for the opposition to show him in one direction – show him down the line and he can simply cut inside, show him inside and he will stick to the touchline. This means he’s generally the best wing-back at underlapping – making runs through the centre while his teammates go wide.
Playing neat one-twos and short passes in their triangles, these deeper players try to work the ball forward in the wide areas, switching play to the opposite flank if they find their way blocked. They keep circulating the ball until they can finally pass into one of the attackers, who are always looking for an open gap to receive the ball in the inside channels.
The main man the deeper Atalanta players search for is Alejandro “Papu” Gomez. Standing at just 5ft 5, the Argentinian has a low centre of gravity and very quick feet. As soon as he picks up the ball, he can twist and turn away from his opponents and scamper towards goal, capable of picking out passes or firing shots at goal if given any space. He’s also deceptively strong, bumping into defenders with his hips to worm his way in between them and the ball, and his ability at protecting it makes it near impossible to win it back without fouling him.
Nearly a foot taller than him, Josip Ilicic is significantly lankier than Gomez but is an excellent dribbler in his own right. The Slovenian is able to move the ball around without shifting his body weight, allowing him to send defenders one way and immediately burst in the other direction from a standing start rather than having to recover the momentum of his body. He also has a beautiful shooting technique, cleanly lifting the ball just over the goalkeeper.
Mario Pasalic sometimes started as the central attacking player. The Chelsea loanee is a decent dribbler albeit nowhere near the level of Gomez or Ilicic, yet he is capable of picking out teammates with pinpoint passes and frequently times his runs into the box perfectly, getting to the ball before defenders can react. He also sometimes played in one of the deeper midfield roles, where Atalanta have to deal with a trade-off: he’s not as solid defensively as De Roon or Freuler however his passing ability makes it easier to get the ball to the forwards faster.
Both Pasalic and Gomez will occasionally drop deep next to the centre midfielders when playing as the one in the 3-4-1-2, helping the deeper players to work the ball forward. Pasalic uses his passing whereas Gomez will simply turn and dribble forward, often going past several players into the final third.
Generally though, the attackers move around and look to position themselves in space between players, keeping open passing lanes into their feet so that they can receive the ball from a defender and quickly turn to attack.
While Gomez gets most of the attention, top scorer Duvan Zapata’s performances are on a similar level. The Colombian’s attacking movement is quite simple – often just trying to stay on the blindside of his defender or making runs out to the left channel so that the defenders can loft simple balls over the top rather than constantly recycling the ball – but it’s in his hold-up play and technique that he really shines.
Like the attackers behind him, he will move around to find the angle for a pass from the defenders into his feet, and, once there, he will keep his back to goal and look to pin his centre-back. He’s strong enough to shrug off most challenges, so the deeper players can drill passes into him and he can lay the ball off to the dribblers behind him or to the wing-backs sprinting down the wings, yet he also has the technique and awareness to spin away from his marker and get a shot away at goal or pick out a teammate with an inch-perfect pass. His goal against Juventus is the best example of this: he receives the ball from deep, spins into space away from Leonardo Bonucci into space and fires his finish inside the opposite post (admittedly he usually places his finishes like a pass rather than smacking them).
Musa Barrow is also a good target man with nice technique, although he can’t quite put the two together yet in the way Zapata can. He can hold up the ball and lay it off to his teammates or twist away from his marker and pull off a clever pass, however when he does he has a tendency to turn into trouble. At 20 years old, the Atalanta youth product’s a more than adequate replacement for Zapata as someone to bounce balls off, even if he can’t quite offer the attacking threat that the Sampdoria loanee does.
Atalanta can give the impression of being a little bottom-heavy, however the quality of the three atackers is more than enough to worry most teams. They are good at getting into positions to receive the ball and it’s difficult for the opposition to block every passing lane into them when there’s so many players at the base of the team offering different angles.
Their quality dribbling allows them to turn and attack the defence quickly, often making space for the wing-backs on the outside by drawing the opposition full-backs inside. For a team that play with seven defensive players, Atalanta find it surprisingly simple to stretch the opposition defence: having the wing-backs burst forward can open up space inside and Zapata, Gomez, Ilicic and Pasalic are deadly at exploiting any gaps that appear.
In truth it’s difficult to see Atalanta improving on their success. Although a fantastic achievement, they barely scraped into the Champions League spaces this season – even if AC Milan and AS Roma continue to fail in their rebuilding efforts, you have to imagine Antonio Conte is going to improve Internazionale.
Thankfully they look unlikely to get picked apart though. Gasperini has already committed to guiding them into Europe next season, despite being linked to Juve and Roma. Ilicic is eyed by Napoli but Gomez has confirmed his intention to stay, Pasalic looks set to return and Zapata’s loan is for two years, meaning he will continue at the club where he is “dreaming of lifting a trophy“.
Outside of them, there are few players that are likely to get poached. The defenders and midfielders are good but not great players – only the young Mancini is likely to interest bigger teams in the way Gagliardini, Caldara, Conti, Bryan Cristante and Franck Kessie have previously – and you would have to imagine few of them will be willing to give up a chance at playing in the Champions League.
Ideally Atalanta will improve their squad with a few additions, but, even if this is their peak, the Bergamo side will add an interesting style and an underdog story to a competition dominated by chequebooks.