Atalanta BC – Villarreal: Yellow Submarines Sink Atalanta’s Adventure (2-3)
The final act of the Champions League group stage would feature at Bergamo, the home of the divine. But, falling to a hefty deficit, Atalanta could not conjure up an otherworldly outcome as Villarreal’s crafty frontline stole the show in a thrilling five goal encounter.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Villarreal’s trip to Atalanta would round off the Champions League group stage phase, whose ending faced a 22-hour delay in light of snow. It was fitting then that this duel was an all or nothing scenario.
Sporting a 1-3-1 record in their five group games to date, Atalanta knew they were in need of all three points. Yet, the Bergamesce club were in red hot form. Off the back of a draw to Manchester United, they have bagged five wins in a row in Serie A, climbing into the top four. So having found a way to compete on the home front, would they map over this progress to Europe when it mattered the most?
On the other hand, Villarreal have morphed into an outfit in the image of their manager. Ahead of the new campaign, Unai Emery, the king of the Europa League, would have aspired for his men not to end up back on more familiar turf. Now, for all their woes in LaLiga, they were ninety minutes away from making that dream a reality. Avoiding defeat here would be enough to see the Spaniards through to the Round of 16, but could their leader desist his pragmatic tendencies to find the right set of tools?
Gian Piero Gasperini set up his men in a 3-4-1-2 shape. With the outlook of his squad a far cry from the injury crisis that plagued the start of their campaign, changes were not present in the back three. Further afield, Josip Iličić came into the fold in the front two, taking the place of Ruslan Malinovskyi. The other tweak was at the right wing-back slot, where Hans Hateboer replaced Davide Zappacosta.
True to form, Emery went for his classic 4-4-2 system. Off the back of a 1-0 loss to Sevilla, he made four tweaks to his choice of lineup for this crunch clash. Two of those were in the pairing upfront where talismanic Arnaut Danjuma would partner last season’s star man Gerard Moreno. Elsewhere, Alfonso Pedraza dropped to the bench, coming out of the lineup eleven in place of Pervis Estupiñán.
Atalanta’s worst nightmare
The home team may have been purring before kickoff, but they could have hardly made a worst start to this fixture. A little over two minutes in, Dani Parejo nipped in ahead of Merih Demiral, turning over the play. Without the man at the heart of Atalanta’s back three in position, their rearguard was ripe for Villarreal to break. Danjuma did the rest, racing over the halfway line to bear down on goal to face Juan Musso. Keeping his cool, the forward slotted the ball through his legs, drawing first blood.
A frustrating offensive display
Snatching the early lead, Emery’s men did not need to force the issue. So it was no shock to see them fall back into a 4-4-2 block. The Italians then brought their typical playbook in control of the ball. From their initial 3-4-1-2 setup, they executed rotations to form diamond structures on both flanks.
Patterns of movement from the right wing were the most fruitful in the opening stages. Drifting from the right halfspace, Iličić’s role in the rotations was a cue to trigger rotations. Hateboer would often swap places with the forward, offering depth in the channel if the Slovenian had chalk on his boots. Moreover, Rafael Tóloi’s front foot style came to the fore, offering an extra option to target the box.
5th minute: offensive combination from Atalanta. Iličić drops back, triggering a diagonal run from Tóloi to occupy the halfspace in depth. Hateboer is free on the flank and eventually breaks in behind.
However, Atalanta lacked their usual level of fluidity. While Duván Zapata wreaked havoc with his physique and burly hold-up play, his teammates came up short in the final third. Above all, the left flank, where Pessina took on a more ball dominant role, was very quiet on the night. And it became all the more evident in light of a decisive display from a breakout star of the group stage phase.
Off the ball, Atalanta stuck to a man marking strategy. However, on the flanks, an asymmetrical set of roles emerged. Hateboer would shift to cover Estupiñán on the right wing, closing down his opposite man. On the other hand, from the left, Pessina would shuttle in front of Mæhle to take care of Foyth.
22nd minute: Villarreal’s direct buildup against Atalanta’s high press. Moreno and Gómez link up with a third man combination, leaving the former free to switch the play to Danjuma in a 1-on-1.
On the other side of the scenario, Emery used a similar ploy to the one he tried in the draw between the teams on the first matchday of the campaign. The man on the left of the four in the midfield, here Alberto Moreno, would push inward to the halfspace from the flank. Since Atalanta’s wing-backs did not pendulate like in that initial clash, Pessina’s role contributed to him being a free man. In this case, many duels sprung up at the back, forcing Tóloi to move far into the midfield to cover the wide man.
In turn, a crucial 1-on-1 matchup came to life. Though he sat in the middle of the back three, Demiral tracked Danjuma all over the place, even if the forward roamed outwards to the right flank. However, his movement tended over to the left, where his tricky feet and swift change of direction created many unfavorable duels. Indeed, this context would set the scene for the contest’s next goal.
Holding off Demiral with his back to goal, Danjuma laid the ball off to Étienne Capoue to tee up a switch to Gerard Moreno. Working the play around a retreating back five, his teammate played the ball into Gómez, whose drilled delivery along the six yard box found Capoue. The central midfielder buried a strike ruthlessly into the roof of the net, doubling Villarreal’s lead as half time ebbed nearer.
Only 45 minutes away from a premature exit, Gasperini rang the changes at half time. Palomino moved into the middle of the back three while Berat Dijmsiti replaced Demiral. Malinovskyi then came in for Pessina on the left of the front three. However, a mere five minutes after the restart, it seemed the switches were in vain. Gerard Moreno eluded Palomino in the box, then squared a cutback to Danjuma, who swiveled free from Tóloi before placing a strike into the back of the net. Game over.
Close but no cigar
The hosts now had nothing to lose. So, Marten de Roon made way for Luis Muriel, and Malinovskyi dropped back into the double pivot. Activating the left flank, the Colombian forward was more of a dynamic presence, while Tóloi kept bombing on more from the right. In the end, their pressure told.
In the 71st minute, Hateboer whipped a cross into the path of Zapata, but the right wing-back could not find his teammate. However, Mæhle picked up the loose ball, pivoting to face Malinovskyi. His fierce strike snuck through yellow shirts, beating Geronimo Rulli between the posts. Three goals in twenty minutes would send Atalanta into the Round of 16. Surely not?
A little under nine minutes on, fear crept all the more into the guests’ ranks. Muriel and Mæhle rotated on the left flank, teeing up the former to switch the play to Iličić. A through ball to Zapata broke down the back four, leaving the striker to dink a chip over Musso. 3-2 Villarreal.
Emery reacted promptly, taking off Gerard Moreno for Vicente Iborra, who sat at the base of the midfield in a 4-1-4-1 block. An onslaught from the home team pinned Villarreal back to their box, but the three points were theirs at the final whistle.
Missing out on the Round of 16 for the first time in three years, this loss will be a bitter pill for Atalanta to swallow. However, their competitiveness across all six games bodes well for the rest of the season. Either through the top four in Serie A or winning the Europa League, Gasperini will hedge his bets on his men getting back into Europe’s elite competition in 2022.
Villarreal are in the Champions League knockout stage for the first time since 2009, marking Emery’s latest success in Europe. A disciplined unit under his pragmatic leadership, the Spaniards may find the potency they have sorely lacked if Gerard Moreno and Danjuma keep playing with each other. Bedding in at the elite level, they will hope the draw paves the way for another deep run.