Atalanta Bergamo – AC Milan: Goddess Survives The Devil’s Work (1-1)
Bruised from midfield openings, Atalanta Bergamo survived AC Milan’s impressive rotational work. The Goddess has a lot more work to return to her former beauty, whilst Milan needs to sharpen their horns if they are to inflict full damage onto opponents.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
It was once a conceivable fact that Atalanta and Milan were level-pegging in terms of quality. But how that changed last season.
After three seasons, dwindling in Champions League stardom, Gasperini’s men missed out on European football for the first time since 2016. Twenty-seven points separated them from the Scudetto, as inconsistencies and quieter attacking performances saw both a detachment from the 3-4-2-1/3-4-1-2 systems and Atalanta slid to seventh. Remo Freuler and Matteo Pessina are now gone, Éderson was brought in from Salernitana – though he is injured for the time being. Loans for Merih Demiral and Jérémie Boga were made permanent, whilst Ademola Lookman scored his first goal in a 2-0 win over Sampdoria last weekend.
Roads had been built for Milan to reach the summit, now they must not stray from the path to maintain such success. At least that is the idea from Stefano Pioli, who has kept the same squad that brought their first title in eleven years, except for Franck Kessié in the midfield. Alessandro Florenzi and Divock Origi bring more experience, but the big spending is reserved for younger talents to develop. Charles De Ketelaere is the summer’s big signing from Club Brugge, a versatile forward who contributed twenty-three goals as they retained the Pro League title once more.
Gasperini made two changes from the away game at Sampdoria. Demiral replaced Caleb Okoli at the center of the back three. Ruslan Malinovskyi was the other replacement, heavily linked with a move away from Bergamo, as he came in for Luis Muriel, to complete the 3-4-1-2 formation.
Pioli’s only change came in the midfield of his 4-2-3-1 system. Rade Krunić was part of the double pivot in Milan’s 4-2 victory over Udinese, but he was replaced by Sandro Tonali, despite the young Italian being a doubt for the game.
Milan’s midfield carousel
Serie A is full of interesting dynamics when it comes to building from the back and progressing through the lines. Atalanta’s defensive block, with three passive forwards and man-marking midfielders, was the perfect platform for Milan to showcase their elasticity in the middle third.
As one moves up, another moves back; space was continuously drawn open. To start, Tonali was closer to the center-backs as Ismaël Bennacer pushed further on the right, but this alternated as the game went on, with Tonali supporting the left side. The central spot could also be covered by left-back Theo Hernández, whose role was a lot more aggressive than one would be associated with. When a full-back tucks infield, he usually sits next to the double pivot to aid the passing exchanges, but Hernández wants the ball so he can drive forward or provide a late run towards the box.
5th minute: This phase may have ended with Tonali offside, but it showcased what Milan was trying to achieve. Central rotations pulled Atalanta’s midfield line apart, which produced more room for Hernández to drive the ball into Rebić, who dropped from the last line, and whose position was replaced by Tonali running from the pivot position.
It comes as no surprise that Milan is usually fixated on the left with Hernández and Rafael Leão on the same side. Leão caused huge problems for Hans Hateboer and Rafael Tolói on the turn, Brahim Díaz often dropped out of the center towards the same channel and Ante Rebić could also move onto this side of the field.
Milan was comfortable and able to move the ball between the lines. Whether they moved the ball as a back four or three, with one pivot or two, their flexibility was well structured and they constantly won free kicks as a result.
Despite having the control, converting this into meaningful shots proved to be a lot more difficult. For starters, their right side didn’t offer anywhere near as much threat in the buildup phase. Davide Calabria is a lot more conservative, compared to Hernández on the other side and operated closer to the center-backs. When the ball funnelled towards Junior Messias, the winger is less of a carrying threat and often moved the ball backwards. More productivity was found when Bennacer pushed forward, but this wasn’t always available to the right side.
Milan moved the ball between the lines effectively, but once play reached the forwards, the aims in possession changed as they tried to hit the ball towards the box as quickly as possible. This often saw Pioli’s team hit the ball over the last line or towards the opposite side of the field, where more patiency could perhaps see more effective routes through on goal.
Their two big chances of the first period came from complacency from Atalanta defenders, rather than their final third aims connecting. A smooth dummy from Rebić took out Merih Demiral, whilst Messias was tackled by Berat Djimsiti. The loose ball found Díaz, who almost connected with Hernández who followed his pass to make a run through the middle. Messias had the closest shot from a deep Hernández cross, which aimed for the run of Tonali. This was left by the far-sided center-backs, as Messias got on the end, but his shot was wide.
Atalanta missing many details
Still donning the blue-and-black strip, with Gasperini at the helm: one would expect wide patterns and defenders overlapping, but this was far from it. There is still an element of them that reminds you of their previous successes, the center-midfielders still virtually attach themselves to the first line of the buildup and Atalanta continues to move the ball into very wide positions.
Will the real Atalanta please stand up?
However, they can no longer produce their overloads and their pressure resistance has taken a hit. When Milan’s long passes didn’t connect, they still had the counterpressure down the wide areas to squeeze these areas. The hosts often aimed to move the ball directly towards Duván Zapata down the left as a result.
From short goal-kicks, Marten de Roon moved between the right and central center-back, whilst Mario Pašalić and Teun Koopmeiners formed a double pivot. The aim may have been to quickly shift the ball out wide, but this played into Milan’s hands, who pressed in an organized 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 shape and could afford to put Calabria high up the field with Pierre Kalulu marking Zapata in the process. Zapata may still be aerially dominant, but the construction from deep was so loose that it left his knockdowns to nobody and only connecting by moving the ball laterally.
23rd minute: Atalanta’s deep circulation, in 3-5-2 formation, versus Milan’s 4-4-2 press, which was excellent in trapping the hosts down the channels.
Nonetheless, Malinovskyi could still ignite when given the opportunity and shortly after his carry into the opposition half was awarded a free-kick, Atalanta struck to give them the lead just before the half-hour. Atalanta kept the ball in Milan’s half and Hateboer’s overhit cross trickled to Joakim Mæhle. Everyone anticipated the cross into the box, but Malinovskyi ran towards the edge of the area. His shot deflected but was enough to beat Mike Maignan.
Milan more measured but can’t complete a turnaround
Pioli’s team remained their flexible selves but seemed to require more patience – for the start of the half at least. Milan calmly moved the ball around its circuit, whilst the left side offered more direct dribbles towards the final third. As Leão was dangerously clattered to the ground by Hateboer, an indirect free-kick found a free Kalulu just outside the six-yard box, but his header was sent over the crossbar, by far Milan’s biggest chance of the game.
Atalanta still carried some threat themselves, a Zapata header tipped over the bar by Maignan, but Milan increased their possession count and Pioli wasn’t afraid to change the profiles upfront. Olivier Giroud came on for Rebić, whilst Charles De Ketelaere’s effect was instantly felt when he put Tonali through, behind De Roon, but his attempt was poor.
59th minute: Buildup to Tonali chance (Grey ball, first pass: black ball, second pass.) Mis-communication in the Atalanta defense left De Ketelaere to receive freely down the left, whilst De Roon was caught flat-footed against Tonali’s blindside run.
With these substitutions, Milan was more inclined to work the ball into better crossing positions, De Ketelaere offered more connectivity from the center, whilst Giroud is a more prominent target in the box. Pioli changed both his wide players soon after, with Divock Origi and Alexis Saelemaekers coming on. De Ketelaere moved onto the left, but still roamed infield whilst Origi and Giroud operated as a striker duo.
Within minutes, Milan had their equalizer through some excellent work from Bennacer. After his distanced shot was saved, Saelemaekers kept the ball in play and moved the ball to the feet of the Algerian. Koopmeiners’ body position was far too closed, trying to force Bennacer onto his right foot, but space was around for the midfielder to move the ball onto his left. An excellent finish into the far corner.
Despite twenty minutes still left of the game, just one shot would be registered in that period, even with the score level. Pioli’s team was more geared towards the center and right, but the combination of Origi and Giroud left them unbalanced when trying to move the ball through the lines. Calabria tried to connect through deep, long passes down the right side, but Milan failed to retain the crossing dominance that, perhaps, Pioli would have wanted.
Atalanta’s attack remained uncharacteristic and very unproductive. Gasperini changed his front force, bringing on both Luis Muriel and Lookman, but the hosts continued to suffer when trying to build from the back. Lookman was the more likely, as he offered carrying ability down the right side, but Milan was never threatened by unflattering hosts.
Atalanta has a lot of work to do if it is to reach former glories again. This is an attack which has struggled to recreate the potency that Josip Iličić and Papu Gómez offered, despite investments being higher. With Malinovskyi close to leaving, if Gasperini is to bring another forward, he would have a huge task in filling both the creative and finishing holes that Zapata and Muriel can’t fully carry.
However, Atalanta is still a top Serie A team and Milan looked very comfortable in their backyard. There are elements to their play that no side in Italy can match, particularly the sheer danger they have on the left, but more connective play needs to be added to the final third, rather than individual brilliance. That being said, it would be a monumental achievement if they could retain the Scudetto after Juventus, Inter and Napoli have all bulked up their rosters. They will face all three at the San Siro by the middle of October.
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