Atalanta Bergamo – US Sassuolo: Fantastic Atalanta Comeback Results in First Champions League Campaign in 111-year History (3-1)
After finding it difficult to break through US Sassuolo’s 4-4-2 diamond defensive shape, Atalanta Bergamo adapted, pressed and played some gorgeous football to make a historic comeback, in the final matchday of the Serie A season. The result means that Atalanta will enter the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history, scoring the most goals in the league and finishing above both Milan clubs.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
Having maintained an incredible twelve match unbeaten run, Atalanta went into this game in the driving seat for Champions League football next season. However, the perfect picture had every opportunity to be ruined by fourth-placed Internazionale level on points with Atalanta and AC Milan within inches off a place in Europe’s top competition next season. With defenders Hans Hateboer and Rafael Tolói ruled out, Gian Piero Gasperini made two changes at the back, with José Luis Palomino and Berat Djimsiti coming in. Despite being a doubt going into the final game of the season, Josip Iličić passed fit to start, a player who has been a pivotal part of Atalanta’s 3-4-1-2 free-flowing system.
Sassuolo’s finish to the season had much less at stake, a disappointing season for a team filled with young prospects. Roberto De Zerbi’s team had seen just nine victories all season prior to their away trip to the Mapei Stadium – the temporary home for Atalanta during stadium reconstructions, which also happens to be their own stadium…
Sassuolo made three changes, Andrea Consigli was replaced by the veteran goalkeeper Gianluca Pegolo, playing his final game between the posts. Domenico Berardi came in for Stefano Sensi, whilst Filip Đuričić was replaced by midfielder, Mehdi Bourabia, rotating Sassuolo’s starting formation from their usual 4-3-3 shape into a 4-4-2 diamond system.
Sassuolo nullifying Alejandro Gómez
Sassuolo’s game plan was to limit the creative force as much as possible and stop Atalanta making vertical passes inside to break lines and get into good goal scoring positions. They already had a massive midfield advantage, with four central midfielders covering the middle of the pitch, which forced Atalanta to stay out wide. The role of Manuel Locatelli was an intriguing one, a natural defensive midfielder pushing up into the striker’s role if needed but making a three-versus-three on the center-backs.
Gasperini’s team could only make progress out on the flanks and found it difficult to feed Duván Zapata and Josip Iličić upfront. Alejandro Gómez was forced into making risky passes forward or play out sideways, otherwise he would be overloaded in the middle of the field. Sassuolo’s medium block, A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. with men behind the ball, caused Atalanta problems early, and with Jérémie Boga and Domenico Berardi already in the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. this made them a huge threat when going forward.
Sassuolo’s 4-4-2 diamond shape makes it difficult for Atalanta to retain possession.
De Zerbi’s team took a surprise lead with a silky, sexy, sensational counterattack. Targeting the right flank, Pol Lirola exposed the high defensive line and caught Atalanta totally out of shape. A low cross towards Alfred Duncan was flicked back for Domenico Berardi, who slotted the ball home and put the Champions League party on hold. A brilliant start from Sassuolo.
Atalanta’s high-press comes into play
As seen throughout the campaign, Gasperini’s effective pressing setup began to come into play. Sassuolo expanded when in possession, attempting to play the ball from the back and access the space behind those who press.
Atalanta’s high-pressing setup was imperious, as it has been many times throughout the season. Not only are they the best team in Italy to use the cover shadow When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. when they press, but they are also capable of switching into a man-marking system in order to limit the ball carriers’ options. This is where Atalanta began to get a foot back into the game, and as Sassuolo expanded out in possession, space opened up when the ball was recovered.
Sassuolo’s attempts to play the ball out from the back made it easy for Atalanta to press and win possession back.
Gianmarco Ferrari and Merih Demiral were forced into long, aimless switches forward, which would be intercepted very easily. Atalanta won a lot of possession in the middle third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. and with the progressive passers they have, chances started to be created.
The equalizer came from a set piece, a brilliant corner from Gómez was bundled over the line by Zapata, a huge sigh of relief for Gasperini’s team. From there, the hosts began to assert their dominance, with much more movement between the lines and keeping more possession, they caught Sassuolo out of shape on numerous occasions. A huge factor in the game’s events would occur just after the whilst had blown for half-time, a mass scrum between players off both teams saw goal scorer Berardi sent off, reducing Sassuolo to ten men.
Both teams make tactical changes
The red card resulted in Sassuolo dropping much deeper and compact as possible when Atalanta entered the opposition half. Now in a 4-3-2 formation, the man advantage soon came into play, not only could Gasperini’s team retain possession comfortably but they could commit more players forward in passing sequences, without consequence.
Earlier pressure from the start of the second half was rewarded with Gómez giving Atalanta the lead just eight minutes after the break. Iličić’s shot was too hot to handle for Pegolo, Gómez the quickest to react with a brilliant dink over the keeper, which resulted in a roar so loud you could probably hear it back in Bergamo.
Gasperini’s substitution now gives Atalanta superiority in midfield against ten-men Sassuolo.
Both teams made changes that altered their systems. Roberto De Zerbi brought on Filip Đuričić for Manuel Locatelli, a much more natural striker, which surrendered space in the middle third. Gasperini took full advantage, Andre Masiello being taken off for Mario Pašalić, Atalanta going from their usual 3-4-1-2 shape to a 4-3-1-2 formation.
Atalanta instantly gained superiority in the middle, comfortably retaining possession and breaking into their excellent passing sequences in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. At this point, Alejandro Gómez was a constant threat, breaking the lines with excellent carries in possession and roaming across the final third, linking with players around him.
They were imperious, wrapping up a brilliant second half performance with an excellent third goal, involving both Gómez and Pašalić. An excellent cross by the Atalanta captain was met by the substitute with a bullet header, killing Sassuolo’s chances of an upset. From there, Atalanta dominated possession and did not face much of a threat. Francesco Magnanelli talked himself into a red card, reducing De Zerbi’s side to just nine men. Gasperini’s team continued to impress to the finish line, a fabulous victory on a historic night for Atalanta.
Their performance may have crumbled away, but there were promising moments for this young US Sassuolo side. Leaking goals the way that they have done this season has cost them dearly, when looking on their goal tallies… they are certainly more efficient than some other teams above them. A difficult season for them, but there is potential for Roberto De Zerbi to build on.
For Atalanta, this campaign will leave long in the memory. Not only to make the leap that they have but to do it with the most goals scored in Serie A is an incredible achievement and a testament to just how good their recruitment has been over the years! It is refreshing to see a story like this, especially in how the top teams across Europe’s top five have made their domestic leagues incredibly stale by just throwing money at the top players. Atalanta have been an incredible watch this season and thoroughly deserve to be on the big stage.
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