Inter Milan – Atalanta Bergamo: Atalanta Impress With Their Pressing But Fail To Take More Than A Point (0-0)
Atalanta impressed with a dominant high pressing style which nullified Inter Milan’s buildup. It took until the final twenty minutes for the hosts to find their ways. Beside a couple of good chances from both teams, they both fired blanks and the race for European football continues.
Tactical analysis and match report by Chris Baker.
Inter Milan came into this match sitting in third place, four points ahead of archrivals AC Milan. Luciano Spalletti made one change to his side following their impressive 4-0 victory over Genoa. Setting up in their nominal 4-2-3-1 formation, Matías Vecino started as the number ten in place of Radja Nainggolan while the rest of the team remained unchanged.
Atalanta came into this match on a high. They were unbeaten in their last five, sitting just one point below the top four. As their dreams of Champions League football continues, Gian Piero Gasperini made three adjustments to his starting eleven in their 3-4-1-2 system. Andrea Masiello, Robin Gosens, and Duván Zapata were replaced by Berat Djimsiti, Timothy Castagne, Mario Pašalić.
Match prediction, standings and implications going into the weekend.
Atalanta’s coordinated press
Atalanta would make a good case for being the positive surprise package of this season’s Serie A. In large parts, their success has been to be attributed to their excellent pressing game, and this element of play was again on display Inter Milan. It was no surprise that for large periods of the match Inter struggled in their buildup against the pressure of the visitors. The hosts passed the ball between their defenders as they looked to find an opening to move up the field through their midfield, but the well-oiled pressure of Atalanta meant they were often unsuccessful.
Inter’s 4-2-3-1 formation under pressure from Atalanta’s 3-4-1-2 shape.
Atalanta’s high pressure was not your ‘close-the-ball-holder-down-immediately’ kind of pressing. It was more sophisticated than that. Rather than going gung-ho, Atalanta took a more patient approach by focusing on the space around the ball and blocking off possible recipients.
This patient pressure enabled them to control Inter’s buildup very well. Atalanta’s midfield covered the center of the pitch, specifically blocking passes into these areas. This strategy prevented Inter’s defenders from connecting with more advanced players in the strategically strongest areas of the field.
Atalanta buildup against Inter’s press
Inter‘s approach out of possession shared some similarities with the visitors in terms of pressing very high up the pitch. The intention and the intricacies were quite different, though.
Initially, Inter structured themselves in a 4-2-3-1 shape from which the team would frequently begin their high pressing. Commonly, Vecino or Nainggolan would join Mauro Icardi in the front line, pressing high against Atalanta’s back three. Still a man short against the three-men back line, they were supported by the nearby winger pushing up to mark the wide center-back. Meanwhile the ball-far winger was lurking in the lane between the wing-back and center-back, with the aim of having a better position to push forward in case of a switch pass. A pass from one side to the other.
Gagliardini and Brozović would quickly step up a line enabling them to support the press and close the space between the midfield and attacking lines. Here, Inter made a different choice than Atalanta did with their patient pressing. Inter engaged with Atalanta’s buildup very quickly, trying to limit them to little time on the ball and force long balls and quick decisions.
Atalanta’s ways around Inters pressing
Inter’s plan to disrupt Atalanta’s backup with intense pressing only half and half worked. Against the 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation that Inter defended in, the visitors started their buildup in a wide 3-4-1-2 shape. From this set up, the wing-backs typically moved up a line and midfielders dropped to create passing lines for the defenders, changing into a situational 5-3-2 formation.
The idea behind this appeared to be to use their deep positional overload to find the wide center-backs and then progress down the flanks with their wing-backs. Despite the high pressure applied, Atalanta kept their composure and stabilised their buildup through lateral circulation between their back three and the dropped central midfielders until the opportunity arose for a pass into the next line.
The high and wide positioning of Atalanta‘s wing-backs made it tough for Inter to constantly block the connections between them and the defenders. Once Ivan Perišić or Matteo Politano stepped up to press the wide center-back , they did not always block the direct passing lane into the wing-back, who also was not covered by the central midfielders due to the wide spaces they had to cover. This was then aided by the supporting movements of Remo Freuler and Marten de Roon which meant there was immediate presence back inside to help sustain possession or quickly move the ball up the field.
Atalanta’s possession plan, although initially coming under strain from the hosts’ pressure worked a treat, and they were mostly able to build up using their deeper positional overloads to open lanes into wider areas and progress from there.
As the half went on, Inter’s reactions in stepping into their high press became slower, thus they adopted a more zonal 4-4-1-1. Politano and Perišić flanked Gagliardini and Vecino, who moved deeper due to Brozović‘s injury. Nainggolan stayed in close vicinity to Icardi, waiting for a trigger to press out while covering the center.
With Atalanta moving the ball across the backline, Inter‘s forwards were often too slow in moving from one side of the pitch to another and were unable to adequately close the ball-carrier down. This afforded more territory for Atalanta to build through with the back three now coming under very little pressure, it allowed them to increase control and spend more time on the ball.
Despite enjoying the majority of possession, Atalanta did not trouble Samir Handanović much, with their biggest threat stemming from crosses. In fact, Inter were the team who created the best openings and had the best chance of the first half, as Icardi missed a one-versus-one after beating Atalanta’s offside trap.
With a greater need for territory and possession, Inter’s approach without the ball changed again. They started to engage with Atalanta’s buildup very early on, including running through on back passes. Their pressing structure remained the same, as the midfield continued to skip lines to support their forward players. However, their increased urgency came at a price, as large spaces arose between defense and midfield.
This ambitious high press resulted in a few turnovers in Atalanta’s half, but it also came at the expense of being caught in transition if they were not able to win the ball. In the first few minutes of the second half, Inter implemented this high press and pushed their block right up the field, which was exploited by one vertical pass. Because the midfield line was so flat, it could not prevent a progressive pass between the lines being played eliminating seven players. Thankfully for Spalletti’s side, Atalanta did not make the most of the opportunity. Furthermore, Nainggolan and Icardi were also very flat in pressing without cutting off the passing lanes to the wings. This allowed the visitors to continue to buildup through their wide center-backs without much hindrance.
Inter’s adjustments in possession
With Inter looking to find ways against Atalanta’s effective pressing, they elected to drop both players of their double pivot while the center-backs took up much wider positions. Atalanta reacted by changing their pressing slightly, with the strikers following the center-back movements and the one of the central midfielders closely following the dropping movements, creating an asymmetric 2-2 pressing shape. These tight man-orientations ensured the hosts were unable to settle into a short-passing buildup or play through their midfielders.
There were a few times in which Inter were able to break the first line through quick combination plays. This was usually the case when the ball was funnelled into wider areas,where they quickly escaped the pressure by moving the ball back inside to progress from there. When the first line was broken, Gagliardini carried the ball forwards with space to move into before being dispossessed through quick and aggressive backward pressure. This led to Atalanta’s best chance of the second half as they moved the ball to Iličić, whose cross was only inches away from Zapata.
To some surprise, for the final fifteen minutes, Atalanta played in a narrow structure, electing to absorb the pressure rather than step up and confront Inter. Thus, Inter began to enjoy more spells of possession and started to find ways into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. As Inter bega to show its colors, Atalanta moved into deeper and deeper positions. Some chances started to come for Inter, as Nainggolan had a very good chance saved and a header was cleared off the line very late, ensuring both teams finished the match with one point.
Inter will feel this is a missed chance to further cement their place for Champions League football after creating quite a few good chances, Icardi’s especially. On the other hand, they kept a clean sheet against the league’s most prolific scorers and will feel fortunate after Atalanta dominated for large spells. The point sees them go five clear of AC Milan, which could be a huge point come the end of the season.
Gasperini’s side will again take a lot of positives out of their performance. Their excellent pressing nullified Inter and their brave buildup asserted control for large parts of the game. This result moves them one point clear of Roma into fifth place, level on points with AC Milan as the exciting race for European football in Italy continues.
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