Napoli – Atalanta Bergamo: Atalanta Make Strides in Serie A Champions League Race By Beating Napoli After Tough First Half (1-2)
Napoli were very much on top in the first half, with a strong pressing game which took the sting out of Atalanta’s wing-focused possession game. Atalanta were also somewhat unstable defensively due to Napoli’s attack disorganizing their man-marking scheme. Napoli’s lack of clinical edge in the final third helped an improved Atalanta back into the game in the second half though, and they were able to turn things around to come out 2-1 winners.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
Napoli hosted Atalanta as they looked to bounce back from their Europa League exit at the hands of Arsenal last week. Carlo Ancelotti made four changes from that game, including leaving out Lorenzo Insigne in favour of Dries Mertens who lined up alongside Arkadiusz Milik as strikers in a 4-4-2 formation.
Atalanta had the chance to go level with AC Milan in fourth place in Serie A with a win in this game, as they continue to exceed expectations. Manager Gian Piero Gasperini made three changes from their previous 0-0 draw against Empoli. Berat Djimsiti replaced José Luis Palomino at center-back. Meanwhile, Timothy Castagne came in at left wing-back ahead of Robin Goossens, and Josip Iličić made way for Mario Pašalić in their 3-4-1-2 formation.
Match prediction, standings and implications going into the weekend.
Atalanta’s man-marking disorganised by Napoli’s structure
One of the things that makes Atalanta’s success so interesting is that they achieve it with tactical means that range from the unfashionable to the unorthodox. Their defensive game falls into the unfashionable category, as they use a man-marking scheme rarely used in the modern game.
Napoli’s own possession structure was also somewhat counterintuitive. With a midfield four of José Callejón, Allan, Fabián Ruiz and Piotr Zieliński, one might expect Zieliński to be the one drifting off his wing into deeper positions while Callejón playing in higher and wider zones and making runs in behind.
Interestingly though, Callejón actually ended up taking up deeper positions in the right halfspace 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. in conjunction with Kévin Malcuit’s marauding runs from right back into higher zones on the right wing. Zieliński did float inside but perhaps not to the extent that one might expect.
Napoli’s 4-4-2 in possession against Atalanta’s shape in defense.
The interaction between the structures created by Napoli and Atalanta’s man-marking system made things slightly awkward for Gasperini’s side. The basic problem arose from situations where Atalanta’s left central midfielder Remo Freuler would be drawn across the pitch away from the left halfspace, usually by trying to mark his opposite number Allan.
This then left Callejón free in his aforementioned right halfspace position for Napoli. Malcuit’s aggression kept Castagne occupied. Dealing with Callejón’s positioning then, meant the left center-back Andrea Masiello had to step out of the defensive line, sometimes pushing up very long distances to pursue Callejón.
It was indeed Callejón’s threat from the right halfspace that led to Napoli’s goal, although this time it came from a transition moment rather than an organized possession phase. Callejón was able to drive forward into space and play in the overlapping Malcuit, whose low cross was converted by Mertens to put Napoli 1-0 up in the first half.
Atalanta struggle to establish possession
Napoli also had the upper hand in the first half when it came to their pressing against Atalanta’s buildup.
Atalanta like to be able to use the wings to break through opponent pressure during buildup, for example through the use of third man combinations enabled by the strikers drifting into wide areas.
Napoli’s 4-4-2 pressing in the first half was well executed though. This could also sometimes evolve into something resembling a 4-3-3 shape in pressing when one of the wide midfielders stepped up alongside the strikers to make a front three against Atalanta’s back three.
Napoli did well to block the path forward when Atalanta got the ball into wide areas against their pressing. Napoli’s midfield shifted well and their central midfielders pressed aggressively against their opposite numbers from Atalanta when they tried to give supporting angles while the ball was wide. This made it difficult for Atalanta to try and play back inside to break Napoli’s pressure.
Atalanta stronger in second half
Firstly Atalanta made a personnel change at half time, bringing on Palomino for Gianluca Mancini. This meant that Masiello moved to the right side of Atalanta’s back three after having played the first half on the left, which accounts for his deceptive position on Atalanta’s passmap for this game.
Their pressing scheme also seemed slightly more balanced in the second half, with Freuler marking slightly more passively and not getting dragged across the pitch quite so easily. The same was true for Pašalić when Freuler was substituted and Pašalić took up the left central midfield slot.
Napoli meanwhile had decent chances to increase their lead either side of half time. As the second half progressed though, Atalanta gradually began to gain a foothold in the game. Napoli were defending lower in their own half and struggled to find the energetic pressing they had shown previously.
Atalanta thrive on being able to pin teams back once they reach the opponent’s third. Their defensive transition is generally quite strong, with their wide centerbacks interestingly taking an aggressive role in counterpressing high up the pitch. They look to penetrate through wide areas with overlaps from the wing-backs, such as in their first goal in this game, assisted by the overlapping Hans Hateboer. Their strategy is also aided by Alejandro Gómez drifting across the whole width of the pitch to create overloads and use his creativity and technical skills which are arguably a few levels above those of his teammates.
It was striker Duván Zapata who had a decisive impact on the game in the end though. He played a relatively lonely role in the first half chasing long balls into the channels as Atalanta struggled to build cleanly from the back. Later on, he was able to come up with a goal and an assist in the final thirty minutes to hand Atalanta the victory.
Napoli had chances to wrap the game up before Atalanta started gathering momentum in attack. They will be disappointed to have thrown the points away after a strong first half performance. Nevertheless in terms of the league table they look to be relatively safe in second place, six points clear of Inter in third.
Atalanta were let back into the game by Napoli’s inability to put the game to bed, but they did show improvement in the second half. This result puts them level on points with Milan as they look to defy expectations and make Champions League football in Bergamo a reality.
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