Sassuolo – Atalanta: Opposite Styles Lock Horns Whilst Red Cards Swing States (1-1)
Serie A’s most central-focused team fared against the most wing-orientated, which had red cards, penalties and big moments in store to swing the game state. Gian Piero Gasperini adapted to frustrate Sassuolo, following the earlier dismissal of his goalkeeper, but substitutes from Roberto De Zerbi unlocked a restricted Atalanta.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
With only a few weeks left of the Serie A season, Sassuolo and Atalanta went head-to-head, with European aspirations in minds and hearts.
After a strong start to the campaign, a blip in form across 2021’s first months have seen Roberto De Zerbi’s team slide out of Europa League contention. However, a chance for Conference League competition will round off an impressive season for Sassuolo, whose only European experience came in the Europa League group stage five years ago.
Atalanta’s impressive late-season form has seen them shot up to third place in the table, but with Champions League places still heavily in the balance. Just five points split the five teams behind Internazionale, whose budgets dwarf Atalanta’s and yet none of them have matched the goal-scoring efficiency of Gian Piero Gasperini’s side.
De Zerbi made three changes to the team that beat Sampdoria. Jeremy Toljan was replaced by Mert Müldür in the right back position, whilst Pedro Obiang came in for Gian Marco Ferrari, which saw Marlon move into the center-back position. Jérémie Boga was the final rotation, who came in for Maxime Lopez, as Sassuolo moved into a 4-2-3-1 system.
Gasperini made only two changes, from the team which thumped Bologna last weekend. Robin Gosens and Matteo Pessina came in, to replace Joakim Mæhle and Luis Muriel, which resulted in Atalanta moving into a 3-4-1-2 system, from the 3-4-2-1 shape that they also use from time to time.
Atalanta’s high press controls early stages
The teams’ exciting and unique clash of styles was best showcased within the first twenty minutes, where a central-focused Sassuolo attempted to build through the strict man-orientated press that Atalanta deployed.
Sassuolo’s 4-2-3-1 build resembled more of a 4-2-4 shape in the process when passing from deep. Pedro Obiang and Manuel Locatelli could both sit in the central position, whilst Hamed Junior Traorè and Grégoire Defrel offered a narrow vertical option for either of the double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. in possession. Atalanta would make up for the extra man, by pushing one of the wider center-backs forward to track their movements, which was dependent on which side the ball would be positioned on.
1st minute: Example of Atalanta’s man-orientated press, which aimed to cut off central circulation and isolated Sassuolo’s fullbacks. Locatelli was forced backwards from pressure by two players before the ball transitioned to Müldür and out for a throw-in.
The pressing scheme was successful because they were able to disconnect the fullbacks from the buildup. When Müldür or Giorgos Kyriakopoulos received possession, it would be without the wall pass A one-touch pass that quickly sends the ball back to sender. In the meantime the sender has quickly moved into free space, and he momentarily escapes pressure. recipients to help bypass such pressure and Atalanta were able to overload these areas as a result. When De Zerbi’s team attempted to play out of the back, it would lead to sequences concluding out wide or flowing back to Andre Consigli between the posts.
Fortunately for Sassuolo, the distribution of Consigli was able to bypass lines of pressure and create uncomfortable scenarios for Atalanta center-backs. His passes would often find their way behind Atalanta’s midfield line, engaging their narrow wingers into the action. Both Traorè and Jérémie Boga had the pace and agility to carry the ball, progressing on the shoulder of opposition center-backs.
Such direct distribution led to one of the first game-changing moments of the match. A long ball forward from Kyriakopoulos was able to engage Boga, who had gotten behind Hans Hateboer in the process. Once he took a touch, he was clattered by the goalkeeper, Pierluigi Gollini, outside of his penalty area and being the last man before the goal. His dismissal led to Matteo Pessina being replaced by Marco Sportiello and passed control to Sassuolo.
Intensity drops but Sassuolo build struggles
From this point onwards, getting out of their defensive third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the defensive third is the area closest to a team’s own goal. was not an issue for Sassuolo. Being a man less resulted in Atalanta dropping their intensity within their press and maintain their man-orientation beyond the two center-backs. Once a difficult pass to make, now a pass to the fullbacks was a safe bet in travelling the ball towards the halfway line, but generating shots from possession control proved to be a tough ask.
Sassuolo built more in an asymmetric 4-4-2 diamond formation, reliant on effective positional play in the first two lines, whilst the free attackers provided dynamic movements to disrupt the opponents’ defensive line. As a result, personnel would exchange positions between sequences, whilst keeping to the shape that they had deployed. For example, when Traorè would make a central run, Locatelli could push up to cover the ten position, whilst Kyriakopoulos covered his space next to Obiang and Boga maintained width by pinning the opposition wing-back.
29th minute: Example of rotation within Sassuolo’s positional play. As Traorè makes a run into space, the ball funnels from right-to-left, through Chiricheș to Obiang (Grey ball, first pass). Kyriakopoulos moves infield into vacant space to receive the pass from Obiang (Black ball, second pass.)
In possession, De Zerbi’s team were very effective at keeping the ball, because a vertical pass towards the flanks would often find its way to a free man. Atalanta’s defensive shape resembled a 3-4-1-1 formation, with Ruslan Malinovskyi behind Duván Zapata, and the double pivot of Remo Freuler and Marten de Roon being occupied with direct central runners. As a result, Sassuolo had numerical superiority in the middle third, but could not engage their attackers in the same way that they could when on the transition.
Though the pre-determined runs, coming from the attackers, offered inventiveness, Atalanta defenders wouldn’t be as far apart as they would be if they were defending from a position higher up. Wing-backs were in support and Sassuolo did not overcommit in these attacks, which led to Atalanta maintaining a spare man when in the defensive phase.
Atalanta rarely built in this period of play, but when they did their trademark principles applied; aggressive, vertical passes out wide before building in the channels. Gasperoni’s team found more success progressing down the left side of the field. Not only was Zapata isolated with the clumsy Vlad Chiricheș, who struggled immensely against the striker in possession, but Sassuolo were incapable of dealing with the wide rotations, between the left side of Atalanta’s build.
This was highlighted in the goal that they had scored. When the ball transitioned from right to left, Berat Djimsiti was able to receive by the touchline and encourage an exchange in positions between Malinovskyi and Robin Gosens. The wing-back got on the end of a dinked pass, to smash the ball in on the half volley.
Half-time changes brought efficient building
De Zerbi’s substitutions at half-time did not change the setup of his team, but their ball circulation massively improved because of it. Chiricheș was replaced by Gian Marco Ferrari in the center-back position, whilst Defrel was replaced by Giacomo Raspadori upfront.
The addition of a left-footed center-back opened up entirely new angles for Sassuolo to penetrate. Marlon had occupied the area in the first half and had always been encouraged to play the ball back across, but Ferrari could split lines and find third man runners in optimal positions. Passes from that left side of the field, from Ferrari and Locatelli, caused the most danger for Sassuolo, because two of their most effective runners, Traorè and Boga, were already operating down that channel.
The first few phases, at the beginning of the second half, included such progressive passes taking place. This includes the build which led to their equalizer; Locatelli’s line-breaking pass found Raspadori, who pinned his marker deep and created the space, between the lines, for Traorè, to run into. Traorè was toppled down inside of the penalty area, for Domenico Berardi to score from the penalty spot. Though Sassuolo continued to have more of the ball, this was the most threatening period of the game for them.
49th minute: Buildup to Sassuolo’s equalizer. Locatelli made a line-breaking pass to Raspadori (Grey ball, first pass), whose lay-off met the third man run of Traorè (Black ball, second pass), which enabled him to enter the penalty area.
After the equalizer, Atalanta built a number of chances through the transition and were able to jump through their counterpress, by targeting the space between fullback and center-back. Zapata had the first run on the end of a long ball, which failed to produce a shot, but Malinovskyi’s diagonal run and through pass into Hateboer created one of the game’s best chances. A cut-back onto his left foot forced an excellent save from Consigli.
More even spells and faster builds
With the game back to an even score, both teams ramped up the shot count; transitioning the ball faster and taking lesser quality shots. Sassuolo started to hit longer channel passes, as shorter options within the build were gone and more explosive runs were being made behind the Atalanta defensive line.
When an attacker had found separation from the marker, these passes created a threat, which became more prominent down the right side; where Müldür or Locatelli could receive in space and were spearheaded by the curved runs that Raspadori provided, from the center space into the right channel. Sassuolo did have the ball in the net on one occasion, thanks to such a pattern, but the substitute mistimed his run before he squared back to Locatelli.
Atalanta’s attacking play was still in an uncharacteristic state. Their wide buildup play was ineffective without a central target and Sassuolo continued to press heavy when their opponents got in possession. Gasperoni’s team developed a huge opportunity from a long ball forward and shoddy defending from Sassuolo defenders. A weak header from Ferrari put Marlon and substitute Luis Muriel in a duel inside of the area. Marlon dragged down the striker, which resulted in both a red card and penalty for Atalanta, but Muriel could not convert past Consigli.
With even men now on the field, the intensity of Atalanta’s press returned to similar levels we had seen at the start of the game. Now they were actively pressing the center-backs, Sassuolo’s ball retention dropped and returned to going more directly from deeper positions. Although Atalanta got into more positions where they could build, Sassuolo’s 4-4-1 /4 -1-4 set-up kept its compactness and denied the space out wide for the opposition to properly rotate.
From a buildup perspective, these are two of the most engaging and interesting teams Italy has to offer; Atalanta’s meteoric rise should be inspirational to a club like Sassuolo’s. The foundations are there in terms of the passing structure and a coach who has developed some interesting patterns within his team.
Atalanta is now mathematically incapable of winning the title, but this is the team who have offered the most excitement and flexibility in Serie A. To achieve Champions League qualification would be another outstanding achievement, but the gap is getting tighter.
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