It’s time for another Nerazzurri derby, and that means we got the opportunity to check in with our friend Nick from AtalantaPassione, the best English language site out there on La Dea. We go over everything Atalanta-related, from a brand new tactical outlook to a summer transfer window recap. A big thanks to Nick for stopping by! You can follow him on twitter here.
Q: Atalanta is back in the top four after an off-year and 8th-placed finish last season. What went wrong in 2021/22 and how has Gasperini guided La Dea back on track? Any tactical changes?
A: The end of the 2021/22 season was an unforgettable one for us Atalantini. 3 victories in the final 10 matches sealed Atalanta’s fate and it’s tough to truly figure out where to place the blame. Injuries are an easy and lazy scapegoat, and even though Duvan Zapata missed a fair amount of time, it was only a small reason why Atalanta suffered so much down the stretch.
In my opinion, a lack of ruthless or even average finishing was Atalanta’s downfall. I wrote an article in the summer (Editor’s note: check it out here, it’s well worth the read) about how poor Atalanta’s finishing was than in seasons past and that just ballooned into a wider array of problems: Atalanta couldn’t finish, thus more men had to be committed forward to add strength to the attack, which then left the defense far too vulnerable to counter attacks. Throw all the advanced metrics in which Atalanta was top of the league like PPDA and field tilt – it didn’t amount to a hill of beans without taking advantage of the opportunities given to them.
So enter this season, and Gasperini tore up his old manual and started from scratch. Atalanta evolved into an ugly, defensive first team that was much more concerned in defensive solidarity and then punching on the counter when the opportunity arose. And it has worked well so far! Atalanta’s pressing and possession metrics are far lower than last season, but even during this recent poor run of form, the results are still encouraging. Gasperini has begun to add a bit more of his press and attacking dominance to compliment the defense, and Atalanta’s best results have come when the balance between attack and defense was on point (see Sassuolo and Empoli matches). Atalanta can still get a bit possession heavy, and it bit us midweek against Lecce, in which defensive blunders put Atalanta in a situation where it had to play aggressively on the ball and couldn’t work the spaces as well than they have this season on the counterattack.
That’s what I’m most concerned about this season, ensuring that Atalanta does not revert too much back into dictating possession for the sake of possession.
Q: What were the big moves of Atalanta’s summer market and how have they paid off so far?
A: Even though Atalanta did not have any Champion’s League money to fall back on this year, it was still Atalanta’s busiest summer ever (in terms of cash going out for transfers). Every new player has contributed in some shape or form, and some players have already become indispensable to the current tactic.
Ademola Lookman from RB Leipzig has been the premier signing of the bunch so far, with his six goals and expert finishing that works well within a more counterattacking style.
Ederson, from Salernitana, is still my favorite signing of the bunch. While Gasperini has tried to convert him into a trequartista, the Brazilian has been a bit slow out of the gate. However, now that he has been dropping deeper in the midfield into more of his natural role, we have seen him shine a bit more. It's tough to peg his true role because he’s very athletic for a central defensive midfielder, yet his anticipation and awareness are strong. I still expect him to be a new take on the Remo Freuler box-to-box role that we were so accustomed to in Serie A for years.
Rasmus Hojlund probably has the tools to be the best of Atalanta’s new signings. The strapping Danish forward is still 19, but he possesses an unlimited work rate and strength that no other Atalanta striker displays (ehh Duvan is probably stronger, but he never works off the ball!) His game is still raw, but he is great off the ball, and likely has the ceiling of another left-footed striker playing for Juventus, if everything falls correctly.
I also have to give a shout-out to Brandon Soppy, who has also flashed in the minutes he’s gotten. He leads the team in assists but is still trying to round out his game as a wingback. He’s great going forward, but a little shaky in possession and defense – but that’s to be expected from a 20-year-old.
Q: What does a successful season look like in Bergamo?
A: The Percassi family that owns the club always states that 40 points and salvation is always the primary goal! I don’t know if they firmly believe that, or if they’re being a bit tongue in cheek – but the goal, especially after these early season results, has to be to return to the Champion’s League next season. However, I think a more realistic expectation is to finish top 6 and hope the chips fall right to claw back into the top 4.
Q: What are Atalanta’s strengths and weaknesses? Are there any players that Simone Inzaghi should keep a special eye on?
A: In previous seasons it would be far too easy to say that the attack was the obvious strength of Atalanta. Yet, with all the adjustments we’ve seen this year, the team really doesn’t have a weakness that can be exploited. Atalanta may not be elite at any one spot on the pitch, but there’s no glaring spot to exploit. Perhaps wingback, but Joakim Maehle has finally broken out of his shell and started replicating the form he normally reserves for the Danish National Team.
But the ultimate strength, to me, of this team is when the horses start overloading the left side of the pitch. Watch for Lookman, Teun Koopmeiners, Maehle, and Giorgio Scalvini to load up on the left in attack at the appropriate opportunity and work a ball into the box for either Hojlund or Mario Pasalic. That has been a bread-and-butter attacking strategy that has worked multiple times for Atalanta this year (goals against Fiorentina and Udinese are great examples of this).
Weaknesses have been illustrated sporadically throughout the piece, but teams that force Atalanta to play possession-based football can be rewarded handsomely. Atalanta’s passing can often be lackadaisical, and when attacking players begin being rooted to their possession, they lose the dynamism that has led to many of their goals this year.
Q: And lastly, what’s your prediction for Sunday?
A: I wish I could be a little more optimistic! Consecutive losses to Napoli and Lecce stings, so there is always hope that Atalanta is seeking revenge for what happened Wednesday down in Puglia. Nonetheless, the way Inter responded after the loss to Juventus has me worried about Atalanta garnering points, so I’ll pick Inter 2-1 – with the caveat that if Atalanta takes the lead within the first 30 minutes, they’ll hold on and win!