Pressing the issue: A look at how Atalanta press under Gian Piero Gasperini

This season, Atalanta were able to secure qualification to the Champions League for the first time in its history. The mastermind of this success was Gian Piero Gasperini, a former Genoa and Internazionale manager who has created a distinguishable identity for his Atalanta side.

There are a number of facets to the brand of football that Gasperini has etched into the fabric of this Atalanta side, but in this post I want to look at the press that the Bergamese side religiously deploy.  It’s a huge segment of Gasperini’s playing style, and there’s 2 key aspects of it that make it work as effectively as it does.

man to man marking

One of the important factors in Gasperini’s pressure system is the element of man to man marking. He is a coach who likes to occupy each player of the oppositions with one of his own, and is honestly someone who embraces the risk of football. In an interview with La Gazetta, he spoke about the moment he adopted this emphasis on man to man marking, saying how he “gained a spare man that I could commit to tactical manoeuvres. It was worth the risk.”

That closing line is particularly telling to how Gasperini wishes his sides to play, and to fully understand the severity of his sides efforts to block passing lanes and win the ball back, I feel it’s a good idea to look at scenario’s in which the ball is in the opposition’s third.

I feel this image of a game against Internazionale is a good example of the press in action. As Inter look to build from the back, Atalanta have multiple men committed to challenging the process, and all achievable passing lanes in shot here are blocked by a Gasperini man. The intent of the press is really on show here, as they are want the ball back, very high up on the pitch. There’s not a particular goal threat against Atalanta here, but still Gasperini wants his side to win the ball back high up the field.

Of course the identity of the team has to remain consistent when the ball passes out of this area of the pitch, and Gasperini’s principles do not shift once the opposition bypass the final third. Here, against Napoli, Atalanta are pressing with the same intensity, with the same man to man ethos, its just they are playing in a mid block shape as opposed to a high one. All the solutions that Napoli could turn to are occupied by a blue and black shirt, and another thing of note here is the fact that the Atalanta back three is matching the intensity of the rest of the team. The line they sit on is high, and they help to provide compactness to the mid block to ensure no gaps are left in behind.

For further affirmation of the presence of man to man marking in Gasperini’s pressing ethos, here’s a grab from a game against Juventus. Again, as the opposition look to construct a move with their defence, Gasperini has his men taking on a one for one approach to the mid block press. The man on the ball and the options he has are all occupied as Atalanta look to win the ball back.

triangle press

Since his days in Genoa, Gasperini has had a clear cut affinity with the 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 shape, and this marriage did not end once he rocked up in Bergamo. One of the key elements of this shape is the triangle shape that resides at the tip of it, and this is an optimum outline for applying Gasperini’s press for a number of reasons.

Here is one reason why. As the opposition are aiming to build from the back, look at the shape of the Atalanta front 3 that are pressing. A clear triangle shape is in place, and this image is a great look into the relevance and value of the shape to Gasperini’s press. First of all, note how the striker is able to take out two passing options; one through pressing the goalkeeper, the other by shadowing the midfielder who is dropping deep to collect the ball. Then, note how his two teammates are now able to act once he has taken out the midfield passing lane, as they can take a man each and focus on making the passage of the ball out of the back as difficult as possible for the opposition.

In order to fully understand the role and value of the triangle shape in Gasperini’s system, it’s important to acknowledge that he aims to block off the central passing avenues with his press. Forward vertical passes are the most valuable that a team can have as it allows genuine progression up the field, and Gasperini, like many pressure oriented managers in Europe, wishes to block these off. He would much rather force the opposition out wide where it is easier to press due to there being less options for the man in possession. Take this image for example. The triangle right down the middle blocks off the central passing lanes, and as a result of this Juve had to play back and to the wings, which resulted in them losing the ball.

In this short clip from that same game against Juventus, here we see Atalanta’s pressure triangle being used to disrupt the salida lavolpiana-esque movement, with the full backs pushed up and the number 6 dropping deep. Aligning in a shape with two strikers, Atlanta can play man to man on the two centre backs, and have the number 10 mark the defensive midfielder who has the role of being an outlet for the defence. Also make sure you note the effort that Gomez spends getting to form that diamond shape. That’s almost a reiteration of how important this is to Gasperini’s strategy (also credit to Mindfootballnes on YouTube for the video).

This season Atalanta, under the stewardship of Gasperini, have proven to be a real surprise in the Serie A. As well as being a terrific pressing outfit they also boast the most goals scored in the Italian top flight this season, and have exceeded expectations with their 3rd place finish. They have a dedicated group of the players, one of the best managers in the division, and I can’t wait to watch them next season as they perform on the European stage.

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