Football Features

“Gasperini’s Mandzukic-esque outlet offers unique dimension” – Ilicic hits four as Atalanta thrash Valencia

By Ben Green

Published: 22:14, 10 March 2020

Champions League debutants Atalanta have cantered to the quarter-final pots after easing past Valencia in the last-16.

It took just three minutes for the Goddess to pick up from where they left off in Italy, with Josip Ilicic converting from the penalty spot after Mouctar Diakhaby’s trailing leg caught the Slovenian. The host’s drew blood of their own through Kevin Gameiro midway through the first half, but celebrations were largely muted — and not just because this game was contested behind closed doors at the Mestalla.

Albert Celades’ men knew they had a mountain to climb, and the task became virtually insurmountable three minutes before the break, with Diakhaby once again the culprit of Valencia’s downfall, and Ilicic, the protagonist for Atalanta, as he once again scored from 12 yards after the defender handled the ball from inside the box.

The first leg was a procession as Gian Piero Gasperini’s well-orchestrated machine won 4-1 at the San Siro, but they refused to rest on their laurels tonight and ease through this fixture; instead, playing their usual game and showing a battered Valencia no mercy in what continues to be a fairytale debut in the Champions League.

Valencia fought back after the restart with Gameiro completing his brace and Ferran Torres getting in on the action, but two more goals from that man Ilicic sealed the Spaniard’s fate, with the Slovenian netting four on the night in an emphatic 4-3 rout.

After losing their first three group games, including a 4-0 capitulation against Dinamo Zagreb on matchday one, few could have predicted the rise of Atalanta in autumn. But, Gasperini has masterminded a meteoric rise in this competition and Atalanta should no longer be considered a dark horse, but rather a team to avoid when the quarter-final draw is made. And here’s why…

Strengths

Versatility

It’s not just that Gasperini has assembled a side replete with rich creative talent, but that each player brings a unique dimension to the table. The Italian tactician has a number of different combinations and line-ups he can deploy, but no matter the composition, his high-pressing, free-flowing system thrives.

Gasperini tends to adopt a 3-4-3 formation, but he has proven reactive on the touchline and can deviate slightly from this set-up, making in-game changes depending on the opposition and how his side are performing — iterations of 3-4-2-1 and 3-4-1-2 have been utilised for example.

At the Mestalla, Atalanta switched between 3-4-3 and a 3-4-1-2, shifting to the former when Duvan Zapata entered the fray on the stroke of half-time. And here is the prime example of Gasperini’s flexibility; instead of making a like-for-like substitution, central midfielder Marten de Roon was replaced by a striker.

The change allowed Mario Pasalic to drop back and function as an ultra-energetic No. 8 alongside the industrious Remo Freuler, leaving Gasperini with a blend of creativity, physicality and directness across his attacking trident.

Papu Gomez offers the playmaker spark, while Ilicic has often been likened to Mario Mandzukic, in that both are 6 ft 3 in but possess excellent ball-playing skills and are far more effective with the ball at their feet rather than in the air. Though, with such towering frames, both offer an aerial outlet in worst case scenarios.

Finally, Zapata brings a clinical edge to the party, able to drop deep and drag defenders, creating gaps in the half-space for Gomez and Ilicic to exploit. Failing that, Gasperini can turn his attention to Colombian ace Luis Muriel or Ruslan Malinovskyi to play further up the pitch.

Energy

For any high-pressing system to work effectively a manager must have players willing to put in the hard yards, push up the turf and create numerical advantages in key areas of the pitch to isolate the opposition and close their options. Just look at Jurgen Klopp’s counterpressing Liverpool side; the German’s blueprint requires workmanlike midfielders constantly running, wing-backs effectively playing as wingers, and forwards who constantly close down.

On paper this can seem counterproductive as it would seem to tire the players out, but when everyone is on the same wavelength the amount of running is actually reduced as the space is compressed and the opposition are not allowed to knock the ball about freely and on their own terms.

Atalanta utilise a similar philosophy — which can also be their downfall as we’ll touch on later — with each player assigned a role of pressing to suffocate the opposition, create overloads and to keep the game played at a high tempo, which suits their style.

Freuler and De Roon are the two biggest proponents of Gasperini’s high-pressing set-up, pushing up the pitch to close the space when out of possession, while arriving late in the box during attacking transitions. Wing-back duo Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens will stretch the pitch, and thus the opposition defence, while providing that all-too familiar high surge of the modern-day full-back.

Josip Ilicic 

Gomez may be the diminutive fulcrum, the creative catalyst of this side, while Zapata and Muriel have often prove the trusty source of goals, but Ilicic is the unique weapon of Gasperini’s attack. A player who is so difficult to deal with because of his diverse repertoire. The goalscoring hero boasts a perfect marriage of physical prowess with ball-playing finesse — plus he certainly knows where the back of the net is.

In fact, the Slovenian is Atalanta’s top goalscorer in both Serie A and the Champions League this season, bagging 15 in the Italian top-flight, while getting his name on five in Europe. He is also the club’s joint-second top assist provider in Serie A, setting up five goals on domestic soil.

And tonight Valencia simply couldn’t handle the Slovenian, who looked threatening every time he received the ball, handing Diakhaby a night to forget as the defender proved guilty of numerous aberrations at the back. His four-goal haul tonight was simply outrageous, and those waiting in the pots for the quarter-finals should be extremely wary of this free-scoring beast. 

Weaknesses

Defence

Atalanta’s philosophy has largely been to just outscore the opposition this season, and well, when you’re able to conjure up scorelines of 7-1 over Udinese, 5-0 over AC Milan, 7-0 over Torino and 7-2 over Lecce, not to mention sticking eight past Valencia across two legs, who can blame them.

But, sooner or later that buccaneering, swashbuckling approach will catch up on them, particularly against more competent, experienced sides in this competition. The quarter-finals are awash with well-established, elite-level teams, who will capitalise on even the slightest fragility at the back.

Gasperini has effective, efficient centre-backs, but when they are caught out of possession high up the pitch, which often proved the case tonight, they will get punished, and Valencia duly took their chances when the Italian’s were either squirming back or not quite focused.

In just eight Champions League matches this term, Atalanta have conceded 16 goals, only Spurs (17), Genk (20) and Red Star Belgrade (20) have conceded more this season, while they have only kept two clean sheets — things will have to tighten up defensively if they are to stand a chance in these latter stages.

Energy 

And just as energy is a massive strength of this side, it is also one of their main weaknesses as they don’t know when to flick the switch off and see games out comfortably. Gasperini simply doesn’t do pragmatism, he is an idealist who stays true to his identity and wants to play liquid football at every given opportunity.

Picture this: would any pragmatist approach this match, 4-1 up and in cruise control, with the same high-pressing, exhilarating system? From minute one Atalanta were pushing up the pitch, best illustrated by Ilicic’s willingness to get into the box and attack with the same fervent energy we’ve become accustomed to all season.

The result proved highly fruitful as the visitors raced into a 1-0 goal lead, with the strike setting the tone for the game, as both sides exchanged blows in a match that, at times, resembled the 12th round in a boxing ring, with both fighters trying desperately to land that knockout punch.

It made for a highly entertaining evening of football, and on reflection, few can criticise a game in which Atalanta won 4-3, but as previously alluded to, against more defensively resilient sides, this could prove their downfall.