Atalanta vs. Real Madrid: A full tactical preview of the first leg

Real Madrid (Photo by Visionhaus)
Real Madrid (Photo by Visionhaus) /

Real Madrid travel to Bergamo as Atalanta BC welcome them to the Gewiss Stadium for the Champions League round-of-16 tie on Wednesday. The build-up to this nervy affair seems somewhat gloomy from a Real Madrid perspective because of all the injuries that have plagued the first team.

Gasperini’s free-scoring side have qualified in second place from Group D – behind holders Liverpool, while 13-time Champions Real Madrid managed to top Group B after a shaky start to proceedings and only sealed their place in the last 16 after a victory against Borussia Mönchengladbach on the last matchday.

Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Eden Hazard, Federico Valverde, Dani Carvajal, Eder Militao, Marcelo, Alvaro Odriozola, and Rodrygo miss the trip to Italy due to injuries while only Hans Hateboer misses the game for Atalanta. While Zinedine Zidane will be looking for damage control, Gasperini’s men will be looking to take advantage of a side crippled by injuries.

Domestically, despite being plagued by injuries throughout, Real Madrid currently enjoy a 4-game winning run in the league and sit 3 points below league leaders Atletico Madrid, having played a game more than their city rivals while Atalanta sit in 5th, 10 points below Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan.

This article discusses the tactical details and the styles of play between Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid and Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta.

Zinedine Zidane’s teams are – and have been – one of the most control-assertive team teams on the planet, especially on the big stage. The technical quality in the side is extremely good and they manage to dominate the ball at every level possible. First, Let’s take a look at how Zinedine Zidane sets his team on and off-the-ball.

Real Madrid on the ball

At the most basic, Real Madrid always look to assert control or dominate the ball. With Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, one of the best controlling duos of all time, asserting control in midfield is child’s play for Zidane’s sides. These two midfield maestros work their magic, while the opposition sits deeper and deeper into the pitch, which eventually becomes the natural state of the game. Zidane primarily uses the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 in which they build with Toni Kroos progressing the ball from deep in Phase I. Luka Modric and Casemiro take up advanced positions while the fullbacks provide the much-needed width to the side. Madrid use overloads on the flanks to circulate the ball to zones 16,18 and use it as a chance creation method.

Real Madrid off the ball

Real Madrid use pressing triggers to win the ball back from the opposition. Karim Benzema, acting as the anchor, cuts passing lanes in between the centre-backs and makes the opposition move the ball to their fullbacks in Phase I. Here, the winger, midfielder, and the full-back exert pressure while covering all the nearby options and either force the opposition left-back or right-back to play long or force the fullback to go back to the goalkeeper. Because Real Madrid are so dominant technically, they force the opposition to sit back almost every time.

Even when they are forced to defend in a low or medium block, their settled press is generally very good. The midfielders exert pressure, in a 4-1-4-1 pressing shape (settled press), on the opposition midfield line while the forwards force long balls or force the opposition to go back to the goalkeeper. But as good as their settled press is, their counter-press when they lose the ball and attempt to win it back is comparatively poor. This can lead to gaps in between during transitions and is the reason they always find themselves prone to so many counter-attacks in the Spanish League.

If you want to know/get into the little details or analyse their system in much depth, check this article I wrote long back on their on-the-ball and off-the-ball structures. Although this might be of the 19/20 season, despite the changes in players over the years, all the Zidane sides primarily build in the same way.

Now, let us take a brief look at their counterparts: Gasperini’s Atalanta.

One of the key elements to Atalanta’s attacking play under Gasperini is their link-up play, positional fluidity, and the way they interchange positions in the same formation. They are chaotic yet organised at the same time. Relentless and aggressive, the outfit from Northern Italy has made quite a name for itself in the football world.

Atalanta on the ball

Atalanta are based around a 3-4-1-2 system of play primarily and use the 3-4-3 as the secondary formation. They build in a 3 CB shape and use the wingbacks to stretch the pitch and to provide width. In Phase II, they move the ball through the wide areas and create overloads to create space for the extra man. They form a diamond-like pattern which gives the player on the ball different passing options. This way they play quick passes and open up play easily with their positional rotations.

The key factor to Atalanta scoring is how players flood into the box when the ball is moved into wide areas. The midfielder sitting behind the two strikers has the freedom to roam all around, making chances for overloads and quick switches of play.

You will also find Zapata or Ilicic rotating with one of the two players closest to them, dropping deep while the midfielder runs into space. The diamond shape makes it easy for Atalanta to create space through rotational play. Gasperini allows his players to be pretty fluid positionally within the diamond; the players are close to one another and use combinations to progress or get out of tight situations. All of Atalanta’s positional interchanges and rotations give them an extra dimension of unpredictability.

Atalanta off the ball

Atalanta implement a man-oriented zonal high-pressing system to win the ball back when defending. Gasperini employs a man-to-man zonal press i.e while the centre-forward, or the player closest to the ball, presses the opposition player on the ball and acts as the trigger to the press. The other players mark the nearest player to them like glue. While the man-to-man approach has its downside, Gasperini’s methodology works on intensity and the high-press. They are intimidating and the high-press is extremely effective when it works well, but is perilous and can come at a high cost.

When defending in a low-mid block, Atalanta’s shape routinely becomes a 5-3-2, with the wingbacks settling deep to form a back 5. They force their opponents out wide, then try to outnumber them on the flanks in an attempt to win the ball back.

They close all nearby passing lanes by outnumbering them which forces the opposition to either go long or build through the centre of the pitch.

How Atalanta vs. Real Madrid might play out

It is still unknown as to what system Zinedine Zidane will field, but I think he will opt for the 4-4-2 with Isco at the tip of the diamond to assert more control into the game. As for Atalanta, I don’t see any changes from Gasperini and they’ll probably work with their usual 3-4-1-2.

Very intriguing as to how Real match up with Atalanta’s system or vice versa. What’s more important to analyse is the differences in style/dynamic between the two sides rather than just the “‘X’ is in good form, ‘X’ are a good team so they’ll win” discussion; because at this stage, in the biggest club competition in the world, there isn’t an enormous difference in quality among the top sides. For instance, just a week ago, Diego Martinez’s Granada beat Italian giants Napoli 2-0 in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League Round of 16, but just 3 days later, they lost 3-2 in La Liga against SD Huesca who, mind you, sit at bottom of the Spanish League table.

The key factor of the game for Real Madrid will be how they keep the ball or control the game. If they manage to keep losing the ball to Atalanta’s high press frequently, we could be in for a very taxing evening and there probably might not be anything to take back to Spain. Zidane’s sides, whoever the opposition might be, have always managed to dictate games and assert control. Marcelo-Kroos-Modric-Isco-Carvajal, combined with Karim Benzema dropping deep, asserted the best control on the European stage. That is one of the major reasons why Madrid have been so successful in Europe in the past decade.

I expect Real Madrid to have long periods of possession on the ball as a result of the incredible technical quality they possess.  Even though Atalanta’s area of chance creation revolves around their high pressing, Real are bound to play out of that Atalanta’s high press on multiple occasions because of that technical quality, with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric expected to be pulling all strings.

Atalanta could exploit Real as soon as they lose possession because the Real Madrid fullbacks always position themselves high up the pitch and could be caught out. When Real track back/are in transition, the defensive shape gets often disoriented and gaps are formed. These gaps could be dangerous because Josip Iličić is a proper transition monster. While the field is stretched and spaces are open, the Slovenian comes to life and is relentless on the counter-attack.

Considering the aggressive nature of Atalanta’s high press, I expect Real to win a lot of freekicks around the area. Atalanta will need to be careful in situations like these because Madrid have goals from everywhere; Varane, Nacho, and Casemiro all pop up in these situations and attack free balls.

Without captain Sergio Ramos and right back Dani Carvajal, I think it’s fair to say that the defenders have their work cut out for them. It is curious as to how Zidane has planned/plans to stop Atalanta’s free-flowing football and positional interchange.

The first goal could completely change the dynamic of the game; if Atalanta score first, then they are likely to continue pressing while Real could look to take that scoreline to Spain, but if Real score first, knowing Gasperini’s men, they will chase the game and it will open lots of spaces for the Spanish Champions.

Next. 3 predictions for Atalanta vs. Real Madrid. dark

With a squad plagued by injuries and with many key players out, I think it’s fair to say that Real are the underdogs to this tie. Overall, it’s a game of incredibly tight margins, and it essentially boils down to composure and conversion. No room for error for the 13-time champions.