Having saved their blushes with a late dash to secure top spot and qualification through to the UEFA Champions League round of 16 phase, Real Madrid learned their fate earlier this week – it was Atalanta.
The Serie A club appear to be a neutral’s dream, and there is already talk of a potential stunning elimination for Real at the hands of the Italians, who seem to come into the tie as unpredictable.
With off-field issues, and inconsistencies compared to the ridiculously entertaining side of 2019-20, they aren’t quite the same unit, and so while the 13-time European champions will remain quietly confident, Zinedine Zidane will know there’s no room for complacency and errors in this competition, at any stage.
And so, although the contest is still two months away, I thought I’d sit down with a fan of ‘La Dea’, known as @AtalantaPassion on Twitter, for a preview Q&A to whet your appetite. Enjoy!
How has your season been so far?
“So far it has been a mixed bag for us. It was quite evident that Atalanta’s focus this fall was the Champions League, and their Serie A form took a bit of a hit as a result. They currently sit mid-table in the league (albeit only five points from the top five, with a game in hand), and they have struggled to find the goalscoring form they displayed in the league last year and in the first three matches of this season. With Champions League out of the way until February, it will be a well needed break for a squad that isn’t too deep and can focus on one front for a while, and hopefully climb back up the table.”
What are the contrasts from last season, and biggest differences this season?
“One positive and one negative. Positively, Atalanta’s defense has tidied up nicely ever since their 5-0 loss at home to Liverpool. Normally a team known for their offensive firepower, where defence was optional, Gian Piero Gasperini has tweaked his tactics that offer a slightly more balanced approach to matches. Cristian Romero has firmly established himself as the heart of Atalanta’s back three, and in my opinion has been the biggest reason the defence is much improved. While they still get forward and you’ll always see a central defender making runs into the box in Gasperini’s system, it seems more measured and balanced between attack and defence so far this year. Negatively, the goalscoring and offensive has taken a hit. No one was expecting us to put up 98 Serie A goals again this year, but Atalanta has even struggled to get goals against teams they should be comfortably beating (look at the Spezia 0-0 draw for example). Part of it is that teams are adapting to Atalanta’s style, and Atalanta are still figuring out what they need to do to respond to the tactics being thrown at them, but I still think this will get sorted out. Sunday was a nice return to form after putting three goals past Fiorentina, including two set-pieces, an area in which they were extremely effective last year.”
Josip Illic and Papu Gomez are obviously the key men, if they do feature in both matches, what do Real Madrid need to be wary of?
“I’m sure you’re well aware of the Papu drama that has gone down this week, and it seems pretty unlikely that he’ll even be with the squad come January, let alone February. By some change of heart he still is with the squad, but he’s like a wind-up toy. In all honesty, he kind of reminds me of Isco, but with a plan. I haven’t watched too much Madrid recently, but when Isco featured frequently several years ago, I was always impressed by his dribbling and ability to never lose the ball, but his attacks never seemed to have an end result, it was almost as if he dribbled around for the sake of dribbling, not sure if this is a fair take or not? Papu can also put in fantastic crosses with both feet, so you can never favor one side as a defender. In all honesty, some Atalantini will probably disagree with me, but Ilicic has been one of the prime reasons Atalanta has faltered in the league. While he carried us against Valencia, scoring five goals in that draw, I feel Gasperini has given him an incredibly long leach to gel again with the squad after tending to his personal problems over the summer. He still hasn’t got back to match form, and trying to get him back there has been to the overall detriment of the offense. Atalanta has two other lefties who can do similar things as Josip, and perhaps better at this point, but Gasperini’s insistence and stubbornness on reintroducing Ilicic into the squad has stagnated our progress more than anything. Josip is still world class on his day, but his bad days seem to outnumber his good days far too often this season, which doesn’t bode well for the future given his age.”
Other key players who Madrid need to watch out for?
“I already mentioned Romero in defence. But watch out for the wingers Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens. They have non-stop motors and will run up and down the flanks all day without ever fatiguing. The classic Atalanta goal has now become one winger crossing to the other as he bombs into the box, both love to get forward. In attack, Duvan Zapata leads the line well. While his finishing has not been what it has been over the last two years, his work rate and contributions in link-up play, as well as assisting players bombing forward (did I mention the wingbacks like to get forward!?) makes up for his lack of goals. If he regains his goalscoring confidence, he can be an all-round handful for either Raphael Varane or Sergio Ramos. An honorable mention to Ruslan Malinovskyi and his thunderous left-foot. I’ve never seen a guy strike a ball as firmly as him.”
Tactically, what does Gasperini like to do?
“Classic Gasperini has always been a variant of a 3-4-3 with heavy man marking, and getting everyone forward to outscore opponents. The man marking can get so obscene sometimes, you’ll see a defender dog an opponent back into his own half of the pitch before passing the ball to an outlet. However, Gasperini has been more measured this year in the Champions League. Against Liverpool and Ajax on the road, he inserted an additional midfielder in the middle of the pitch to try and control more space in the middle, and play a slightly more conservative 3-5-2. It was a tactic that worked extremely well against both clubs, and earned La Dea six points and two clean-sheets. So I would not be surprised to see a similar formation against Real Madrid, where they have to be more cautious against a top club. Breathing down opponents’ necks works well against mid-table and sometimes top Serie A teams, but Gasperini has learned that it doesn’t work against the upper echelon, and sometimes a more conservative approach can work equally as well. Again, I think the emergence of Romero in the middle has given Gasperini the confidence to welcome more pressure and try to hit on the counter.”
Do you expect Atalanta to push up high and rush Madrid with their intense press, or are Atalanta capable of playing various types of styles, and have they shown that in any specific games this season?
“As mentioned above, I expect a very similar setup as the Liverpool and Ajax games. They’ll still press when the opportunity presents itself, and you’ll still see central defenders making runs forward into the box, but I envision it being much more selective.”
How worried are you by Real’s recent return to form?
“You always have to be worried when you go up against a team like Real that has an ungodly amount of Champions League experience. I think that can help clubs overcome bad spells of form, and will be a leg up for them in a few months time regardless of how either club is playing entering late-February. Your latest win against a high-flying Atletico Madrid proves that Zidane and company can unlock even the stingiest defenses, which Atalanta definitely aren’t! This will be an interesting question to revisit in February, but I imagine with Real being focused on La Liga, between now and February will be a welcome period for the players and a chance to build on the four straight wins you’ve picked up. The Covid-19 twist at the beginning of this has been tough on teams battling in Champions League, and on the home-front, Real and Atalanta included, and I think less football and more time to rest and get healthy will do wonders for the clubs that had to battle midweek.”
Madrid players you most fear, and why?
“Besides the classic answers like Ramos, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, three other players come to mind. Casemiro. He’s the rock and enforcer in the middle that is the metronome for the club. Similar to Remo Freuler on our side, Casemiro worries me in that he’ll neutralise pretty much anything that comes at him through the middle, putting much more offensive pressure on Gosens and Hateboer on the wings than I’d like. Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo Goes too. While they’re young and raw, they’re lightning quick. The biggest weakness in Atalanta’s defense is handling speed, and it will require Hateboer and Gosens to do even more tracking back to deal with them, since none of our central defenders can handle their speed. This circles back to worrying about Casemiro enforcing the middle. If Gosens and Hateboer are stretched thin having to provide offensively, how will they respond to their defensive duties of having to mark two of the fastest players in Europe? Atalanta struggled mightily with the speed of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe against Paris Saint Germain last year, and while Vinicius and Rodrygo don’t have the playmaking and finishing quality of those two, I envision they can still wreak similar havoc.”
Areas which Atalanta struggle with in their gameplay?
“As mentioned above, their biggest weakness comes down to covering speed, especially on the counter. They can be incredibly vulnerable on the counter, which is by design sometimes given the number of bodies they put forward, but then they don’t have the speed to make up for lost possession. Their midfielders aren’t particularly speedy, so it normally comes down to Gosens, Hateboer or Romero – who has an incredibly quick first step, but doesn’t have elite speed for a center-back – having to chase down a counter, and if one of Hateboer or Gosens is in the opposition’s box contributing to attack, they can frequently and severely be out of position to provide any defensive cover. Offensively they can struggle to pick apart a team that parks the bus, but I don’t envision Real throwing nine or 10 men behind the ball to protect a draw!”
Particular games in which Atalanta have struggled with this season?
“In Serie A, their 4-1 loss to Napoli was an absolute embarrassment and a very anti-Gasperini game. Normally Atalanta confidently come out in Serie A games, mark tightly and press from the get-go, but this specific match was anything but. I believe this was also Fabio Depaoli’s first game with Atalanta, who is Hateboer’s back-up on the right-wing. He was clearly not up to the task of keeping up with Hirving Lozano who tore Atalanta apart, and was the first sign that wingback depth was going to be one of the biggest challenges this year after losing Timothy Castagne to Leicester City. In the Champions League, the 5-0 loss to Liverpool is too easy a pick, but their fifth game of the group stage against FC Midtjylland illustrated their difficulty in picking apart a parked bus. If not for a game saving header from Romero to tie the game, they wouldn’t have sniffed the goal. There were too many blocked shots in the box, and lost possession inside the 18 yard box, trying to get too cute. I don’t particularly know how Atalanta should handle this yet, but with the height and strength of Zapata in the middle, a cross onto his head either for a shot on goal or a flick-on may be the best attack to at least test a keeper surrounded by nine teammates in the box.”
Which formation are Atalanta likely to go with for these games?
“Gasperini will always play with three at the back, so the only question is what does he do with the other seven outfield players. I think the effectiveness of inserting the third midfielder against Liverpool and Ajax will have him using the same formation against Real Madrid. So I’ll say 3-5-2, with two wingbacks, a trequartista and lone center forward up front.”
Do they defend compactly, or are they not strong defensively?
“A month ago I would have said no, they are not strong defensively. But as I’ve illustrated in other responses, their defense can rise to the occasion when necessary, again it all starts with Romero in the middle of the back three. Against Ajax, Zapata’s and Gomez’ pressing was so perfectly set up – they weren’t rushing at the back two, but rather positioning themselves perfectly to prevent ball play forward – that Davy Klaasen never had a sniff of the ball to shuttle it forward to get the ball to the playmakers in Dusan Tadic and Antony. This defensive emergence against Liverpool and Ajax was astounding to me and probably to all Atalantini, but it worked so well that I’m confident they can continue doing it when called upon. I think they’ll always man-mark tightly, but I envision a much more tempered style of marking and being much more concerned about not being caught out of position especially when playing against blazing speed.”
Do Atalanta man-mark in big games, or is it collective pressing?
“As mentioned above, Atalanta love them some man-marking, save for the attacking duo or trio, who’ll press but much more strategically, trying to cut-off passing lanes and prevent the ball from getting to the feet of opposing playmakers.”
How have they coped against the top teams in Serie A this season?
“It’s been a mixed bag so far, and granted they haven’t played all of Serie A’s top clubs. They handled Lazio quite easily early in the year, and also drew against Inter Milan in a very even game. But they were bullied by Napoli, and also lost a winnable game against Hellas Verona.”
How confident are you about Atalanta progressing?
“I’d put it at 65% – 35% in favor of Real. Watching Shakhtar Donetsk beat Madrid twice in the group stage is encouraging from my standpoint, but two-legged ties are a different beast altogether. Atalanta play extremely well on the road – they won all their away games in the group stages – and won’t have any fears going to the Santiago Bernabeu, but holding on for two legs against a team with the depth of Real will probably be their downfall. February and March will be a crucial time for Atalanta, they’ll want to get into the top four in Serie A again, and if Papu is truly gone in January, it might be too much for the club to fight on two fronts effectively. Atalanta doesn’t have the easiest weekend games that fall around the midweek duels. These include matches against Napoli, Verona, and a Sampdoria team that parked the bus to perfection against them the first time out, so it’ll be interesting to see what Gasperini prioritises during this time frame. I imagine he’ll focus on the Champions League, given his line-up preferences in the group, but a fully fit starting XI still may not be enough against Real’s lineup, depth, and experience. But anything can happen, and we were only five minutes away from advancing to the semis last year, so here’s hoping for some more good fortune!”