Sampdoria welcomed Atalanta to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris for the second round of 2016-17 Serie A season fixtures on Sunday 28 August. The home side, coached by Marco Giampaolo, had won their first game of the campaign, defeating Empoli 1-0. However, the away side, coached by Gian Piero Gasperini, had lost a thrilling opener 4-3 to Lazio.
Giampaolo lined his team up in the same basic 4-3-1-2 shape that he used while in charge at Empoli last season. Ricky Alvarez operated as the trequartista while Lucas Torreira played at the base of the diamond midfield.
Gasperini opted for a rough 3-5-1-1 shape, with Alejandro Gomez playing slightly deeper than lone striker Alberto Paloschi. Marco D’Alessandro and Leonardo Spinazzola took up the wide berths, while Cristian Raimondi took up the right-sided central defensive position in a back three, with Andrea Masiello on the left and Ervin Zukanovic in the centre.
Gasperini’s man marking preference exploited by Muriel’s movements
One theme has been overtly evident throughout Gasperini’s coaching career, and that is his preference for a flexible man marking style. This form of defensive coverage is rarely seen today, yet he persisted with it during his time in charge of Genoa and, having moved over the summer, appears set on implementing the same ideas with Atalanta.
In his side’s defensive phase against Sampdoria, the first line of pressure came from Gomez and Paloschi, with the former moving between forming a cover shadow on Torreira and joining the latter to apply pressure on the home team’s centre-backs. The pressing of the front two was generally passive with Atalanta operating a middle press, allowing Sampdoria to move beyond the halfway line without serious scrutiny. But, behind the front two, the midfield and defensive lines were tasked with intensively marking their respective opposite men, albeit in a flexible manner so as to allow for changeovers when necessary.
In midfield, Kessie would track Karol Linetty and Jasmin Kurtic would follow Barreto. And, in defence, Raimondi would track Luis Muriel and Masiello would follow Fabio Quagliarella. Zukanovic acted as the free man in the defensive line, picking up any approaching Sampdoria players when appropriate, while the wing-backs, D’Alessandro and Spinazzola, would focus on Sampdoria’s full-backs whenever they ventured forward into the middle third and beyond.
This form of marking has its theoretical benefits. It is fairly straightforward to implement and requires less in-game management than zonal coverage, while it also avoids the inflexibility issues of strict man-to-man marking, where large gaps between players can open up, leading to obvious structural problems. However, it can still be exploited by a team that uses good movement and positional rotations in their attacking phase.
This was highlighted in Atalanta’s defeat to Sampdoria, most obviously through the movement of Muriel. Playing on the left of a front two, the Colombian regularly pulled far wide to the left flank. With Atalanta’s man marking style, this had the effect of drawing out Raimondi from his position on the right of the back three, often leaving a large space behind him to be filled.
There were numerous tactical observations to be drawn from these particular moments. One is that Muriel’s movement, combined with Atalanta’s man marking, created a severe qualitative disadvantage in that it often isolated the striker against Raimondi, against whom he had a clear advantage in both sheer pace and skill.
Another issue is that the movement wide created space for Muriel to attack infield. With Raimondi no longer guarding the right-hand side of his penalty area, the Sampdoria striker could use his technical and athletic advantages to drive forward into a dangerous area. In addition, this had the effect of stretching the Atalanta back line, as Muriel’s inward dribbles would often force a defender to come across to cover, in turn opening up greater space between the away side’s defenders.
Essentially, Muriel’s movement caused a series of individual one-on-one battles in wide areas with his marker, which he proceeded to win, leading to further opportunities for Sampdoria in more advanced and central areas of the field.
Sampdoria’s compactness in build-up
One aspect of Giampaolo’s Empoli that the coach has already managed to carry forward to Sampdoria is compactness when building possession. This was evident against Atalanta, where players would often orient themselves to their ball-playing team-mate, providing stability around the ball to aid smooth progression of possession and also to provide safeguards in defensive transitions should a turnover occur.
This horizontal and vertical compactness worked well in tandem with Giampaolo’s preferred diamond midfield, a layout that incorporates good base positions to facilitate the creation of triangles and rhombi. These shapes are often utilised to enable quick, effective and penetrative ball possession through the presence of multiple passing options for the ball-player.
Sampdoria regularly formed rhombi in their build-up against Atalanta, as seen below. Such close proximity between team-mates in this shape is generally difficult to press effectively anyway because of the aforementioned possibilities it brings, though Atalanta’s reactive defensive style was absolutely unsuited to restricting it.
With the intense man marking approach favoured by Gasperini in the middle third, Atalanta’s players were drawn in by the compact rhombi shapes formed by Sampdoria in the build-up. While they were thus able to prevent a numerical superiority from opening up, they were often left in a situation of positional inferiority. This is because, while the Sampdoria players were facing one another, albeit to varying degrees, the Atalanta players were simply focused on their individual opposite men and were consequently not always fully aware of where the ball was and where it was headed.
Sampdoria’s compact shapes in possession combined with their opposition’s man marking also led to a congestion of Atalanta players in a small area of the pitch, in turn opening up spaces elsewhere that could be exploited. The effects of this were only clearer following the dismissal of Carlos Carmona before half-time; in the second half, Sampdoria formed rhombi in central areas, sucking in defenders and freeing up space in wider areas for their full-backs to attack.
Atalanta’s wing-back positioning and movements
Atalanta’s centre-backs often looked to their wing-backs, D’Alessandro and Spinazzola as out balls when building possession from the back. The wing-backs were given specific instruction to take up and retain very wide positions on each flank, perhaps with the intention of exploiting the ball-oriented defensive approach favoured by Giampaolo’s side.
In the defensive phase, Sampdoria’s players orientated themselves primarily to restrict the Atalanta ball-player’s options. This was seen with Muriel and Quagliarella pulling into the half-spaces to prevent Raimondi and Masiello being viable passing options for Zukanovic, who was often the first port of call for Atalanta build-up. Thus, diagonal balls out wide were often used by Atalanta as a method of bypassing this pressure.
D’Alessandro and Spinazzola were crucial not only in this aspect, but also in their dribbling, which was very much wing-oriented. Their focus was not on cutting in from the outside, but in attacking the flanks, with the aim being to stretch Sampdoria’s horizontally compact defensive structure.
Brief notes and conclusion
There were some other aspects of Sampdoria’s play worth reflection and, potentially, future analysis. One was their centre-backs’ ability and willingness to attack Atalanta in an attempt to draw out a reluctant press and create numerical superiority in more advanced areas. Another was in their approach to defensive transitions, where they implemented an effective counter-pressing scheme.
Sampdoria’s control of this match was only further assured by the sending off of Carmona before half-time, but all in all it was clear to see that Giampaolo’s ideas are being taken on board by his new team.