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How Atalanta can change the game

In this years version of the Champions League, few teams have fascinated me the way Atalanta have. I first noticed the curiosity of their system in their battles against Manchester City, where they made Guardiolas men look static and helpless at times. Later on, they have impressed me a lot in the Serie A and in their convincing double win against Valencia. Much has been said about their attacking style, and the attacking rotations on display have deservedly had many people praising the team from Bergamo. But I would argue it is their defensive system that may prove the most ground-breaking for our sport.

So without further ado; what do Atalanta do differently from the rest?

(Btw: here is the original article in Norwegian)

Man-marking

Atalantas 3-4-1-2 / 3-5-2 system is well designed to easily and naturally mark every player in an opposition 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system. In this video I attempt to describe how they go about it, and why you might not notice the underlying defensive tasks at first. Make sure to pause at text breaks, as it moves a bit too quickly at times.

Notice that even though they know who are responsible for marking the fullbacks, they make sure to keep the cover before the ball is played to guard for a long ball. They are happy to allow the fullback a bit of extra time on the ball, because they consider him (as many others do) the least threatening player on the pitch. In their games against City, they thoroughly exposed Benjamin Mendy’s weak side as a footballer when they allowed him plenty of time to think, but very few obvious passing options.

Atalanta have some excellent responses to different formations, but how they adjust is better left for another article. Because the most interesting thing about Atalanta and their man-marking is not how they play themselves, but the implications the system has on the attacking philosophy of the opponent.

A tough nut to crack for the positional play

In modern times, many teams on the professional level have warmed to the philosophy of “positional play”. The dutch, and later spanish, playing style that aims to dominate the game with the ball, create scoring chances with intention and stopping opponent counter-attacks at its birth has got a strong foothold over the last few years. The essence of positional play, as demonstrated by Pep Guardiola and many others before and after him, lies in a systematic search for superiorities. And for anyone to have a superiority, you need time and space to bring the ball forward.

Numerical superiority from the back

A cornerstone of advancing the ball up the field with control is starting with a numerical superiority from the defensive line. You will notice that teams who use this philosophy will look to set up their formation to start with a numbers advantage against the opponents forwards while playing out from the back. Or to transform their formation through rotation into a structure that allows the defensive line to bring out the ball with an extra man. As a well known quote by Juan Manuel Lillo goes:

Positional Play consists of generating superiorities out of the defensive line against those who are pressing you. Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean.

The idea behind the positional play is to convert this extra man from our back line to our front line with control. Seeking to find a free man close to the opponents defense with time and space to initiate a dangerous attack.

Numerical superiority and the free man are important ingredients in the teams that claim to use positional play. But when they lose the advantage of a numerical superiority from the back, and instead face an equal number situation, they may struggle to create superiorities in other ways.

Both players and teams have become accustomed to attacking in a numbers up situation. And their habits, both on the ball and off the ball may rely on an extra man being present to make sense. Because when they face a zonal defense, the solution is often to not run too much, but rather stay in your position and allow the ball to circulate. Moving it with intention to find the player that your opponent has left free to bring the ball forward. And looking for passes to players between the lines with positional advantage on the opponent. However. What happens when these teams are no longer allowed that extra man to move the ball to?. When the player between the lines is always sufficiently marked to stop a progression of the ball. When there is no free man.

How does positional play respond to man-marking?

When you ask most proponents of positional play what the solution to man-marking is, a common answer is: “we play it long and look to play the 3v3 situation against the back line.”

This image shows a full man-marking structure. As we have seen, the version used by Atalanta holds the wingbacks in place until the ball is played wide.

In my eyes, the problem with the long ball is that, to do it, you must forsake some of the biggest ideas for playing this way in the first place. Namely, creating superiorities with control and intention, and creating advantageous situations for the receiver of the ball. Not to mention the advantage short passing distances gives to regaining possession quickly after losing the ball. A long ball to the attackers is normally not accompanied with an advantageous situation for the recipient. As most teams that decide to play the positional style don’t normally have a striker who will regularly beat a defender in an aerial duel. The player profile needed for this sudden change of style does not necessarily combine well with the positional style they were brought to the team to prosper in.

The second solution you might hear is that man-marking is solved with 3rd man. Breaking the line of the opponent with a pass from the 1st man to a 2nd team-mate higher up the field, while simultaneously having the 3rd man run past his direct opponent to receive the ball in a lay-off, facing the goal on the other side of his man.

And there is nothing wrong with that answer. Except that the level of detail usually stops there. The problem with this simplification is that the action is only successful if the defender makes a mistake, or the attackers perform the actions with exceptional timing and understanding of the situation. If I lose my direct opponent behind my back every time a pass is played past me, then I’m simply not doing a good job. And I have likely not practiced my marking very effectively. Simple 3rd man actions can work regularly to dismantle a defense who don’t normally man-mark, but not against teams who practice the system week in- week out.

Positional play is mainly know for 3 different ways of creating superiorities

  1. Numerical superiority (numbers up situations)
  2. Positional superiority (position that allows progression)
  3. Qualitative superiority (exploiting unequal abilities between players)

What do you do when you lose the opportunity to start with a numbers up situation because the opponent is man-marking? What happens when no player on the pitch has a positional superiority without first having to work to create it for himself? A lot of teams have gotten used to letting the ball do the work. Playing it safely to a team-mate in a better position. But against a man-marking system there is no guarantee that you will find any team-mate in a better position. And without having developed good movement patterns in an equal numbers context, or having superior players in 1v1 situations, teams have a tendency to look very static in the way they respond to man-marking.

Futsal and the socio affective superiority

Socio-affective superiority (superior understanding of a situation)

As we look to find solutions against man-marking; lets talk a bit about futsal. A prevailing characteristic of futsal is that the game doesn’t allow any natural numerical superiority. The game is highly influenced by man-marking, and that, combined with very small spaces, is part of the reason why the game is know for developing exceptional 1v1 skills. A lesser known bit of insight is how extremely detailed the game and its coaches work on socio-affective superiorities.

The little brother of the other 3 superiorities is one that I first heard of from Kai Bardal. Kai is the assistant coach for the Norwegian national team in futsal, and this year he won the Norwegian league with his club team “Utleira”. As I am also a player in the same league, I have felt numerous times the effects of socio-affective superiorities. And experienced how his team can dominate ours with a superior understanding of time, space, pressure and passing lines. Their collective understanding of game situations and awareness of each others strengths and weaknesses make all the difference when the spaces are tight and the opponent is as man oriented as they are in futsal.

Hava a look at this example of a classic futsal movement called “jump the line”. All 3 players involved recognize in the moment a situation they have practiced before. And they solve it through a collective understanding of the situation and impeccable timing. The clip is taken from one of Sergio Gargellis YouTube classes on futsal.
Here is a clip of Manchester City demonstrating “jump the line” movements. Via APFC
Also notice this very simple, but effective example of socio-affective superiority from Kai’s team Utleira. If you look closely, you will notice that the player receiving the ball for the lay-off has already set his body position and the sole of his foot ready for the situation before he can see the change in direction from the player coming in for the shot. He has an understanding in this situation that the space inside is more dangerous than the space outside (for a wall-pass), and he knows that the shooter prefers his right foot. He is also well aware that his team-mate is thinking the same thing.

The fourth superiority is not about having a positional advantage already. But with a better understanding of the situation than your opponent, both individually and as a team, you have a chance to get into the right position quicker than your opponent.

Why should this matter to you?

Because this is the next big challenge facing coaches of the positional style.

Before the corona outbreak, more and more teams were showing signs of man-marking in differing phases of the game. Real Madrid were adopting the approach in some of the last games before the stop, and numerous teams in La Liga have identified Barcelonas weakness when coming up against man-marking. The positional play that Barcelona are known for is designed to break down a defending teams zonal defense, with good positioning and effective circulation of the ball.

But I believe the next challenge for teams looking to dominate with the ball lies in how they solve man-marking. This is not to say that man-marking is any better than other styles of defending, but it does provide you with a different problem, which may require a slightly different solution.