Liverpool face tough task against goal-hungry Atalanta

Tuesday night will see Liverpool travel to the home of one of Europe’s premier attacking sides Atalanta in the third game of the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League.

Jurgen Klopp’s men are coping well with the injury crisis that they are currently in the midst of. Yet the trip to Bergamo should be the toughest test so far to their make-shift backline and midfield.

Many fans saw Ajax as the toughest fixture for the Reds in Group D when the draw was made a few months ago. This was most likely due to the Dutch side’s outstanding run in Europe in 2018/19, as well as their established history in the competition.

However, those who have kept a close eye on Serie A over the last few seasons will have looked to this game as the key fixture.

Gian Piero Gasperini’s side has been a revelation in Italy over the last three years, with their all-out-attacking style drawing plaudits all over the continent.

Last season, their 97 league goals were only bettered by Manchester City and Bayern Munich in Europe’s top five leagues.

They have started this season in similar goalscoring form. Their opening five games in the league and Champions League saw them score four goals on three occasions, plus five in their game against Cagliari.

I Nerazzurri have one win and one draw so far in this season’s Champions League, thrashing Midtjylland 4-0 before drawing 2-2 with Ajax.

Atalanta: rags to riches

Manager Gian Piero Gasperini and captain Papu Gomez have been two of the important figures of Atalanta’s rise. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY GOAL.

The story of how the small-city club was transformed from Serie A whipping boys into one of Europe’s most exciting teams is quite a remarkable one.

It all started with the appointment of Gian Piero Gasperini in 2016.

The Italian boss managed Crotone, Genoa and Palermo on two occasions each, as well as a spell with Inter in 2011.

He had decent success with Crotone and Genoa, but less so with his other sides.

This was until 2016, where he eventually found the magic formula after his appointment as Atalanta boss.

The then-58-year-old brought about immediate change to the side. He took them from 13th in Serie A in 2015/16 to an all-time high 4th in 2017/18.

The next season saw a slight decline as they tried to balance domestic football and life in Europe. They also lost key man Franck Kessie to Milan, leading to a decent 7th place finish.

2018/19 was when they really got into gear, scoring 77 goals on their way to an impressive 3rd place finish. This saw them qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history for the 2019/20 season.

Despite heavy losses to Dinamo Zagreb and Manchester City in the group stages, they qualified for the round of 16. Here, they eased passed Valencia, winning 8-4 on aggregate.

The quarter-final came almost six months later due to the coronavirus lockdown. In a single-legged tie against PSG, the Italians conceded two stoppage-time goals and lost 2-1.

They also came 3rd in the league once again, finishing five points behind Juventus.

They currently sit in 4th position after six games, as they look to mount a serious title challenge in what is set to be the most open race in Italy for a number of years.

If they can stay progressing at the rate they are currently, then who knows what lies ahead for the Lombardy-based outfit?

The only issue is age.

Gasperini himself is 62, while the core of their team is 28+. This includes regular starters Jose Luis Palomino, Rafael Toloi, Marten De Roon, Remo Freuler, Papu Gomez, Josip Ilicic, Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata.

If Atalanta want to cement themselves as a top side in future, they will really have to win a trophy in the next 2-3 years.

Gasperini’s revolutionary system

In a country famed for defensive football, Gasperini has ripped up the Italian tactics book by playing all-out-attack. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY FOTMOB.

The big question that people will be asking now is: how do they do it?

How does a team go from mid-table in Italy to Champions League-caliber goalscoring aficionados?

The answer is quite a simple one, despite the complexity of the finer tactical details. Gasperini pays little attention to defending, instead attacking in numbers, quickly and intently.

Atalanta play with a revolutionary 3-4-1-2 formation or at times a 3-4-2-1. Except, unlike most teams that play a three-at-the-back, it really is three-at-the-back.

Rather than wing-backs in the wide midfield position, Gasperini plays wingers. These are most commonly Hans Hateboer on the right and Robin Gosens on the left. So, essentially, Atalanta play a 3-2-5 formation when in possession.

The duo averaged just 2.05 defensive actions per game between them in 19/20. Yet they averaged a very respectable 1.05 shots per game and 1.3 key passes.

Experienced and intelligent individuals

Duvan Zapata has scored three goals in the Champions League so far this season. He is one of numerous experienced campaigners in the Atalanta squad currently enjoying his peak. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY UEFA.

Yet it is not just a matter of piling bodies forward.

Atalanta have a very high number of shots per game, but crucially they create high-quality chances rather than just shooting from all angles. These chances are most commonly worked from out wide, through the aforementioned wing-backs or the centre-midfielders or strikers who drift out at different points.

In fact, they are quite similar to Liverpool in the sense that they rely on hard-working and intelligent midfielders. Regular Dutch international and social media sensation Marten de Roon, formerly of Middlesbrough, is the star name in this regard.

But the real star men in the team are captain and number 10 Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez, midfielder-cum-forward Josep Ilicic and target man Duvan Zapata.

In a system where so much of the play is filtered wide, 32-year-old Gomez is the man that links it all up in the middle.

He has a free role and uses every ounce of experience and nous to pick the right spaces to fill.

He supplies both Ilicic and Zapata with the ammunition, and the duo usually make teams pay. This led to 16 assists for the Argentine in 19/20.

Ilicic scored 15 goals in 26 Serie A games last campaign, while Zapata got 18 in 28.

How will the tactics match up on the pitch?

Rhys Williams will face the toughest test of his fledgling career on Tuesday night. If he is able to handle Ilicic and co., he should be able to handle most top players. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY SKY SPORTS.

A Liverpool side minus Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Thiago will have their work cut out to try and contain this attacking phenomenon.

Joel Matip also faces a late fitness test, so it will likely be Rhys Williams that partners Joe Gomez at the back.

The pair won’t come up against much tougher tests than Zapata and Ilicic. Even if Luis Muriel or Sam Lammers play up top, the young English duo’s strength and concentration will be tested.

The form of Diogo Jota, plus a lack of fit midfielders, may see Jurgen Klopp play a 4-2-3-1.

Unless Naby Keita is passed fit, this is the most likely scenario. Perhaps James Milner will be thrown in, but he is one booking away from suspension.

This shape weakens Liverpool defensively, but perhaps the best way to go about beating Atalanta is by playing them at their own game.

Liverpool rarely, if ever, change their style to try to counteract the opponent. There is no need when you are arguably the best team in the world.

The Reds will probably concede no matter what, so maybe they should go out and try to outscore them.

One of Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum will have to limit their forward runs to an extent.

In the game against Sheffield United, both of them showed their similar mindsets by doing the same things at the same times. This left open spaces in front of the back four, which cannot be done with Papu Gomez around.

The battle between Liverpool’s fullbacks and Atalanta’s wing-backs will be an intriguing one. There will be gaps behind each pair, so whoever exploits them best will win the dual.

Liverpool may find joy going forward. Atalanta score loads, but of course concede more than they would like.

Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota will fancy their chances against a questionable back three. Roberto Firmino will also hope to find joy between the lines as he looks to play himself back into form.

The game will no doubt be an exciting one. It is a battle between two of Europe’s most tactically astute coaches. Two of Europe’s best-attacking sides.

One thing for sure is that it will be fascinating for the purists and the neutrals.

Atalanta have the chance to become a household name. Liverpool will have a job on their hands to prevent it.

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