Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta were the better team over two legs, but Borussia Dortmund were more clinical, explains Elio Salerno.
Despite taking a second-half lead in the first leg, La Dea left Dortmund trailing by a single goal after a Michy Batshuayi double gave his side a slender advantage coming into tonight’s game.
Atalanta’s tactical flexibility
The Bergamo side worked tirelessly out of possession, something regular viewers of Atalanta will be familiar with. The adaptability of the Atalanta players to switch between defensive styles is to be admired and is a credit to Coach Gasperini.
Particularly in the first half we saw Atalanta press high, as they attempted to set an electric pace and push Dortmund on to the back foot. It was a successful tactic.
As the away side looked to play from the back, front pair Papu Gomez and Josip Ilicic would occupy the opposition central defenders and force them to play into full-backs where Atalanta could then compact the pitch.
This allowed wing-backs Leonardo Spinazzola and Hans Hateboer to press their opposite numbers and restrict Dortmund from developing play through the middle.
Away from the ball in central areas, it would be Bryan Cristante and one of Marten De Roon or Remo Freuler that would move to prevent Dortmund’s double pivot of Mahmoud Dahoud and Nuri Şahin getting on the ball and controlling play.
Atalanta’s man-orientated press would allow one of their centre-backs, mainly Andrea Masiello, to free himself from the back three to go tight to Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic, who would often drift centrally from the right-hand side.
On the occasions the home side was not set up to press this way, we would see them revert into a 5-3-2 shape and even a 5-4-1 when one of the two strikers dropped in to support defensively.
Setting up in a deeper 5-3-2 block would see the wider players in the midfield three moves to defend Dortmund’s full-backs as the ball travelled to them in an attempt to prevent Atalanta being outnumbered on the flanks.
In possession, Atalanta asked lots of questions of Dortmund defensively and constantly looked to stretch the pitch in an attempt to disrupt their defensive shape.
A feature of the home side’s play in the build-up phase would see Papu Gomez and Ilicic both move into the spaces between Dortmund’s centre-back and full-back.
As soon as the ball hit their feet, they would have overlapping wing-backs supporting play as well as Bryan Cristante making forward runs beyond Dortmund’s back line or offering support as a makeshift central striker.
With the nearest central midfield player also supporting the ball, this gave the home side a numerical advantage in wide areas. With Dortmund shifting over to compensate, it also meant that if Atalanta were able to switch the ball quickly, they could expose and overload Dortmund’s weak side, which they did on occasions.
Rafael Toloi gave the home side a deserved half-time lead as he reacted quickest in the area to stud home a Gomez corner.
Atalanta learn the hard way…
It was almost the perfect ending, but ultimately Atalanta learned the hard way. Facing top opposition in one of Europe’s elite competitions is unforgiving, making mistakes and missing opportunities is punished. Being the better team is not enough; regardless of performance, it is those critical moments that make the difference.
In the first leg it was two cheap second-half goals and tonight it was missed chances. At 1-0 up, Cristante made one of his trademarks runs in-behind and was exquisitely picked out by captain Gomez, only for the young Italian to head wide with the goal at his mercy.
Towards the end of the second half, it was talisman Gomez who was guilty of missing the opportunity to take his side through, inside the danger area and one v one he fired his shot straight at keeper Roman Bürki.
It was not long after that Atalanta ‘keeper Etrit Berisha let a shot squirm away from him after he had been faultless all night, Marcel Schmelzer scrambled the ball home on the rebound to equalise and break the home team’s spirit.
There is no doubt over the two legs that Atalanta was the better team, but football has no time for sentiment.
After a fabulous campaign in which they beat the likes of Everton, Lyon and pushed one of Germany’s best all the way, the Orobici can hold their heads high. They did themselves and Italian football proud.