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April 1, 2019

Atalanta, Italy's Almost Cinderella Story

By Mike Goodman

Poor unfortunate Atalanta.

The top rungs of Italian soccer are populated almost exclusively by household names. Clubs like Juventus, Napoli and crosstown rivals Inter Milan and AC Milan along with Roma and Lazio dominate the upper regions of the table. But, amongst the giants there is one side that has managed to thrive. Atalanta probably won’t qualify for the Champions League, they currently sit in a thee team tie for sixth place, six points behind fourth place Milan (albeit with a game in hand) and two behind fifth place Roma. But the table can be cruel, and despite their position, there’s a real case that Atalanta have been the third best team in Italy this season.

On a very basic level, their goal difference is the fourth best in Italy. They’ve scored 18 more times than they’ve conceded this season, only Juventus, Napoli and Inter Milan have managed a better return. It’s just that they’ve failed to turn that goal difference into points at the necessary rate, a factor which tends to be largely out of a team’s control.

A deeper dive tells a similar story. Atalanta’s expected goal difference of 0.61 per match is bettered only by Juventus and Napoli, the two titans of Italian football. Atalanta are a world class attacking team. The sides 57 goals are second best in Serie A and only three behind Juventus for the best mark in the league, this despite having played one fewer match. Their xG scored per match of 1.58 trails only Napoli’s 1.72. They do this while taking 16.54 shots. One of the keys to the team’s success is that they take better shots, on average, than any other top team (there are two more efficient teams, though both of those bottom half of the table teams take very few shots).

Atalanta’s shot chart makes it crystal clear that they are focused on getting the ball to feet in the most dangerous areas.

There’s nothing particularly complicated about how they approach that task. The team has three very good attacking players, all of whom are skilled at both creating for themselves and for each other. Usually Alejandro Gómez plays behind both Josip Iličić and Duván Zapata. Gómez leads Italy (among players with at least 1000 minutes played) with 0.33 xG assisted per 90 minutes. Zapata is seventh with 0.25 while also being fifth in the league in xG per 90 with 0.42. Iličić trails his strike partner slightly in both categories with 0.23 xG assisted and 0.40 xG.

Gómez is also an integral part of how Atalanta moves the ball into the final third. His tendency to drop deeper while Atalanta is in possession means that despite playing a 3-4-3 the side always has bodies in midfield to move the ball forward. He is seventh in Serie A with 9.13 deep progressions per 90, while teammate Remo Freuler, a purer central midfielder, is fifth with 9.43. Freuler is the beating heart of Atalanta’s midfield combining his creative output with a high level of defensive contribution as well. After adjusting for possession he’s ninth in Serie A with 3.67 tackles per 90, and extremely adept at winning the ball when he pressures opponents. His 5.42 pressure regains per 90 are fifth in Serie A. His proficiency covering the left flank means that Atalanta can deploy either Robin Gosens or Timothy Castagne on the wing without fear, despite the fact that left wing back is neither of their natural position.

Overall, Atalanta’s defensive numbers are strong, though not as notably excellent as they are on the attacking side. They allow 0.97 xG per match, the fifth best total in the league and they do it primarily by suppressing opponent’s shooting. They allow only, 10.96 shots per match, the fewest in Serie A. Numbers like that suggest a team that press aggressively, and sure enough their defensive activity shows a team that works hard to win the ball back as far up the field as possible.

The topline number of 39 goals conceded is an ugly one, tied for only ninth best in Serie A, but under the hood things are a number of mitigating factors. Seven of those goals are of the flukier variety. They’ve conceded four penalties and put the ball in the back of their own net three additional times. Arguably their high octane, high press style could contribute to a tendency to scramble in their own box when they’re beaten, but in general even for pressing teams, penalties and own goals come and go at the whims of fate.

That leaves 32 goals to analyze against an xG of 27.21. That’s certainly the kind of result that could stem from nothing more than bad luck. Looking at post-shot xG tells a similar story. They’ve conceded those 32 goals from a post-shot xG of 28.80. 

A slightly better keeping season from the combination of Etrit Berisha and Pierluigi Gollini (both of whom have save percentages below their expected save percentages) and this season might have had a storybook ending. That doesn’t seem likely now. They’re like too far behind, especially with away dates at Inter, Napoli, Lazio and Juventus still left to come. Atalanta are good but they probably aren’t good enough to overcome that.

Atalanta are a fun and exciting squad. They have a superstar attacking unit, a two way midfielder who can do it all and enough supporting pieces to make it all work. Sadly, what they haven’t had over the length of this season is the ability to turn consistently strong performances into enough points to leave them in position to really chase a Champions League spot. Sometimes the good plucky underdog season comes up just short through no fault of its own.

Article by Mike Goodman