Atalanta have consistently performed above expectations over the last few years in Serie A
As the dust settled on Manchester United’s fourth defeat in seven games, Brendan Rodgers was more than happy to explain how it came about to journalists at the King Power.
Essentially, it all boiled down to pressing: the eagerness of his Leicester City players to win the ball high up the pitch on the one hand and the reluctance of United’s players to do the same on the other.
“Their central players weren’t pressing so we could be patient and work the ball through the pitch. We got into some really good areas and put pressure on their backline,” Rodgers said. “We pressed well, and that takes the tempo up, allowing us to create opportunities.”
Rodgers has taken plenty of knocks and made his fair share of mistakes during his managerial career, but the perception of him as a coach who can build coherent game plans which expose the opposition’s tactical weaknesses has always remained intact.
Whether the same can be said for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is becoming a topic of heated debate.
The defeat at the King Power was the worst possible way for Solskjaer and United to start a potentially defining set of fixtures which runs for practically two months: from now until the end of these Champions League group stages.
Morale among the squad has taken a hit in the wake of Saturday’s defeat, perhaps unsurprisingly, but as Marcus Rashford pointed out while appearing alongside his manager on Tuesday, conversations have been had, team meetings have taken place and there is the resolve to quickly put things right.
“When you ask about moods it’s not the gimmicky, jovial happy camp,” Solskjaer said. “We’re focused and determined.”
Yet just as questions over Solskjaer’s abilities as a coach abound, he welcomes arguably the best-coached side in Europe to Old Trafford, for a game that is not far from being “must win”.
If United have been less than the sum of their parts this season under Solskjaer’s stewardship, Atalanta are far greater than the sum of theirs and have been for several years now under the guidance of Gian Piero Gasperini.
Villarreal may be the Europa League holders and a very capable side, as they proved both in Gdansk in May and at Old Trafford last month, but make no mistake: the home-away double header against a Gasperini-led Atalanta will be the most difficult pair of games that United face in Group F.
Though back-to-back runs to the Champions League knockout stages and a win at Anfield last year alerted casual observers of European football to Atalanta’s abilities long ago, a provincial club with only one major honour in a 114-year history still do not quite receive the respect they deserve.
Since the start of the 2019-20 campaign, Gasperini’s side have scored 202 goals in Serie A alone, at a rate of more than two per game. Last season, only Bayern Munich scored more across Europe’s top five leagues.
This free-scoring style is not a product of simply moving the ball quickly – which is about as much as Solskjaer has ever been willing to divulge publicly about his own philosophy – but a tactically complex system featuring fluid positional rotations and focus on creating high-quality chances on an industrial scale.
“Playing Atalanta is like going to the dentist,” was Pep Guardiola’s memorable way of putting it two years ago.
Back then, Atalanta could still count Alejandro “Papu” Gomez among their ranks. His role was to be their No 10 and only central attacking player, as Gasperini’s wing-backs, central midfielders and even his centre-halves – like Sheffield United’s – overlapped and overloaded down the flanks.
Gomez has since departed, leaving for Sevilla earlier this year following a fall-out with Gasperini, and Atalanta have required time to adjust. The transition is still ongoing. The attack is not quite as free-scoring as it once was. Not yet, at least.
That may be a crumb of comfort to a United defence that has kept one clean sheet in the last 19 games. Even so, there is cause for concern on the other side of the ball too. Out of possession, Atalanta’s style is built on precisely the type of intense pressing that caused so many problems at the King Power on Saturday.
After eight rounds of fixtures, La Dea have hassled and harried opponents across the pitch more than any other side in Serie A so far this season. It was the same story last season, when they pressed higher and looked to win the ball in the final third more than any of their rivals too.
As far as combinations go, fluid, free-flowing attacking with the ball and a high-pressing style without it feel particularly threatening to this United, though it is not all hopeless.
If there is a team which Atalanta stylistically resemble in some ways, it is Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds: the same Leeds that have lost their last two visits to Old Trafford by a scoreline of 11-3, playing into United’s hands on both occasions.
The man-oriented marking system which Bielsa is almost unique in adopting has been adapted and deployed by Gasperini, albeit to a lesser degree. If United can exploit the space that such a system creates, most likely through the playmaking of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, then this could be an easier night’s work than many expect.
Yet Atalanta have rarely suffered blow-outs of the type handed out to Leeds at Old Trafford over the past few years, losing heavily on occasion against high-quality opposition in the Champions League, but rarely so in Serie A.
Their style is a high-wire act yet a successful one, implemented by an outstanding coach. In lifting a club with the 11th-largest wage bill in Serie A to three consecutive top four finishes, Gasperini has shown he can do more with less.
Solskjaer, meanwhile, is doing less with more and must start winning again to change that perception.
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