Atalanta vs Bayer Leverkusen
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Atalanta vs Bayer Leverkusen (3-0): How Gasperini Put An End To Xabi Alonso’s Undefeated Streak

The streak is over. At the Aviva Stadium, Atalanta Gasperini conquered the invincibles. Ademalo Lookman shined bright like a pure diamond, netting a hattrick to enable his team to taste European glory for the first time throughout their history. Atalanta vs Bayer Leverkusen ended in a scoreline no one would have predicted.

Atalanta vs Bayer Leverkusen: Before the Match

Both Xabi Alonso and Gian Piero Gasperini had a great run to secure a spot in the final. Atalanta eliminated the Portugal league winners, Sporting Lisbon, then went to Anfield, where they annihilated Klopp’s men in front of their public and qualified for the semi-final. Nothing changed for Gasperini’s boys as they kicked out the French club, Marseille, to be one step from the title.

On the other side, Bayer Leverkusen had an easy run compared to Atalanta on paper. However, this wasn’t the case on the pitch. Xabi Alonso’s team went through hard moments to be able to remove Qarabag from their way and face the Hammers in the quarters. The Bundesliga champions displayed a masterclass show at the BayArena, eliminating West Ham United to play against the Giallorossi in the semi-final. The same went for Roma, as Daniele De Rossi’s boys failed to stop Bayer Leverkusen from making their way to the final.

Heading to the clash, Xabi Alonso played with the same line-up as the away Roma game except for Exequiel Palacios, who took the place of Andrich next to Granit Xhaka. Matěj Kovář retained his place as a goalkeeper. Piero Hincapié, Jonathan Tah, and Edmond Tapsoba formed the backline, whereas Alejandro Grimaldo and Josip Stanišić held the width, playing the role of wingbacks. In the front line, Xabi Alonso made Jeremy Frimpong step up alongside Amine Adli and Florian Wirtz.

Gian Piero Gasperini made one change from the last game in the Europa League against Marseille: Sead Kolašinac played as the third defender in the right next to Berat Djimsiti and Isak Hien. Ahead, Ederson and Teun Koopmeiners kept their spots as double pivots, while Davide Zappacosta and Matteo Ruggeri hugged the touchlines. In the attack, Charles De Ketelaere and Ademalo Lookman operated as two attacking midfielders behind the striker Scamacca.

Gasperini Man-Marking Is the Key:

Since the start of the game, Atalanta has revealed their intention by pressing Bayer Leverkusen man-to-man all over the pitch, preventing them from central progression.


Xabi Alonso played Florian Wirtz as a false nine to take advantage of his movements to lure Atalanta defenders and pull them out of their positions. However, Isak Hien or Berat Djimsiti fulfilled the mission by the book. They went with the German International to disable his ability to receive, turn with the ball, and exploit the space vacated by launching passes to the runners. On the other hand, Atalanta’s backline were capable of controlling the space behind them by relying on their pace.

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Gasperini’s man-marking approach aimed at directing Leverkusen players involved in the buildup phase to the wide areas, closing off the passing options, and forcing them to go long. Despite being compelled to make this choice, Bayer Leverkusen were able to find the front players targeting them with long balls. However, the offensive players struggled to win balls by going through physical and aerial duels.

Atalanta scored the opening goal in the second minute of the second ten minutes of the game. Atalanta showcased a perfect scene of how to exploit the inside channel. Here, after the passage Play of the Corner, Kolašinac and Koopmeiners dragged Grimlado and Xhaka to the right wide channel, making a way and freeing the space to Zappacosta. The latter benefited from the situation being unmarked by Florian Wirtz, who received the ball and cut it back towards the box. Lookman came behind, from the blindside of Palacios, to net the ball, giving his team the lead.

In the second goal of Atalanta, Gasperini’s boys man-marked every Bayer Leverkusen outfield player, leaving the goalkeeper Kovář free to play. The latter was forced to pick out Amine Adli with a long ball. The Moroccan professional heads it down towards the back but it goes wrongly to Lookman. The Bergamo attacking midfielder makes up his mind to take charge of the offensive duties by himself. So, he nutmegged Granit Xhaka on the way, cut inside, and flicked the ball in the right bottom corner.

Exploiting Gasperini Man-To-Man Press Without efficiency

In the man-marking system, the player is the reference. Therefore, the team’s reliance on such a strategy depends totally on the other team’s decisions with the ball. In other words, the team with the ball has the advantage of knowing the following steps:.

Here, every Atalanta player is taking charge of his man. Nonetheless, Hincapié picked out Wirtz, coming deep and luring Djimsti to follow him, which made way to Adli, who received and passed the ball back to Wirtz. The latter noticed Stanišić inserting in the middle of the park, benefiting from time and space to work a pass to Xhaka. Stanišić, being an extra-man in the midfield, forced Kolašinac to leave his zone and jump over him, which opened up a space for Frimpong to exploit using his pace. But Grimaldo, coming behind, didn’t deal with the cut-back as he should and gave the ball away.

One of the man-marking weaknesses is the time it takes to shift the block across. During the travelling period, a temporary free man will appear. That was the case when Palacios found himself free to receive and launch a progressive pass for Adli. In the worst scenario, which means Bayer Leverkusen broke past the Atalanta press, Gasperini defenders were successfully dealing with the numerical match generated by the process aforementioned or rapidly tracking back.

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In settled possession, Grimaldo and Stanišić tended to invert in the midfield to exploit the space evacuated by Florian Wirtz, who comes deep to support the progression with the ball. Nonetheless, Gasperini, instructing his men to stick with every Leverkusen player all over the field, nullified the effect of Alonso’s boys’ positional rotations and switches driving to play miscued passes.

Adding to that, Bayer Leverkusen opened up a gap in the left half-space by making Wirtz drop to the midfield and drag Djimsti out of his position to allow Grimaldo to attack the box—the space behind Atalanta’s backline. However, the efficiency was lacking, as the Spanish wingback gave the ball to the goalkeeper instead of putting it over him.

After two minutes, Bayer Leverkusen executed the same pattern on the same side of the pitch, when Hincapié and Grimlado drew the attention of Djimsti and Hien to make Wirtz run down that space to receive the ball played over, but the clinicality was unusually off.

In Atalanta’s half, Gasperini set his team in a 5-3-2 mid-block. He kept man-marking Bayer Leverkusen layers on the ball side. Here, Atalanta matches Leverkusen players in terms of number. However, Frimpong, using his body to block Kolašinac, opened up the space where both Xhaka and the Dutch wingback could run and cross the ball.

Second Half Tactical Tweaks:

Giorgio Scalvini replaced Sead Kolašinac in the backline due to injury, and Stanišić made way for Victor Boniface, which saw Jeremy Frimpong return to the wingback role. The Dutch international, pushing high up the pitch, was a double-edged sword as Edmond Tapsoba went in 1v1 situations against Ademola Lookam and sometimes got doubled up by the runners behind looking for a cross or a cut-back.

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Xabi Alonso relied on Victor Boniface to bring what was missing in the first half: physical presence and ball retention. In addition, the Nigerian striker was ordered to drop deep in order to free the space in case a defender followed him, laying the ball off and exploiting the evacuated spot by turning and running. That was embodied after fourteen minutes from the start of the second half. But Boniface couldn’t control the ball. Fortunately, it finds Amine Adli on its way out, who fires a cross towards the penalty area. However, Frimpong missed the chance.

Close to the end, Atalanta set up a 5-3-2 mid-block low-block and showed the intention of hurting Bayer Leverkusen on the counter. Gasperini’s boys scored the third in such a situation. BayArena’s men were in settled possession. Mario Pašalić blocked Hincapié’s pass towards Adli, who was overlapping, and noticed Scamacca, who received the ball and progressed high up the field. As aforementioned, Tapsoba was left exposed to Lookman’s individual abilities. The Nigerian attacking midfielder took Bayer Leverkusen’s right centre-back on and fired a shot in the top right corner.


In the end, Gian Piero Gasperini succeeded in touching the gold, marking a tremendous and fantastic era with Atalanta Bergamo. Not only that but his team had been able to win the Europa League title by playing in a stupendous way with a clear identity on the pitch, as he said: “It’s not just that we won, it’s how we won!” and he added, “We’ve beaten Liverpool when they were at the top of the PL table, Sporting, and now Bayer Leverkusen. We are extremely proud.”

On the other side, Xabi Alonso and his boys attained an unprecedented achievement by winning the Bundesliga without a single defeat and reaching 52 games without a loss until they faced Atalanta Gasperini. However, losing a final is not the end of the world, but it can be considered a learning experience so that similar mistakes won’t be repeated in the future.

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