The unstoppable force vs the immovable object. It was always going to be a goal-fest, right? It’s not often you see a team like Atalanta in the Champions League. Teams who play with such a distinct all-out attack style tend to not get very far in compeitions like this, but after an excellent maiden voyage last year they are back again.
Liverpool have conceded 17 goals in their 12 competitive games so far this season, an average of 1.42 per game. By comparison, their goals conceded per game last year was 1.11. Allison returning has stabilised them somewhat and they now have three clean sheets in as many Champions League games despite letting up an average of 1.4 xGA (expected goals against) per game.
We know Atalanta are high risk high reward, too. They take calculated risks with their high pressing, man-marking style of play which can delight and frustrate in equal measures. While not quite as prolific as last season, the both-teams-to-score world champions have still averaged 4.8 goals in each game they’ve been involved in so far season. In keeping with that theme, there would indeed be five goals in this game too.
Atalanta lined up in their 3-4-2-1/3-4-1-2 hybrid formation with Luis Muriel, Duvan Zapata and Papu Gomez reprising their roles in the front three that performed so well in the 4-0 win against Midtjylland.
Liverpool started with two teenagers in their ranks – Rhys Williams and Curtis Jones – for only the second time ever in the Champions League. . The other key decision was summer signing Diego Jota starting in the false nine usually occupied by Roberto Firmino.
Importance of Jota
Can a player with Diego Jota’s ability coming from a team as well functioning as Wolves really be a ‘surprise’ hit? Possibly not, but how Jota has slotted seamlessly into Liverpool’s squad looks to be the most satisfying aspect of their summer business.
Jota can best be described as a very economical footballer. Both in terms of his style of play – every action feels premeditated and deliberate – but also in terms of his output. He is clearly less of a physical presence than Firmino, arguably more of a cerebral player and seems to offer more of a cutting edge with his running from deep. His link up play isn’t quite as all-action as Firmino but it is still high quality, constantly dropping off the forward line to drag defenders deep and link up play. Jota’s movement off the ball in particular is a stand out trait and was evidenced several times in this game.
You can appreciate the role Firmino does in this team and also appreciate that there may be more than one way to skin a cat. Having the flexibility Jota brings across the front three is adding another layer of dynamism to this Liverpool attack.
Including this game, Jota has scored six goals in his last four games from only eight shots on target. That is unsustainable across a whole season, however he also notched some impressive numbers last season at Wolves. Played primarily as a left sided attacker, he scored 16 goals from just 41 shots on target gives a conversion rate of just under 40%.
His turn of pace was also apparent throughout this game – none more so than for his hat trick goal. Another Atalanta attack breaks down with too many men forward, the ball falls to Mane and Jota has three men ahead of him whilst still in his own half. He slows his run, makes contact with the defender and feints as if he wants the ball to feet just long enough to give Palomino something to think about. In a split second, Jota accelerates on Palomino’s blind side and Mane finds him with an outstanding through ball perfectly breaking whatever defensive structure Atalanta had left by this point.
Bypassing the Atalanta pressure
Playing direct vertical passes from deep into the danger areas is one of the most efficient ways to beat a high pressing team. Both Liverpool and Atalanta usually deploy this strategy to devastating effect but on the night, Liverpool used it much better primarily through their flying wing backs playing entry passes into the feet of the front three.
There were 16 passes made between Andy Robertson & Diego Jota – the most common combination of the night – with 14 originating from Andy Robertson.
As early as the second minute, Robertson switched play over to Alexander-Arnold who initiated some impressive combination play with Salah & Jones down Liverpool’s right side culminating in a chance for Jota that should have opened the scoring. As mentioned earlier, Jota’s on and off the ball running is hugely impressive and whilst the build up play created a possibility it was Jota who made this chance for himself, gliding past several defenders before forcing a save from
For the first goal, we again saw Alexander Arnold involved in exactly this type of move as he found himself on the ball inside the Atalanta half. Roman Freuler was tasked with pressing but didn’t angle his run correctly leaving Curtis Jones free to receive a pass in a potentially dangerous area. Whilst Berat Djimitsi did well to sense this danger and attempt to snuff this out, his action here breaks the defensive line leaving a gap. Alexander-Arnold doesn’t need much invitation, finding Jota with a perfectly weighted pass. Jota shows great pace & strength to outmuscle Palomino and slot home the opener.
Atalanta went in at half time 2-0 down. Against one of the best teams in Europe sure, but one thing Atalanta do very well is mount a comeback. Similar to their last Champions League game against Ajax, they were also down 2-0 and pulled this back to take a point. This team have an unshakeable belief in their ability to score goals.
To combat this, Liverpool’s compact midfield three of Jones, Henderson & Wijnaldum did an excellent job of stifling Atalanta’s play through the middle of the pitch. If they tried to go long to Zapata, he had two or three men swarming him blocking off second balls and winning back possession. The acquisition of Thiago was with the intention of adding more dynamism and creative passing from the midfield, but the tried and trusted approach of the last two seasons worked to great effect here.
Unfortunately, with such high intensity offensive play there will always be defensive gaps which any team of Liverpool’s level should be able to exploit at ease. This is perfectly typified by the third goal, two minutes after halftime which, as it so often does, killed the tie.
A poor corner from Papu Gomez allows Curtis Jones to clear the ball upfield. Both covering Atalanta defenders were camped deep inside Liverpool’s half marking Liverpool’s most advanced forward, Mo Salah. Not many will beat Salah in a foot race, however Hans Hateboer just about managed it. Unfortunately, he also managed to commit the cardinal sin of allowing Salah to advance into the box and shift onto his left foot. Game over.
In Atalanta’s defence – or lack of it – they were feeling the loss of Timothy Castagne to Leicester and were without Josip Ilicic, Marten de Roon and Robin Gosens for this game. They aren’t expected to beat Liverpool given the vastly different resource, but they will know they can play significantly better.
This was a harsh lesson for Atalanta, but they should still be favourite to qualify from a tough group. It is not in keeping with Gasperini’s footballing philosophy, however a much better balance between defence and attack would be advantageous if they have aspirations of consistently progressing to the latter stages of this competition. They would do well to look no further than their opponent and how they honed their all action pressing style into the well oiled machine we see now.