Statistics are a funny thing. On one hand they can be misleading, but on the other they can speak for themselves. In the case of Atalanta, the stats are very much a case of the latter. Scoring a Serie A-high 63 goals and conceding just over half of that tally so far this season, they are arguably the most exciting team to watch in Italian football.
Indeed, Gian Piero Gasperini has unlocked La Dea’s potential with a fluid 3-4-1-2 formation, which has seen him outshine Antonio Conte – previously the biggest proponent of a back three – in execution. However, no system is perfect and there is a risk Valencia with their 4-4-2 could expose some of its limitations during Wednesday’s Champions League Round of 16 first leg at San Siro.
The biggest issue with a wingback formation against a 4-4-2 lies out wide, where one player is forced to do two jobs against a full-back and a winger. Although Gasperini lines up with a front three, they usually operate more centrally so the wingbacks can bomb forward, leaving the outside centre-backs to mop up and cover.
This telepathy has come as a breath of fresh air versus more rigid Italian set-ups, yet the quick and nippy nature of Valencia’s two banks of four may mean Atalanta find less space between the lines. The Spaniards have a tantalising mix of pace and precision in wide areas through Carlos Soler and Ferran Torres, while their midfield is finely balanced, with Geoffrey Kondogbia or Francis Coquelin partnering the evergreen Dani Parejo.
Los Che have also tended to reserve their best performances for the Champions League. Inconsistency has dogged their domestic campaign, with no wins in their last three Liga games, but they topped a group containing English giants Chelsea and 2018-19 semi-finalists Ajax, beating both away from home. They will surely have another scalp in their sights when they visit Milan tomorrow.
Atalanta did fare well against a Roma side in a 4-1-4-1 shape at the weekend, but only won courtesy of a hard-fought 2-1 comeback. And with respect to the Giallorossi’s wide options, Valencia have a superior arsenal when you factor in full-backs Jose Luis Gaya and Daniel Wass. That’s without loanee Alessandro Florenzi, who remains a full Italy international, but is unlikely to feature after coming down with chickenpox.
However, they too have deficiencies at the back, particularly in central defence, where they will be without lynchpin Gabriel Paulista for both legs of the tie. With fellow stalwart Ezequiel Garay also sidelined, the erratic Eliaquim Mangala will have to step up alongside Mouctar Diakhaby, an imposing but inexperienced figure.
Unfortunately for them, Gasperini’s side are firing on all cylinders right now and will be further buoyed by the prospect of making more history in the Champions League, at the most fitting of venues. The only conundrum facing the coach will be whether he rewards Mario Pasalic with a start following his super-sub cameo against Roma, possibly at the expense of orthodox hitmen Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel.
Atalanta have already shown that they can shoulder the responsibility of representing Italy in Europe’s elite club competition with Plan A. The question now is - how far will Plan A take them?