A deadly front three with two 32-year-olds, flying full-backs like Liverpool’s and a manager who likes to go all out ATTACK… Jurgen Klopp’s leaky defence faces its toughest test yet against an Atalanta side who have taken the Champions League by storm
- Liverpool travel to play free-scoring Atalanta in the Champions League tonight
- Jurgen Klopp’s defence looks vulnerable and the Italians score goals for fun
- Their dynamic front three are different to Liverpool’s but just as threatening
- Like Liverpool, they have flying full-backs who will keep Salah and Mane busy
- But Liverpool may get some joy in midfield, where Atalanta usually only have two
If Jurgen Klopp could have handpicked Liverpool’s next game then it is unlikely he would have selected a trip to take on Atalanta.
The Reds may be top of the Premier League and their Champions League group but it has been far from the perfect start to the season. Virgil van Dijk will miss the rest of the campaign while Fabinho is also out until next month and summer signing Thiago Alcantara remains absent.
Van Dijk’s injury plus the summer sale of Dejan Lovren and the fitness woes of Fabinho and Joel Matip have left gaping holes in Klopp’s defence and they take on the free-scoring Atalanta tonight at risk of being blown away.
Alejandro Gomez and Duvan Zapata are two members of Atalanta’s deadly attacking trio
Manager Gian Piero Gasperini has formed one of the most potent attacks in Italy and in Europe
Josep Ilicic, 32, is flourishing in the latter stages of his career and will be a threat to Liverpool
While Liverpool’s attacking play has arguably improved this season thanks to the arrival of Diogo Jota, their defence remains vulnerable. It has done since they ended their 30-year wait for a league title last summer.
The Reds, usually frugal with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson flanking Joe Gomez, Van Dijk and Alisson, have let in 15 goals in their seven Premier League games this season. A figure way too high for a team hoping to retain their title.
But back-to-back clean sheets in their Champions League games provides hope that they can shut up shop on the continent and there is nowhere that needs resilience more than in Bergamo.
Atalanta burst onto the scene in their debut Champions League campaign under Gian Piero Gasperini, with the attacking verve of Alejandro Gomez, Duvan Zapata, Josep Ilicic and Luis Muriel causing chaos to opposition defences.
Then there are wing-backs Robin Gosens and Hans Hateboer providing the width and the energy of midfield pairing Remo Freuler and Mario Pasalic, who get up and down the pitch to protect the defence and aid the attack.
Jurgen Klopp’s defence has been leaking goals of late and injuries have robbed him of players
Joe Gomez is likely to start in Bergamo but it remains to be seen who will play alongside him
Over the course of their European campaign last season Atalanta scored 16 goals before lockdown, including eight over two legs against Valencia.
They found the back of the net on 98 occasions in Serie A. Only Manchester City and Bayern Munich scored more in Europe’s top five leagues.
Pep Guardiola was left so dazed by Atalanta’s performance against City that he described their match in Bergamo as ‘like going to the dentist.’
They’ve shown no sign of slowing down, either. Midtjylland were beaten 4-0 on matchday one and Atalanta came from two goals down to draw with Ajax last time out. They’ve also scored 17 goals in their first six Serie A matches this season.
So how do they do it?
Gasperini utilises a 3-4-1-2 formation but, where you would normally associate Italian teams with a rigid structure, Atalanta are always on the move, pressing high up the pitch and, crucially, willing to go for the jugular.
Atalanta scored eight goals over two legs against Valencia in the Champions League last term
As well as Gomez, Zapata and Ilicic, Atalanta also boast dangerous Colombian Luis Muriel
The system allows Ilicic and Gomez, both aged 32, to flourish in those advanced areas. Whereas Zapata operates as a more traditional striker, the two playmakers drift around and feed the Colombian forward.
Like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, they do not provide much width and instead allow Hateboer on the right and Gosens on the left to do that for them. It was evident in the draw with Ajax.
Their first goal of the evening saw Ilicic drift in off the right onto his left foot. The ball then came across to Gomez who spun inside the penalty area and floated a perfect ball up to Zapata. The striker powered a header into the back of the net.
Atalanta’s second last week showed another side to their game. A lightning quick counter saw Pasalic sprint down field and play Zapata through on goal, who struck a thunderbolt into the back of the net.
In Denmark against Midtjylland, Atalanta made it 2-0 thanks to a sublime finish from distance by Gomez. But Gosens was crucial down the left, playing the ball inside to Zapata who came short and laid it off to Gomez for his strike.
Atalanta’s front three play narrow with Ilicic (top right) keen to cut inside on his right foot
Here, against Ajax, he plays the ball across to Gomez who spins and floats a cross into the air
Zapata has a terrific leap and towered over the Ajax defence to head into the back of the net
Their fourth goal was eerily similar. Hateboer was a decoy on the right wing for Ilicic, who instead fed the ball inside to Aleksei Miranchuk on the edge of the box. Again, he needed just one touch before firing into the top corner.
In order to protect Alisson and Liverpool’s back four, the defensive work of Klopp’s side will have to start from their attacking trio.
With Ilicic and Gomez constantly on the move, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson will likely be too occupied to deal with Atalanta’s flying full-backs. Therefore Salah and Mane will have to track back and nullify the threat. Or Klopp could sense a real good counter opportunity and leave his star men high up the pitch to force Atalanta back.
Gosens and Hateboer are usually playing so advanced that they even combined, from one flank to the other, for the latter to score a belter in September’s win at Lazio.
With Fabinho absent, whoever plays at the base of Liverpool’s midfield three will also be key. Atalanta are willing to shoot from long range so Jordan Henderson or Gini Wijnaldum will be crucial to closing down attackers before they can unleash an effort on Alisson’s goal.
If there is one area where Liverpool could expect some joy it is in midfield. Klopp’s usual three-man combination should give them one extra body in there if Gomez or Ilicic moves from the No 10 role into the flanks.
Like Liverpool, Atalanta have flying full backs in Hans Hateboer (C) and Robin Gosens (R)
They play so advanced that here, against Lazio, Gosens can be seen crossing to Hateboer
Hateboer is just as high up the pitch and produced a stunning volley to convert Gosens’ cross
Remo Freuler (L) and Mario Pasalic (R) are Atalanta’s engine room in their two-man midfield
Roberto Firmino could add to the chaos by dropping back from his centre-forward position to work between the lines as Salah and Mane cut inside and sprint in behind Atalanta’s back three.
That would give Liverpool an overload that could allow them to dominate possession and cut off the supply to Atalanta’s front three.
But however it plays out, Liverpool are in for a serious test of their Champions League credentials and must be switched on defensively or risk a hammering before they travel to play City on Sunday.
Bergamo is still reeling from the initial wave of the coronavirus pandemic that led to 7,000 deaths in the area. Atalanta celebrated one of their many goals against Valencia with a shirt saying: ‘Bergamo, this is for you. Don’t give up.’
If Atalanta can pull off a shock result against the might of Liverpool then it will give hope to the struggling region and provide genuine belief that Gasperini’s men can challenge Juventus and Inter Milan at the top of Serie A.
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