Cagliari’s stint in the media has been quite negative recently, accusation of racist abuse against Moise Kean and Romelu Lukaku have put the Sardinians in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
This season though, the performance on the field has rectified the above. Summer signings of the Uruguayan duo Christian Oliva and Nahitan Nandez improved the technical quality in midfield, as well as the accusation of Marko Rog on loan from Napoli. The surprise package though, was the return of Radja Nainggolan after a disappointing spell at Inter.
Unbeaten since the 2nd game-week this season, Cagliari have placed themselves in the top echelon of performers in Serie A. On Sunday, they traveled to Bergamo to face a rampant Atalanta side who despite their woes in the Champions League have been impressing in the league.
Atalanta started with their usual 3–4–1–2 formation with Papu Gomez behind Luis Muriel and Josip Ilicic. As for Rolando Maran’s side they played a hybrid 4–3–1–2/4–3–3 with Nainggolan drifting wide right when Cagliari were out of possession.
Defensively, Cagliari positioned themselves in a 4–3–3 shape to contain Atalanta’s wing backs. They adjusted their press to force Atalanta out wide during the build up phase and stay there instead of linking with a player in the channel. Furthermore, Nainngolan’s movement out wide to the right deprived Atalanta from having an extra center back in the build up phase, and keeping the press as a 3 v 3 scenario.
Elaborating on the example above which happened throughout the game. When Timothy Castagne had the ball Cagliari only wanted to present him with the option of Remo Freuler down the wing, blocking the passing lanes into Gomez.
Once Freuler had the ball or Castagne wanted to advance Joao Pedro and Rog pressed to force Atalanta to circulate the ball backwards. Seeking the ball to create, Gomez dropped deeper away from threatening areas to collect the ball. The problem was even that Gomez had the ball he had no player to link with, and he couldn’t play the wing backs in threatening positions out wide as they were not advanced enough and still tracked by Cagliari’s midfield and full backs.
Atalanta’s main threat from the wing backs is usually their late runs in the box at the far post, and Cagliari managed to nullify this by not allowing the ball nor the wing back to reach advanced areas up the field. Thus, removing the creation of the opportunity itself.
Going forward, Cagliari’s main idea was to attack the space behind Jose Palomino and emptying space on the left for midfielders to occupy when Joao Pedro dropped.
It was evident from early on when in the 2nd minute Oliva intercepted the ball from Muriel, and played a long ball for Giovanni Simeone behind Palomino
Simeone’s shot was well struck, forcing a quick save from Pierluigi Gollini.
The scene kept recurring, and again in the 30th minute it was Simeone bypassing Palomino. This time however out wide not towards the goal.
Attacking the space wasn’t only limited to the left side when Joao Pedro dropped. Simeone’s positioning out wide now emptied space in the box which was utilized by the onrushing right back Fabrizio Cacciatore — too fast in the pic below you’ll only see him hazy. Simeone combined with Nainggolan then flicked the ball over the defence to the space Cacciatore was attacking.
Rog and Joao Pedro provided the right back with two options as Joao Pedro dropped instead of completing his run.
The Brazilian was unlucky as his shot was blocked by the enclosing Castagne. The two examples above showcase Simeone’s runs behind Palomino, and how freeing the space for another player deciphered Atalanta’s defence.
Cagliari were close but no cigar. However, they did manage to score their 2nd goal in the game from a similar approach. Emptying the number 10 position, Nainggolan dropped to help Cacciatore in the build up. Oliva was alert and once Cacciatore fed him the ball he rampaged forward into that space in the middle.
Oliva now had space in midfield to move forward as seen below.
With Oliva moving forward in midfield, Palomino was in no man’s land as Simeone was preparing to make a run behind him.
Simeone again first to the ball opted for a cutback which Oliva struck into the back of the net to double Cagliari’s lead.
The other face of the coin was Joao Pedro who dropped excellently leaving space for Rog and Lucas Castro to run into. Pedro dropped regularly in midfield and in an instance in the first half he dummied the ball leaving it for Castro. Castro — now at the center spot — was already making the run even before the ball reached Joao Pedro.
Castro wasn’t deceived by his teammate’s dummy, and his reaction indicated that this was a planned move by Maran’s side.
All that was happening in the center of the pitch while Rog was making a run — out of our screen — into the space that Joao Pedro vacated. Castro put Rog on goal with an exquisite one touch pass.
Unfortunately, Rog’s slow decision making meant that Berat Djimsiti had the time to close down and block the Croatian's shot.
Cagliari cooled down after their 2nd goal through Oliva, but Joao Pedro’s movements offered them a half chance to kill the game in the 77th minute. Again dropping into midfield, he freed space for Castro who was now on the left of the diamond after the introduction of Nandez in place of Rog.
Castro was calm and played a smart cross towards the six yard box. If only Simeone was a split second faster he would have nicked it off Gollini to technically finish the game.
Cagliari’s movements and attack of the space was displayed on the highest level during the game. The coherent movements put them in free position managing to dissect Atalanta’s defence. Even when the ball was intercepted, there was always a player covering to deny Atalanta from having an advantage on the break.
The Sardinians have been in the dark due to off-field issues, but it’s their on field performances that is slowly bringing them to the light.