Nigerian forward Ademola Lookman has not scored in his last six games but here’s how a tweak in Atalanta’s tactical setup could help him return to his goalscoring best.
Nigerian forward Ademola Lookman had a blistering start to life as an Atalanta player, becoming prolific and productive almost immediately after joining the club in the summer transfer window from RB Leipzig for €15 million.
Lookman scored off the bench on debut for the club in a 2-0 win against Sampdoria and by his 20th appearance had already scored 14 goals across all competitions with just 15 starts in that period.
However, the Super Eagles star has hit a barren patch of late, failing to score in any of his last six games and there are multiple reasons for that, chief of which is Atalanta’s tactical shape.
How Atalanta’s tactics affect Ademola Lookman’s form
Lookman’s recent drought coincides with a downturn in form for Atalanta who have only won once in those six games without his goals and there is a big reason for that.
The drought can be traced back to a specific switch in Atalanta’s formation which in all honesty is a small tweak with big ramifications on the form of the team and their star player.
In this current season, Atalanta have played majorly with two variations of the same formation; either the 3-4-2-1 or the 3-5-2.
When the former is deployed, Lookman is usually one of the two behind the striker and when it is the latter formation, the Nigerian is up front alongside another striker (most frequently Rasmus Hojlund) in a partnership.
Atalanta boss Gianpiero Gasperini switched to the 3-5-2 formation five league games ago against Sassuolo in a bid to have more bodies in midfield.
The implication of that on Lookman and the team, in general, is that the Nigerian has had to play as an out-and-out striker which limits his scoring chances and affects the team’s results.
Lookman in a 3-4-2-1
In this formation, Lookman plays as one of the two support strikers, usually alongside Ivorian international Jeremie Boga behind Hojlund.
The 20-year-old Danish striker functions as a mobile target man, occupying the attention of the centre-backs while Boga provides the width as a natural winger, leaving space for Lookman to operate with or without the ball.
The 25-year-old Super Eagles forward had become comfortable in this scheme, adapting quickly to the setup and knowing exactly when to attack this space.
Lookman’s last goal is a very good example of him benefiting from the 3-4-2-1 formation by attacking the space created by Hojlund and Boga with the ball.
The 25-year-old scored the second goal in a 2-0 having received the ball in the wide right position and all he needed to do was beat one defender which is light work for him.
The minute he beat his man, the pitch opened up for him because the rest of the Sampdoria defence was being occupied by the other two forwards.
By the time they decided to commit to Lookman, it was already too late as the Nigerian had progressed the ball without opposition and had a clear sight at goal which he fired past Emil Audero in the bottom corner.
In the game before that, against Juventus, Lookman scored twice and assisted another in a 3-3 draw, demonstrating how the 3-4-2-1 formation helps him attack the space without the ball.
The Nigerian started his run close to the halfway line on the right side with the ball on the other side of the pitch, seemingly docile and non-threatening to Juventus at all.
By the time Boga had the ball out wide on the left, drawing the attention of two defenders in the process, Hojlund was in the box closely marshalled by Brazilian defender Bremer as the obvious aerial threat.
This allowed Lookman to wander in the box unmarked and allowed to connect with Boga’s cross after getting the drop on Alex Sandro to head home Atalanta’s third and his second goal of that game.
Lookman in a 3-5-2
Since the win against Sampdoria, Gasperini has mostly favoured a midfield three comprising of Teun Koopmeiners, Ederson and Marten De Roon in search of defensive solidity.
That means Lookman plays up front alongside Hojlund, giving up his cloak of invisibility that is the space on and off the ball with which he sneaks up on defences.
Atalanta as a whole have only scored three goals in the six games they have played since beating Sampdoria which coincides with Lookman’s last goal and the change of shape, it is all intertwined.
With the league becoming more aware of Lookman’s goalscoring threat as the third-highest scorer in Serie A with 12 goals, playing him in a front two further limits his chances of scoring as opponents tend to target him directly along with Hojlund.
Speaking of Hojlund, he has only scored once since Lookman’s drought started, indicating that the 3-5-2 formation does not suit him either.
To be fair to Gasperini, the formation switch has achieved its purpose as La Dea have only conceded six goals in their last six games while they shipped 12 goals in the six games before that.
But it has also severely limited their attack and also played a significant role in halting the good form of their top scorer and star player Ademola Lookman.
So what will Gasperini do? Return to what worked and continue to outscore their opponents which is rather unsustainable or find a way to achieve the balance between offensive fluidity and defensive sturdiness?
How Atalanta can get Lookman scoring again
While the above analysis of Lookman’s situation is credible, that is not to say the Nigerian cannot play well and excel in certain formations.
He has been deployed on the wing in a 4-5-1, up front in a 3-5-2, as a support striker/attacking midfielder in a 3-4-2-1 and also featured in a flat 3-4-3 and the 3-4-1-2 all in 26 games for Atalanta this season.
In fact, Lookman played and scored in three consecutive games against Fiorentina, Udinese and Sassuolo as a striker in a 3-5-2 earlier in the season, pre-World Cup break.
Why it worked then is that his strike partner was Luis Muriel, the slippery 31-year-old Colombian striker who is a lot more mobile than Hojlund and in no way a target man, creating space for Lookman with his movement.
However, since the game against Lazio on October 30, 2022, when Muriel was first suspended, he has since been out of the side for extended periods of time having also torn his abductor muscle.
Hojlund who had only started one game before then since joining from Sturm Graz would grab the opportunity to establish himself as the undisputed starter even upon Muriel’s return.
This is not bad as Hojlund seems to have a good partnership with Lookman but it works differently to his combination with Muriel.
With all the facts presented, the conclusion drawn is that there are two ways to bring the best out of Lookman at Atalanta.
Gasperini can either play the 3-4-2-1 with Lookman and Boga behind Hojlund or play Lookman as a striker, partnering up with Muriel.
Those are the two variations that have worked best for Lookman this season and Atalanta by extension as it has become clear that the sooner the Nigerian is scoring again, the more likely the team is to win games.
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