If you’re not a seriously dedicated Serie A fan, you probably didn’t pay much attention to Monday night’s match between top four contenders Atalanta and relegation battlers Empoli. If you browsed the scores afterwards, a 0-0 draw probably didn’t catch your eye either. But it was one of the most notable games of the season: no professional team in the world has produced more chances and failed to score than Atalanta did in this game.
By expected goals, Atalanta could have pretty reasonably hit the back of the next six times.
Atalanta had 47 shots and 5.86 xG in today’s SCORELESS DRAW vs Empoli.
That’s the highest xG total without scoring in any of the 85K games in our dataset. pic.twitter.com/BUjEgPcQbq
— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) April 15, 2019
Not every xG model is the same, but disagreements about the ridiculousness of this game are minor. Atalanta produced 47 shots, 17 of which were on target, and seven of them came from inside the six-yard box. It’s unheard of for a team to fail to score from this kind of shot volume and quality.
Watching this game while knowing the result was enthralling, perhaps more so than it would have been to watch live. Atalanta actually took a few minutes to get going, and Empoli had the first two decent shots of the game. The unlucky hosts finally got cooking about 10 minutes in when Hans Hateboer missed a wide open header.
And that might not have been the most egregious miss of the night.
In the 14th minute, Empoli left back Luca Antonelli was substituted off with an injury. When Antonelli’s replacement, Manuel Pasqual, came on, the announcer for the English language international feed said, “The 37-year-old comes into the action, his first game since March. That shouldn’t disrupt, however, too much, the balance of the side. Pasqual is a true professional.”
That bit of wisdom turned out to be stunningly incorrect. Pasqual proceeded to get turned inside-out repeatedly by Hateboer and Josip Iličić.
The substitution precipitated the match’s most obscene moment in the 25th minute, when a stunning flick by Iličić set up … a world class save by Bartłomiej Drągowski and two incredible blocks.
Dragowski wears No. 69 by the way, which is obviously intentional given that he is 21 years old and a heavy social media user. Even though Donald Trump killed the joke, I still think it’s pretty nice. Anyway.
In the 27th minute, our commentator — who at this point, has no clue what he’s witnessing — said for the first time that “it feels like the goal is coming.”
Again, in the 35th minute, he contextualized this game alongside more normal games, in which a team dominating and taking a lot of shots eventually leads to a goal. “Everybody back for Empoli, they are not going to be able to carry on for the next 55 minutes in this fashion,” he said.
In the 43rd minute: “It really seems like a matter of when, not if for Atalanta.”
At halftime, this game was still somewhat in the realm of normalcy. Atalanta had 16 shots: an impressive, but not unheard of number to take in a half without scoring. That happens about once a week in Europe’s big leagues.
This game’s turning point — the exact moment when it got really weird — came in the 56th minute.
Dragowski made a sensational double save, and the commentator declared it “miracle after miracle from the Polish keeper.”
It was at that moment that Atalanta got extremely pissed off and started firing shots at every opportunity. The big xG chances dried up and the shots on target plummeted. They started cranking hopeful shots from outside the box and Empoli let them, knowing that their keeper was hot and their opponent was tilted.
And yet, Atalanta really should have scored in stoppage time. They had one last big chance, off a set piece and a spinning backheel, but of course it went straight into Dragowski.
The final result was particularly heartbreaking for Atalanta because a win would have put them in the top four, and into a Champions League spot, ahead of AS Roma and AC Milan. If they fail to finish above the bigger clubs by two or fewer points, everyone will look back on this game as the team’s biggest missed opportunity.
But some team was always going to fall victim to a ridiculous xG game like this eventually, and Atalanta were among the prime candidates. To pull off a feat like this one, you need to be good enough to create 47 shots in the first place, but lacking in quality enough to miss all of them. There’s a very narrow set of teams that fall under that category.
Simply: What happened to Atalanta just doesn’t happen to the best teams in the world.
Doesn’t it feel like the really big clubs just barely scrape by with a lot of 1-0 wins? Remember Fergie Time? Fergie Time isn’t about luck, or favorable officials, or Alex Ferguson selling his soul to the devil. If top teams create 47 shots, they have good enough finishers to score one of them.
Atalanta, on the other hand, are led up top by Duván Zapata. He has an impressive 20 goals this season, but his goal tallies from his previous seasons in Serie A are five, six, eight, 10, and 11. His fellow forwards, Iličić and Papu Gómez, are similarly inconsistent. They’ve recorded seasons with 13 and 16 league goals, respectively, but ended up in the single digits more often than not. These are players who one could imagine creating 47 shots and finishing none of them.
Atalanta’s manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, is a specialist at this level of Italian football. He guided Genoa to a slew of top-half, but not-quite Champions League finishes during his stints there, with a pit stop at Inter Milan for half a year in which he figured out that big club politics are not for him. Gasperini has rarely wavered from his favored 3-4-3 system, even when he doesn’t have the right personnel or an opponent creates matchup advantages against it.
Gasperini is an expert in coaching one system, which allows him to get average teams to finish a couple spots in the table ahead of where one would expect based on their talent level. But he’s very dedicated to that system and rarely has a Plan B when things go wrong. This is the manager you could see coaching a team that does something like what Atalanta did Monday.
Sorry, Atalanta. This had to happen to someone, and you were perfect.