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The Design of La Dea: Why Has Atalanta Been So Successful?

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What’s the secret of high-flying Atalanta Bergamo?

SSC Napoli v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

All the way back in August we could already tell which teams would end in the top four: Juve would be crowned champions, obviously, Napoli, fresh coming off a record point total of 91, would be a massive challenger for the carton-board Scudetto (AKA second place), while Milan, and especially Inter, reinforced in the summer to try and break Juve’s hegemony.

And, of course, there’s our AS Roma. After one bizarre transfer mercato (Alisson, Radja, Strootman, Nzonzi, Olsen, Pastore, Mirante, Kluivert, etc). I mean, really, what the hell happened in those 2 months?? We can’t forget Lazio, who were very close to the top 4 last season.

Torino, Sampdoria, Fiorentina, all dangerous outsiders for Europe but they couldn’t possibly end in a Champions League spot instead of the traditional sides like the powerhouses in Milan or Rome?

Another overlooked outsider was Atalanta Bergamo. La Dea ended in seventh place last season, behind all top teams: four points from fifth place, 12 points from CL, and a staggering 17 points from Roma (Can you imagine that? I guess having a good goalkeeper and some bulldogs in your midfield does help in a long and tough season).

So, yeah, Atalanta can trouble a big team every now and then, but in the end they weren’t consistent enough: 16 wins, 12 draws, 10 losses. Why would 2018-2019 be any different? Same trainer, same core of players. Their MVP, Bryan Cristante, went to Roma but they didn’t lose any particular pieces beyond that. They got Zapata from Samp (who later turned into a stud), Roman prodigy Marco Tumminello, while Chelsea loaned out Mario Pasalic to them. That’s about it, the other additions are not worth mentioning.

However, Atalanta became something special. They continue a path that started all the way back in 2016, counting on Gasperini to save the day. In 2015-2016 La Dea almost got relegated under Colantuono. In the end, they stayed in Serie A, stranded at 13th place thanks to Eddy Reja. In Gasperini’s first season in charge, 2016-2017, he immediately qualified La Dea for the Europa League, leading them to fourth place and Europe League (only the top 3 was reserved for the CL back then).

There were some troubles along the way though, as Gian Piero was almost sacked not long after the start. Only one win in his first five games, Atalanta was suddenly 19th; not exactly the ambitions of the ownership. But La Dea quickly recovered, and thanks to a strong finish, holding the likes of Roma, Milan and Juve to a draw, Atalanta qualified for Europe and was hailed as the fairy tale of Serie A that year.

Like I said earlier, 2017-2018 was less magical, more inconsistent, but a nice fifth place nonetheless. Most people thought their 2016-2017 season was just a coincidence, a one-off. La Dea would have to aim at somewhere between fifth and seventh place going forward.

Yet here we are. Atalanta are once again alongside the big boys, just days after a one-goal win at the San Paolo of Napoli. La Dea is once again on a roll, unbeaten in the last eight games in Serie A, of which they have won five.

Who here dares to bet on Atalanta NOT reaching top 4? There are still five games to play but with three home games, it does look rather good for them. On match-day 37 they travel to Juventus, but the Bianconeri, as we know, are already champions so an away win is not entirely out of the question.

If those aren’t enough reasons to get excited, Atalanta fans have more reasons to party, as they’re also in the Coppa Italia semifinals, having a slight advantage over Fiorentina after a 3-3 draw in Florence. It’s not unthinkable they can finish the job in Bergamo and go through to the final.

So, why exactly are Atalanta capable of doing all this while our beloved Roma looks so uninspired and soulless at times. What’s their masterplan?

Well, having an Italian coach at the helm for nearly three years helps; one who knows Serie A inside out. A guy that doesn’t play 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 for a change, but usually experiments with a back three: 3-5-2, 3-4-2-1, 3-4-3. Their president since 2010 is Antonio Percassi, a man less, uh, animated, than our James—you rarely see or hear him in the media, unlike Roma’s ‘Tarzan’. Oh, and Atalanta only sold one key player last season.

This current season, the Orobici count on talents like Barrow, Castagne and Gosens to explode, not to mention proven players like Gomez, Masiello and Ilicic to lead the way. The Orobici count on guys with less stellar names but with undoubted quality like De Roon, Hateboer, Toloi and Freuler. The Orobici count on players eager to prove themselves like Zapata, Pasalic or Mancini. You won’t find a diva in this roster.

Gasperini somehow makes it all click; he has this versatile group of players with different characteristics and blends it into one strong unit. Strong centre forward? Check. Workers in midfield? Check. Wingbacks with a lot of stamina and an A for effort? Check. All of them molded into one smooth, dynamic formation. Gasperini is the architect of this beautiful building.

Let’s be fair, Atalanta’s center-backs and keeper aren’t world class, but their midfield helps out a lot. Combining the flair of Ilicic and Gomez with the presence of Zapata up front is a golden move. And if you can bring on a talent like Barrow to unlock a game, that’s something to brag about.

When you look at the numbers, Atalanta is simply one of Italy’s most exciting teams. 66 goals scored (one less than Juve), 42 conceded (second worst of the top 8, next to…. Roma). It’s no coincidence both games between them ended 3-3. Perhaps it’s one of the downsides of playing with a back three, you get exposed a lot, but if you can score as much as or one more than your opponent, who cares?

Going after Gasperini this summer might be a smart move of Roma, but it’s not a guarantee for success. Remember Gasp’s short tenure at Inter. In Bergamo Gian Piero is a hero, everything he does turns into gold and he can do no wrong for the fans. In Bergamo he enjoys himself. In Rome they’re, how shall we say it, less patient and more demanding. A few years ago Roma tried to become Barcelona by bringing in Luis Enrique. We all know how that worked out for us.

Working at Roma can break a grown human. Seriously, look up pictures of Enrique or EDF before and after coaching Roma. I know people who look better after taking drugs ten times a day and drink ten bottles of whiskey a day.

True, Gasperini and Gianluca Mancini would insert a bit of that ‘Atalanta-DNA’ into Roma. We all know Pallotta and co. will be jealous of them, their coach, their staff, their youth sector... But Roma is Roma, a club with different working ways. You can’t compare both teams, even if Roma winds up in seventh place and Atalanta beat Inter for third spot. Atalanta may have the momentum, Roma still has its history. It can all change in the next season.

For now, Roma can only do their best and take the fight to Atalanta for that precious fourth place. Only one point separates both, but La Dea undoubtedly looks fitter, stronger and tougher than the Giallorossi.

We’ll need all the soldiers we can get for this battle, beating a Godess won’t be easy.