Atalanta has been one of the biggest stories in Europe over the past two seasons. The Bergamo-based side is fresh off its second consecutive Champions League group stage success. Yet, all is not rosy in Bergamo at the moment. With stories abound that the club’s captain and manager are at odds, things could quickly come unraveled for Atalanta. So, with a trip to Bergamo on the horizon for Roma, we picked the brain of a life-long Atalanta supporter: Dan Pezzotta of Atalanta POD and Las Vegas Atalanta Supporters Group.
What Atalanta has done the past two seasons in Europe has certainly been impressive. Does it surprise you at all that the club was able to advance out of its Champions League group two years in a row?
Dan Pezzotta: As a fan of Atalanta since birth, which is almost 40 years, any success (see winning), still comes as a shock all the time. But that being said, I guess the “ease” at which they advanced this year, essentially only needing a draw on the last day, and ultimately getting an impressive win in Amsterdam, was the biggest surprise. Last season it was bewildering that they started so poorly. And then shock of all shocks, getting luck with other results and, and two wins in the last two matchdays gets us into the round of 16. So I guess the answer is that I’m not surprised that we did, but how we did it in the past two years has been unexpected.
That being said, Atalanta hasn’t been as deadly in Serie A so far as it has been the past couple of seasons. Do you think it’s an effect of playing so many matches in Serie A and Europe with the more compressed schedule? Does the somewhat slower start worry you about Atalanta’s chances of returning to the Champions League for a third straight season?
DP: Absolutely, we’re one year older and playing so many games. But also Gasperini has been tinkering with the side a bit more than usual, and that has slowed our progress. With the added depth this season (Miranchuk, Lammers, Romero, etc), Gasperini has tried to integrate them into the side much faster than he has in the past. The five substitute rule, some injuries, COVID, and games on three fronts have forced his hand to be less consistent with his lineup. That being said, our slow start has I believe ended our Scudetto hopes (never thought I’d ever say that about Atalanta), but we still have a good chance of making the top four. These next two months before UCL returns will be key. We can focus on Serie A and Coppa Italia.
Recently there have been reports that Gasperini and Papu Gomez had a bit of a disagreement. Do you think there’s any truth to that rumor? And if there is, do you worry about the effect it may have on the squad?
DP: Yes, in the past few days it has come out that there has been a fracture in their relationship. The “disagreement” in the Midtjylland match had to have just been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Something was definitely brewing far before that.
If the relationship really goes south and leads to a split, which would you say is more important for the club to keep? Why?
DP: Wow. This is a tough one to answer, but very easy to come up with the right answer. It has to be Gasperini. Papu is the heart of our team, but Gasperini is the brains. We all know that your heart can be beating, but if you’re brain dead...you’re really dead. Look, everyone loves Papu. But I believe that the progression of the team has gotten us to the point where we might not need Papu’s contributions in every game. In fact, his inclusion in some games might hurt more than help. I’m guessing that Gasperini is telling him this, and probably not communicating this in a good way, and this is tough for Papu to swallow after all he’s done for the club.
Gasperini wasn’t nearly as successful in his previous stops as he has been in Bergamo. What makes his football so effective? Why has he been able to find so much success with the Nerazzurri?
DP: Gasp’s style is extremely organized, extremely physically taxing, high pressing, attacking football. He’s been successful at Atalanta because he’s been given the time to build a team that works with his ideas. If your centrebacks are expected to overlap or make runs in the box, you need time to find the right players for that, or time for them to learn how to do that. His initial success was due to the fact that he luckily had malleable young players (Caldara, Gagliardini, Conti, Kessie) that were perfect for him and his system at that time. That 4th place finish bought him the time he needed, and the support of President Antonio Percassi has been unwavering since. Having a history of a great youth system and scouting network is also exactly what Gasp needs. It’s basically a match made in heaven.
Why have many of the players Atalanta has sold not succeeded elsewhere?
DP: Well, first of all, when Atalanta players leave, they tend to go to so-called “bigger” clubs. You know, your Juve, Milan, Inter and Roma types. So there’s already much bigger expectations which are probably unfair. Secondly, when you’re highly trained in a system that is so based on the collective, and all your teammates are usually in the right spot every time, let’s face it, you get to another team and you have to think a bit more because looser structures allow more creativity. That’s not easy. And lastly, many times they’re not even played in the same position. You know how that has been with Bryan Cristante. He was a trequartista at Atalanta, and was initially played as a double-pivot defensive midfielder for quite some time. He was the butt of so much criticism for Romansiti. Well, now Fonseca has made him into quite an effective ball playing centreback, and I have to say I am shocked. But these players take a little extra time to shake off their Gasperini-ness.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s big match. What scares you the most about Roma?
DP: Matches against Roma have been so fun as of late, haven’t they? We know that 3 goal leads are not safe for either side. That being said, this Roma side has looked impressive in the last months with the exception of the Napoli match, and the really meaningless loss to CSKA Sofia. They have been scoring a bunch of goals, and it’s not all Dzeko. Mkhitaryan has been unbelievable as of late, and there are some great young players on the squad as well. The scariest thing is that I believe that this team is built to take the chances that we will give up. Roma’s ability to be clinical is what will be the biggest test for Atalanta. We cannot make silly mistakes.
What are the keys to an Atalanta victory tomorrow?
DP: Balance. We can’t just have 65% of the possession and try to pass the ball into the back of the goal. This is how we lose. We need to be opportunistic and clinical. Also, the battle between Romero and Dzeko will be really interesting. Atalanta also need to control the midfield and not allow Pellegrini and Mkhitaryan to dictate play. Lastly, I can’t wait to see how Cristante and Ibanez deal with Duvan. Maybe this would be a time for Smalling to start?
Thanks again to Dan for giving us some great insight on Atalanta ahead of Roma’s match with the Nerazzurri. He’ll also be joining me on Across the Romaverse to preview Sunday’s match, so keep an eye out for that on all major podcast platforms.
You can follow Dan on Twitter @ubeetz1981. Meanwhile, you can also follow his podcast (@AtalantaPOD) and the Las Vegas Atalanta Supporters Group (@atalanta_vegas).