Atalanta has been one of the biggest surprises of European football under the guidance of Gianpiero Gasperini. And for good reason. Outside of Leicester City’s historic Premiership title under Claudio Ranieri, no team has punched more above its financial clout in recent years. La Dea has done an amazing job of scouting the continent and beyond to find young, inexpensive talent to fit Gasperini’s system. Atalanta have hit on many of those youngsters, allowing the squad to succeed on the pitch.
Of course, like any small club, Atalanta has profited off of many of its standout players; selling off key pieces to bigger clubs. The interesting thing is, some of those players haven’t found as much success after moving on from Bergamo.
When looking at Bryan Cristante’s current struggles, I began to wonder if the collective at Atalanta is greater than the individual pieces. With Roma traveling to Bergamo this weekend to face La Dea, I looked to see if there was a trend among former Atalanta players at bigger clubs.
To get a better read on some of the players who moved to the Milanese clubs, I got some help. Alex Donno of 560WQAM in Miami and Inter supporter gave me the lowdown on a couple players who moved from Atalanta’s Nerazzurro to Inter’s. Meanwhile, Sabrina Belmonte, Play By Play podcast host and Milan lifer, gave us the take on those who moved from Bergamo to the Rossoneri.
So, let’s take a look and see if there’s truth to the theory that Atalanta have been selling fool’s gold.
The Struggle is Real
Bryan Cristante & Roberto Gagliardini
For Romanisti, this is the most obvious example. Cristante was brought to Roma by Monchi after an outstanding season for a package that eventually reached €30 million. He arrived in the capital with high expectations after scoring a dozen goals under Gasperini. While Cristante was Roma’s only player to escape the injury bug unscathed last season, he never quite lived up to his Atalanta standards under EDF.
This year, Cristante has looked like a duck out of water under Fonseca. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact he’s slotted into a defensive midfield role with Diawara out. A role he’s not ideally suited for.
The Roma hierarchy still rates Cristante, as he saw his contract extended recently, but for him to be a success in the capital he will have to adapt to Fonseca Football. As it currently stands, he looks like the ultimate Gasperini player, but the jury is still out on him.
While Cristante still has time to make good on his Roma move, Roberto Gagliardini is running out of time to shed the bust label at Inter. The Italian moved to the Nerazzurri in January 2017 on a loan with obligation to buy totaling €22.5 million. After racking up 30 league appearances for Inter in his first full season with the club (2017/18), he has seen his appearances drop off considerably as the team has improved.
This season, Gaglardini has made only 11 league appearances as part of a deep Inter midfield. The reason?
“To me, he simply is not good enough to start for this Inter if all of their other midfielders are healthy. He’s not quick or consistent enough to bench Barella, Sensi, Brozovic or Eriksen,” says Donno.
To Donno, Gagliardini hasn’t lived up to expectations, falling into that fool’s gold category.
“As a young Italian who was thriving in Gasperini’s system, the expectations were fairly high when he arrived. He showed plenty of promise in his first half-season at Inter, including an ability to score from long range.
“However, from the start of the 2017-2018 season on, Gagliardini has been mired by inconsistency. He had a couple very good months in Spring 2018 playing next to Marcelo Brozovic, but overall, it is safe to say he has not met expectations.
“I do like his strength and physicality, and his vision for playing long passes. But, he often looks slow, sloppy in possession, and sloppy with his challenges (lots of yellow cards.)
More Time on the Trainer’s Table Than the Pitch
Mattia Caldara & Andrea Conti
We move on to two more players that are often labeled as busts. It’s easy to call Caldara and Conti failures based on their contributions at Milan. However, the two have missed significant time to injury.
Just three seasons ago, Caldara become a household name on the peninsula after a superb 2016-17 campaign with Atalanta. Caldara started 30 games along the back line for a squad that qualified for the Europa League. That was enough for Juve spend €19 million to secure his rights before loaning him back to Atalanta for the 17/18 season.
Caldara again featured heavily for La Dea appearing in 34 matches in all competitions. After the loan, Juve sold him to Milan in the deal that brought Leo Bonucci back to the Bianconeri. Ever since then, injury after injury has stalled Caldara’s career. A torn Achilles followed by an ACL tear meant that he played just one match for Milan in 18/19. Meanwhile, in 19/20 Caldara made zero appearances for the Rossoneri. Milan recently sent him back Bergamo on an 18 month loan in January.
Conti, like Caldara, burst onto the scene during the 16/17 season for Atalanta. During that campaign as Gasperini’s right wing back, Conti used his blistering pace to score eight goals and provide four assists in 33 league matches. With right backs always at a premium, Milan splashed the cash for the then 23-year-old.
Unfortunately, like Caldara, Conti has also seen injuries mar his Milan career. Conti tore his ACL just two games into his Milan tenure, and then had a relapse while rehabbing. All told, he was sidelined for his 18 months with the club. Since then Conti has often looked like a shell of his former self in 26 appearances. However, Belmonte feels that Conti can still rebound at Milan and find some of his old form.
“Definitely. He gets some hate from Milan fans, but he has shown that he has the talent to do well at Milan. He played as a wing-back in Gasperini’s 3-4-3 formation, so the transition to a right back does take some getting used to (especially since he had very little playing time due to his two ACL injuries). He had a really excellent showing against Juventus in the fall, and in an interview with Milan TV, he revealed that Milan coach Pioli had instructed him to focus more on defending rather than contributing in attack like he’s used to. If he can play by that philosophy, he will have a good career at Milan, and with the Italian national team, who are really thin at the right back position,” says Belmonte.
With players like Caldara and Conti, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly the reason for their downfalls; it could be the injuries, it could be the change of scenery, but most likely it’s a combination of both. Caldara not seeing the field once this season for a mid-table Milan is worrying, as is Conti’s form. With both still young enough to rebound, Conti will try to find some of his old magic at the San Siro, and Caldara will look to do the same where it all began: Bergamo.
Bucking the Trend
Franck Kessie & Andrea Petagna
One player who left Atalanta and has lived up to expectations for the most part is Kessie. The Ivorian was heavily linked with Roma when he hit the market, but ultimately landed in Milan. Kessie has drawn some criticism in his time at the San Siro, but upon closer look has performed relatively well. That is especially true of the last two seasons.
In his one season in Bergamo, Kessie scored six goals, provided three assists, and completed 84.4% of his passes in 30 league matches. He followed that with seasons of 5/7/84.4% (goals/assists/passing) in 37 appearances and 7/2/87% in 34 appearances in his first two Milan campaigns. That has dropped off this season, but the team around him has had plenty of problems. Belmonte feels that the Ivorian has lived up to expectations.
“I feel that he has met expectations, if people have the correct expectations of him. He’s not a midfield maestro like Andrea Pirlo, in fact he’s more comparable to Pirlo’s Milan teammate Gennaro Gattuso. Kessie is physical and has an incredible workrate. His purpose on the field should be to win the ball and feed it to a playmaking teammate (currently Bennacer),”she says.
Belmonte sees Kessie remaining with the club long term. Something that would more than justify his €32 million transfer fee (€8 million loan + €24 million obligation).
“He absolutely should. Kessie is only 23 so he fits the profile of current owners, the Elliott fund, of a young, talented player with an upside. Kessie would benefit from some consistency in the coaching position, so he and Bennacer can build some on-field chemistry in a consistent formation. “
Meanwhile, a player who took a different career path after his time in Bergamo is Petagna. Unlike the other names in this piece, Petagna actually was sold to a smaller club. After two seasons of mixed results in Bergamo, he went to SPAL on an initial €3 million loan in 18/19. In his first year in Ferrara, Petagna scored 17 goals in all competitions, up from six in his last season with La Dea. This prompted SPAL to make the deal permanent for €12 million.
Petagna has continued his success this season with eight goals, earning him a permanent move to Napoli for the summer. Although Petagna may not have had great success at Atalanta, he is a rare example of an ex-Gasperini pupil increasing his value after his departure.
Too Soon to Tell, But the Signs are Positive
Gianluca Mancini & Alessandro Bastoni
Despite a rough couple weeks for Mancini, most Romanisti would agree that the young Italian has had a solid start to his Roma career. After serving as a rotation piece in 17/18, Mancini became a regular for Gasperini in 18/19. Mancini’s star grew that season and after 30 appearances and five goals, Gianluca Petrachi brought him to the capital.
Mancini has become a fixture along the Roma back line, alongside Chris Smalling. The 23-year-old Italian even stepped into a defensive midfield role, showing his versatility. If he continues to grow the way he has, Mancini projects as a long term starter for Roma and potentially an Azzurri contender.
Bastoni took a slightly different path to a big club than Mancini. The Inter man played sparingly as a teenager for Atalanta in 2016/17 before Inter snapped him up for €31.1 million. This was certainly more of speculative buy than any other player on this list.
The Nerazzurri loaned him back to Atalanta where he played little first team football in 17/18. Inter loaned him out again in 18/19 to Parma where he played 24 games and impressed. After joining the San Siro side as a 20 year old this season, Bastoni has played more than many would’ve expected in a three man backline that includes Martin Skriniar, Stefan De Vrij, and Diego Godin.
Donno explained why he sees Bastoni as the real deal.
“Bastoni has been an absolute revelation. He shows the poise of a much more experienced player. His dependability in the back and his ability to pass the ball accurately have allowed him to get selected into Inter’s starting XI over Diego Godin on several occasions. He thrives in a back three more than Godin does.
“My expectations for Bastoni are sky high. I always try not to overhype young players, but he’s earned every bit of the praise he’s getting. He’s not been completely mistake-free, but he makes far fewer than you would expect from a 20 year old,” says Donno.
Based on their current trajectories, don’t be surprised if Mancini and Bastoni turn to real gold for Roma and Inter. That’s something we haven’t seen from most of Atalanta’s big sales.
While it’s easy to see why many have called Atalanta’s big sales “Gasperini system players” it’s hard to really call them all fool’s gold. True, Gagliardini hasn’t lived up to expectations at Inter and Cristante has had a rough season in the capital, while injuries have hobbled Caldara and Conti, but players like Kessie and Petagna have lived up to or exceeded expectations after leaving Bergamo. Plus, Mancini and Bastoni look well on their ways to becoming big time center backs.
So, Atalanta, like any club who sells off talent, has seen some of her big sales flourish while others flounder. Some guys may always play best in a certain system, while others will adapt and thrive no matter where they are. In the end, it all really is just a crap shoot.