This is a feature put together by reader-request. Though it took an effort to string this 3-part novella into final draft, a huge amount of time was saved thanks to the existing work of Fabio Barcellona, Alfredo Giacobbe, Federico Aquè, Emanuele Atturo and Flavio Fusi’s contributions to Ultimo Uomo.
I have no direct relationship with any of those writers or the Ultimo Uomo site itself, but credit where it’s due.
A Dutchman praising an Italy side beating his home nation is still a rare sight in football, but you heard the sound of that very pin drop after Louis Van Gaal’s praise this week. “For the first time,” Van Gaal enthused at a Firenze press event, “I really loved watching an Italian team play.”
Roberto Mancini’s Italy walked away 1-0 winners against the Netherlands but, for those of us who’ve stuck with Serie A through its 21st century makeover, the manner of Mancini’s foot-ball—one featuring a team effort to win the back high and early—was nothing new. You could say current Serie A coaches Paulo Fonseca and—for a far longer spell of paying his dues over the last fifteen years—Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini have a hand in it.
We’re the first to hold our hands up and admit we’re committing sacrilege by comparing Roma with Atalanta—at least from the Ultra point-of-view. Though it’s hard to prove where the source of acrimony and bitterness between both fanbases truly took shape, we don’t have to look far or hard to see the bitterness is there all the same.
Just this summer gone by, everyone except Roma fans were happy for Atalanta’s run to the Champions League semi-finals, and independent journalist Jacopo Aliprandi shed some light on the background:
Molti si chiedono come mai i romanisti ieri sera non abbiamo tifato la favola #Atalanta in Champions.— Jacopo Aliprandi (@AliprandiJacopo) August 13, 2020
Luglio 2013: un carro armato guidato da un giocatore nerazzurro e da vecchie glorie schiacciava una macchina colorata di giallorosso e con la scritta “#ASRoma e #Totti merda”. pic.twitter.com/rHxnE4AzZW
In the video above is supposedly an ex-Atalanta player driving a tank through the streets of Bergamo, crushing cards spray-painted with “Roma e Totti merda” in the process. This was back in 2013, but it’s been a regular ritual up in Bergamo both before and since. If you let Roma ultras tell the story online then, surprisingly, they’ll claim the straw that broke it all was mostly Roma’s fault.
Up until the summer of 1983, both clubs’ sets of fans were allies off the field and sympathetic to one another’s cause. But a very angry 1983-84 season saw the Roma fanbase start beef with pretty much anyone who wanted some (Atalanta, Liverpool, Fiorentina...you name it...it reads like a European tour of violence).
No one has buried the hatchet since.
Fan beef aside, though, Paulo Fonseca openly drew a parallel between both clubs just this past February, so the comparison has officially became fair game.
“I remember when Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool, they finished eighth in their first season together. Look at Lazio, how many years has Simone Inzaghi been working at that club, or Gian Piero Gasperini at Atalanta? We’ve just started here.”
How achievable is a Gasperini-like revolution at Roma for Fonseca? How far apart are both coaches’ ideas? Both on paper and in practice?
How To Not Get Fired...and Influence People
Those are the questions we’ll try to answer over the next three parts of our deep dive into Atalanta’ success.
- Part 1 is the Seed: We look at Gasperini’s come-up as a player, youth coach and a maverick who insisted on sticking with his eleven-on-eleven man-marking in Serie A.
- Part 2 is Year Zero: We go full-on Chiesa di Gomez, looking at Gasperini’s Atalanta season-on-season, from 2016 to the summer of 2020.
- Part 3 is the Institution: We draw a line under what we’re learnt from Atalanta’s team-building over the last four years, and how Paulo Fonseca can turn that into a Roman reality.
But a heads up: There isn’t a huge amount of evidence upon which to compare each coaches’ ideas in practice, since Fonseca has only spent a year in Italian football, and that time has been spent negotiating his way through a bloated Roma squad, as well failing politics in the head office. That politicking has fielded at least four different Roma formations in one season; a 19/20 campaign where we could only really look at the head-to-head fixtures against other Top 6 rivals to understand what Atalanta did against the big rivals that Roma choose to do differently.
Among those fixtures, we’ve seen the Braga/Pacos Ferreira-version—Roma sides that put Cristante at center-half, to surprisingly good (even if anomalous) team results.
Are we suggesting Cristante at center-half is the way forward? No.
But circumstance would have it that that specific Roma setup not only won a Coppa Italia against Parma, but thoroughly dominated the Derby della Capitale to the extent that Lazio—literally with no hyperbole sauce on top—barely touched the ball outside of their own half. The domination was so thorough that pundits were falling over themselves to ask how on earth that game finished up as a 1-1 draw on the evening.
That setup was based on cutting off any thoughts Lazio could have of sending long-balls over the top, thanks (in part but not exclusively) to Cristante’s presence further back that allowed Roma to keep Lazio locked in their own half. And the bait-and-switch formations didn’t stop there for Fonseca’s Roma last season.
There was the emergency switch to a counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 that could shift mid-match into a defensively solid 4-3-3; football made possible only by having players like Javier Pastore in your side—and freeing up Gianluca Mancini to play deep-lying midfield.
Pastore and Mancini recycling the ball between them baited sides like Napoli and Milan to try and close down Roma inside the giallorosso half, before Roma would spring a fast-break attack by releasing young forwards Zaniolo, Kluivert and Pellegrini into acres of space on the opponent’s goal. And then there was the Shakhtar-version of Fonseca Football, holding ideals that this current Roma side have struggled to put into practice.
That version of Roma puts Gianluca Mancini in the backline, with Amadou Diawara in midfield and Jordan Veretout playing a fluid role between midfield and the final third. Over the course of the 2019/20 season that fluid role was gradually handed over to Henrikh Mkihtaryan. The one advantage this style of football holds (on paper) is that it gives Roma unpredictability and options in attack. The problem (in reality) was that Roma struggled to get on the right page with the 4-2-3-1 (because of those options) and ended up playing slowly and were therefore easy to defend against.
So Fonseca has shelved that version of Roma for now, and what we’re really all here to see is what he has in store next for his 3-4-2-1 Roma side. That’s the setup that played Inter Milan off the park at the Olimpico in 2020, the Roma setup that’s been banging in goals for fun, and the setup that broke Roma out of their narrow 19/20 team shape.
Living It Large at the Serie A Summit
For most of Fonseca’s tenure, we’ve seen a Roma side that plays with an average width between 30 to 33 meters across all eleven players.
It’s compact football that looks to defend the middle lane at all costs, but it runs at odds against most other top 6 Italian sides who aren’t afraid to live it large at an average of 36 to 38 meters’ width of build-up play. In Fonseca’s new-look 3-2-4-1, he lifted ideas that some would credit to Gasperini: bait-and-switch your opponents on the flanks instead, carve open a direct route to the final third, and then slot the ball in the middle for immeasurable amounts of xG and goals scored.
Perhaps that’s why possession-obsessed Paulo Fonseca openly commented on Gasperini’s use of a three-man backline and the flanks, to build the foundations of bulletproof-confidence into Gasperini’s Atalanta side:
“Today you could say [three at the back] could be crucial to attacking football,” Fonseca reflected this past summer. “Here [in Italy] it’s too hard to play between the lines and through the middle. If we want to build up more through the wings we could use it.”
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Gasperini over the last four years, Paulo. Don’t worry. That’s not the fairy tale we’re going to tell.
In the second part of this feature, we’ll see that Gasperini has been forced into some surprising compromises, and even disagreed with the board over signing Atalanta players that have gone onto become Orobici stars since. A near breaking point for the club was the lack of chemistry between Papu Gomez and Duvan Zapata that could have turned Atalanta’s attack toothless, had the experience of all three men not prevailed.
When we’re talking about the hard-earned wisdom of a coach like Gian Piero Gasperini, we need to spend the first part of this feature paying due respect and go into his footballing background.
Because, unlike Fonseca, Atalanta’s coach has been through, to quote Nas, nearly 15 years of getting “fucked over, left for dead, dissed and forgotten” on the way to building an institution in Atalanta; one based around his beliefs and the club’s longstanding investment in youth. One that has Gasperini finally enjoying the Serie A status he does today.
As a Eusebio Di Francesco fan myself, it’s bittersweet for me to see GPG’s Atalanta collect envious stares in Rome for something Di Francesco was derided.
But lest you think we’re exaggerating, here’s the passing map (see above/right) for one of Atalanta’s most notorious wins on the European scene, announcing themselves against Everton in the 2017/18 season.
That Atalanta passing map is far from a one-off, and makes up the general picture of three seasons’ worth of Atalanta build-up play. It comes from the mind of a man who dared to live three at the back before it became mainstream. Not to mention other quirks to Gasperini’s teams, like the one that draws the most conversation in Italy today: Eleven-on-eleven man-marking all over the pitch.
How did Gasperini get away with all this?
All Vertical Football Leads to Zeman
You might recognize a current Roma goalkeeper in the picture above.
Juventus was the formation of Gian Piero Gasperini’s career, as both a player and a youth coach. His cup-winning Primavera side of 2003 was the last sign of a more “conservative” Gasperini.
That was a side that held all the trademark signs of Turin industry, with Gasperini making his youth players run harder and work harder than opponents. But Gasperini was yet to implement some of his more radical ideals as he struggled to break free from his own tutelage within the Juventus machine.
A Turin-born and bred kid, the call from Juventus would come for Gasperini the player at just nine years of age. He won over Juventus youth coaches as a hard-working midfielder, but it would only be enough for one senior appearance with the Giovanni Trapattoni’s Bianconeri in the seventies. It was a Coppa Italia fixture in 1977, and off came world-famous midfielder Franco Causio to be subbed by a young Gasperini.
You would think that coming up under Giovanni Trapattoni’s football, Gasperini would turn out to be anything but the attack-minded coach he is today. But fate would have it that Serie C’s Reggiana had been invited to watch the game by Trap, and the first seed of Gasperini’s footballing mind was about to take root.
The teenage midfielder moved on loan to Reggiana, where he started to, in then-Reggiana coach Guido Mammi’s own words, “correct his own position on the pitch mid-game, before I even got out the instruction.”
Mammi’s Reggiana team shape wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Italian football at the time. It was the asymmetric Zona Mista formation, one seen recently in Luciano Spalletti’s Roma 2016-17 side and worth re-iterating—only very briefly—here.
The tilt formation. The mixed zonal formation. The Roma 2016/17 record-points breaking team. Call it whatever you choose, but it first emerged as Italian football’s response to Dutch total football.
Seeking to have the numbers advantage in every area of the field, without the mental exertion of moving around all 11 players like labor-intensive Dutch teams insisted on doing, Italian sides decided they could only task two wide players with zonal play on the ball while every other player focused on staying in position within their third of the pitch. In Roma’s case, one of those two roles went to Alessandro Florenzi (before his ACL injuries) performing the “John O’Shea” task of Roma’s three-and-a-half defensive line under Luciano Spalletti.
Florenzi was tasked with moving between the back four and midfield five, depending on whether the ball was in one of the two departments. On the opposite flank, Diego Perotti was given a similar role that demands a slightly different skill set—known as the tornante in calcio terms—of linking up a midfield five with the attacking three (or four when Nainggolan pushed up to join the attack) within the same phase of play.
The benefits of playing this was should be obvious.
For very little tactical investment, you get to play a defensive four, a midfield five and an attacking trio all over the park with just eleven players on the pitch. When done right, you get an extra player in every phase of play. And yet, the trade-offs of this (long-term) should also jump out at you; 8 or 9 out of 11 players are spending most of the match watching the other 2-3 do twice the work—It’s short-term football, and a nightmare for your club’s long-term development prospects.
But that’s a dead horse we’ll beat again much later. We’re here to talk about Gasperini who, as a young player, was often asked to be the right-flank Diego Perotti of his day.
“[Gasperini] played as a box-to-box midfielder for me,” Reggiana coach Guido Mammi said, “but I often had to use him as a tornante because [of injuries to other players]. He would alternate between playing the number 7 and number 8. And he had enough technical quality to play for the Italy team.”
The teenage Gasperini quickly became aware, even in the early days of cutting his teeth in Serie C, that you could develop a player to control space in several areas of the pitch within one role. How different might the last decade of Atalanta look if a young Gasperini had never played zonally in Reggiana and just been asked to play one of the 8 or 9 static roles within the rest of the side?
Italian call-ups never came for Gasperini the player, though. And Juventus never asked him to put the Bianconeri jersey back on again.
In fact, Serie A action would have missed Gasperini’s playing career entirely, had he not grafted his way through promotion-after-promotion with Pescara. It’s obvious—when you read about their footballing history throughout the decades—that the little fishing town on the East coast doubles up as a football factory for daring Pescara sides through the decades; sides that trust young players with bombing up the pitch in numbers, looking to dominate goal-chances even against “stronger” giants of the Italian game.
The eighties and nineties Pescara teams were no different, coached by zonal-football enthusiast Giovanni Galeone while Arrigo Sacchi was weaving a same style of football into Rimini just further up the coast. Galeone eventually wound up choosing none other than a young Gian Piero Gasperini as the player to captain his Pescara troops on the field. But it’s a familiar name behind the scenes that started to turn Gasperini’s head towards the edgy, indie scene of Italian football philosophy.
“Many people started to play zonal football at the time”, Gasperini’s former Reggiana coach Mammi said. “And most of them did it badly. I was always happy when we were going to face a team that played zonal football. We’d call it pothole football. But coaches like Galeone actually did it well. Despite Galeone’s influence, Gasperini once confessed to me: ‘Mister, the guy who really taught us zonal football at Pescara was [Enrico] Catuzzi.”
Catuzzi served as Pescara’s coach for a brief couple of years in the mid-eighties, before Galeone would make a deeper impression on the club. But it shouldn’t be much surprise to find out where Catuzzi learned his own ideas trickling down to a young Gasperini.
Who was Catuzzi’s wing-man in his formative days as a Palermo youth coach in the seventies? None other than Zdenek Zeman.
One day someone should draw an infographic, branching all of Italian football’s coaches, youth players and Italian international players that have sprung from the influence of Il Boemo.
Zeman may not have the Serie A accolades of a Sacchi, Allegri or Capello, but there isn’t a more influential figure on the calcio horizon. And yet that bore no influence on Gasperini ending up right back at Zeman’s nemesis, Juventus, when the Italian retired to began his coaching career with the Juve Primavera and, yes, Antonio Mirante in goal.
Together they won the Viareggio Cup in 2003 before Gasperini began to earn his senior coaching stripes away from home.
Gasperini the Gamble
The 2000s weren’t kind to Gasperini’s footballing ideas.
Sustained success eluded him at Crotone, then at Palermo (where he was once a player and returned as coach), and it was only at Genoa that Gasperini found a club who would stick by him and his ethos. Unlike Sacchi, Zeman, or any other coaches aware of the need to dominate space on the pitch, Gasperini used his education in zonal football to train his players to worry about the distance to opponents, rather than distance to teammates.
In a nutshell: Gasperini wanted his teams to be carried by the opponents’ use of the zone. To do this, Gasperini implemented full-on man-marking all over the pitch. Eleven players man-marking eleven opponents, for the full ninety minutes. It preserves the one aspect that Italian media loves about covering the game: individual duels.
Duels are the proud basis of Serie A TV highlights in the evening, and newspaper match-ratings the next morning, for decades. Especially from the early glory years of the sixties and seventies through to the golden era of the 1980s to 2000s. Calcio is seen as dogmatically insistent on this, to the point it’s very difficult to propose any style of football that takes the focus off your opponent as the first point of reference.
We say eleven-on-eleven man-marking for the imagery of it, but you can see that on a pragmatic level (above) it plays out more like nine outfield players close-marking their opponents, while leaving the technically weakest opponent (in Atalanta’s eyes) free to receive the ball, so that Atalanta can begin to intimidate and trap the opposition into turning over the ball.
The other founding principle behind leaving an opponent free of a marker, at the attacking end, is that Gasperini wants a free Atalanta man as cover in the backline at all times. His side are looking to maintain strengths in numbers at the back, even if most times that means just one extra libero defender. But one extra man to outnumber your opponents is all you need in the eyes of an otherwise ultra-attacking coach.
Perhaps as an off-shoot from this principle, GPG was stereotyped as a Serie A coach who believed in three-at-the-back at all costs, but that’s no longer a radical shape ever since Antonio Conte went on to win multiple titles at Juve with a back three in the 2010s. In fact, today’s leading Serie A sides all use three at the back, but will you find anyone crediting Gasperini for planting the seed fifteen years ago? Don’t bet your life on it.
All signs show that Italian teams today don’t defend deep, and it’s even en vogue to push up and have the backline defend around 25 yards infield. In 2019/20 alone, 7 Italian clubs made up the Top 10 leading clubs around Europe for high-press shots, in Europe’s top 4 leagues. Meaning: shots on goal after winning the ball back within 5 seconds of the shot attempt.
And of course, Gasperini’s Atalanta count themselves among those clubs. In Serie A alone, Atalanta are at the very top.
The Italian fashion, for at least a decade now, is to defend high and win the ball back early. Gegenpressing may be a German term, but Italian clubs have zealously taken to the idea that the easiest path to goal is to catch your opponents off-guard. It’s an acceptable extension of the fundamental action upon which Italian football history prides itself—tackling for the ball—and morphs pro-active defending into another weapon of attack.
In a way, Gasperini’s blend of “nationalist” avant-garde football has forged that middle path for Serie A’s league-wide style to follow through the cracks. Even making an impression on the European stage when it comes to sides like La Dea or Eusebio Di Francesco’s 2017-19 Roma.
Most of the current Serie A club’s high-pressing is based around man-marking, though not to the extremes that Atalanta practice it. The “foreign” aspect of Gasperini’s training is that he’s teaching his players to be aware of linking up different phases of play, immediately after their man-marking defensive duties give way to not just winning the ball back, but playing it fast to a team-mate and not being afraid to move-up the pitch with them.
You don’t stop at winning the ball back off your opponent, but using that same phase of play to outnumber him at the other end of the pitch. And you’ll repeat this one-two punch for as many times as it takes, until they’re flooded with shots on goal and don’t know what’s hit them. It sounds sexy and aggressive but before Gasperini found the keys to the city in Atalanta, his ideas failed to take hold anywhere on the peninsula outside of two long stints as Genoa coach.
Memorably sandwiched between those two runs is Gasperini’s short-lived appointment to the Inter Milan bench, where GPG accepted the ignominy of being the man to mop up the aftermath of Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning team.
Inter Milan clutched at every excuse in the book to fire Gasperini after just five games in charge (including a loss to minnows Novara) and the Italian media were more than happy to help them.
It was said Inter just weren’t ready to play three at the back, that man-marking to the level Gasperini wanted it was impossible. That Gasperini’s training camps were too intense. All in all, Gasperini was labelled dogmatic in his beliefs—an integralista; a coach who expects players, no matter their individual traits, to conform to his system.
Sarri, Di Francesco, Zeman and others have been bashed with the same label over the years. System coaches always do. Fonseca won’t escape that same line of questioning, even though his style of high-pressing to win back the ball is more along the lines of Sarri and fundamentally different from Gasperini.
We’ve mentioned it in articles gone by but, if at any point in 2019/20, you felt like Fonseca’s Roma could care less about picking up their man in defense, then you’d be absolute right. “Picking up your man” is a platitude Fonseca’s Roma don’t make the time for; the Giallorossi style of defending takes the ball as the first point of reference, meaning they look to cut off all passing options from the opponent carrying the ball upfield.
The reasoning here is simple: you can’t be a threat to us if you can’t pass it. It makes people who believe in man-marking uncomfortable to see teams defend this way. Especially because, among other things, there’s often no one to single out for blame when it goes wrong. But hey, Maurizio Sarri is the current reigning Serie A champion using this style of defending and counter-pressing. And Sarri is virtually the twin egg of Fonseca’s own footballing beliefs.
“I’m a believer in play through the middle,” Fonseca told ESPN (via Il Romanista) this past May, “and capturing space between the lines. It’s like forcing the opponent to make decisions, and when they’re rushed into decisions they make mistakes. I don’t believe everything to be invented in football has been invented yet. There’s innovation and change all around us. There’s Atalanta with their man-marking all over the pitch, or Liverpool or Pep Guardiola, who constantly offer something new and different. Or there’s even Sassuolo. Maybe they’re not as a famous a club, but they have a very clear and creative idea of football.”
Personally, I believe Fonseca’s input here is more than just hyperbole.
For example, we’ve gotten so used to man-marking competing against zonal play in possession, like the eternal battle of fire and ice, that we now take it for granted that making a run off the ball to drag a marker with you (or screening, to use a basketball term) is just a standard tactic you use in games to make space for a teammate.
But Atalanta have changed things. And on that very note, here’s a challenge for you to round off part 1. Like all things in football, there is no right answer. Only differences in taste.
When the opposing side is in possession and one of their players makes a run off the ball, which team between Fonseca’s Roma and Gasperini’s Atalanta is in a better position to defend as a unit?
Here’s how the difference often plays out between the two teams:
If you forced us to choose at a moment’s notice, we’d probably take Atalanta’s style of defending every time.
It not only makes opponents’ runs off the ball looks useless (you can’t free a teammate when both he and you are permanently man-marked) but looks more secure. And yet, we’ve had to use two more Atalanta defenders than Roma defenders to achieve the same outcome.
That’s when we have to think longer into the consequences of winning the ball back, and what you want to do with it from there.
This is just one example where Paulo Fonseca proves to be the bigger gambler in the non-possession phase of football than Gasperini. Yet conversely, Fonseca’s teams come off looking more patient on the ball than Gasperini’s ultra-attacking route to the final third.
It’s been four years of this kind of risk and reward for Atalanta, a club that’s looking like finally breaking free from its struggle to write itself into footballing history for the ages. And yet that same club came so close to cutting the Gasperini chapter short, just five matches into his debut season with Atalanta back in 2016.
One grim September day against Palermo (a club that’s getting to be a bit of a nemesis for Gasperini) could have turned out very differently, had it not been for a fixture schedule clash and the willingness to shove Atalanta’s most expensive signings on the bench to play unproven kids instead.
Catch that episode and more, on the next part of our deep dive into Gasperini’s Atalanta.
In Part 2—How to go from Year Zero to Club Legend—we look at Gasperini’s first four seasons of Atalanta success among threats of getting fired, threats to quit and Papu Gomez re-inventing himself as a player at the heart of La Dea’s alchemy.