It’s one in the morning on Wednesday 21st September, 2016. Gian Piero Gasperini is only just calling it a night, leaving the confines of Atalanta’s football ground with his future still undecided. Was leaving Genoa for this pesky job at minnows Atalanta another horrible mistake in his career?
Just 45 minutes after he left the grounds, the Atalanta board filtered out from their emergency meeting at the stadium. If bloodshed was on the agenda, it was about to run black and blue all over Gasp’s silver grey that morning. The opponent holding the murder weapon was none other than Gasperini’s former club Palermo.
The Sicilians had traveled all the way to Bergamo, earlier that Wednesday, for a tense 0-0 affair running into the 89th minute. Ilija Nestorovski’s Serie A career hasn’t turned out to be anything like it could have been, but Gasperini will remember the striker for an immaculate, first-time, side-foot volley past Berisha into the near side, peeling away to celebrate Palermo’s last minute winner on that September evening. Atalanta were whistled off the pitch by their own fans, and Gasperini was staring dead into a familiar abyss he thought he’d escaped 5 years prior.
A Matchday 5 defeat. 3 losses and a draw. Gasperini’s job being discussed by the board well into the night. Ring a bell, Gian Piero? Drive just a half hour up the road to Milan and we may as well paint this place 2011 all over again.
As if it couldn’t get anymore haunting, the main factor that saved Gasperini from the immediate sack was the fact Atalanta’s next game was a mid-week fixture. The board couldn’t find a replacement coach in time, so Gasp was given a one-game lease of life. But if it wasn’t former club Palermo getting him fired, then the mid-week ax was now placed in the hands of another former club—Crotone.
And where would the match against Crotone take place? Because of on-going renovations to their stadium, the league game was moved to neutral ground at Pescara. It was nothing but crossroads for Gasp. But, so often, what runs parallel to the back alley of provenance is the highway to history.
We know now that Gasperini wasn’t fired, and he used that game against Crotone as a launchpad to make some serious changes to the team. They went on a 9-game run of 8 wins and a draw from that point in (including a 2-1 home win over Spalletti’s Roma side) before the momentum was ended by an away loss to reigning champions Juventus.
Momentum is the key word in the bigger picture of La Dea’s 2010s; Atalanta were feeling buoyant from the progress made under former coach (Roman plus lifelong Roma fan) Stefano Colantuono, as well as the technical and sporting director duo of Pierpaolo Marino and Giovanni Sartori (Sartori scouts the players while Marino identifies which targets better suit the team’s chemistry), all tied together under club president Antonio Percassi.
Gasperini’s move to the Atalanta bench was something of a surprise for all involved, and how it showed in that first-season Atalanta side. It wasn’t as though the board had given Gasp the summer 2016 transfer campaign to fully back him.
The biggest move of that summer was a €6 million capture of Alberto Paloschi from Swansea City. But just fives games into the season, and Gasperini was done with the board’s most expensive signing. To the bench went Paloschi; Gasperini choosing to tap deeper into Atalanta’s long-running culture of youth investment to get his own head off the chopping block.
Life in Bergamo: Rap or Go to the League
Atalanta have invested a minimum of €5 million a year into their youth coaching and academy for several decades now. It might not sound like a lot on the face of it, but consider the fact that, as recently as 2008, Atalanta’s entire wage bill for their senior men’s team was a shade under €16 million per year. Meaning their spending on youth football was over a third of the club’s total spend.
In 2020, the pro team’s wage bill has undoubtedly grown but so has the youth spend in turn. Bergamo (and the inner city suburbs of Zingonia) ring a lot like the picture painted by Aleksandar Kolarov of growing up in the Eastern Bloc, where Kolarov once explained that getting an academic education was a road to near-certain unemployment. But training yourself to be an athlete had far greater (even if still slim) odds of putting food on the table for your family.
If you know a Serb, Bosnian or even a Romanian (strange segue, yes, but I’m thinking of my ex girlfriend) today, then you’re likely their familiar story about the time they “had a trial” at a Red Star or a Steaua when they were a kid. Likewise, if you know someone born and bred in Bergamo, odds are they’ll tell you about that one trial day at Atalanta.
And look at who those trials have produced at the very top of Italian football in the 2010s onward.
Alessandro Bastoni is now a regular starter at Inter Milan (after they paid an eye-watering €25 million+ for him) and an Italian international defender. Ditto midfielder Roberto Gagliardini, also making the drive up the road to Inter Milan. Mattia Caldara was set to be “the bedrock” of the Italian national team before injuries curtailed his path, but he’s still worn two of Italy’s biggest jerseys at Juventus and AC Milan.
Andrea Conti has suffered injuries, too, but still wears AC Milan colors today. Musa Barrow isn’t quite at the same level right now, but could still find his way to the top in the next few years. And then there’s academy product Dejan Kulusevski—today widely considered to be the best younger player in Serie A (though say that sottovoce here in Zaniolo Country)—ready to take center stage at Juventus in 2020/21.
All of these are homegrown Atalanta academy products, without even mentioning the youth players that the Orobici would sign from other clubs and grow into first-team football under Gasperini. The gambled paid off for both club and coach.
Gasperini himself has been made an honorary citizen in Bergamo for his achievements, and granted (officially) the keys to the city. He’s got a big hand to play within a serious labour movement of young men (unfortunately we can’t say women too, since the club officially broke off ties with Atalanta Mozzanica after just one year of partnering together) for years to come. He’s also got a club that owns their stadium, though their biggest challenge (and maybe nothing more than an elephant in the room they can’t outrun) is building a fanbase within a region that’s seen as nothing but a corridor to bigger, neighboring cities. And yet that would be no different to the collective challenge 19 Serie A teams face every season: winning fans from the one club who your girlfriend, nephew or distant cousin feels cool enough to namedrop at bars. Yeah, Juventus.
No one said it would be easy, eh? But should Gasperini give all this up to come coach Roma? And get chewed up and spat out within two years? You’re having a laugh.
Here’s how Gasperini morphed from a gamble to an institution within Atalanta club culture, in just four seasons of football and counting.
Year Zero: An Average Age of Top 4
Year Zero Formations Used: 3-5-2 and 3-4-3
Year Zero Notable Subs Used: Ervin Zukanovic, Remo Freuler, Marco D’Alessandro, Alberto Grassi, Alberto Paloschi, Bryan Cristante (from January 2017 onwards)
Year Zero Notable Departures: Marten de Roon, Luca Cigarini; Mattia Caldara (sold mid-season but immediately loaned back from Juventus), Roberto Gagliardini (mid-season), Marco Sportiello (mid-season)
Year Zero Notable Arrivals: Etrit Berisha, Alessandro Bastoni, Ervin Zukanovic, Hans Hateboer, Alberto Paloschi; Pierluigi Gollini (mid-season), Gianluca Mancini (mid-season)
As we mentioned before, Gasperini used that mid-week Matchday 6 to start off a revolution. He’d been indecisive in his choice of lead strikers up until that moment. The Orobici had as many as six hitmen on the books (weirdly all having surnames beginning with P), and Gasperini had gone through Pinilla, Paloschi...pretty much all his striking candidates except for a 21 year old Andrea Petagna.
Petagna was nothing flashy; a kid who’d been through hot streaks of Primavera football at formation-club AC Milan, and in the lower leagues of senior level. He was built like a moving fridge, and a poacher straight out of the old school. Unproven in Serie A.
But it turned out a poacher was all Gasperini needed to bring out the best in Papu Gomez and Jasmin Kurtic; the latter of whom Gasperini had designs to live through vicariously.
Though he’d be forced to revise the decision many seasons later, it was Gasperini’s first choice to use Kurtic (and not Gomez) as his own modern-day tornante.
Kurtic would link up the midfield and attacking phases of Atalanta’s play, having the freedom to move between both departments so that Atalanta could start games with a 3-5-2 but fluidly switch to an offensive 3-4-3 mid-match. A typical Kurtic play was when he dropped deep on the flanks, letting his full-back making an overlapping run to move inside the half-space and sit on top of the diamond—sometimes a pentagon—that Atalanta like to form on both flanks in their build-up play.
If there’s one thing that defined Atalanta on the ball (as least for the first two and a half seasons of Gasperini, and often still today) it’s their insistence on having the numbers advantage on both flanks. As we mentioned in part one, this is done by both central midfielders (Kessie and Gagliardini/Freuler) moving out wide to empty the middle of the pitch, providing a passing option for one-two play like Kevin Strootman used to do under EDF’s Roma, with Kolarov and Perotti.
But where EDF’s Roma stopped at using mostly three players in their build-up on the flanks, Atalanta use a minimum of four if not five players.
In the example pictured above, Conti makes the overlapping run to sit at the top of the shape, while Kurtic drops deep with the ball to pull his opposing full-back with him into the middle of the diamond. Kessie leaves the middle of the pitch and runs out wide to join the play (sometimes dragging a opponent with him though it doesn’t matter: the only thing that matters is that no central midfielder is in the way of the 18-yard-box when Atalanta make their final pass back into the middle), but the opposition will always be outnumbered in that diamond, as even Toloi pushes up to provide a spare passing option should Atalanta need it.
Often Kurtic would simply pass to Kessie and then immediately run back up the flank, with Kessie passing upfield to Conti, so that Conti and Kurtic would then outnumber the opposing center-half who would inevitably be forced out wide to try and defend against their oncoming attack.
In the final 2 vs 1 flank situation, either Conti or Kurtic would have plenty of space to find a simple pass into the box for Andrea Petagna to tap in at the near post. It’s often said that wide play is the lowest percentage route to goal, but that’s an anecdote that’s taken out of context. Atalanta aren’t the first team to show that working the ball through the flanks can lead to clear-cut goal chances—sometimes racking up downright scary xG totals over 90 minutes of play—as long as you play the ball without hesitation, and as long playing it into the penalty box is your final destination, not your after-thought.
It’s only when you get muddled through indecision in the middle or on the edge of the area, and then use the flanks when the opponent is already set in position to defend whatever comes next, that crossing and wide play becomes an exercise in frustration.
That is inefficient use of the flanks, but that isn’t Gasperini’s 2016/17 Atalanta full of courageous young players.
Among those young players blooded into La Dea that year, an early-season decision from Gasperini would prove decisive for the career of future Roma player Leonardo Spinazzola.
Gasp decided, just five games into the league campaign, that he was largely done with trying Spinazzola as a right winger up front. He wanted Spinazzola to see himself as a more of a tuttafascia wing-back, even if it meant playing on his unnatural left to get game time all the way up and down the flanks.
As we now know, Spinny didn’t mind this suggestion. It would mean more defending, but it’d also give Spinny a chance to cut inside on his right foot and use that to create or shoot on goal, depending on whether Gomez cut inside the pitch or not, further up front. The use of unproven talents like Spinazzola and Petagna rang the curtain call for many of Atalanta’s senior players.
Veteran striker Paloschi wasn’t the only name unceremoniously shoved aside; there was Raimondi, Migliaccio, Dramé, and former Roma players Zukanovic and d’Alessandro—all made way for the untested youth to step in and take over.
Soon names like Andrea Conti, Roberto Gagliardini and Mattia Caldara became the weekly talk of Serie A, alongside Andrea Petagna, Franck Kessié and Leonardo Spinazzola. These six new Serie stars were backed up by the experience of just one first-team regular club-veteran in defender Andrea Masiello. The team’s alchemy was sealed by players in their prime like keeper Etrit Berisha, Papu Gomez (at the time limited to an inside forward role that would deliver his most prolific scoring season in Serie A), defender Rafael Toloi, and midfielders Remo Freuler and Jasmin Kurtic.
As Gasperini’s tactical turnkey at the heart of the formation, Kurtic only found the right squad-mate to give him a breather (a rest that Kurtic later revealed he never wanted) once future Roma player Bryan Cristante arrived to the club in the January winter transfer window.
Cristante showed the versatility, passing and runs off-the-ball to sub in for Kurtic’s role between midfield and attack. By that time, Gagliardini went for a €22 million move to neighbors Inter Milan (after just 14 games with Atalanta) so Remo Freuler regained his place as a full-time regular. The club clearly started to believe they had a good thing going with Gasperini at the helm, so the board used that January 2017 window to go long in their player-recruitment with some real steals on the market.
As if the summer of 2016’s signing of Hans Hateboer for 800,000 euros doesn’t look ridiculous today, there was the January signing of raw goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini from Aston Villa for an undisclosed fee. To top it off, Atalanta crowned their winter transfer window by signing future Roma and Italy international defender Gianluca Mancini from Perugia for the paltry sum of 200,000 euros.
Yeah, read that number again.
End of Season Result: Serie A 2016/17 was easy street. Yes, Spalletti’s Roma set a new club points record in the league. But guess what? So did third-placed Napoli. So did fourth-placed Atalanta. The only top 4 club that didn’t set a points record were champions Juventus, who “only” won the title with 91 points.
But club records were there to go around like freebies at the top. Everyone was setting them while the whipping boys down at the bottom got whipped. It wouldn’t have pleased Gasperini that last-placed Pescara finished rock bottom with just 15 points all season, but he could console himself with the fact he was the first man to lead Atalanta to a Top 4 finish in Serie A that year.
Unfortunately that was still when Serie A had just three Champions League spots, meaning Atalanta qualified for the Europa League. But it was still 20 points better than the previous highest league finish in the club’s history. Better even than what Atalanta managed back in the Cristiano Doni days (man, in back my high school, did we about Cristiano Doni).
Year One: The Life of Bryan
Year One Formations Used: 3-4-3 and 3-5-2
Year One Notable Subs Used: Mattia Caldara, Gianluca Mancini, Leonardo Spinazzola, Robin Gosens, Andreas Cornelius, Andrea Petagna, Musa Barrow
Year One Notable Departures: Andrea Conti, Franck Kessie, Ervin Zukanovic, Alberto Paloschi, Riccardo Orsolini; Jasmin Kurtic (mid-season).
Year One Notable Arrivals: Robin Gosens, Martin de Roon, Riccardo Orsolini, Josip Ilicic, Musa Barrow, Andreas Cornelius
Gasperini’s Year One was surprisingly tame, and we mean that as a complement because there was plenty of football to go around, which means plenty of opportunity for things to fall apart at a club unused to competing in three competitions.
In fact Atalanta were competing not just on all three fronts, but on Thursday nights in the Europa League. That’s a combo that usually has people saying “yeah they did well to punch above their weight last year, but the fixture congestion will knock them back down to size.” Mid-week fixtures are notorious for making your training schedule more complicated, especially when it comes to bedding in new signings. And boy, did Atalanta make some serious changes to the core of their first eleven during this campaign.
First the major departure of Franck Kessie hit the squad, while La Dea chose to replace the Ivorian by bringing back Middlesbrough-flop Martin de Roon (“It was not a fun year” in de Roon’s own words) to Bergamo, for the exact same €15 million fee the Teessiders paid 12 months prior. Mid-season, Gasperini got a transfer request from his protegee Jasmin Kurtic, who was disillusioned with how his playing time had been cut in half by the rise of Bryan Cristante.
Cristante was at the core of everything going right with Atalanta, and enjoyed his best solo season to date in his own footballing career. He played a role behind the front two that, similar to Kurtic in the season prior, allowed Atalanta to switch mid-match between a more defensively solid 3-5-2 to an attacking 3-4-3 in just two phases of play or less.
This was the season that convinced Monchi to bring Cristante to Roma, to be the man to help EDF’s 4-3-3 transform into an attacking 3-4-3 mid-game. But let’s stick with Atalanta’s Cristante, and the Orobici teammates Bryan trusted around him.
Palomino was bedded into the defence over Mattia Caldara, and the inconsistent Josip Ilicic surprised everyone by consistently playing up front. Change made itself know all the way through Atalanta’s footballing spine.
Then came the changes on the flanks: Conti followed Kessie to Milan in the very same summer, so in came Timothy Castagne on the right. Leonardo Spinazzola began to rack up minor recurring injuries that would have him in-and-out of the squad, instead replaced by the much more consistent Hans Hateboer on the left. But the most interesting change came in deep midfield, with the combo of Freuler and de Roon’s influence on Atalanta’s defending cannot be overstated even today.
The lion’s share of Atalanta’s preventive marking in the backline now came from either de Roon or Freuler (or often both) dropping deep to fill in for Atalanta’s wide RCB and LCB center-backs bombing forward. In short, both deep-lying midfielders could play as the spare libero defender—free of any man-marking duties—whenever Atalanta were in possession.
(Note: Am I the only one that hears the Metal Gear Solid alert when a player loses the ball? Ok. Just me, then.)
We’d credit Freuler and de Roon with adding some serious market value to Atalanta’s young talents developing around them. That includes Timothy Castagne, developed from an original €6 million transfer fee to his recent big-money signing with Premier League club Leicester City. Or Robin Gosens being signed for a cool fee of €1 million to become the wing man he is today.
The defensive shield that both DMs provide in dropping back meant that Atalanta could afford to introduce young center-backs like Gianluca Mancini and Alessandro Bastoni to the game. Neither young defender was expected to be the best at tracking back or anticipating through-balls behind them.
Instead, players like Mancini was asked to be aggressive with man-marking, pushing forward to cut off the danger that lay ahead of him, and using that aggression to push up even further on the ball. This was the beginning of Gianluca Mancini making cameo appearances as a “goalscoring defender”; a first-taste of top-flight action that would have ramifications (good and bad) for later path in Roma colors. Some young players just straight couldn’t keep up with Gasperini’s training demands, however.
No sooner was future Italy international winger Orsolini was loaned into the club, than the kid sent packing in January after just 10 appearances. But the wider picture we’re painting here is a theme we’ve revisited many times before: Do you want spectacular individual performances or do you want to conform to a collective?
There is no right answer, except when your club cannot afford to choose. Then only the collective style makes sense.
The collective means players will fail to shine in any one single role (until your team is beating up bigger opponents and winning games on the weekly, then everyone loves you), but, crucially, it means you can lower the barriers to entry for young players into first-team football when you make at least 8 of your 11 players movable pieces, constantly looking to share the work-rate amongst them so that the demands on new entrants aren’t sky high.
That’s the value of “system-based” football, ever since an ‘06 Barcelona side proved they could conqueur the Champions League with it in the modern era.
It may seem novel to think about it now, but who were the world stars of that 2006 Barcelona team? Absolutely nobody. Only a maverick Ronaldinho shoved out to the left wing, and 10 other gambles in his tow. Even after they won that European Cup, the star-power of the team wasn’t big enough to get Samuel Eto’o onto the Ballon d’Or podium ahead of Fabio Cannavaro.
But we’re sure Eto’o would take the winner’s medals on the pitch instead, if he had to do the same all over again.
This collective blueprint is the polar opposite of the short-termism that Sabatini, Garcia and Spalletti put together in 2010s at Roma. And to be fair, Eusebio Di Francesco’s time installing a new collective ethos into the side didn’t deliver enough consistency around his entire squad to justify his time at the club. Even in the ELO ratings, Roma’s club stature shot up under EDF thanks to the kind of results we’d rarely seen a Roma side deliver. Like a 3-3 at Stamford Bridge or a 3-0 demolition of Chelsea at home. But Roma’s poor domestic form under EDF levelled that all out.
An Aside: Which Serie A Coaches are the Best Hustlers?
ELO ratings - a concept still cooking in the lab of football analytics right now - weigh in both teams’ relative strength before a game. If a historically “smaller” club performs better than expected against a bigger opponent, the smaller club ELO gain from that matchday is the bigger club’s loss. EDF’s Roma won big upsets on the European stage, yet the pinnacle of his team’s reputation (in ELO terms) was stringing together big results against Chelsea with a respectable away loss to Atletico Madrid, where Roma “only” lost 2-0 to the prior season’s European Cup finalists. These were results where Roma beat the odds of what’s historically been expected of the Giallorossi.
Despite EDF’s Roma making headway on the European stage, poor domestic performances against smaller teams - born from the inability to unlock the deep-lying Chievos of the country, who adjusted to his 4-3-3 Roma team shape - weighed in heavier on the big picture.
Another Aside: No Substitute for Cold Hard Cash or Continuity
Hustling is a rush but, when it comes to footballing success, does any factor weigh in bigger than money? Perhaps only coaching continuity, or at least playing-style continuity, which we love to call a club’s “footballing identity.”
It’s notable that, in the ELO histogram of the last half-century of Roma football above, there have been enough changes of coach that only Helenio Herreria, Nils Liedholm and Fabio Capello actually get to see their full name-in-lights on the histogram legend.
Yet history also shows that Roma still hasn’t tasted the kind of heavyweight reputation it once enjoyed all the way back in 2002 under Capello’s Roma. Not even the continuity enjoyed under Luciano Spalletti’s first reign, putting a False 9 role at the heart of the club’s identity, could top being reigning champions of Italy back at the turn of the millenium.
Nonethless, Roma had the best part of the 2010s to stick with a coach like Enrique, Zeman (if you’re feeling daring) or belatedly EDF. A wasted Roma opportunity while Serie A was still on easy mode, and one that Atalanta capitalized on through Gasperini.
End of Season Result: Atalanta’s success was in the cup runs, where they scored some victories that went way beyond anything previously written into the club’s history. They finished top of their Europa League group by hammering Everton both home and away. A 5-1 win at Goodison Park was capped with a Bryan Cristante brace. Their round of 32 defeat to Borussia Dortmund was one of the most entertaining games I watched live that season.
Domestically, Atalanta lost in the Coppa semis to eventual cup winners Juventus. The boys from Bergamo also finished with 12 points less in the league, meaning 7th place. That was still enough to qualify for the Europa League yet again, albeit going into the qualifying rounds instead of directly into the tournament proper.
But that would have a dark and unexpected impact on Atalanta’s next season before it’d even begun.
Year Two: Duvan As I Say, Not As I Do
Year Two Formations Used: 3-4-1-2 and 3-5-2
Year Two Notable Subs Used: Etrit Berisha, Rafael Toloi, Berat Djimsiti, Robin Gosens, Mario Pasalic, Matteo Pessina, Emiliano Rigoni, Musa Barrow
Year Two Notable Departures: Mattia Caldara (end of loan), Leonardo Spinazzola (end of loan), Alessandro Bastoni, Andrea Petagna, Andreas Cornelius
Year Two Notable Arrivals: Marco Varnier, Berat Djimsiti, Dejan Kulusevski (academy player), Mario Pasalic, Duvan Zapata, Marco Tumminello; Ibañez (mid-season)
A qualifying tie loss against FC Copenhagen dumped Atalanta out of Europe before the 2018-19 campaign had even begun, bringing a dark cloud over Bergamo’s autumn football. It seems surreal to say it now, but the trio of Zapata-Gomez-Ilicic got off to a rough start, and Gasperini threatened (in the most mild-mannered of ways) to resign just eight games into the season.
That run saw Atalanta collect just one opening day win against Frosinone, followed by 3 draws and 4 losses; though Roma fans will remember that period for a 3-3 draw at the Olimpico on Matchday 2, where Atalanta made the Giallorossi look Roma were stuck in second gear.
Emiliano Rigoni would score against Roma on that day, but his brief flurry in Atalanta colours would prove a false start over the course of an entire season. Much more pressing for Gasperini was to get his entire front three working, which he managed to do by December.
The coach seemed disappointed that Atalanta had collected a hugely inflated fee for Alessandro Bastoni’s transfer to Inter, and yet spent comparatively little of it on signing the players Gasperini would have ideally wanted.
To put it short and sweet: Duvan Zapata’s game was NOT what Gasp had in mind.
The Colombian was used to playing with his back to goal, before working himself into the box for his own individual shots. Zapata showed scarce link-up play with Atalanta’s other forwards, or even the midfielders and defenders coming forward in support.
The Orobici thought they could at least rely on Zapata’s occasional habit of running in behind the backline but, even then, Zapata had a habit of running wide into the left channel, instead of attacking the space through the middle to goal. That meant Zapata trespassing straight into Papu Gomez’s mini-kingdom on the left, blocking Gomez’s runs as a result.
Something had to give.
Atalanta were hemorrhaging xG upfront, while losing league points and sliding down the table after an awful start.
“Something isn’t working and maybe I’m not the coach for this club,” were Gasperini’s words before Atalanta turned it around. Talk like that at a club like Roma, and you’re fired by November. But this is Atalanta, where people stick by their long-term projects, and it wasn’t long before the Gazzetta dello Sport were back to asking Papu Gomez the secret behind Gasperini righting the ship by the 1st of December.
“I prefer to play on the left but I’m getting used to the middle,” Gomez explained his change of role to GdS (via Calciodangolo.com). “After Cristante left, we weren’t able to find a player with his qualities so the coach tried me there. It went well, but I have to dribble less and run even more. Following the play, I run 10 to 11 kilometers each game and I end up destroyed.”
Is that happiness, pride or resignation in his words? Perhaps a little of all three mixed together.
Building on yourself never comes easy and, though we found the analytics didn’t match up with Gomez’s claim that he runs as much as he says he does (he doesn’t even rank in Atalanta’s top 5), the general picture is of a player reaching his thirties and making the ball do slightly more of the work than his legs. But that isn’t to take away anything from Gomez’s work rate and presence on the pitch. It’s just made possible by his Atalanta teammates willing to keep the distance short between them and Papu at all times.
One of Gomez’s more prominent teammates for the 18/19 campaign was Gianluca Mancini, becoming a first-team regular at the back, with his goals (and maybe even sometimes his defending) making the headlines. Mancini’s goal scoring certainly helped to make up for the lost firepower up front through fall of 2018. And La Dea would be thankful they didn’t press the self-destruct button mid-season, instead letting all their rivals trip up around them.
Luciano Spalletti’s Inter picked a beef with Icardi/Perisic/you name it, Roma fired EDF and hired a coach with a completely different set of instructions in Claudio Ranieri that took Roma’s points-per-game way below anything like Top 4 form, and other leading clubs simply weren’t in the mood to wrap up the European places.
So a rejuvenated Atalanta obliged.
End of Season Result: A club-record 3rd place finish against the odds, joint level on points with 4th placed Inter Milan. La Dea didn’t match their points tally of 16/17, but the prize at the end of this season was much sweeter: Atalanta were going direct into Champions League football, for the first time in history.
The Orobici also made the Coppa final, losing to Lazio at the last hurdle. Silverware still evades Atalanta, but a season kicking off with incomprehension up front could have ended much, much worse than it did.
A big part of the season saved was down to Papu taking on the challenge of re-inventing himself. Papu will likely never see another season like 16/17, in terms of personal goal tally (16), but every other area of his game has gone high-end since he morphed from an inside forward to a modern number ten. And then there came the humility of another man re-inventing himself up front, to become the striker that Gasperini could admire after all.
Duvan Zapata was becoming a fine hitman-in-the-making, with his athleticism in winning any kind of long pass able to give Atalanta a linchpin up top. With as many as eight fluid outfield positions in the team, it’s down to Zapata to act as one of the “pins” to setting the boundaries of Atalanta’s team shape and play up ahead.
To get this kind of growth out of Zapata, Atalanta just practiced patience and supporting Duvan into new habits, timing his moves towards goal in a manner that raised Atalanta’s chemistry to a whole new level.
Year Three: Papu’s Near Perfect Ten
Year Three Formations Used: 3-4-1-2, 3-4-2-1 and 3-5-2
Year Three Notables Sub Used: Mattia Caldara, Timothy Castagne, Ruslan Malinovskyi, Josip Ilicic, Duvan Zapata, Andrea Masiello
Year Three Notable Departures: Gianluca Mancini, Martin Skrtel; Andrea Masiello (mid season), Dejan Kulusevski (mid season), Simon Kjaer (mid season), Musa Barrow (mid season).
Year Three Notable Arrivals: Martin Skrtel, Simon Kjaer, Ruslan Malinovskyi, Luis Muriel; Mattia Caldara (mid season).
I hesitate to read into a season like 2019-20, not just for Atalanta but for any club.
For obvious reasons, there was a lot more rotation to be had and even the subs racked up hefty appearance numbers over the course of a pandemic-struck calendar. So we’ll treat it on a surface level, but that’s not meant to understate yet another history-making campaign in Bergamo.
The story of the season—besides Papu Gomez’s continued rise to the heart of the side—was Atalanta’s strength in depth, sustained by a transfer campaign focusing on quality over quantity.
Ruslan Malinovskyi proved an underrated signing (a player I was disappointed Roma didn’t sign 2 years ago when they had the chance), at just under €14 million. A year later and Atalanta are being called madmen for pondering the chance to sell Malinovskyi on for twice that amount, such was his impact as a rotation player.
The Ukrainian midfielder spent his youth career at Shakhtar, the latter half of it under Paulo Fonseca’s regime, but it’s in Belgium where Malinovskyi really begun to show his creativity and range of passing. Then there was Luis Muriel’s return to the peninsula for an €18 million fee.
The striker ended up having a bigger role in the first team that expected, after Duvan Zapata suffered a stomach tear that kept him out for months. Yet Atalanta lost no firepower thanks to Muriel filling in, racking up 18 goals in all competitions over 34 appearances. On the other side of the pitch, Mario Pasalic continued to his influence to the point where Atalanta activating their option to buy him from Chelsea was branded “a steal” in the British media.
Pasalic wound up splitting time with Josip Ilicic for making the magic happen down that right side. Ilicic finding consistency is something you’d never thought you’d see happen if you’ve followed his maverick career, but the consistency is now real.
Ilicic ranked first in Serie (of any team and any player) for shot-creating actions and goal-creating actions per 90 minutes last season. What most analysts would hesitate to say is that those “actions” were largely made up of defenders trying to close down Ilicic, and looking like mugs for it.
You don’t really “instruct” Ilicic to do much on a football field, you just grind him down with physical training like the rest of them. Then you let Ilicic do his solo thing—playing just a few high notes to bring to band to a crescendo—and that’s where the Champions League and Serie A headlines write themselves the next morning.
Meanwhile, Timothy Castagne spent more time on the bench than he did playing, after Hateboer continued to show he can play the right flank just as effectively as the left side. While Robin Gosens improvement was phenomenal on the flanks, too. And none of Atalanta’s centre-backs are particularly fast, but they don’t need to be.
Palomino, Toloi, Djimisti and the subs just need the aggression and anticipation to beat their man to the ball, while Pierluigi Gollini became an undisputed first-team regular (despite his poor traditional goalkeeping stats) with the courage and sweeper skills to mop up the space behind them. Mid-season, Atalanta welcomed Mattia Caldara back on a loan move to give more depth to the back three.
It wasn’t all prophetic transfers moves, though.
New signings Martin Skrtel and Simon Kjaer both decided they couldn’t hack it under Gasperini’s demands. Sktrel amicably terminated his contract less than a month into his stay at the club (a decision that Gasperini labelled “honest”), while veteran Kjaer sought out a loan move up the road at AC Milan.
Academy player Musa Barrow was publicly written off by Gasperini (“he’s not helping us”) and sold off to Bologna. La Dea also had to fund their transfer campaign by selling off another academy player, Dejan Kulusevski, to Juventus. You don’t have to read the papers or browse Youtube for too long to see what Kulusevski can do, and what he could have done in an Atalanta shirt. And there was the sale of Gianluca Mancini to Roma.
But with players like Mancini and Castagne, you’ll notice that Atalanta ever-so-slightly get away with selling players who didn’t figure that heavily into their first-team plans for long. They may have grabbed a headline-making season in an Atalanta shirt, but the club itself managed to hold onto the players who’ve learnt the long game in Bergamo all the while—names like Padalino and Hateboer.
End of Season Result: Not only did Atalanta play in Europe’s top tier for the first time, but they made it to the semis. That’s a lot of prize money for a club the size of La Dea.
In the league, they briefly looked like title challengers before yet another 2-2 draw with Juventus derailed Atalanta’s shoot up the table. Despite that momentary disappointment, Atalanta finished third for a consecutive season, yet again level on points with the 4th-placed side (this time Lazio). They also set another club record for league points (78) in the process.
With stability, fluidity and chemistry coursing throughout their first eleven, and good strength in depth from the bench, who knows how far Atalanta could go in 2021?
Some would argue the lack of pace in the backline is something that’ll stop you from reaching a final, or finishing 1st in the league. And yet Atalanta are even addressing those doubts by going out and getting Cristian Romero in defense for the next season.
It’s in our final part of this three-part feature, Becoming An Institution, that we’ll remember we’re actually Roma fans, and look at Paulo Fonseca’s setup to ask: What can he mimic from Gasperini’s Atalanta that would inject confidence into the giallorosso game?
Join us next time on Chiesa di Gomez.