How have Atalanta become Serie A Giants?
"I'm convinced, I'm going to wake up to find none of this is real," twitted one Atalanta admirer back in 2017. La Dea were shockingly sitting 5th on the Serie A standings, a club that had been relegated in 2003, 2005 and 2010; only managing a top 10 finish once in the decade. Fast forward two years, the exploits of the Bergamo club have proven to be by no means a fluke but properly institutionalised through agreeable structures. They finished 3rd behind Juve and Napoli in the 2018/19 season and we will make their UEFA Champions League debut this season. But how did they do it? Why them? Let's take a quick journey back into time.
The nervous night
Just a few games into his Atalanta job, then 59-year old Giani Piero Gasperini had lost 4 of his 5 opening matches in charge. To make matters worse, his next opponent were to be Napoli, the Naples residents who are never shy to take the game to anyone. In Gasperini's mind, it wasn't only about his poor start at life in Bergamo but the past demons haunting him over a job lost at Inter Milan by reason of a similar run of results. A second consecutive sack was looming and Gasperini himself later admitted the dreaded possibility, "I was on the verge of being sacked, it's true," speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport. Prior to what could be his last match in charge, he threw caution to the wind and made some drastic changes to his formation which he communicated a night before the match to the club President, Percassi. The latter all of sudden had more time in the night than he had planned, with his eyes determined to disallow the eyelids from closing them as he peered into the most likely unpleasant future, savouring the dawning unsavoury moment over and over again. Thankfully, the gamble paid off. The youngsters which include Roberto Gagliardini that Gasperini blooded that day, saved his job and Percassi a few more hours of sleep as Atalanta registered an unlikely 1-0 over Napoli. The victory was so big that thousands of fans welcomed "The Goddess," at the Bergamo airport. A revolution had started and a few years more, we continue to write about it.
Minnow turned giant
South Africa's first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela once remarked that, "every now and then, a generation is called upon to be great. You can be that great generation." The current crop of Atalanta players are certainly living up to the late Pan-African's reflections. To understand how far they've come even more, picture the Premier League's Bournemouth or Burnely for instance, with their modest budget and presumably keen eye on home grown talent. If they were to maintain such a strategy and progressively break into the EPL's top three ahead of some of the so-called big 6 teams, that would be fairly considered as an unlikely miracle right? That's exactly what Atalanta have done and there's nothing miraculous about their rise. It's simply the age old formula of #people #product and #process.
Getting the right people for the right job is an indespensible ingredient anywhere. That's exactly what La Dea, "The Goddess," did in appointing Gasperini in 2016 and most importantly showing enough faith and patience to let him do his job when results went side-ways. It is reported that in his first few games in charge where wins were a scarce commodity, club President Percassi descended upon the Atalanta players in the gym and frankly shared he was all they got. They just had to shape up or shape up. “I have no doubts about Gasperini. He is our manager, the best manager possible, and untouchable. So now let’s see what you want to do about it.” – Antonio Percassi's comments as reported by L’Eco di Bergamo at the time. This was in contrast to what had happened at Inter not long ago when Gasperini was sacked after barely 6 matches in charge. His methods were clearly not modern enough for Inter who were looking to challenge Juve for the Scudetto. As luck would have it, Atalanta under Gasperini finished above Nerazzuri in the 2018/19 Serie A season. The appointment of Gasperini was the master stroke and the wild card which eventually led to him to find more people in the form of blooding youngsters who are mostly of Bergamo descent and have gone on to take the La Dea badge, up high with the best there is. Gasperini was quoted by Gazetta dello Sport back in November 2016 as having said this about their recruitment:
“...the club is serious, the structures ideal, the fans passionate, and I have already seen interesting players in the youth sector. The project is clear and focused on those players in the academy: on building really strong identification with our region. An Atalanta styled after Athletic Bilbao, maybe without reaching quite those excesses – because if there is a good kid who doesn’t speak with a Bergamese dialect I’d take him all the same …”
All these people have massively enabled the ‘Queen of the Provinces’ to build a product in the form of a results based style of football we are now celebrating today.
Below is a typical 3-4-3 formation that Atalanta have been using during their remarkable rise, albeit with a few tactical tweaks here and there when the wisdom of Gasperini finds it prudent. It's almost the same formation that has become synonymous with Antonio Conte after his 2016/17 Premier League title win with Chelsea. Three ball playing center-backs are flanked by two full backs on either side who become attackers, delivering crosses into the opposition box when in possession and can quickly switch to defensive duties to form a back-five when under attack. They always have a congested midfield of three players, whom the most advanced one in their set-up against SPAL and in most cases being Pasalic. Upfront are two forwards, the infamous skipper Papu Gomez who has given so much to the side and Colombian international, Duvan Zapata. Summer signing Muriel also gives Gasperini's side more options going forward. More interestingly, Gasperini prefers to play with a pseudo number 10. Pasalic's role in the team is hardly distinguishable to that of the other two midfielders and most of their goal-scoring opportunities come from the flanks. Summatively, this formation allows Gasperini's side to attack as a team and defend as one, making great use of the numbers rather than banking on any kind of individual brilliances. They move like a pack of wolves and unlike the criticism that Conte received at Chelsea for being too defensive, Atalanta's dynamism is sometimes too spontaneous for any opponent to counter. They have become the masters of the 3-4-3 formation.
A 2015 report by the Swiss based CIES Football Observatory cited Atalanta as having the 8th best youth academy in Europe's top five leagues. They have been super deliberate in the appointment of youth coaches who expertly scout mostly local talent and systematically grooms it to feed the senior side. Just like Eredivisie's Ajax Amsterdam, no wonder they hardly feel the heat when some of their most promising stars are snapped up by the more affluent sides. Atalanta have built a self-sustaining system and institution that doesn't rely on any individuals. When Ivorian international Franck Kessie left for AC Milan for example, he was never missed and the same goes for Mattia Caldara who was snapped by Juve and many others.
2019/20 Champions League dice
Most special, this season marks Atalanta’s first appearance in the UEFA Champions League since the tournament’s rebranding. They had only played in the 1963-64 European Cup. Drawn in group C against Manchester City, Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk, they are the underdogs on paper given their lack of experience on the biggest stage in recent times. One thing we have however learnt is not to count them out on anything. I predict they will do enough to narrowly progress into the round of 16, registering an upset against City. La Dea will kick-start their UCL campaign away at Zagreb in Croatia on the 18th of September.
The Serie A still pretty much remains Juventus’ stronghold, who have won 8 titles on the spin. They are miles ahead of their closest competitors such as Inter Milan and Napoli financially, and if anyone is going to get one over them – they would need to come in with a different strategy. Atalanta have been on that path, causing the Old Lady a few problems when they met and if their progression is to continue, it may not be now but definitely a matter of time before La Dea get their hands on a Scudetto.