“Herein lies a recurrent theme throughout (Gian Piero) Gasperini’s career; an ability to revitalise slightly jaded or undervalued talent to achieve maximum potential”, (Source: thesefootballtimes.co).
AC Milan?…no, Roma?…no, Lazio?…no, but Atalanta will be one of Serie A‘s representatives in the Champions League next season. Not only have they secured their highest ever league finish, but finishing third has put them automatically into the group phase. Before the season started this was not deemed possible. This accomplishment however, is a reward for sticking with their manager (Gasperini), selling players for good money and also showing transfer market savvy to get great value, in a time when many players’ prices are inflated.
This has by no means been a fluke, the Nerazzurri, were the top scoring side in Serie A this season with 77 goals, seven more than the champions Juventus and three more than second placed Napoli. Falling in line with the earlier quote on Gasperini getting the most out of the players, they were led by 23 goals from Colombian striker Duvan Zapata, who arrived on a two year loan this season from Sampdoria. Now 28 years old, Zapata had previously not hit 20 goals in a league campaign, but he has thrived on being the focal point of Atalanta’s 3-4-3 and 3-4-2-1 formations. This included scoring nine goals in six matches last December. Only Sampdoria’s veteran Fabio Quagliarella scored more league goals than Zapata, and the Italian international scored nine penalties, Zapata only netted once from the spot.
(Duvan Zapata holds the match ball after scoring a hat trick away at Udinese in December. Image from ‘eurofantasyleaue.com’)
This crop of players has implemented Gasperini’s liking for his teams to play a high press superbly, and their quick ball movement has given numerous teams problems. As well as their unexpected league position, they also got to the final of the Coppa Italia, where their dreams were shattered by two late Lazio goals last week. En route to the final, they turned over Juventus 3-0 at home in the quarter final, a huge statement of intent. The cup final defeat, did not deter them from their goal of securing Champions League football on the last day, as they came from behind on Sunday to beat Sassuolo 3-1, at the Stadio Atleti Azzuri d’Italia, a lovely way to end the season in front of their cathartic fans. This win meant they secured ahead of Inter, who took fourth place with a 2-1 win that relegated Empoli and AC Milan ended up only in fifth place despite winning 3-2 away at Spal. Atalanta, were rewarded for ending the season with a thirteen game unbeaten run, that allowed them to claw back the two Milan clubs. After beating Sassuolo, Gaspierini stated, “It was a very difficult race, we came into a match that was not easy. The boys were wonderful, extraordinary. The Champions League is a goal we have never conquered in our life and it arrives to us in a very honourable way. We will do well in the Champions League”, (Source: calciomercato.com).
With the way the 2018/19 season started, it could have all been so different. Atalanta were eliminated from the Europa League in the last qualification stage, after two goalless draws with FC Copenhagen, and were beaten 4-3 on penalties. In the league, August saw Atalanta give up a 3-1 lead away at Roma and as they drew 3-3. They did not win a single league game in five attempts in September; losing at home to Cagliari, and away at Spal, both Spal’s goals ironically being scored by a player Atalanta own, as on loan striker Andrea Petagna put them to the sword. October, saw Atalanta lose at home to Sampdoria, meaning that they had now gone seven league games without a win. The Bergamo outfit, were languishing in 17th, one spot above the relegation zone, and things were on the verge of getting awkward for Gasperini. The Nerazzurri responded with a four game winning streak, which included a second half blitz as they beat Inter 4-1. Their short winning run was ended by a heartbreaking last minute goal by Matias Silvestre as they went down 3-2 away at Empoli, in a game they had led 2-0, to end November.
December, was a mixed month, there were away wins at Udinese and a 6-2 hammering of Sassuolo, as well as a big home win over Lazio. But, at home, Napoli grabbed a late win against them thanks to a late Arkadiusz Milik goal and they gave up a 2-1 lead to Juventus, despite the champions only having ten men. Amazingly, there was another 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture with Roma in January, Atalanta produced a great comeback from 3-0 down to salvage a point at home. Two wins and two draws in February left them in eighth place to conclude the month. At this stage they were seven points off of Milan in fourth, and they had drawn and lost with Milan this season, so they had to get ahead of them on points as they had lost the head to head battle. It was then the aforementioned 13 game unbeaten run (including nine wins), which came to carry them to third place. March saw wins over Fiorentina (home) and Sampdoria (away). Last month, they got a precious away point in a goalless at Inter, and they came from behind to get a huge away win at second placed Napoli, and this month began with a massive 3-1 away win at Lazio. Champions league had been achieved.
(Gian Piero Gasperini has led Atalanta to the Champions League for the first time in their history. Image from ‘bergamonews.it’.)
Gasperini, now 61, finally has the chance to make a mark on Europe’s finest stage in what is definitely his last chance to properly shine. His more recent managerial career, has included a stint at Inter in 2011, which only lasted three months. In the 2012/13 campaign, he was sacked when in charge of Palermo, and then he was bizarrely re-hired just under three weeks later, before being fired again, just over two weeks after that, mind boggling to say the least. The Atalanta board are getting their reward for sticking with him, after they almost let him go midway through his first season in charge in 2016/17 season after a bad run. Just like this season they responded with a good run, and Gaspierini led them to fourth and they qualified for the Europa League.
They started 2017/18, without two of their main players as Milan came calling. Defender Andrea Conti was sold to the Rossoneri for €24m, and midfielder Franck Kessie also headed there on a two year loan with a commitment to buy when the loan expired. With these omissions amongst others, Atalanta could only finish in seventh place in Gasperini’s second season. Despite dropping in the league, they did draw some attention across Europe in their Europa League group as they dispatched the Premier League’s Everton 3-0 at home, and 5-1 away with some clinical displays. They later exited the competition after losing 4-3 on aggregate to Borussia Dortmund.
This current season saw them lose yet more talent. Petagna, went to Spal as stated, Bryan Cristante, who had been on loan from Benfica for a year and half, was bought permanently by Atalanta, and then immediately loaned to Roma. Leonardo Spinazzola who had been on loan at Atalanta for two seasons, returned to his parent club Juventus. Central defender Mattia Caldara, retuned to Juventus also after being on loan at Atalanta in the 2017/18 season. Atalanta had sold him to Juventus midway through the 16/17 campaign, and he was immediately loaned back to them. Things overall were looking like they may be awkward for them with these players leaving, but Gasperini worked his magic. The thing that is most impressive about what Gasperini has done in his tenure, is his attention to detail and the quest to find value in the transfer market. In this current market, some of the deals Atalanta have made have been top draw.
Goalkeeper Etrit Berisha came from Lazio for €5m, whilst right back Hans Hateboer was obtained from Dutch side Groningen for less than half a million pounds. Hateboer, had recorded the most assists by a defender in the Erevidisie, and was an astute purchase, as he would fit straight into the system. Gasperini, likes to play his fullbacks as wing backs and make a four man midfield, getting as far forward as possible when they can to pin back the opposition and force mistakes. Timothy Castagne, was the man they got to replace Andrea Conti last season, a fullback who can play on either side, and he only cost them €6m from Belgian side Genk. Other 2017/18 purchases included; central defender Jose Palomino, €4m from Ludogorets, and versatile German defender Robin Gosens arrived for less than a million euros from Dutch side Heracles. Attacking midfielder Josip Ilicic, has proved to be real bargain, acquired from Fiorentina for a mere €5.5m, known for his cultured left foot, the Slovenian has hit double figures in the league in his two seasons at the club. These shrewd signings accompanied the good players they already had in their captain Argentine international Papu Gomez, Swiss international Remo Freuler and Dutchman Marten de Roon, who they re-signed from Middlesborough in 2017.
(Captain Papu Gomez celebrates putting Atalanta ahead against Sassuolo in the last game, he led them in assists with 12 this season. Image from ‘ole.com.ar’.)
This season they continued to work the market smartly. Stopper Pierluigi Gollini, arrived from Aston Villa €4.3m. The Zapata loan we know of. Midfielder Mario Palasic, came in on loan from Chelsea and winger/forward Emiliano Rigoni arrived on loan from Zenit. With the sales made in the last couple of seasons of Caldara, Roberto Gagliardini (to Inter for €22m) and Alessandro Bastoni (to Inter for €31.1m), and add the sale of Conti to that, they have maximised the value of their young talent and reinvested with great nous. This summer they will also receive €24m for Franck Kessie as his two year loan is up at Milan and Roma have already made the Cristante deal permanent for €21m earlier in the year. All this will give Gasperini even more funds to play with as long as they can keep him and will allow them to thicken the squad so it is ready for the vigorous schedule that Champions League football will bring. No doubt one of those deals will be tying up Duvan Zapata permanently.
Gasperini’s Atalanta reign thus far has been a lovely story, a manager nearing the twilight of his career, defying the odds and dragging them through to Europe’s biggest stage. I for one cannot wait to see them in the Champions League, even if they were to lose one or two players, with the way they have recruited in the last few seasons, they may be able to sufficiently replace any losses regardless. They have shown you do not need to spend million upon millions to achieve greatness, Milan have not made the top four spending crazy money in the last years, and Inter have spent wildly too (as we have seen some of that money has gone to Atalanta!), but yet they have shown them both up, as well as Roma and Lazio. Atalanta were savagely close to relegation in the 2014/15 season, and now four years later will be playing Champions League football, with their rousing and aggressive style of football, you never know they may cause a surprise or two. “In short, go away or remain, the coach has once again done his duty, which is not winning, but increasing the value, technical and economic of the squad, giving convictions and morale to aspiring champions, players with a great future behind shoulders and boys of high hopes”, (Source: repubblica.it). With Gennaro Gattuso leaving AC Milan and Luciano Spaletti’s days at Inter being numbered, Atalanta must do all they can to keep hold of Gasperini, as the amongst others will be sniffing around him, whatever reassurances he needs money wise, they must give him.