Atalanta amazed another fine result over the weekend after their 2-2 draw at home against Juventus. It was another scalp to add to their list of decent showings this season under new manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, as they continued their surge towards an automatic Europa League qualification spot. Against all odds, their impressive form has pumped them up to fifth place in the Serie A table, and they are currently keeping both Milan clubs out of the European qualification places.
Gasperini was appointed as manager of the club before the start of this season, and early on in his stint, he seemed destined to leave the club following a poor run of results that saw the Bergamo-based club lose four of their first five games and had them hovering around the relegation spots. It seemed very likely that they were going to stay there for the course of the season, but Gasperini’s instinctive risk-taking paid off as they went on a nine-match unbeaten run, which included eight wins, a streak that included successes over sides like Napoli, Roma and Inter Milan.
The key to that vein of success has been Gasperini’s undisputed belief in the club’s youth systems. Atalanta have one of the best youth academies in European football and some of the club’s alumni include Italian legends Gaetano Scirea and Roberto Donadoni and current stars Giacomo Bonaventura and Manolo Gabbiadini amongst several other players who have gone on to make a name for themselves around Europe. A 2014 study by the CIES Football Observatory ranked their academy as the eighth-best in the world, with over 25 players playing in various European clubs in the continent’s top five leagues.
This season has seen the rise of several star names, including that of Roberto Gagliardini and Mattia Caldara. The prior, a midfielder, has been at the club since 2001 and is an efficient box-to-box player who was influential to the club’s upturn in form. He had made just one appearance for the club prior to this season and made 14 this season before his brilliant displays caught the eye of Inter Milan, who snapped him up in the January transfer window. At 23, he has a bright future ahead of him and even earned his first Italian cap in a friendly against The Netherlands.
Caldara, too, has been born and brought up in Bergamo and plays in the heart of defence under Gasperini’s 3-4-3 formation and has cemented his spot in the first team. He has become one of the best defenders in Serie A this season and is an equally as threatening in attack, as he is in defence. A composed figure at the back, he, just like Gagliardini, has earned a move to the higher brass of Serie A, with Juventus snapping him up as a future prospect. However, the Bianconeri did loan him back to Atalanta, and he will remain there until the end of the 2017-18 season.
Another star that has turned up for them this season has been wing-back, Andrea Conti, also a product of their youth setup. He has been key to Gasperini’s 3-4-3 system, playing down the right side and along with Leonardo Spinazzola on the opposite wing, providing a crucial attacking threat to opposition defences. Together, the two have combined for seven goals and 10 assists – with Conti scoring the opener against Juventus (Spinazzola bagged an own goal, too) and their presence has been a statement of Gasperini’s tactical prowess.
Similar to sides like Monaco and Borussia Dortmund, Atalanta possesses a host of fine talent, and are almost certain to be dissected this season. Franck Kessié looks the most likely to leave this summer, with the likes of AC Milan, Manchester United and Chelsea interested in the 20-year-old midfielder, according to The Sun. He has been another revelation this season and fees rising to £30 million have been talked about. Other names in the side include forward Andrea Petagna, captain and midfielder Papu Gomez, and Swiss midfielder Remo Freuler.
After failing to impress at Inter, the rise of Atalanta can be seen as Gasperini’s finest managerial achievement so far and he will be the most important figure if it is likely to continue. In a season where everything has gone exactly as expected, Gasperini’s Atalanta have been the brightest spark and a refreshing team to watch in Serie A. Their 2-0 win over Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo was a tactical masterclass and the turning point for them this season, and should they seal automatic qualification for European football, they must be vary of some of the other clubs’ prior experiences.
Fellow Serie A outfit Sassuolo qualified for the Europa League this season after finishing sixth in the previous campaign, but European distractions have hampered their domestic form this season and they spent most of this season are fighting to keep their top division status alive.
The 7-1 away defeat to Inter Milan was their only major blip this season, as they’ve managed to hold their own for the most part. They are currently ahead of both Milan clubs, who they are very likely to finish above, as they are currently on 64 points gained from 34 games – a record that’s seen them win 19 times. From 13th to a top six finish in the most inspiring fashion, this has been an impressive renaissance of Atalanta and Gian Piero Gasperini.