Attack, shatter records, inflict pain: Gasperini's Atalanta taking the game to opposition

As the Champions League quarterfinals begins on Wednesday, the unheralded Atalanta remains the only Italian team in the latter stages of the competition.

Atalanta finished third in the league and scored 98 goals -- 22 more than champion Juventus.   -  REUTERS

Led by veteran tactician Gian Piero Gasperini, Atalanta has been a tough nut to crack even for top teams this season. In July, the then-Juventus head coach Maurizio Sarri drew up Pep Guardiola’s assessment to best describe the Serie A rival. "Atalanta have been a difficult opponent for everyone for a long time now. Guardiola gave the best description of them. It's like going to the dentist. You can end up well but you feel the pain," Sarri said, before his team earned a plucky 2-2 draw against Atalanta.

The Bergamo-based club finished third in the Serie A this season with a goal tally of 98 goals, 22 more than champion Juventus. As the Champions League quarterfinals begins on Wednesday, the unheralded Atalanta remains the only Italian team in the latter stages of the competition.

For long, Atalanta had been stuck in the lower half of the table before Gasperini took over in 2016. Under the former Juventus youth coach, the club jumped nine places to finish fourth in the 2016-17 season and reached the Europa League round of 32 – for the first time in 27 years. The Bergamaschi reached new heights when it finished third in the 2018-19 season and secured Champions League football for the first time in its 113-year old history.

The attackers

The former Genoa coach has forged a reputation of resurrecting careers and introducing young talents. He was responsible for the transformation of Diego Milito and Thiago Motta before they went on to win the treble with Inter Milan and also introduced Paulo Dybala to European football. At Atalanta, which has the 11th highest wage bill in Serie A, Gasperini has built a team which fits into his brand of all-out attacking football.

Gasperini remains adamant about the efficiency of his tactics -- focussing on attack than sit back to defend. - AP

 

Forwards Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel have been the biggest beneficiaries of Gasperini’s unconventional 3-4-2-1 system as they notched up 18 goals apiece in the Serie A. Slovenian winger Josip Ilicic, who arrived from Fiorentina for €1.1 million in 2017, has been a revelation on the left wing with 15 league goals from 26 matches. In March, the 32-year-old became the first player since Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to score five goals in a single Champions League knock-out tie as he helped Atalanta beat Valencia 8-4 on aggregate in the round of 16.

FACTBOX

  • Atalanta trio Duvan Zapata (18), Luis Muriel (18) and Josip Ilicic finished in the top 10 of Serie A goalscorers list. It was the first time a team had three players score 15 goals or more in a single season since Juventus in 1951-52 season.
  • Atalanta is one of four clubs to score more than 95 goals in a single Serie A season after Inter in 1949/50 and 1950/51, AC Milan in 1949/50 and Juventus in 1950/51.
  • Atalanta had played its home Champions League games at Milan's San Siro this season as its home ground Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia is yet to meet the UEFA standards for hosting the tournament.
  • Atalanta is the only unbeaten Serie A side in away games in 2020.

When the chips are down, Gasperini sends in Ruslan Malinovskiy, who has a consistent ability to score wonder goals. Six of the Ukrainian’s eight goals this season have come from outside the box – only Messi (9) has more among the players from the top five leagues.

At the heart of Gasperini’s goal machine is captain Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez. The diminutive Argentinian, who arrived from Metalist Kharkiv in 2014 for €4.4 million, has the ability to find a pass through crowded defences and sneak in behind the defences unnoticed. The 32-year-old finished as Serie A’s second-highest goal-provider with 14 assists and scored seven goals.

Tenacious midfield and suspect defence

While its work in the attacking third has been sensational, the key to Gasperini’s system is the use of a tigerish midfield tasked to strangle opponents when out of possession. Former Middlesborough midfielder Marten de Roon, Chelsea loanee Mario Pasalic and Switzerland rookie Remo Freuler have been excellent in the engine room. Dutchmen Robin Gosens and Hans Hateboer, who arrived in 2017 for a combined fee of €1.8 million, have now developed into sought-after full-backs in Europe.

At the heart of Gasperini’s goal machine is captain Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez. - AP

 

Atalanta’s defence has been its weak link as it conceded 16 goals during its 13-match unbeaten streak since the restart. Gasperini, a firm believer of man-to-man marking, however, has often been found out by rival managers. Inter Milan successfully employed long balls and pacey forwards to snap Atalanta’s 19-match unbeaten streak with a 2-0 win on the final day of Serie A.

However, Gasperini remains adamant about the efficiency of his tactics.

“If I had to sum up my defensive philosophy in one phrase it would be that I don’t believe and I will never believe in the concept of waiting for your opponent to make a mistake: I think you must try to steal the ball to attack,” he once told The Guardian in an interview.

While Gasperini’s system has not been perfect, Atalanta’s 115 goals across all competitions – the third highest in Europe this season – is no mean feat. It will come as no surprise if the European heavyweights come unstuck against the Bergamaschi in the latter stages of the Champions League this season.

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