On 25 February 2017, a dour, clinging rain that had threatened to downpour all day began to smother the 59-year-old Gian Piero Gasperini. Pitchside in a dark Atalanta coat, the Grugliasco-born manager could’ve been forgiven for carrying an air of contentment against the sullen backdrop of 40,000 Neapolitans in the Stadio San Paolo.
Just a few months earlier, Gasperini’s time at the Bergamo club appeared to be up after a torrid start to the season led to calls for his dismissal, but here he stood with no need for defiance as his young side overcame the Partenopei’s relentless waves of attack to win by two goals and propel Atalanta towards European qualification for the first time in 26 years.
The charge towards European football had begun against the same high-flying opposition. Gasperini had sensed his days were numbered and offered an opportunity to two relatively unknown Italian youth players as a last throw of the dice to save his neck. Rather than being overwhelmed by the occasion, Mattia Caldara and Roberto Gagliardini provided a boyish enthusiasm that spread throughout the team. Where previously they had seemed half a yard off the pace, the rejigged Atalanta harried and hustled in a 3-4-2-1 to the delight of the home crowd and came away with a vital 1-1 victory thanks to a ninth-minute Andrea Petagna finish.
As a player, Gasperini enjoyed a modest career in his native Italy. Coming through the Juventus youth ranks alongside Paolo Rossi, the contemplative midfielder would not experience a taste of top-flight Italian football until, at the age of 29, he was part of a Pescara side that were crowned Serie B champions for the 1986/87 season.
Gasperini spent five years calming the Adriatic Sea before departing to Salernitana and, later, Vis Pesaro. At the age of 35, Gasperini called time on his playing career and began sharpening his managerial teeth with the club that had kick-started his footballing odyssey at nine.
Between 1994 and 2003, Gasperini managed various youth sides at the Bianconeri before taking the step up to senior management. His formative coaching years at Juventus led to an opportunity with Serie C1 Calabrian outfit Crotone, who had aspirations of something greater than mid-table makeweights.
During a tenure that spanned three years and included his dismissal and reappointment, an idealistic Gasperini guided i Pitagorici to Serie B and left a lasting impression on several of his players. A commitment to a high pressing game – quite uncommon in Italy at the time – drew particular admiration from his former midfield catalyst, Ivan Jurić, who to this day remains a noted student of the Gasperini methodology. The respect between the pair was clear for all to see and upon departing Crotone for Genoa, Gasperini brought his doted over leader to Liguria as a means of quickly reaffirming his growing calcio credentials.
Following a 2005/06 promotion from Serie C1, Gasperini’s summer appointment was seen as a signal of intent from a highly ambitious i Rossoblu board keen to be dining alongside city rivals Sampdoria at Italian football’s top table. Using a similar tactical framework to his Crotone side, Gasperini plucked the raw but talented Domenico Criscito from the Juventus youth network he knew so well and current Atalanta defender Andrea Masiello from Siena.
The exuberance of the two young Italians alongside the knowhow of Gasperini’s coach on the pitch – Jurić – had Genoa battling at the correct end of Serie B, and, come January, the board were more than happy to fund the signing of former Parma, Juventus and Valencia man Marco Di Vaio from Ligue 1’s Monaco for €1.8m euros. Partnered with the playfully left-footed Brazilian Adaílton, Di Vaio helped fire Genoa to a first season promotion alongside the sore knuckled Juventus and the sleeping giants of Napoli.
Gasperini’s first season in charge of a Serie A club yielded a more than respectable 10th-place finish for Genoa. A slight deviation on the 3-4-3, which remained true to the principles of his first season in charge, drew credit from pundits and opposition managers alike. The once-loved Adaílton and grand signing Di Vaio were sent to pastures new and Gasperini set about replacing them with Milan’s Marco Borriello. He flourished in his role as the figurehead for a Genoa side punching above its weight and, after 19 league goals that included two separate hat-tricks against Udinese, the six-foot number nine returned to Milan for an inflated fee.
The sale of Borriello helped fund a move for former Genoa fan favourite Diego Milito. Milito had previously departed Genoa following their relegation to Serie C1 and has since stated he turned down much more lucrative offers to return and develop under Gasperini’s tutelage. The Argentine’s admirable decision paid rich dividends for both player and club as he flourished in Gasperini’s system, scoring 24 goals as Genoa finished fifth and qualified for the Europa League.
Herein lies a recurrent theme throughout Gasperini’s career; an ability to revitalise slightly jaded or undervalued talent to achieve maximum potential. The 2008/09 season also offered rehabilitation to the stagnant career of Thiago Motta, who, after a disappointing spell at Atlético Madrid, was desperately in search of purpose. Much like Milito, Motta would have his finest season to date and the pair departed at the season’s end to join José Mourinho’s blossoming Internazionale side and leave Gasperini’s Genoa with Leonardo Bonucci and a bucket load of cash.
Departing Genoa halfway through the 2010/11 season after a string of turgid performances amid high player turnover, Gasperini spent a few months anchorless before finding himself on the verge of taking one of the most prestigious jobs in Italian football.
Replacing the recently departed Leonardo, the former Juventini was tasked with reshaping a bloated and dysfunctional Internazionale side as an expectant Massimo Moratti watched on. It is believed that Mourinho had often spoken about Gasperini in admiring tones to the Inter chairman and the decision to appoint him had come following musings on their conversations – but the weight of unrest engulfed the club as concern began to pass like an unwanted heirloom.
His time with the blue half of Milan lasted just under three months as defeat away to a newly-promoted Novara followed equally poor results against Trabzonspor and Palermo. At the time, Gasperini could only reflect on an opportunity missed and the hope that one day a similar size job would become available for him to prove his worth.
Critics would suggest that Gasperini had been unable to get egotistical players to buy into his methods, and his recruitment since would suggest an element of truth. Inter’s record since Gasperini departed has remained largely average in spite of several record transfers and high-profile appointments promising different.
At 20 years of age, Gian Piero had realised that success with Juventus was beyond him and departed on a permanent basis for Palermo. Thirty-four years later, Gasperini returned to Sicily for a whirlwind few months where football was merely a distraction from the soap opera of a Maurizio Zamparini regime. Gasperini was sacked on 4 February and Alberto Malesani replaced him for three games, only for the former Palermo player to be reappointed on the 24th of the same month.
Come 11 March, Gasperini was once more out of a job, replaced by the manager who started the season, Guiseppe Sannino. Gian Piero, Malesani, and Sannino had failed to squeeze blood from a stone and, despite a slight upturn in results, Palermo finished in 18th, six points behind Gasperini’s former squeeze Genoa, giving Zamparini the season he deserved.
Once more taking charge of Genoa, Gasperini managed the Bergamo club for three more years before agreeing to depart. As Genoa pursued a younger coach with fresh ideas, the now experienced Gasperini agreed a pre-contract with Atalanta for the start of the 2016/17 season. His replacement was Ivan Jurić, the former Crotone and Genoa captain who preached the teachings of his Gasperinite leader by committing to the high press and demanding a day’s work be left on the pitch.
For Gasperini, the lessons of 22 years managing football clubs had provided the framework and an ambitious set of young, Italian talent at Atalanta offered the perfect toolkit. During his time with the Bergamo club, Gasperini has managed a wealth of future stars and bigger clubs know that with each purchase from the Atalanta conveyor belt, they are getting well-versed products who are comfortable adapting to the rigours of top-flight football.
In recent years Atalanta have sold Andrea Conti and Frank Kessie to AC Milan, Caldara and Spinazzola to Juventus, and Bryan Crystante to Roma, yet there is one player who will never depart without serious ramifications: Alejandro Gómez.
A five foot five attacking midfielder from Buenos Aires, Gómez has developed into one of the most dangerous players in Serie A through Gasperini’s 3-4-2-1. Playing just off the striker and with a license to roam, Gómez lurks knowingly between the lines in search of the ball and has bordered on the supernatural with his understanding of where he can be most prolific.
At times Gasperini’s side’s attack can seem unwieldy and disjointed, but this only serves the purpose of provoking unrest for Gómez’s restless tapping as he leaves markers chained to positions where only his shadow remains. Atalanta’s opening fixture of the 2018/19 campaign saw Gómez collect a man of the match award after scoring two and creating a further two for his teammates. If Gómez had departed this summer for a bigger club, it would have been unsurprising to see Gasperini also vacating his position, such is his belief in the Argentine’s ability.
Following on from an impressive five-goal demolition of Everton in last season’s Europa League, Gasperini will be keen to ensure his current crop of players can leave an even greater European legacy in the coming seasons as the club moves towards full ownership and a revamp of the Stadio Aleti Azzurri d’Italia.
Gasperini’s squad’s ability to adapt and seamlessly bed in new players is a testament to the coaching methods of the Italian – a man determined to provide calcio with a new set of talent and an engaging, watchable style of football. Twenty-four years into his coaching career, fans the world over are revelling in the monumental achievements of Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta.
By Jim McLean @SerieAJim