Since the inception of the league, the Seven Sisters of Italian football have largely dominated, taking turns at the top. When one would fall short, the other was right there to pick up the mantle. The fierce competition among themselves pushed them to new heights.
In the 1990s, Arrigo Sacchi kicked off one of Milan’s most successful runs, which saw the Rossoneri claim five titles before the turn of the century. After their historic run, they were forced to share the spoils with Marcelo Lippi’s Juventus in the early 2000s. In the post-Calciopoli era, the balance shifted once more and José Mourinho’s Inter sat atop Italian football, winning five consecutive titles. The Nerazzurri, however, failed to return to their past heights after their historic treble and have since seen their long-time rivals, Juventus, claim the last seven Scudetti.
Much like it’s been the case for the past century, three of the Sisters – Juventus, Inter and Napoli – will likely be vying for the ultimate crown come the season’s end. Make no mistake about it, however: it is Gian Piero Gasperini’s high-flying Atalanta – a pesky outsider – that has stolen the headlines thus far. La Dea have smashed their way to the top and have shown no signs of slowing down. Unleashing chaos on any ground they travel to, Atalanta have proven to be a handful for any team in the peninsula.
Currently averaging close to three goals a game in fifth, they remain very much in the title race, despite their manager’s refusal to admit it. In many ways, calcio is witnessing the rise of their next giant.
When Gasperini was initially hired in 2016, expectations were low in Bergamo. After all, they had just finished in 13th and were primarily concerned with survival. Not even Gli Orobici’s most passionate supporter could have envisioned what has transpired over the last few seasons. Their president, Antonio Percassi, however, may tell you otherwise.
Unhappy with the state of Atalanta’s academy at the time, Percassi implemented a new investment policy across La Dea’s youth ranks in the early 1990s. This policy stressed the importance of heavy investment in coaching and emphasised the importance of their youth players and their path to first-team football. Aware of the massive task ahead, Percassi convinced Fermo Favini – at the time recognised as one of Italy’s most highly-respected scouts – to leave Como and put the visionary in charge of Atalanta’s youth sector.
Fast-forward over 20 years and Atalanta have won over 17 titles across their four youth setups and are now widely regarded as one of the best – if not the best – in Italy. Most recently, they won last year’s Primavera Campionato and are coming off a narrow win against Fiorentina in the Primavera’s iteration of the Supercoppa.
While success at senior level can be measured by trophies, the youth setups are entirely different. Their mandate is to prepare players for the first team and eventually thrust them into top-flight action with no hiccups. In this respect, Atalanta are in a league of their own. According to a global study done by CIES Football Observatory in 2014, Gli Orobici were responsible for 25 players plying their trade in the top five leagues across Europe. No one else in Italy came close to that number.
Their most recent successes from their Primavera sides are Roberto Gagliardini and Alessandro Bastoni. After being blooded through the youth ranks, the duo were sold for nearly €60m combined. Today, both Atalanta youth products play regular minutes at Inter and are crucial to Antonio Conte. Andrea Conti is another example of a player who made the step up to the senior side before being sold to Milan for a huge profit. This model has allowed Atalanta to reinvest the fruits of their labour right back into the side.
Given the structure currently in place, Bergamo will continue acting as a platform for breakout stars over the next few seasons. After all, the next wave is already upon us. Atalanta loanee Dejan Kulusevski is currently establishing himself as one of the league’s most lethal players in the final third with Parma, and is one assist off the league-leading Luis Alberto with five. Amad Traoré, a talented forward who recently scored on his debut, is another player lighting up the youth leagues for Atalanta. These are but two examples from Italy’s most efficient youth setup.
Much like it was the case over 2- years ago, Atalanta have rarely been afraid to go against the grain and carve their own path. Just last year, La Dea announced renovations to their Gewiss Stadium. Chief among the improvements was the removal of the pitchside barrier, which many believed took away from the stadium experience. They also put in place a project to demolish and rebuild the Curva Nord.
All in all, the improvements will cost €40m and will be completed by 2021. Most importantly, however, these changes will take Atalanta forward as a club and will comply with UEFA’s standards. Currently, La Dea are playing their Champions League clashes at the San Siro, something they will be hoping to change at the earliest opportunity. At a time when few clubs in Italy own their own stadium, let alone propose improvements, Atalanta are trailblazers.
On the pitch, few sides capture the hearts of the neutral like the northerners. Last season, Gasperini’s men finished third, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history. While the achievement on its own was impressive, it’s how they went about it that sent shockwaves throughout Italy.
Atalanta finished the season with the most goals in the league, having beaten Italy’s top dogs regularly and eliminating champions Juventus in the Coppa Italia in convincing fashion. With Gasperini’s trademark 3-4-3 in place, Gli Orobici never gave their opponent’s a moment’s rest. Whether they were playing a top-four contender or a relegation-threatened side, Atalanta had no fear, taking the same risks. Getting his men to press high up the pitch, Gasperini deploys his full-backs aggressively. Timothy Castagne, Robin Gosens and Hans Hateboer benefited greatly from this setup and combined for 12 goals last season. This year, they’re already up to four.
To anchor this high-powered system, Gasperini typically fields an out-and-out number six, like Marten de Roon, alongside a more mobile mezzala. The midfield four acts as the basis for their front-three and allows their forwards to express themselves fully. As they are always eager to offer themselves as options in the final third, there is rarely a shortage of players in opposition territory.
Duván Zapata, arguably the biggest benefactor of Gasperini’s system thus far, had his breakout year last season, scoring 23 goals in league play and finishing just behind Ciro Immobile in the Capocannoniere race. Playing off the talented Papu Gómez and Josip Iličić, the former Napoli man was a force to be reckoned with in the 18-yard box and led the line to devastating effect.
This season has been no different. Fresh off their Champions League qualification and the financial boost that comes with it, Atalanta took to the transfer window diligently. Rather than target youngsters with promise, as they have so often done in the past, they shifted their transfer policy completely. Their two main acquisitions – Luis Muriel and Ruslan Malinovskiy – are both seasoned internationals with an abundance of experience.
The former is a Serie A veteran while Malinovskiy has provided some much-needed depth and versatility in the middle of the park. Gasperini has also fielded the Ukrainian international in his front three due to his propensity to make late, unmarked runs into the box. Malinovskiy is yet another example of Atalanta’s shrewd scouting, as his modest €12.5m price-tag would indicate.
Much like Malinovskiy, Muriel has taken to Gasperini’s setup like a fish to water, scoring eight goals in the league already. His turn of pace and his knack to be in the right place at the right time has made the Colombia international a match made in heaven for Atalanta’s dynamic offence. As they regularly qualify for Europe, it will be interesting to see the next progression in their transfer policy.
Despite their positive results, Gasperini is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. When asked about the Scudetto, the former Genoa tactician remained coy: “Only Juventus can lose it – but then there are Inter and Napoli,” said Gasperini in an interview with Sky Italia.
Whether they win the Scudetto or not, one thing is clear: Gasperini is the ideal tactician to lead this Atalanta side. Making his managerial debut with Genoa back in 2006 and propelling the likes of Thiago Motta and Diego Milito to new heights, Gasperini is one of the league’s most seasoned tacticians. Perfecting his 3-4-3, it was in Genova that he initially made a name for himself.
In just his third season in charge of I Grifoni, the Atalanta manager finished in fifth, besting the likes of Juventus, Roma and Milan – highlighting his ability to make the most with limited resources. After a failed stint with Inter and instability with Maurizio Zamparini’s Palermo, Gasperini returned to Genoa to restore his reputation. He spent three seasons there, earning respectable results before being hired by Atalanta.
In his first season, Gli Orobici qualified for the Europa League, losing narrowly against Borussia Dortmund in the round of 32, and followed that up with last season’s impressive exploits. All this with the 12th highest wage-bill in the league. The Torino native demonstrated his ability to maximise the roster at his disposal. This season, Atalanta have shown no signs of slowing down and are maintaining last season’s impetus, competing at the top of the table with Juventus, Inter, Napoli and a resurgent Roma.
Moving forward, however, Gasperini will need to tinker his offensive setup in Europe as Atalanta currently sit on zero points after three games. Considering it’s their continental debut, growing pains are to be expected in Bergamo.
Atalanta’s high-flying offence may be getting all the plaudits right now, but their recent successes have been brewing for the better part of two decades and date back to Percassi’s burning desire to shake up the side from the bottom up. While it won’t be easy to eventually turn Italy’s Seven Sisters to eight, La Dea are ensuring that, when it’s time, they will have all the tools to do so: a successful youth system, their own stadium and a progressive manager at the helm. The rise of calcio’s next giant is very much upon us.
By Greg Caltabanis @GCaltabanis