Atalanta: Italy’s Giant Killer



Atalanta is a provincial team based in Bergamo, a smaller city about 40 kilometers north of Milan in the northern part of Italy. Bergamo counts roughly 122 000 people, making it smaller than Kelowna is. However, the city has one of the best soccer teams in Italy, which many of the bigger teams like Juventus, Inter, Milan, and Roma are scared of. 


Atalanta has not always been the great team it has become in the recent years. In fact Atalanta has only been able to consistently remain in the top flight from 2012. Up until 2017, Atalanta never finished in the top 10, and avoided relegation by a margin too close for comfort. During this time the captain at the time Cristiano Doni was found guilty and involved with a match-fixing scandal in Italy which cost Atalanta severe punishment and the loss of their leading figure. 


In 2016 a new manager was appointed by the director’s board. Edoardo Reja was able to lead Atalanta to a comfortable safety finish in thirteenth place. The following year Gianpiero Gasperini, former Genoa manager, was appointed to replace Reja. 


Gasperini turned Atalanta into stunning form since the first year he spent at the club. In fact, in the 2016-17 season he led Atalanta to their best finish in recent times with a fourth place, and qualified for the Europa League the following year. Gasperini took particular care of Atalanta’s brilliant youth section, or “vivaio” as they say in Italy. This made him a strong leadership figure within the team and the players found comfort and form under him. 


The next year was tougher for Atalanta but they managed a seventh place finish and another run in Europa League. By now it was clear that Atalanta meant business, and players like Papu Gomez, Duvan Zapata, Luis Muriel, and Josep Ilicic were praised all around the league for their leading roles on the pitch. 


The reason why Atalanta’s attacking players thrive so well revolves around their game strategy. Atalanta often line up with a three man back line in front of their goalkeeper. On the flanks, wingbacks Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens offer defensive security but also plenty of pace to run into forward space and threats on the back post when the ball gets near the goal. They play an important part on the team by keeping the width but also recovering their positions quickly when defending. 


The midfield is Atalanta’s beating heart. Papu Gomez roams free in the center of the midfielder while two players cover him and create space for him. Remo Freuler, Mario Pasalic, and Ruslan Malinovski are often the chosen ones to support Gomez. The role of the midfielders is to always be available to the ball while creating overloads on the sides. This leaves the middle lane open for Gomez who can find time and space to switch the ball or play penetrating passes for the runs of the wingbacks and strikers. 


The strength in Atalanta’s game revolves in making simple soccer look complicated and hard to read. When Atalanta attacks, they value the possession of the ball and simple passing and movement to open up spaces. The only way a game strategy like this would work is if the entire team was playing for each other and was willing to adapt to Gasperini’s strategy, which obviously happened and worked out well. 


In the 2018-19 season Atalanta got their best ever finish in third place, behind only Juventus and Napoli. This meant qualification for the Champions League for the first time in the clubs history, and celebrations around the city of Bergamo were expected after their brilliant finish. 


The undoubtful talent of leading players like Papu Gomez and Josep Ilicic inspired the rest of the squad to rise to new levels, and gave players who might not have as much talent an incredible run of form in the past years. 


What is truly remarkable about this Atalanta side is the way they have been consistent with their play style and results despite many adversities. Their two leading figures have encountered issues lately and younger players have had to step up and fill in for them. Josep Ilicic fell into a deep depression last year which kept him away from the pitch for some months. For other teams this would become a big deal and their form might be interrupted, but Atalanta was able to once again finish high enough to play in the Champions League, even without Ilicic. 


In the last months of 2020, Papu Gomez, the team’s captain, had a breakthrough conflict with Gasperini and drove himself away from the team. Once again, losing a leading figure so important like Gomez could be drastically awful for other clubs, but Atalanta was able to thrive regardless, with players like Mario Pasalic and Ruslan Malinovski stepping up in the crucial midfield role. 


So far, Atalanta have for two years consecutively managed to advance into the round of 16 in the Champions League. For a club this small from a city like Bergamo this is an incredible feature, and when realizing everything that had happened internally at the club, this becomes a truly remarkable feat. 


Putting this into perspective, Inter Milan was not able to make the round of 16 this or last year. Their squad is valued at 607 million euros by Transfermarkt. Atalanta is valued at 415 million euros, still one club managed to make it through and the other did not. 


Atalanta has achieved amazing results in the past years, and has solidified the team as part of the big 7 in Italy along with teams like Juventus, Inter, Milan, Napoli, Lazio and Roma. No one can argue that their climb back to competitiveness was not impressive, and anyone who is a fan of soccer will appreciate the way they can play with a simple yet exciting style in the Italian top flight and Europe’s toughest competition.