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The Lords of Lombardy: How Atalanta are Ascending the European Ranks

By: Edoardo Donati

Atalanta’s rise to Europe’s Elite is not your usual underdog story. It is not the story of happenstance, of lucky coincidence or flash-in-the-pan moments. Rather, the rise of La Dea comes from the combination of hard work, the skills of a highly competent staffing group and a club model focused on economic stability. After a successful 2018/19 season, which saw Atalanta finish third in Serie A and runner’s up in the Coppa Italia, Italy’s domestic cup, Atalanta have rubbed shoulders with Europe’s elite in this season’s Champions League.

But let us not forget that this is a club who were relegated from Serie A in 2003, 2005 and 2010, and – until 2016/17 – had a highest top flight league finish of eighth in the last 20 years. How did the club from Bergamo rise to such prominence? We have drilled into the numbers to identify the key factors behind their ascension to European royalty.

The Management:

It starts from the top. Atalanta President Antonio Percassi, along with the fundamental support of the entire club, has built a sustainable empire that pays as much attention to the balance sheet as it does to the pitch. Percassi has built Atalanta into a club that are now considered a model for others to follow and one that has become a financially secure talent factory. To illustrate this point, this is a club with the eighth smallest wage bill in Serie A. Yet, in 2018/19 this same club finished third to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. And now they are in the quarter finals.

When it comes to developing young talent, they are in an exclusive class. One of the most exciting young players in Serie A is Dejan Kulusevski. Now a Juventus player on loan at Parma, Kulusevski graduated through Atalanta’s youth system and has made real waves. He is one of only two players born in the 2000s, alongside Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund, to have scored five goals and provided five assists in the top five European leagues this season. 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, allowing the club to reinvest.

Instrumental in Atalanta’s great rise to prominence has been head coach Gian Piero Gasperini.

Gasperini first made a name for himself as head coach of Genoa. In just his third season in charge of I Grifoni, the Atalanta manager finished in fifth, winning fixtures against the likes of Juventus, Roma and Milan – highlighting his ability to make the most with limited resources.

The Neutral’s Darlings

Looking at the data, it is clear what Gasperini brought to Atalanta: goals. If goals are the true currency of football, then Atalanta are rich beyond their wildest dreams. Four of the five seasons in which Atalanta have scored the most goals in the club’s history have come under Gasperini. The 70 goals they’ve already scored in the Italian top flight this season (after just 25 matchdays) is already their second most prolific in a single Serie A campaign (after 77 in 2018/19).

With 48 points picked up in their first 25 matches, Atalanta have equaled their best ever start to the top flight, matching their start in Gasperini’s first season in 2016/17.

Across Europe, Atalanta are matching and even surpassing some of the great footballing powerhouses. Only Bayern Munich (2.92) have scored more goals per game than Atalanta (2.8) this season across the top five European leagues. Fellow Serie A rivals, Lazio, are the only other Italian club to make the top 10 with 2.31 goals per game.

Goals/Game Across Top Five European Leagues 2019/20

RankTeam  Goals  Games Played  Goals on average
1Bayern Munich73252.92
2Atalanta70252.80
3Paris Saint-Germain75272.78
4Borussia Dortmund68252.72
5RB Leipzig62252.48
6Manchester City68282.43
7Barcelona63272.33
8Lazio60262.31
9Liverpool66292.28
10Leicester58292.00

La Dea aren’t just plundering goals at Gewiss Stadium, but they are also running over sides away from home. Atalanta have scored the most goals on the road (37) in the top five European leagues this season.

Few sides are capturing the hearts of the neutrals like La Dea. Atalanta have attempted the most shots on target this season across Europe (198), in front of Paris Saint-Germain (195). For Gasperini, the offensive involvement of his full-backs is key. Since he took charge in 2016/17, Atalanta have scored the most goals with their full-backs across the division (29).

Style of Play

One of the cornerstones of the unmistakable style of Gasperini and his Atalanta side is a relentless high press, allowing them to win the ball back high up the pitch. Indeed, Atalanta have completed the most “high turnovers” in the current Serie A campaign (138), defined as winning back possession within 40 metres of the opposition goal. Torino, despite currently languishing in 15th place, have also adopted a similar philosophy.

Illustrates the number of high turnovers won by teams in the Serie A 2019/20

Confirming the importance of the pressing phase of Gasperini’s team, Atalanta have conceded the fewest open-play sequences of 10 or more passes in Serie A this season – an average of 3.9 per match.

As well as attacking verve, Atalanta have a gritty determination to their game. Since Gasperini joined the club, Atalanta have picked up the most points from losing positions across the top five European leagues (71), a full 11 point more than Napoli and 12 more than Lazio and Juventus.

Points gained from losing positions across Europe since 2016/17

While Gasperini may be besotted by his trademark 3-4-3 formation, he is less wedded to the personnel that he picks to play in it. Testament to Atalanta’s continued expansion has been their ability to lure in overseas players. In the summer of 2019, their two main acquisitions – Luis Muriel and Ruslan Malinovskiy – joined a squad of growing nationalities.

Italian players in Atalanta's Serie A Squad

 

Key to on-field success has been club captain Alejandro Gómez, whose leadership, talent and humility reflect the value of the club.

Creatively, “El Papu” Gómez has been a remarkably consistent performer: He is the only player to have provided at least 10 assists in each of the last four seasons across the top five European leagues. When things get tough, El Papu steps up and demands the ball: he has the most carries in Serie A this season (536).

However, it has been Josip Ilicic that has been Atalanta’s stand-out star. Formerly of Fiorentina and Palermo, he has a team-high 15 goals in Serie A this season – that’s a goal every 99 minutes – as well as providing five assists. But it has been in the Champions League where he has been at his most electric. In fact, against Valencia in the Champions League Last 16 second leg, Ilicic became the first player in the history of the competition to score four goals in an away knockout match.

Together, Gómez and Ilicic are the driving force of the team. The pair of them have been involved in the most open-play sequences resulting in a goal in Serie A this season. Interestingly, the first defender on the list is Atalanta full-back Robin Gosens, again highlighting the importance of wide defenders in Gasperini’s system.

Open-Play Sequences Leading to a goal Serie A 2019/20

As mentioned, under Gaspirini’s tutelage, full-backs have typically flourished. After the development and subsequent selling of Spinazzola and Conti, this season has shown all the qualities of Robin Gosens. Among defenders, only Trent Alexander-Arnold (14) has been involved in more goals than Robin Gosens (12: seven goals and five assists) in the top five European leagues. No other defender has scored more than Gosens in the current league season, (level alongside Domenico Criscito at Genoa and Philipp Max at FC Augsburg.)

Given the structure currently in place, Atalanta will continue to churn out talented young footballers. With his goal against Udinese in October 2019, at the age of 17 years and 108 days, Amad Diallo Traore became the youngest player to score in the current Serie A campaign and also the first player born in 2002 to have netted in the history of the competition. Amedeo Amedei, who scored a consolation goal in Roma’s 5-1 defeat to Lucchese in 1937 at the age of 15y 287d, still holds the record for the youngest ever Serie A scorer.

Atalanta’s journey in the Champions League seemed to have started like a nightmare but it has turned into a fairytale. They were the first team in Champions League history to progress to the knockout stage having lost their first three group matches.

The primary aim declared at the beginning of each season by president Percassi is always to avoid relegation. With a successful youth system, a progressive manager at the helm and a deep run in Europe’s most elite competition, even the humble Percassi may have to reevaluate his aims.