The 2016-17 season did not start well for Atalanta. Before the end of September they had lost four of their opening five games, leaving Gian Piero Gasperini as the clear favourite to be the first Serie A coach to lose his job.
They arrested the slide with a 3-1 win over Crotone but, as he prepared his side for their week seven clash with Napoli, the 59-year- old knew something drastic had to be done if the club was to retain its top-flight status and he was to avoid becoming unemployed.
“I was on the verge of being sacked, it’s true,” Gasperini has since told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“So I decided to play Mattia Caldara and Roberto Gagliardini. I told the president my formation the day before and he was shaken to the point of not sleeping, but I’d made up my mind because I’d seen them in training.”
At the time Napoli were the only undefeated team left in Italy and arrived at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia fresh from a 4-2 Champions League victory over Benfica. Maurizio Sarri’s star-studded line-up seemed certain to take three points, but thanks to a ninth-minute goal, they instead found themselves as the first victim of Gasperini’s revolution.
Fast forward to today and a glance at the Serie A league table shows that the coach’s plan has paid off handsomely. Atalanta entered March sitting in fourth place, a remarkable achievement for a club without a top-half finish since they won the Serie B title back in 2010-11. Now they are dreaming of qualification for Europe.
Last week, thousands of fans waited at Bergamo Airport to greet the team, celebrating another victory over Napoli after Atalanta secured a shock 2-0 win at the Stadio San Paolo. In addition to those twin triumphs over the Partenopei, Gasperini’s side have beaten Inter and Roma – losing just three times.
The coach deserves immense credit, and since his initial gamble worked he has become even more emboldened. He has converted Juventus loanee Leonardo Spinazzola from a winger into a fine full-back, the left-footed youngster complementing the work of Andrea Conti – another Atalanta academy product – on the opposite flank.
That duo have mixed defensive diligence with a willingness to push forward, already combining for seven assists between them. Striker Andrea Petagna has been a beneficiary of their work, the 21-year-old netting the winner in that first clash with Napoli and finally delivering on the promise he had shown when making his AC Milan debut back in December 2012.
But none of this is really new for Atalanta. Known in Italy as La Regina delle Provinciali – “The Queen of the Provinces” – the club has a long and storied history of producing young players at an incredible rate. Juventus icons Gaetano Scirea and Antonio Cabrini began their careers with the Atalanta, going on to incredible success with the Bianconeri and even helping Italy to their 1982 World Cup win.
The likes of Roberto Donadoni, Giampaolo Pazzini, Simone Zaza and Southampton’s Manolo Gabbiadini also began wearing the black and blue of Atalanta, as did countless others around Italy’s top flight. Indeed, a 2015 study by the CIES Football Observatory ranked the club’s youth system eighth in the world, with 25 former graduates playing in the top five European leagues.
It is an incredible achievement, and one Serie A’s biggest clubs are all too aware of. Gagliardini was only handed his full debut in that landmark home win over Napoli, but just three months later Inter Milan had seen enough. Looking to resurrect their own campaign, they completed a deal worth Dhs109 million (€28m) for a player with just eight league starts to his name; the 22-year-old has slotted perfectly into their midfield since arriving at the San Siro.
Gagliardini scored his first goal for the Milanese giants in the win over Cagliari last weekend, and has proven smart at receiving the ball and distributing it quickly, His effort to get into the opposition box without neglecting his defensive duties has been notable, while he also seems aware of his limitations and rarely tries to overcomplicate things.
Seeing him flourish elsewhere might sting, but Atalanta have also struck a similarly lucrative deal with Juventus for Gagliardini’s former team-mate Caldara, with the defender sold to the reigning champions for Dhs97 million (€25m). However, he was immediately loaned back to his hometown club for the next 18 months, the Bianconeri hoping he can continue to develop under Gasperini’s tutelage before joining them in the future.
“I know that Juventus believe in me and made a real investment to sign me, so that is very flattering and makes me really proud,” Caldara said as he was signing a five-year contract. “I need to focus on doing well in Bergamo still so I can be ready when the time comes to join Juve, a club with big ambitions. I need to concentrate on Atalanta and think about improving with every game, because I still have a long way to go and it’s early into my career.”
Next to move on is likely to be Franck Kessié, an Ivorian midfielder who has become hot property in the transfer market. Roma have made their interest known, while Arsenal and Chelsea reportedly had bids rejected by Atalanta in January, the 20-year- old having impressed with six goals this season.
Kessié’s powerful running, robust tackling and limitless energy appear to be the ideal modern midfielder, and he is not shy about making his intentions clear. “I did not hear any rumours around Roma, as I was at the Africa Cup of Nations and so focused only on playing,” he told Tuttomercatoweb last month. “I like the Premier League and in particular Manchester United, the club I dream of playing for.”
That could well be in his future, but life will continue at his current club even if he does depart, with Gasperini seemingly the perfect man to lead their talented young team as more and more players emerge.
“Age doesn’t matter, it’s what you do on the pitch,” says the coach. “If you run, if you play well and have good technique, there is no reason to wait.”
For Atalanta, the future is already here.