Like the imperfections in somebody’s appearance, imbalances in football are often what catch the eye. And, in the case of the less renowned nerazzurri in the Italian game, Atalanta’s attacking overloads have seldom failed to dazzle over the previous five years.
Atalanta’s exuberance, creativity and sheer excitement have all been the brainchild of Gian Piero Gasperini. The former Genoa boss took over La Dea in 2016, and, through an expansive playing style, forward-thinking recruitment, and a fantastic academy, Gasperini has transformed Atalanta from a below mediocre Serie A side into Champions League regulars, and to one of Italy’s highest scoring teams, ever.
Despite all their achievements, there is a sense with the Bergamo side that to this date they could have done more. Failure to secure a trophy, to sustain a title race and to reach the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League all represent differently sized blips on their record.
Regarding their European exploits, the defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in 2019 was particularly painful. Atalanta led the one-legged quarter final until stoppage time before capitulating thanks to goals from Marquinhos and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
More recently, on the same stage, that ugly memory reared its ugly head. Manchester United, another team who are the antithesis to Atalanta in terms of what they represent, recorded back-to-back turnarounds against the Italian side.
Despite a two-goal advantage at Old Trafford and twice leading the game when at home, Gasperini’s side mustered merely one point across the two games. Whilst that jeopardises this season’s European campaign, it is their place in next season’s Champions League status that could perhaps be at greater risk.
For context, Atalanta have gone into the third international break of the season sat in fourth place, and ahead of the critique that shortly ensues below, it is important to stress that they are doing fine.
However, below them lies the chasing pack of Roma, Lazio and Juventus – led by the experienced Jose Mourinho, Maurizio Sarri and Massimiliano Allegri respectively.
More importantly, the biggest battle Atalanta appear to be facing is an internal one, with their own identity.
That is because for long periods during games this season, La Dea have not looked as potent. Per 90 minutes, they have recorded 1.83 goals. The figure marks the first time their average goals have fallen beneath 2.0 since 2018. It also marks a continual decline over the past two seasons (2.58 and 2.37 respectively).
Additionally, they have only scored more than two goals twice in their opening twelve league games. In isolation that statistic is fine, but once again compare that to last season in which they achieved that feat in half of their games.
Winning just one game at home out of their previous seven and the comparable bluntness in attack is translating into points dropped. Looking into the past two home games at the Gewiss Stadium, Atalanta drew both 2-2 to Lazio and the Red Devils in very different circumstances. Nevertheless, there was a failure on their part to add to the two-goal tally and kill off the opposition in each encounter.
Although there remains the fervency to Atalanta’s attacking play, the quality has dropped off. In both of those 2-2 draws, Gasperini opted to deploy his typical formations of 3-4-2-1 and 3-4-1-2, with the only alteration being Josip Iličić either acting in a wide forward role or as a striker. Alongside him in the forward role, was Mario Pasalic – an attack-minded central midfielder.
Throw in Marten de Roon who was playing in the back three, as well as new signing Teun Koopmeiners partnered in midfield with Remo Freuler, and the Bergamo boss has selected four central midfielders in his team. A far cry from the metronomic beat to their attack in season’s gone with the once irreplaceable Papu Gómez.
The Argentine, who departed his beloved European home for greener pastures elsewhere on the continent, has had his headline exit taken from him for now. Yet, Atalanta’s attempt to move on was to almost act like he had never played a part in their success, let alone the starring role.
The emergence of Luis Muriel, Matteo Pessina and Ruslan Malinovskyi all offered La Dea hope last season. Yet, for now, even at their best they look a far cry from the consistency that Gómez once commanded.
However, Gómez is not the solitary staple to this Atalanta attack which has recently been unfastened. Whilst left wing-back Robin Gosens remains at the club, his long-term future looks in doubt after his exemplary performances have led to admirers elsewhere.
When absent Joakhim Mæhle has been tasked with replacing him on the left. From the off, the Dane, who has been so successful in this role for Denmark in 2021, represents an unnatural replacement for Gosens given the former is right-footed. In a system which gained success from its wing-backs making overlapping runs, it should come as little surprise that Mæhle’s inverted role has borne little fruit, averaging a mere 0.07 non-penalty expected goals or assists per 90 minutes.
If Gosens does eventually depart in the next year or so it begs the question how does Gasperini aim to overcome the German’s void in the team? Although at this stage it is hypothetical, it is worth noting given the club’s masking policy they used when losing Gómez.
Astoundingly, despite arguably losing the best attacking player in the club’s history last January, they have responded by spending over £70 million on defensive recruits whilst spending less than a million pounds on Viktor Kovalenko. The Ukranian international is now on loan at Spezia.
Unsurprisingly, that approach has now left Atalanta with a structural imbalance with an absence of offensive outlets – not ideal for a team that very much sets the table to attack.
So how do Atalanta resolve this situation? If Gasperini struggles to develop Pessina or Malinovskyi, the transfer market is the straightforward option. Finding a replacement for Gómez however is anything but, and, would possibly explain why Atalanta have signed nobody since his departure if that is indeed what they have been trying to achieve this whole time.
The other option is to promote from within. It is no secret La Dea boast one of Italy’s best academies and the departures of Dejan Kulusevski and Amad Diallo for over £50 million combined despite playing just three times each prior to their big money moves to Juventus and Man United demonstrate just that.
The latest crop includes the likes of Italy U21 striker Roberto Piccoli, Perhaps all the money generated in transfer fees over the last few years will allow the club to nurture one of their own to become a mainstay in the first team for years to come. Such an outcome might be more pleasing and fitting to the Atalanta ethos.
On a final note, this is not an attack on the project from Bergamo that has done so much to endear itself to its natives and those beyond including myself. Instead, it is a mechanical fault in a model, that, thanks to the way it has been built, can be foreseeably fixed.
This post was written by Michael Jones. Michael discusses Italian football every second Friday on the Road to Nowhere European Football Podcast. You can find Michael on Twitter – @Michael_I_Jones. Michael obtained his statistics from the excellent fbref.com.