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Serie A Return: The Incredible Rise of Atalanta

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The Rise of Atalanta will go down in Serie A folklore

In 2011 Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio secured promotion back to the Serie A, the topflight of Italian football. Now, they’re in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in their history.

Atalanta have remained in the top tier of Italian football ever since their promotion nearly ten years ago, but since the appointment of former Genoa head coach Gian Piero Gasperini in 2016, La Dea have risen to become one of the most entertaining teams across the whole of Europe.

The 62-year-old Italian took over with Atalanta finishing as a lower mid-table side in previous seasons, but the veteran manager didn’t change Atalanta straight away. At the beginning of his spell in charge, Gasperini came under fire and reports of him set to lose his job surfaced following a disappointing run of form. However, the former Inter Milan and Palermo boss survived dismissal after many impressive results which eventually saw Atalanta surprisingly finish the 2016/17 season in fourth place. Back then, it was only enough for a Europa League qualification, but it was still the first time the club had qualified for European competition in 26 years.

Gasperini’s side earned Europa League qualification again the following season but went one step further in their 2018/19 campaign last year. A slow start to the season picked up midway through, as the black and blue stripes of Atalanta went on to finish in third place; three points ahead of Roma, one point above AC Milan and pipping fourth-placed Inter on goal difference. The spot amongst Europe’s heavyweights was the first time in the club’s history that they have managed to qualify for the Champions League.

Another magical season

This year La Dea have been a sensation. Their entertaining football has seen them maintain a Champions League position in the league whilst impressing on Europe’s grandest stage. Atalanta’s first-ever Champions League campaign got off to a bad start, losing 4-0 away to Dinamo Zagreb which was followed by a 2-1 home defeat to Shakthar Donestk before getting pummelled 5-1 at the Etihad at the hands of Manchester City.

La Nerazzurri recovered from the treacherous position in Group C by gaining a point at home to Guardiola’s side and then beating Zagreb 2-0 at the San Siro (Atalanta’s temporary Champions League home whilst their Gewiss stadium undergoes renovations). Gasperini’s men then hit three past Shaktar in Ukraine in a 3-0 which sent the Italian outfit through to the knockout stages, reaching even more historic milestones in the process.

Not only was it Atalanta’s first-ever progression into the last 16 of the competition in the club’s history, but they became the second-ever team to advance from the group stage after losing their first three group matches – a feat only that only Newcastle United managed in the 2002/03 season.

Many saw the team from Northern Italy as underdogs going into their knockout clash with Spanish giants Valencia, but goals from Remo Freuler and talisman Josip Ilicic, as well as a brace from Hans Hateboer, saw Atalanta run out as 4-1 victors in the first leg at the San Siro.

They followed that up by scoring four in the return leg at Valencia’s Camp de Mestalla, with all four goals being scored by Slovenian Ilicic, capping off a sensational performance. The 4-3 scoreline secured an 8-4 aggregate win, sending Atalanta into the quarterfinals. An incredible achievement for a club that was playing 2nd division football less than a decade ago.

It isn’t just in Europe where Atalanta have excelled this season. Their free-scoring form has seen them occupy a top four spot, scoring the most of any team in the league. The astonishing 70 goals they’ve scored in the Serie A this season is ten more than 2nd placed Lazio and stunningly twenty more goals than Turin titans Juventus. In fact, the extraordinary stat is only bettered by Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain in Europe’s top five leagues.

Atlanta’s magnificent scoring style was shown in their 5-0 win over AC Milan in December, condemning the seven-time European Cup winners to their heaviest defeat in more than 21 years.

Gaspernini exceptional attacking philosophy

As highlighted by the phenomenal stats and figures, Gaspernini sets Atalanta up in a way that yields goals. The three at the back formations are becoming a trend for some of the best underdogs in Europe to play entertaining and expansive football – just look at Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United or Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio. Gasperini has favoured the same kind of system in previous roles, such as at Genoa, and his Atalanta side is no different.

The man who began his managerial career managing Juventus youth teams likes to set up his side in a 3-4-1-2. The wing-backs in the lineup, most frequently Hateboer on the right and Robin Gosens on the left, help out and support defensively, helping to provide a back five against opposition whilst also providing width and getting into attacking areas further up the pitch in the attack. The front three can also change depending on the tactics deployed by Gasperini, with the system becoming a 3-4-3 to be more attacking, with a deeper midfielder being deployed in a 3-4-1-2.

One of the key aspects of Gasperini’s attacking play is pressing. La Nerazzurri utilises a high press, blocking passing lanes for their opponents and forcing them into tackles. This has been shown in the Champions League, with only RB Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain winning more tackles on average per 90 minutes in the competition this season that the Italian side.

The high aggressive press is a fundamental part of Atalanta’s attacking style and has been a factor in many of the goals they have scored this season. A prime example is their first goal in the first leg of the round of 16 Champions League tie against Valencia, with Atalanta pressing their Spanish opposition that resulted in Hateboer intercepting a pass and laying it off to a teammate, before moving into an attacking position inside the box to get on the end of a cross to finish.

Having five at the back and two or three players up top make Atalanta dangerous on the counter. However, they are far from a counter-attacking team. Their quick and short passing often sees them play out from the back when in possession to craft out moves with passing triangles and passing options always available. Gasperini’s attacking style of play gets the best out of the star forward players at the club that have been key to their success.

Serie A winner without Juventus

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Atalanta @ 33/1

Ilicic and Gomez continue move forward

At the focal point of everything Atalanta do, Josip Ilicic and Papu Gomez are integral to the team’s success.

Captain Gomez uses his 5ft 5 frame and low centre of gravity to dribble past opponents and find key passes from his attacking central midfield role. The Argentinian playmaker has recorded the second most number of assists in Italy’s top tier this season with ten, being bettered only by Lazio’s Luis Alberto.

Gomez reportedly turned down multiple bids from the likes of Atletico Madrid and Inter in previous years to remain with Atalanta, where he was a key figure in helping the side avoid relegation in 2015. The 32-year-old also played a pivotal part in helping the club qualify for Europe last season, providing 11 assists and seven goals in the campaign.

The man firing all the goals for Atalanta this season has been the Serbian sharpshooter Ilicic. The striker has come up with the goods; 15 goals and eight assists in 21 league appearances so far this year. Five goals and an assist from seven appearances in the Champions League this season also illustrate how important the 6ft 3 machine has been for his team.

From promotion to Champions League glory, its been a remarkable decade or so for La Dea. Can Atalanta BC continue to rise and make the Goddess become an Italian giant to be feared?

By Jordan Edmonds