Atalanta aren’t a black swan. Yes, their rise to the Champions League quarterfinals and another top-four finish in Serie A is an unforeseen event, but it’s not clear at all that it will have a major effect on football.
Atalanta are one of those giant hornets with improbably cartoonish large bodies and small, flimsy wings. You’d think they’d be too big to fly, with those teeny wings, but they sure as heck do. And, yes, they also sting: early and often.
The team known prosaically as “La Dea” — “the Goddess” — is a club with the 12th-highest wage bill in Serie A, around about $40 million, which is roughly what Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo trouser in half a year. They’ve had to play all their Champions League games an hour away in Milan, because they’ve been renovating their home stadium and it doesn’t yet meet UEFA requirements. They hail from Bergamo, a city of 120,000 people. Only two clubs from smaller towns have gone further in the history of the Champions League: one is Villarreal, who reached the semifinals in 2005-06; the other is Monaco, though that comes with a big, fat asterisk as the Principality is really a wealthy city-state.
But it’s not really about what they’ve achieved. It’s how they’ve done it: by scoring goals, absurd amounts of them, more league goals per game (2.8) than any club in Europe’s big five domestic championships other than Bayern Munich (2.92). But the Bavarians’ wage bill is more than seven times as high. And, in case you missed it, salaries are generally what make a team fly.
The goals are the heart of the club’s appeal. At its most primal level, this sport is about trying to kick a ball into the opposition’s goal. It’s how they do it that generally befuddles opponents. Atalanta commit men forward with abandon, you will often see six, seven or even eight players in the opposition’s final third. They push and press the ball hard, all over the pitch, turning the game into a series of individual battles whenever they can. They take more shots than most teams and attempt difficult high-risk, high-reward passes, over and over again. And they do all this while playing at full throttle.
Is this innovation some kind of massive tactical breakthrough? Yes and no. Other teams have some of these elements in their play. Nobody has all of them. And those who do some of what they do generally do it with more gifted (read: pricey) players.
You also wonder about the level of innovation because, again, on a very primal level they’re a throwback to the game of yesteryear. Chuck a bunch of hyperactive 12-year-olds on to the pitch and this is how they might play: attempting shots from distance or difficult dribbles, going one-on-one whenever they can, man marking defensively, taking risks.
Often times you get the sense that they succeed because they play in a way that opponents haven’t seen before. It’s the equivalent of lining up in a Single Wing against a sophisticated NFL defence or planning your entire offence around mid-range jump shots in the NBA. It’s not totally alien to the opposition, they’ve seen it before, but it was such a long time ago they often don’t know how to react.
This isn’t to sell their manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, short when it comes to tactical sophistication. He’s not simply playing rudimentary football. there’s a lot of coordination in the way his players move and his training sessions are some of the toughest around, but Atalanta’s football is so counter-intuitive that it often gets labeled as “naive.” But it’s not necessarily naive to believe that you’re better off trying to outscore the opposition rather than conceding fewer goals. And it’s not naive to think that leaving defenders one-on-one in the open field against fast-breaking attackers is always a bad idea. Atalanta are showing that it can be a good idea, if it means you can push more guys forward and harass the opposition in their own half. Breaking the press and going on the counter evidently isn’t as easy as it seems.
Gasperini doesn’t like to talk about it, but he’s obviously had some sort of revelation here. He’s a veteran manager who, for most of his career, played a different brand of football; one that was more organised, more conservative, more about X’s and O’s. This isn’t a case of a charismatic coach inspiring his players to win one for the gipper.
“I’m neither your big brother nor your confidante,” he likes to say to his players. “We’re all professionals here to do a job.”
Atalanta scored eight goals across two legs in their Champions League win over Valencia. UEFA/HO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
But, equally, he gets the concept of fun. And how the mind can play tricks on you.
“If you’re enjoying yourself and having fun, then you don’t feel fatigue and you run harder,” is another of his aphorisms. “Like when you were a kid and you played for hours at a time.”
In other words, he’s not necessarily fun, but his football is.
Which brings us to another quirk. Underdogs who overachieve like Atalanta generally have a core of up-and-comers who get cherry picked by bigger clubs. It happened to Leicester City after their 5,000-to-1 run to the Premier League title in 2015-16: within two years, N’Golo Kante, Danny Drinkwater and Riyad Mahrez had all moved on. Ditto for Ajax after they made it to the Champions League semifinal last season: Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong have already left, Hakim Ziyech is on his way.
But it’s hard to see who on this Atalanta team can go to the next level. Robin Gosens, maybe? Pierluigi Gollini, possibly? (Maybe in his rap career…) Remo Freuler? Meh.
Read all the latest news and reaction from ESPN FC Senior Writer, Gabriele Marcotti.
Some of their team is made up of guys who have finally found a home at Atalanta after being overlooked for much of their career, like Alejandro “Papu” Gomez, their spiritual leader, (and dance icon) who is 32 and only won his first cap for Argentina at age 29: he’s even smaller than Messi and not as talented, ergo we don’t need him.
Or Josip Ilicic, whose talent was never doubted (as evidenced by the slew of YouTube compilations) but was written off as a lazier, less consistent, less motivated version of the player he should be. Well, at 32, he’s thriving, having scored 20 goals this campaign (including five over two legs against Valencia) and, as my old colleague Michael Cox pointed out, could be this year’s Dusan Tadic: the Slavic misunderstood genius who dispenses magic.
Others are retreads who have relaunched their careers after coming up short at bigger clubs: Duvan Zapata (Napoli), Luis Muriel (Sevilla), Mario Pasalic (Chelsea), Rafael Toloi (Roma). They found a home in Bergamo.
And Atalanta fans have adopted them too, which wasn’t something you would necessarily have taken for granted. The club prides itself on its youth academy — they regularly produce more Serie A footballers than any other — yet this version is almost entirely entirely shorn of homegrown products.
No matter. They’re in perfect harmony with the city and the fans, as evidenced by the sign they held up after knocking out Valencia: “Mola Mia” — “don’t give up,” in Bergamo dialect. Even as their city is hit harder than most by the coronavirus, Atalanta continue to soar, taking their fans with them on the journey.