We initially intended on sharing this prior to the match, but somehow the response got buried in my email and I missed it. Nick was kind enough to adjust a few of his answers to reflect the matches that have already taken place, so we’ll roll with it today. Follow Nick’s Atalanta fan page @AtalantaPassion.
Up until a few years ago, I was aware a club named Atalanta existed but I really didn’t know much about it. Then all the sudden you guys explode on the scene as one of the highest scoring teams in Europe. What caused this transformation?
The transformation has been remarkable for Atalanta, who had consistently been a yo-yo team in Italy until the last ten years or so. I think the transformation can be attributed to two major factors. First, is the hiring of manager Gian Piero Gasperini. Gasperini has been at the helm since 2016 and Atalanta has not finished below seventh in the league. His furious pressing and attacking football initially fit very well inside a “Catennacio” Serie A, although Serie A is anything but defensive now, and he continues to tweak his style year by year to stay fresh and ahead of his competition. He’s well known for his back three defensive line, but given the personnel at his disposal, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him convert to a back 4 as his next trick (although that hasn’t happened yet this season).
Second would be Atalanta’s excellent transfer business and player development culminating into a healthy dose of starters coming to the club at bargain prices. Among Atalanta’s starting XI, the club has signed: Robin Gosens (1 million), Hans Hateboer (1 mil), Berat Djimsiti (free), Rafael Toloi (4 mil), and Remo Freuer (2 mil) all for under 5 million euros. Savvy business for such key figures has permitted Atalanta to splash a larger in other areas like the two Colombians (Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel) and this year Teun Koopmeiners, Juan Musso, and Davide Zappacosta who all came in for over ten million euros.
What makes Atalanta special among all the great clubs in Italy?
For me it’s bucking the trend that a higher wage bill automatically correlates to a higher position in the table. Atalanta has perpetually been in the bottom half in Serie A wage bill, and has still been able to compete with the league’s heavyweights. Additionally, Atalanta’s elite youth academy not only churns out successful footballers all over Italy, it also prioritizes activity and exercise, in a general sense, for youth in the area. The club always goes into the schools around Bergamo and promotes exercise and health (similar to the NFL’s Play 60), regardless if kids will ever crack the Atalanta youth academy. I think this is easier to do with a regional club, and every aspect of the club from the senior squad down to the academy has a real strong tie to the city of Bergamo and the surrounding province. To me, this makes the club even more likeable.
Explain to me what it is about your tactical system that allows you to score so many goals.
Atalanta has only scored three goals in three matches this year, so it’s been a shaky start - but normally it’s the unknown of where attackers will come from. Everyone and anyone is a threat to make a run into the box, and overloads on either the left or right overwhelm opposing defenses to give attackers a plethora of passing or crossing options. Robin Gosens’s classic late runs into the box are what permitted him to score double digit goals last year as a wingback. Atalanta is so comfortable sending everyone (even centerbacks) forward, because there is so much confidence on defensive midfielders Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler covering gaps left by a marauding defensive player. The system doesn’t work without a reliable double pivot pairing, and the drop in effectiveness is noticeable when one of de Roon and Freuler is not on the pitch.
At this point in the project, you’ve established yourselves among Italy’s heavy hitters. What’s the goal now? What is the next step?
I think Atalanta has an outside chance at a Scudetto but that is never the goal. At this point consistently finishing in the Top 4 is paramount for the club given the cash and global exposure that comes with Champion’s League football - a Coppa Italia victory would also be great! Fortunately, Atalanta’s financial position is healthy so that finishing outside the Top 4 doesn’t impact if the team has to make a fire sale or not, but it certainly does wonders in permitting us to keep key players and make the club an attractive landing spot. Without UCL, I’m not positive Atalanta would’ve been able to land its hallmark summer signing Teun Koopmeiners.
The next step for the club is a bit tougher to forecast - given the unrealistic possibilities of the club winning the Scudetto or the Champion’s League. I think it more comes down to not trying to bite off more than it can chew and staying with its current business and player development model. Atalanta could never reach a point of annual revenue attainment to start shelling out cash for elite signings, rather the club needs to continue maximizing its player development and scouting to maintain its current success.
What players are key to the Atalanta’s current tactical setup?
Offensively the club will go as far as Ruslan Malinovskyi takes them. His furious end to last season made him Serie A’s top assist man, even though he only played about 50% of the minutes in the league. He’s got a rocket of a left foot too, and is a major threat on set pieces and corners. Elsewhere on the pitch, Robin Gosens can make any right fullback pay if he’s slacking on his defensive duties. As I already mentioned, Gosens loves sneaking into the box, and has a thirst for goals you’d normally see from a striker. On defense, Jose Luis Palomino has suddenly turned into his compatriot Cristian Romero, and has been Atalanta’s best player so far this year. His defensive style is super unique, and he has no problem crawling over a striker’s back to win an aerial duel - describing him as an ‘avant garde’ defender is the best way to describe him. He can be error prone at times, though.
Atalanta’s great rivals, Brescia, are currently in Segunda B. How do you feel about that as an Atalanta fan, and what makes that derby so passionate?
I think it’s better for the league to have Brescia in Serie A, given the Atalanta Brescia rival is so unique. It’s not just the clubs that hate each other, but the cities have been feuding for over one thousand years. The hate lies deep, and as an American I don’t fully understand it, but I can still appreciate Bergamaschi referring to Bresciani as suni (pigs). As the old adage goes, there are more pigs in Brescia than people. James Horncastle wrote an excellent piece a few years back on the wonders of the rivalry.
Editor’s Note: Copa90 also did a really good deep dive video on it.
Manchester United have looked pretty dangerous to start their league campaign. What do you think our chances are of sending them down to the Europa League by finishing 1-2 in this group?
Prior to the first round of games I wish I could say over 50%, but Manchester United has to be one of the strongest sides in Europe on paper right now - so I’d put the chances closer to 15-20%. The signings of Sancho, Varane, and Ronaldo add to their already good depth, and I think the best chance we have is Ronaldo not meshing in with the squad immediately causing unforeseen drama and consternation. HOWEVER, now with Young Boy’s stunner it really opens things up. I’d presume Manchester United still has to be the favorites, but its going to be a wild group now.
FiveThirtyEight has chances to advance as follows: Man 61%, Ata 55%, Villa 44%, and YB 40%. Young Boys was 10% before the Groups started, so it will really be a bloodbath of a group, just to get 3rd even. I think we’ll know a lot more once Atalanta plays Young Boys if the Bern side is a legitimate threat, or they took advantage of a red card and a terrible last minute error.
How do you feel about how Tuesday’s match went?
I predicted a 1-1 draw, I guess I was close just missed the number of goals. But overall I think it was a fair result given both clubs dominated the possession for a similar amount of time. Juan Musso did save Atalanta and he showed why Atalalanta was willing to fork over 20M euros for a bona fide #1 keeper. His reaction saves were unreal, and won Atalanta the point. But overall, Atalanta was sloppy and error-prone too often, which is probably a testament to the pressure Villarreal was able to set up more than anything else, and we’ll need to shore that up as the season chugs along. The offense is close but not yet the juggernaut everyone anticipates. It feels like the diesel engine is continuing to warm up, and hopefully will soon be firing on all cylinders. Fortunately, the best XI has been found after Gasperini tinkered a bit to start the season.
Parejo really impressed, still can’t believe you got him for next to nothing, and it was super evident that you guys seem to go as far as he’ll take you. Just like de Roon and Freuler for us.