Duvan Zapata’s 79th minute goal in their 2-1 win over SPAL last weekend not only won the match and kept Atalanta ahead of Roma on goal-difference in 5th place on the table, the late match-winner also put the club back on top with the most goals in Serie A this season. Their 50 goals in 23 matches is one ahead of Juventus, whose attacking dominance was expected following the nine-figure move for Cristiano Ronaldo over the summer. Atalanta instead have a three player attack built on the 30-year-old Papu Gomez and 31-year-old Josip Ilicic flanking the 27-year-old Zupata. Gomez was signed from Ukraine for $5.6 million in 2014, while Ilicic came from Fiorentina for just over $6 million in 2017. Zapata, meanwhile, is on a two-year loan move from Sampdoria.
“We often manage to complicate the situations for ourselves with bad starts and we’re forced to make comebacks,” Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini lamented after the SPAL win. “It’s not easy to keep this tempo, as we are competing against the two Roma clubs, the two Milanese sides, plus others like Torino and Sampdoria,” added the 61-year-old. It was only a week earlier that Atalanta went down 3-0 to Roma before drawing 3-3, again through a late Zapata equalizer. It’s this go-for-broke style from a non-traditional power that has analysts describing the side as the great entertainers of Italian football, although with tangible success. In 2017, following Gasperini’s first season in charge, Atalanta qualified for their first European competition in 26 years with this idiosyncratic approach.
The club’s reputation for having one of the best youth academies in Italy has given Gasperini a direction for his vision (the academy has produced Riccardo Montolivo, Giacomo Bonaventura, Manolo Gabbiadini, and Simone Zaza). Gasperini started 4 players from Italy’s U-21 side in a league match in 2016, a 1-0 win over Napoli that gave his president a sleepless night beforehand. Andrea Conti, Franck Kessie, and Roberto Gigliardini have all come through Gasperini’s system and moved onto bigger sides - although there is a thought that players from the team are not necessarily able to replicate their form elsewhere. Regardless, Gasperini has concrete inspiration styled after Athletic Bilbao. He envisions a club focused “on building really strong identification with our region...an Atalanta styled after Athletic Bilbao, maybe without reaching quite those excesses - because if there is a good kid who doesn’t speak with a Bergamese dialect I’d take him all the same.”
Perhaps the most interesting facet of Gasperini’s success in 2018 is how little he’s change tactically since coming to the fore in leading Genoa to their most successful Serie A finish in 2010. From Genoa, to an ill-fated spell with Inter, Palermo, and now Atalanta, Gasperini has used a 3-4-3 structure punctuated by a high press and man-marking center backs. The backline is protected by an energetic, revolving duo like Kessie and Gigliardini. They focus their attack on the wings, evenly distributed at 38% on each side. It is a rehearsed and physical style, both high in risk and reward with and without the ball. Gomez is their one genuine star. When analyzing his style at Genoa, one analyst pinpointed Marco Rossi’s versatility to play on the backline, in the midfield, and in the attacking three as the ideal Gasperini player.
Their local newspaper described their style as “an attack on fire, but a defense that cannot stop taking on water” as they’ve shipped 31 goals this season, twice as much as Juventus. It is a physically grinding style, with players expected to suffer. SPAL manager Leonardo Semplici described Atalanta as the fittest team in the league, and Gasperini is credited with working Zupata into the best shape of his career. That suffering for results is a trade-off stomached by a mid-table side, and in this case, at 61 years old, most analysts have concluded it’s where Gasperini will finish his career.
Jose Mourinho said that Gasperini was the most difficult coach he faced during his time in Serie A, observing that he “had a response to every move I made...he is very good.” Sir Alex Ferguson was said to be monitoring Gasperini as his potential successor at Manchester United. Thiago Motta went one step further, saying Gasperini was a better manager than Mourinho, Benitez, and Carlo Ancelotti on a human, technical, and tactical level.
He had short stint at Inter in 2011 where he was fired after 5 losses in 5 matches. That run stained his reputation, though he was not helped by Massimo Moratti questioning his leadership on his way out. Gasperini, even at the age of 54 when he took the Inter job, was considered too inexperienced and “provincial” for a big name side. He was their 4th manager in a year having gone through Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, and Leonardo. He was reportedly their 5th choice after Andre Villas-Boas, Marcelo Bielsa, Sinisa Mihajlovic, and Fabio Capello. His 3-4-3 formation inspired a 20 page special in La Gazzetta dello Sport, which concluded that he was suited for smaller clubs but not for “real” European football. Esteban Cambiasso did come to his defense, putting it bluntly in saying “I have won with four defenders and also lost with four.”
It is jarring to see how different the sport, much less the Serie A structure, has changed since that year. You could divide the top of the Serie A table this season into distinct tiers based on point total. Juventus, with their global ambitions, are on top with 63 points and are presumably playing in their own league. Napoli are on their own in the second-tier with 52 points. That leaves a final grouping of 5 teams battling for Champions League and Europa League places, separated by 5 points: Inter, AC Milan, Atalanta, Roma, and Lazio. One can further divide that group into the two Milan sides that should be spending money, a Roma side with their own global ambitions, then Atalanta and Lazio making the most of limited resources through savvy signings and structural advantages implemented by a manager.
There is a paradox of succeeding in a singular system such as a 3-4-3 shape. A unique style can uncover previously misused gems such as Motta, one of several plays who credit Gasperini with reviving their wayward career. And as a manager finds success, they will inevitably get an opportunity at a bigger club. Just as inevitable is the tension between their unorthodox approach born out of overperforming a side’s limited resources set against a structure and inflexibility of a traditional power. That Gasperini is finding success at this relatively late age shows there are foundational truths of the game, about pressure and fitness, regardless of the current tactical moment. And backed by a fruitful youth system and provincial inspiration, there also may be truth that a quality manager ends up where they’ll make their biggest impact, eventually.