On the evening of September 21, Atalanta’s players trudged off the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia pitch with jeers ringing in their ears. A late goal by Ilija Nestorovski meant Gian Piero Gasperini’s team had suffered a 1-0 home defeat to fellow strugglers Palermo, a fourth loss in their opening five Serie A matches.
The vultures appeared to be circling in Bergamo, with rumours that the 58-year-old Coach was set to be sacked by club President Antonio Percassi. A trip to newly-promoted Crotone the following Monday was billed as Gasperini’s last chance to save his job.
That this was the situation merely two months ago just goes to show how quickly circumstances can change in football, particularly for tacticians. Since winning that all-important game against Crotone, Atalanta have gone on the sort of run that many believed only Juventus were capable of in Italian football.
Seven wins and a draw in their last eight League matches, including victories over Napoli, Inter and Roma, represent an astonishing reversal of fortunes for La Dea. It is a sequence of results that has transformed the Lombardy side from possible relegation candidates into European hopefuls – and the ‘dumbstruck’ Gasperini from a dead man walking into a potential Panchina D’Oro contender.
Of course, the season is still young and with difficult away games against Juve and Milan on the horizon, most will be expecting Atalanta’s form to tail off in the not too distant future. However, securing five consecutive victories is not a fluke and it is hard not to be impressed by the way Gasperini is extracting the most from the resources available to him.
In an age where big money rules and young players with potential are overlooked in favour of a pursuit of instant success, it is refreshing to see the experienced tactician rewarded for putting his faith in so many of Atalanta’s academy graduates.
Midfielder Roberto Gagliardini was playing on loan in Serie B last season, but such is the impression he has made since becoming a first team regular under Gasperini that he recently received a call-up to Giampiero Ventura’s Italy squad.
22-year-old centre-back Mattia Caldara, another who spent 2015-16 in the second tier, has shone at the heart of Atalanta’s three-man defence and even contributed three goals to aid his team’s cause. Andrea Conti has excelled at right wing-back, while Marco D’Alessandro, Andrea Petagna and Leonardo Spinazzola are other Italians under the age of 26 to have featured regularly and performed well.
Complementing these home-grown starlets, Gasperini’s decision to promote Ivorian teenager Franck Kessié into the first team now appears a masterstroke. The 19-year-old has been one of the undoubted success stories of the campaign so far, with his goals and all-action midfield performances reportedly attracting the interest of leading clubs around Europe.
Deploying a settled but attacking 3-4-1-2 formation, the ex-Genoa and Inter boss encourages his players to be bold and has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to risk defeat in order to try to force victory. A case in point was his decision to bring on creative midfielder D’Alessandro for defender Andrea Masiello early in the second half with Atalanta 1-0 down to Roma last Sunday. Such a move may have backfired against a team of the Giallorossi’s quality and resulted in a heavy loss, but instead it proved the catalyst for the game to be turned on its head.
The comeback provided a fitting testament to the positive, no-fear mentality that Gasperini has instilled in Bergamo. The scary thing for Atalanta fans is how close they came to potentially never seeing their Coach’s work bear fruit. Who is to say that had they failed to beat Crotone, a new man wouldn’t have come in and opted for caution over continuing to allow the likes of Kessié, Gagliardini and Conti the time to develop? Instead of San Siro, would Caldara have been playing at Spezia come January?
It goes to show that Coaches need time if they are to fully implement their vision. Just look at Sassuolo, who did fire Eusebio Di Francesco during his maiden Serie A season only to quickly realise the error of their ways and build a Europa League side around his vision.
Immediate success is desirable of course, but Gasperini’s turnaround at Atalanta shows that sometimes it is worth suffering in the short-term in order to be rewarded later on. President Percassi had the patience to allow this to happen…just.