What Atalanta have done over the last two years is something other smaller clubs can genuinely dream of replicating. They have given an example to lesser clubs that with the right recruitment and a good tactical approach, they can challenge the big boys of Serie A.
The manner in which Cagliari and Fiorentina have started the season shows that they have the foundations for those ambitions.
Rolando Maran’s side finished three points clear of relegation last season - like Fiorentina themselves. There was often a lack of tactical plan under Maran. But this past summer, the club made multiple interesting purchases that have set their season alight.
Nahitan Nandez, who had impressed for Uruguay in the 2018 World Cup, was finally roped in from Boca Juniors for a fee of €18m. Juventus sold striker Alberto Cerri, while La Viola loaned out Giovanni Simeone. Another smart signing was the capture of Nacional midfielder Christian Olivia, as he arrived for just €5m.
But three other signings were deemed to be game-changers. Radja Nainggolan was forced out of Inter and the Belgian returned to Sardinia. Napoli’s Marko Rog, who was loaned out to Sevilla in January 2019, joined on a temporary deal. Robin Olsen had failed during his short spell at Roma after being signed by Monchi. Marcello Carli signed the Swede on loan, in an attempt to revitalise his career, as a last-minute replacement for injured Alessio Cragno.
So far this season, Cagliari are level on points with fourth-placed Lazio and Atalanta. They have had the fifth-lowest amount of average possession per game this season. But Maran’s pressing system has placed emphasis on a strong midfield. It has matched the recruitment strategy.
While Olsen has indeed played out a resurgent season, the likes of Nainggolan, Rog and Nandez have been key in midfield. The Belgian did struggle with fitness initially, but Nainggolan is back in form. Nandez has scored once, assisting twice and his work-rate has shone through.
Joao Pedro, as always, has been efficient in front of goal. He has scored five times. Simeone’s signing has also proved key. The Argentine has scored three, assisting twice.
The club’s strategy to sign supposedly fringe players from bigger clubs has worked. They have characters who want to prove their worth and show their clubs that they were wrong to let them go.
As far as Fiorentina go, they had failed to win a single league game under Vincenzo Montella last season. A takeover from the Della Valle brothers saw Rocco Commisso bring in immense promise and a guarantee of summer signings.
La Viola made a total of 13 summer signings and they were the perfect mix of short-term, medium-term and long-term investments.
Franck Ribery and Martin Caceres arrived for free, and former La Viola man Milan Badelj rejoined from Lazio. Kevin Prince-Boateng, who has spent a stint at Barcelona, arrived from Sassuolo.
Pol Lirola, Boateng’s Neroverdi teammate, joined on an initial loan deal with the obligation to buy. Liverpool youth team midfielder Bobby Duncan joined as a long-term signing. Pedro, who was linked with the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid, came in from Fluminense. It was seen as a coup, considering Simeone was loaned out.
Montella did struggle to get his system right in the first two games. They showed promise against Napoli, but were poor against Genoa. Since the Juventus game, things have turned around. Montella played two false nines in Ribery and Federico Chiesa and Juve were rattled.
The draws against Juve and Atalanta were very encouraging. Against La Dea, La Viola were 2-0 up but let in two late goals to give up on a win. This took the winless streak to 18 games.
But since the win over Sampdoria, La Viola have lost just a single game in the league. They are now just five points behind Cagliari, who they face on Sunday evening.
The manner in which the two clubs have become European contenders from relegation battlers is very much reminiscent of Atalanta. They have a system and that system has been inculcated with the summer signings - something La Dea did so well over the last two years.
If both Cagliari and Fiorentina keep these foundations and build on them, anything is possible.