Josip Ilicic was always meant to be ‘just another’ player in Serie A. He was never seen as a world-beater at his former clubs. His stints at Fiorentina and Palermo were hardly iconic, as his highest goal scoring tally stood at 13 for La Viola in the 2015-16 season. His move to Atalanta in the summer of 2017 had come in the wake of a mere five-goal season in 2016-17. It was one of the lowest scoring campaigns in his career.
This was hardly a monumental transfer for anyone. The fee involved was just €5.7m - peanuts for any top club, but an investment for La Dea.
Fast forward to now, Atalanta have seen Ilicic rise from being ‘just another’ player to being a potential world-beater. They’ve done that at a time when the Slovenian is 32, an age when many players would settle into mediocrity in their domestic leagues. But the club’s ultra-attacking system has become synonymous with bringing the best out of players that they signed for minimal fees. Ilicic has become a symbol of that.
It was at the Mestalla on Tuesday evening that Ilicic became the global imprint of what Atalanta really are. Scoring four goals in a game isn’t strange in Serie A, but him achieving that feat against Valencia in the second leg of a Round of 16 tie was everything Atalanta represent. They are ruthless in attack, no matter the circumstances.
The 8-4 aggregate scoreline came as a result of La Dea’s typical ultra-attacking football under Gian Piero Gasperini. Even when the scoreline stood at 6-4 or even less, they wouldn’t lie down and sit deeper like any other team would. They still had the intent and ambition to score. Ilicic pushed for a quadruple and got it.
Like Atalanta kept pushing to attack despite the need for defence late in the game, Ilicic has been pushing to go past limits at this stage of his career. For La Dea, there was always a risk of fading into mid-table mediocrity like Ilicic’s Fiorentina did. Their meagre budget made them lose players like Franck Kessie, Bryan Cristante, Andrea Conti and Roberto Gagliardini. But it hasn’t bothered them, as their smart recruitment has led them to this unimaginable glory.
It's incredible to think not only has Ilicic reached these heights at the age of 32, but that in the summer of 2018 he feared he’d never play again. He was suffering from a mystery illness and spent several weeks in and out of hospital, trying to find the antibiotics that would resolve the issue.
Ilicic admits that period in hospital changed him. For a time, he didn’t even watch games. But Atalanta’s fearless approach in attack gave the club and Ilicic a new identity. It almost became a way of expressing himself. It is evident in just about everything now.
Contributing 30 goals in just 29 games in all competitions this season comes as a result of that. A case can be made for how his numbers can halve or even less in a different system. But the 3-4-3 formation allows Ilicic more time on the ball to do his bit.
The same applies to Papu Gomez and the wing-backs in Robin Gosens, Hans Hateboer and Timothy Castagne. All of them have the freedom to get on the ball and move forward without thinking too much about defensive duties.
That fearlessness has tapped into Ilicic’s abilities supremely. He has arguably been the best player in Serie A this season. Destroying teams at will like he decimated Valencia is not a rare sight, as Udinese, Torino, Milan and Lecce have seen it all before. A drop of his shoulder down the right flank and a swivel inside has become a common thing. Everyone knows what he will do next, but they still can’t stop him.
That too identifies strongly with the Bergamo side. Everyone knows they will push their wing-backs very high. Papu, Ilicic and Duvan Zapata will come inside and they will not back away from attacking until the final whistle. But despite knowing this, teams can’t stop them.
As this football fairy-tale rolls onto another level, no one knows how long this will last. But Atalanta’s sustainable recruitment means that they are here to stay. The longer Ilicic graces Bergamo, the better it will be for them and for football as a whole.