The Atalanta juggernaut continues to plough on with some style. Last night’s 2-0 win over Sampdoria was hardly surprising, but it said a lot about La Dea’s ability to perform under pressure. As they plodded on towards the last 15 minutes against Claudio Ranieri’s men, the goal came from a source that might seem unlikely for others, but isn’t as unlikely for Atalanta – defender Rafael Toloi.
It was a reflection of the Bergamo club’s unique style, where everyone likes to get in on the goal-scoring action. Luis Muriel got the second goal to settle the tie, confirming his status as Serie A’s premier supersub. As a result, Atalanta are third in the Serie A table and find themselves only two points behind second-placed Lazio, but that’s not the most intriguing thing that pops out at you from the fixture list. If they beat Juventus on Saturday, the Bergamo boys will be within six points of the leaders.
Whether they can really mount a late Scudetto charge remains to be seen. But Gian Piero Gasperini’s men are unbeaten in 11 Serie A games, including nine victories on the bounce. That is the best winning streak in the league currently and they haven’t lost since SPAL beat them back in late January. During this period, they have scored as many as 35 goals, leading many to ask if La Dea really are the best team in Europe right now or not.
The word ‘best’ is a pretty versatile one in football, as it can mean many different things. To a football romantic though, ‘best team in Europe’ could refer to a side that plays very good football and scores buckets of goals. La Dea suit that tag in many ways. Rather, they define it.
Fans are bound to disagree and that is pretty natural in an era that is dominated by Twitter and opinions. A case can be made for Bayern Munich as well. But it has become a bit easy to forget that Atalanta have achieved all of this with very limited resources. They’ve brought forward this unique tactical approach and have gone a long way in changing people’s perception of Calcio.
Gasperini has introduced a style that is revolutionary for not just Italian football, but for the sport as a whole. There is pressing involved and this idea of being ruthless in attack as well. When the centre-backs and wing-backs bomb forward, a midfielder drops deeper and that is the sort of tactical fluidity and cohesiveness which defines Atalanta. It is all made possible thanks to astonishing fitness levels, so Gasp’s staff deserve much of the credit too, especially for their form since the lockdown.
In England, Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United side does rely on over-lapping centre-backs, but the system can be a bit pragmatic, unlike Atalanta’s version. Clubs in Germany have been using dynamic systems which have versatile players in flexible formations. They too rely on high-pressing, like La Dea. But another crucial thing about Atalanta’s system is how they lay immense emphasis on positional overloads. While that is a case of them taking a leaf out of Pep Guardiola’s book, it is a combination of all the other three mentioned above as well.
They’re not just style, though, as proven by the more pragmatic approach over the last two rounds. Back-to-back clean sheets kept against Cagliari and Sampdoria, while relying on set plays to batter down resilient defences. It was a Muriel penalty in Sardinia, while Toloi’s header and the Muriel strike both came off the back of corners. These are not naïve players running into the breach with no protection, they are attacking wisely and effectively. Just as in the Champions League after three opening group stage defeats, Atalanta learned, adapted and improved, giving themselves different ways of winning games.
Clearly, the system is working and has reaped the rewards over the last two years. It has helped them progress in a rather dramatic manner. They are capable of winning multiple games in a row. They did that last season as well and managed to secure Champions League football, despite having started the campaign in a pretty average manner.
In many ways, Atalanta are a football romantic’s favourite toy. Not everyone who loves the game is a romantic, of course. But for a club that has come a long way since earning promotion from Serie B, becoming the best in the world for a football romantic is a massive achievement in itself. This is no one-off Leicester City fairy-tale either, because the Bergamo club is consistently positioning itself in the top four of Italian football and growing all the time.
No one knows if Atalanta can win the Champions League or Scudetto, but for how far Atalanta have come by performing consistently in a revolutionary system, they deserve some kind of recognition.