The cycle continues; It is not always an academy graduate that gets sucked into the development centre that is Zingonia and spat out at the other end a ready-made top-flight talent for one of Italy’s more globally recognisable clubs. Roma-bound Bryan Cristante is just the latest example of Atalanta showing that they are more than a place to nurture and provide the first chance to youngsters, but also one that gives a second to those who previously appeared to have fallen off football’s production line.
While Bergamo is where Cristante was allowed to finally flourish and show what he can offer in Italian football’s top tier, it was 60 kilometres away at the Stadio San Siro where he made his first bow in senior football at just 16, when he was introduced in a Champions League group game for AC Milan.
The path from there has been more winding and bumpier than the Autostrada A4 but under the guidance of Gian Piero Gasperini at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, Cristante has been afforded the opportunity to get back on track and re-announce himself as someone with the potential to become one of Italy’s go-to midfielders.
There are few other countries that would consider a now 23-year-old to be young and not the final product but Italy is very much one of them, and subsequently Cristante’s career is still on the up. Having been deemed surplus to requirements at Milan after not becoming a world-class talent instantly, he set off to Portugal where he joined Benfica for under €5 million in 2014.
His time in Lisbon was far from what he would have hoped and he made just seven Liga NOS appearances during his stay before two largely unsuccessful loan spells back home with Palermo and Pescara respectively followed.
In January 2017 with Atalanta defying the odds and battling for an unlikely place in the Europa League, Cristante arrived as a reinforcement with relatively little excitement surrounding the move and there was a real risk that this was a make-or-break deal for him. Add to that Roberto Gagliardini’s departure for Inter in the same window – there was instant pressure.
With Gasperini’s guidance, though, Cristante has smashed through the ceiling of what he could have hoped to achieve when he joined the Nerazzurri and has played a part in consecutive European qualifications for La Dea, having not previously reached continental competition since 1991.
Gasperini appears to have a gift with midfielders, and his impact was clear as ever on Cristante who quickly became one of the most important players at the club and the biggest goal threat in the squad, ending the season with his tally in double figures across Serie A and the Europa League and playing a total of 47 matches with the Coppa Italia also considered.
Now after completing a €30m move to the Eternal City, Roma and Eusebio Di Francesco will find a midfielder who – while the timing will vary – always arrives in the box to join in an attack. Juventus and others learnt this past term that when he is there early he can act as a serious threat on the end of a cross.
What’s most impressive about him though is the almost predatory and striker-like timing of his runs. He often arrives later than the crowd but just in time to find himself on the end of a ball pulled back from close to the byline or one that is loose and scrambling around within shooting distance.
Since his very first Serie A goal in 2014 – which funnily came for Milan in a 3-0 win over Atalanta – he has never been shy of attempting to test an opposition goalkeeper whenever the goal is in sight. He can be overly direct and finding a way to goal is always at the forefront of his thoughts. His tendency to shoot from outside the box can be frustrating for supporters and there are improvements to be made with his decision-making at decisive moments.
All parties involved will likely be pleased with the deal itself. Having only activated his release clause at Benfica this summer for under €10m, Atalanta got back-to-back European qualification and a tidy profit out of a pretty risk-free initial loan signing, while a new shirt sponsorship and unexpected overachievement in the Champions League perhaps allows Roma to throw a little more money around than in previous windows.
It has not been a straightforward path for Cristante but, perhaps belatedly, he has arrived on the stage that he was expected to reach when he first emerged at the San Siro.