It’s not a fairytale anymore. Atalanta have finished third in Serie A for the third consecutive season, and have now finished in Italy’s top four for the fourth time in the last five years, clinching European football for the fifth of five seasons under Gian Piero Gasperini.
When captain and talisman Papu Gomez left Bergamo in January it would have been hard to imagine that the opening line of this year’s season review didn’t mention his name, but that’s just how things are at Atalanta. They had lost star players under Gasperini before – Franck Kessie, Leonardo Spinazzola, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Conti, Bryan Cristante, Mattia Caldara, Gianluca Mancini… the list could go on – and always bounced back, but they had never lost someone of Gomez’s importance.
At times his absence has been felt, but rarely. It would be hard to say that Atalanta are a better team without their former No.10, but they’re no worse off after half a season without him and that is a testament to Gasperini’s work at the Gewiss Stadium.
Best Player: Luis Muriel
Honourable mentions from the very off go to Remo Freuler, Duvan Zapata, Marten de Roon, Cristian Romero and Robin Gosens, but Luis Muriel’s goals were so important as Atalanta delivered yet again this season.
The Colombian No.9 possesses a talent that few others in Serie A – and perhaps even Europe – have, and he’s always a threat for an opposing defence, even when he’s not yet on the pitch.
His arrival at the beginning of the 2019/20 season gave Gasperini a plan B and a backup option for Muriel’s compatriot Zapata, but he has been so good since moving to Bergamo that he has forced Gasperini to change his system and often play with both strikers leading the line.
As though a record of 22 goals and nine assists in 35 Serie A appearances wasn’t impressive enough, Muriel managed 26 goals and 11 assists in just 2,088 minutes across all competitions.
Best Signing: Cristian Romero
Named as Serie A’s best defender at the end of the season, the Argentine has been a revelation since coming in on an initial loan deal from Juventus – one that Atalanta are expected to make permanent for less than €20 million this summer.
Combative, a little bit old-school and better than he gets credit for on the ball, Romero has become key to Gasperini’s Atalanta and is a long way ahead of teammates Rafael Toloi and Jose Luis Palomino.
President Antonio Percassi has acknowledged that a defensive signing needs to be the priority this summer, but Berat Djimsiti and Romero are immovable in their back three, and a shrewd addition could allow them to take yet another step forward and compete for the Scudetto next season.
The Coach: Gian Piero Gasperini
Gasperini has worked miracles in Bergamo. His transformation of a traditional provincial club to a side that have reached the Champions League’s knockout rounds in each of their two seasons in the competition is nothing short of remarkable.
His falling out with Papu Gomez will always be a source of disappointment for some Atalanta supporters, but the show has gone on without the Argentine and Gasp would argue that his stance has been vindicated.
What was most striking about Atalanta this season though was that Gasperini steered away from his usual 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-1-2 to play with a four-man backline on a number of occasions, having not done so once since 2016.
That shift brought the best out of Ruslan Malinovskyi and allowed him to discover confidence that saw his improvements continue even in Gasperini’s more familiar setup.
Gasperini will forever be immortalised in Bergamo, whatever happens from here on.
The ‘Memorable Moment’ in the 2019/20 season review involved AC Milan, and I Rossoneri provided another contender this season. Pre-COVID last season, Atalanta thumped Milan 5-0 in Bergamo, leaving this season’s 3-0 win at the Stadio San Siro feeling a little more routine.
The context of that win makes it more than that though. Milan were winter champions and very much alive in the title race, and the coming-together between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Duvan Zapata made it all the more memorable, helped by Marten de Roon’s typically funny post-match social media post. *writes and hides*
*posts video and hide* ?? pic.twitter.com/2NA4C6tDYG
— Marten de Roon (@Dirono) January 25, 2021
But what stood above even that was the 1-0 win over Juventus in Bergamo, with Malinovskyi scoring a late winner. Then, Atalanta did something that they hadn’t even managed under Gasperini by beating Juventus in Serie A, and with the Coppa Italia final to come it gave them hope of claiming a first major trophy since 1963.
Despite flying out of the blocks in the season’s early weeks, Atalanta fell to a humbling hammering away to Napoli in October, losing 4-1 at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.
La Dea found themselves 4-0 behind before they had even turned up in Campania, and it turned into a case of damage limitation for Gasperini’s side.
With that result coming not too far away from a 5-0 loss to Liverpool, Atalanta showed that they were still vulnerable to a calamitous collapse on occasion. Since, though, they appear to have learnt lessons and haven’t suffered any similar thumpings.