Atalanta have in recent years become a permanent fixture in the top-four of Serie A as well as regular representatives for Italy on the European stage, but now find themselves faced with the prospect of falling back down the table as the big boys start to bully their way back into contention for the Champions League places.
Since 2016, Gian Piero Gasperini has led the Bergamaschi into the top four and therefore the Champions League itself, where they went all the way to the quarter-finals in their maiden year – 2019/20. Then, they were 1-0 up against Paris Saint-Germain until the 90th minute, then conceding twice in stoppage time to lose.
The following season ended in a 4-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the last-16 and 2021/22 ended in disappointment after failing to qualify from Group F, thus dropping into the Europa League. Three seasons that have seen Atalanta compete at the very top but go out earlier at each attempt.
Now, La Dea are flying the flag for Serie A on the European stage after Inter and Juventus both tumbled out of the Champions League, though their Serie A position will be cause for concern for Gasperini as the risk of missing out on the Champions League altogether fits the one-step-back each year pattern that La Dea seem to be following.
Currently lying in seventh place – eight points adrift of fourth-placed Juventus – top-four finish could be a bridge too far for Atalanta with eight games left to play, although they do have one in hand on most above them and a relatively easy end to the season, at least domestically.
Granted, they have had more than their fair share of injuries, but giants Juventus and Roma have clawed themselves back into contention for a place in the top-four, no thanks to the large investments that they have made in the form of Dusan Vlahovic and Tammy Abraham respectively, to name but two.
Atalanta themselves, on the other hand, have been relatively quiet in the transfer market and have had to rely on the same bunch of players, using makeshift line-ups throughout the season and now it’s starting to tell, even if the return of top-scorer Duvan Zapata will certainly lift spirits going into the last furlong.
A quarter-final first leg tie against RB Leipzig is next up for Gasperini’s men and that leads one to conclude that it could be their best hope of making it four seasons on the bounce in the Champions League, but of course that means they must win the competition.
Potential semi-final opponents are Rangers and Sporting Braga, both of which – without wanting to be disrespectful – seem like great options, before a potential final against the likes of Barcelona or Lyon in Sevilla, in May.
The choice, if he’s making one, would be for Gasperini to decide which is the most realistic way into the Champions League then, because his team are not purring as in years gone by and a place lost next season could have a knock-on for years to come.
A last Gasp push for Atalanta?
Atalanta have certainly had some bad luck with the number of absentees they have dealt with this season, but are their struggles as simple as that? Is it bad luck, or has Gasperini been found out?
One thing that’s missing is the sheer number of goals that La Dea have become known for, seeing as though they’ve only managed 52 in Serie A this season, up until now. That number was 90 last season, come the season’s end. It was a massively impressive 98 the season before and 77 in 2018/19. They were Serie A’s top-scoring side in each of those campaigns.
Fast, fluid, free-flowing football is the way that Gasperini likes to play, and that in itself is only sustainable with the same group of players for so long. Atalanta then, could be seen as the Liverpool of Italian football with their all-action style and relentless pressing, but even Jurgen Klopp had to put an end to that; he adapted.
Gasperini, however, still wants to play the same way, using the same or similar formations – with three at the back and two wing-backs – regardless of who is available on the day, thus leading to defeats like the one against Cagliari, in Bergamo.
Without wanting to draw too many similarities to Klopp, whose budget is infinitely larger than Gasperini’s, he also used to stick to his guns, until Liverpool started to tire, and reinforcements and tactical tweaks had to be made in order to keep up with Manchester City.
It’s a different ball game but Roma hired Jose Mourinho and paid €40 million for Abraham – which has paid off – and Lazio brought in Maurizio Sarri and his more attractive style of play. Both moves so far proving to be decent for the Rome-based rivals.
AC Milan and Inter did good business while Napoli continue to thrive under Luciano Spalletti. Atalanta though, seem to have become somewhat predictable in their approach, meaning it could well be time for a change.
A managerial change is highly unlikely considering what Gasperini has done, taking La Dea from obscurity and near-relegation to a Champions League quarter-final is only a few years. If Antonio Percassi wants to be at the top, he’s got to splash out and back his man.
There’s only so long something can last at the top without necessary adjustments being made, be those tactical changes, financial investments, or both. Atalanta’s style will naturally lead to a longer casualty list, so those in reserve must be up to scratch, too.
It remains to be seen whether La Dea will make it amongst the best for next season, and if they don’t, it could be tough to wrestle a place back off whoever makes the top-four. Add to that the boost in income that Champions League football would bring to a Juventus, or a Roma – not that they need it – and the task could increase in difficulty tenfold.
If this is terribly unlucky season or the sign of a project having peaked is yet unclear, but should Atalanta want to be the best, they need to beat the best, and if you can’t beat them – by getting by frugally – then you have to join them in adding quality at whatever cost.