Gian Piero Gasperini: The mastermind behind Atalanta's success

Chloe Beresford by Chloe Beresford / 10 May 2019, 08:50

It was the second night in a row during which a passionate and heart-filled performance had seen an English side progress to this year’s Champions League final in Madrid.

A neutral observer would’ve had to have been made of stone to not to be moved by the reaction of Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham boss laying his emotions bare after watching Lucas Moura’s last-gasp winner.

That goal ensured his team advanced in the most dramatic of circumstances but, as the dust has settled, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Ajax and the high-energy game of Erik ten Hag’s young side has given even the most experienced of tacticians a real headache.

Juventus boss Max Allegri could offer no answer to their intense work-rate and dynamic attacking as the Dutch underdogs dumped the Old Lady out of the competition at the quarter-final stage. Looking back at the results of the Bianconeri over the past season, there are parallels between Ajax and another side who reside much closer to home.

Atalanta have been a thorn in Allegri’s side over the past few seasons, registering one win and one draw with Juventus when the latter have lost just seven times in all competitions this term.

The Bergamo-based outfit will next week compete in the Coppa Italia final, having knocked Juventus – winners of that trophy for the last four consecutive seasons – out at the quarter-final stage in a resounding 3-0 victory.

To put this into context, Atalanta are a traditionally small club who have played 28 seasons in Serie B during their 111-year history, and are situated in the shadows of their two gigantic neighbours. Both Inter and AC Milan reside just 37 miles away, but their loyal supporters have no Milanese sympathies, instead they are Bergamaschi through-and-through.

Just like Ajax, they are famous for an extremely abundant youth sector, however the average age of their squad comes in at 26.1, over two years older than their Dutch counterparts. Sales of their best youngsters over the past two seasons have forced Atalanta to make moves for more experienced personnel, in order to give the production line of talent time to regenerate.

Other clubs may experience a natural lull while this process takes place, but La Dea are instead going from strength to strength, needing just seven points from their final three matches to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history.

 

Their secret?

A no-holds-barred attacking approach has seen them dispatch countless so-called “bigger” opponents, and the club is in good hands with forward-thinking owner Antonio Percassi. But beyond all of the youth, the passionate support, the club’s strategy is arguably Atalanta’s best asset - their boss Gian Piero Gasperini.

At 61 years old, “Gasp” is not what you’d call a young and revolutionary boss, but his work since arriving in Bergamo for the 2016/17 campaign has been truly exceptional.

His formation has included slight tweaks on the 3-4-3 the Coach has favoured starting when he began working in the Juve youth sector back in 1994 but – even as they alternate between 3-4-1-2 and 3-4-2-1 – it is certainly not a carbon copy of the 4-3-3 systems deployed by the likes of Liverpool, Ajax and Manchester City.

Yet this is not a question of where his players are deployed on the field, more a story of commitment, work-rate, and absolute belief.

This is a side who have picked up more points from trailing situations than any other team in Serie A, one who Gasperini has taught to ignore minor setbacks and push on regardless.

Atalanta are not set up to defend in a traditional manner, rather to hunt the ball high up the pitch and then attack in large numbers. Such an approach usually reduces their opponent to mere counter-attacks, and the odd goal conceded is not considered to be disastrous.

Their attacking front three of Duvan Zapata, Josip Ilicic and Alejandro “Papu” Gomez are each talented in their own right, yet the trio are far from what you would label as “world class”. Gasperini instils a kind of “no limits” mentality into his players, a factor that was demonstrated when his side went 4-0 up versus Bologna after just 15 minutes of play at the beginning of April.

That was the first time a Serie A side had scored four in the opening quarter of an hour since 1932, and the fact that they allowed Bologna to score a consolation after half-time was really of no consequence to them.

Atalanta intercept the ball more than any other side in Serie A, with a rate of 12.3 times per match on average. Their philosophy can clearly be seen with the number shots in each game (17.1) but accuracy is also important to them as they average 5.9 shots on target, both totals sitting second only to Napoli.

“I realise from watching them that we have this belief in our football and we cling to it,” Gasperini told Sky Italia after a superb 3-1 victory over Lazio.

“So if we go behind or are in a difficult situation, we can rely on it. It gives us strength, we continue following our path, our principles of football and it makes us feel that we have something to work with.”

There are so many teams in Serie A with huge reputations gained from their previous accomplishments, particularly those locked in the battle for Champions League positions. Fans of Inter, Roma, Lazio, AC Milan and even Torino are all able look back on Scudetto-winning seasons and discuss their former glories.

However in 2018/19, Atalanta have shown them that the only way from here on in is forward with humility, hard work, and a positive mindset, with Gian Piero Gasperini masterminding it all.

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