After a thumping away victory for Liverpool in Bergamo, we provide the low-down on an Atalanta side with a point to prove…
Who are Atalanta?
Atalanta hail from the picturesque northern Italian city of Bergamo, located close to the Italian lakes about an hour from Milan. They are, in many ways, the archetypal provincial Italian club. What they lack in major silverware (they have one domestic honour, the 1963 Coppa Italia, to their name) they make up for with a fiercely passionate local fan base. Over many years, they have forged a reputation for nurturing young talent, with a conveyor belt of players such as Roberto Donadoni and Filippo Inzaghi coming of age in the city.
La Dea have spent the majority of their existence in Serie A, more often than not living in the shadow of their more fashionable Milanese neighbours. However, all of that has changed in recent years under the guidance of coach Gian Piero Gasperini. Consecutive top-three finishes have secured Champions League football for the past two seasons.
How do they play?
Gasperini is the unlikely mastermind behind Atalanta’s emergence as a force in Italian football. He had two moderately successful spells coaching Genoa, intersected by a disastrous three-game tenure at Inter Milan in 2011. Operating with one of the smallest budgets in Serie A, Gasperini has been working miracles at Atalanta, bringing the best out of a motley crew of journeymen, enigmas and rising stars.
Gasperini has achieved European qualification in every one of his four seasons at the helm. Each summer he has seen one or more of his emerging talents depart for a Serie A rival, yet each time he has regrouped and rebuilt his side. It is a measure of the esteem in which he is held that last year he was made an honorary citizen of Bergamo.
Atalanta typically line up in a 3-4-1-2 formation; their swashbuckling attacking style has won numerous admirers across Italy and beyond. They adopt a hard-pressing style when the opposition have the ball, forcing turnovers, upon which their attackers thrive. An industrious deep-lying central midfield pairing is complemented by dynamic wing backs who get forward at every opportunity. Atalanta aren’t involved in many goalless draws; their backline can be error-prone, but this is primarily mitigated by their clinical forward play. In short, Atalanta are set up to outscore their opponents.
An excellent, detailed explanation of Atalanta’s tactical approach can be here.
Who should you watch out for?
Atalanta’s success is built on the potency of their attacking trident. Powerful Colombian striker Duván Zapata has sustained a rich vein of form for the nerazzurri, scoring 52 goals in 88 appearances since signing from Sampdoria in summer 2018. Zapata is an equally adept finisher with either head or foot, and his physicality and pace consistently cause problems for Serie A defenders.
Diminutive Argentinian Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez takes up a marauding attacking role just behind Zapata, and is the maestro behind Atalanta’s attacking verve. His low centre of gravity, dribbling ability and explosive bursts of pace make him a particular threat when surging from deep. Gomez captains the side, and his busy playing style sets the tempo for much of Atalanta’s forward play.
The mercurial Slovenian Josip Iličić would usually occupy the third berth, but he’s still finding form and fitness after a spell on the sidelines. Instead, Atalanta have been deploying Luis Muriel, another Colombian, alongside Zapata in attack. Muriel’s electric pace makes him a particular threat on the counter-attack and he has an eye for the spectacular too.
You should also keep an eye (or perhaps an ear) out for goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini. The former Manchester United and Aston Villa shot-stopper has a side-line in rap music, having released songs under the stage name Gollorius.
What are Atalanta’s expectations in Europe?
In their maiden Champions League campaign last season, Atalanta embarked upon a fairy tale run to the quarter finals. They were leading Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 at the end of normal time, before two injury time goals saw them cruelly eliminated. Improving upon, or even matching, last season’s heroic performance will be a tall order for La Dea.
Learning from last season’s experience, Atalanta have recognised the need for greater depth in order to sustain campaigns on both domestic and European fronts. During the summer, they added quality and experience to the forward line with the signings of playmaker Aleksey Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow) and forward Sam Lammers (PSV).
Atalanta’s Serie A form has been hit-and-miss so far this term, providing a perfect illustration of the exhilarating brand of football served up by Gasperini. They demolished Lazio (4-1), Torino (4-2) and Cagliari (5-2), but then fell to disappointing defeats to Napoli (1-4) and Sampdoria (1-3). This weekend, Atalanta squandered the opportunity for a confidence-boosting victory at Serie A newcomers Spezia and are now winless in three on the domestic front.
In Europe, Atalanta easily dispatched Midtjylland on matchday 1, and recovered a two-goal deficit to draw at home to Ajax on matchday 2. The heavy defeat to Liverpool in Bergamo means they are now on the back foot in the duel with Ajax for the second qualification spot. La Dea will certainly be looking to Liverpool for a favour on matchday 5 when the Reds meet Ajax at Anfield.
Are there any injuries or suspensions ahead of the game?
Talismanic goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini made his first appearance of the season at the weekend, having injured his cruciate ligaments in the summer. His deputy, Marco Sportiello, has shown fragility on a number of occasions this season, so Gollini’s return to the side for the Liverpool clash represents a major boost for the Bergamasci.
Midfield lieutenant Marten de Roon also returned to the starting line-up against Spezia. The former-Middlesbrough man sustained a groin injury at the end of October, but will now be in contention for the Liverpool game. Gasperini will be grappling with the absence of central defender Mattia Caldara and playmaker Ruslan Malinovskyi, the latter having tested positive for COVID whilst on international duty.
What is their support like?
Atalanta are known for creating one of the most intense atmospheres in Italian football. When they play, the whole city unites behind the team, with banners, pyro and the kind of chanting that rocks the foundations of the stadium. The slightly unhinged dedication of their ultras is perhaps best demonstrated by an incident in 2013 where they acquired a military tank and proceeded to drive it over cars painted in the colours of their rivals.
Three years ago, Atalanta fans travelled to Liverpool in huge numbers when they met Everton in the Europa League. This season, the absence of supporters from the stadium hasn’t prevented the tifosi from getting behind their team. The Ajax game was Atalanta’s first Champions League match to be played in Bergamo (last season’s UCL fixtures were moved to Milan due to the dilapidated state of their stadium, Stadi Atleti Azzurri d’Italia). The match represented an emotional home-coming for a city savagely affected by the early COVID outbreaks, and the fans provided a visual spectacular to mark the occasion.
How will they line up?
A key to Atalanta’s success has been their prudent and well-judged recruitment strategy. They have consistently been able to take players from relative obscurity and turn them into first team regulars. To illustrate the point, the starting XI for last year’s quarter-final with PSG had a combined price tag of just over £36 million. You would therefore be forgiven for not previously having heard of several of their mainstays, such as José Luis Palomino (from Ludogorets), Hans Hateboer (Groningen), Remo Freuler (Lucern), Robin Gosens (Heracles) and Ruslan Malinovskyi (Genk).
Prediction for the game
Atalanta will regard their previous performance against Liverpool as an aberration and will be battling to restore their pride at Anfield. Of course, The Reds remain clear favourites for the win, and a professional performance should see them ease to victory by a comfortable margin. However, Atalanta won’t compromise on their usual attacking mentality, so expect plenty of goals – and don’t rule out an upset.
Thanks for reading! You can get a deeper insight into the experience and atmosphere of an Atalanta game here.