There was a moment during Atalanta’s game against Parma on Monday that summed up their incredible rise over the last three and a half years.
The team were 5-0 up, playing delightful football, and last season’s top scorer Duvan Zapata had just come off the bench to make his first appearance for the side in three months following an injury lay-off. The crowd were singing manager Gian Piero Gasperini’s name, which the veteran coach responded to by doing a jig on the touchline as he smiled broadly from ear to ear.
It was not an arrogant act, nor a manager getting carried away. He simply could not hide how excited he was to see his team put in such an outstanding display. Atalanta have been building something special since 2016, and this match gave another indication that they are close to becoming the complete package. It has been some journey.
More than just a one-season wonder
When Atalanta finished fourth in the 2016/17 season it was viewed as a stunning achievement. They had ended the previous season down in 13th so there had been no sign of what was to come.
Yet they were not the first unfancied team to have an impressive season in Serie A. Sassuolo had finished in the top six the previous campaign, and Genoa had done the same the year before that. Were Atalanta just going to be another one-season wonder?
Not at all. The side remained in the top seven the next year, and then recorded their best ever Serie A finish as they came third in the 2018/19 season.
They are currently fifth in the table after 18 games this year, ensuring that they have cemented themselves as one of the top clubs in the country. Atalanta have proved that they are here to stay.
Dealing with setbacks on and off the pitch
The ride has not always been a smooth one. On the pitch, the team have had some low moments. They made the Coppa Italia semi-finals in 2017/18, but suffered two narrow 1-0 defeats against eventual champions Juventus. The following season they exacted revenge on Juventus, but fell at the final hurdle as they lost to Lazio 2-0 in the showpiece event.
Meanwhile, competing in Europe has also tested the squad’s resolve. Losing in the final Europa League qualifying round to Copenhagen in 2018 was a bitter blow, and the side could not have started their first Champions League campaign any worse. Three straight defeats where they conceded 11 goals in the process was a baptism of fire for the Bergamo-based club.
Yet they found the answers in time. Two wins from their final three games saw Atalanta squeak into the last 16 of Europe’s elite competition, whilst the side have not suffered back-to-back losses in the league all season. This is not a team that dwells on their mistakes, they learn and improve quickly.
Off the field it has been a familiar tale for a so-called ‘smaller club’ to deal with. Atalanta have regularly lost some of their best players to rival clubs, as Andrea Conti and Franck Kessie joined AC Milan, whilst Leonardo Spinazzola returned to Juventus and Bryan Cristante moved to Roma.
Still, Atalanta have coped. In fact, they have done more than that. They have developed players within the squad and spent wisely in the transfer market. Mario Pasalic and Robin Gosens have taken their games to new levels this season, strengthening the midfield area, and the additions of Luis Muriel and Ruslan Malinovskyi have proved to be shrewd pieces of business. The pair have regularly taken their opportunities to make sure that the quality of the side has not dipped whenever Gasperini has opted to rotate his squad. The end result: Atalanta have scored eight more goals than any other team in the league so far this season.
Starting to fix their achilles heel
What has held Atalanta back in recent years from becoming a truly exceptional team? To put it simply: the defence. Despite finishing third last season, Atalanta conceded 46 Serie A goals. Roma were the only side inside the top eight who conceded more.
Atalanta have already let in 25 goals in their first 18 league games of the current campaign. An unimpressive record, and one that means that they are actually on course to concede more this season than last year. Yet a look at their more recent form offers hope that they are beginning to fix their issues.
The team have kept clean sheets in three of their last five Serie A fixtures, and they did not concede in either of their last two European games. When they needed to step up, the defence stood tall. Maintaining that defensive solidity will be vital if Atalanta are going to continue to progress.
Do Atalanta need to win a trophy to cap off their success?
For all of their success in recent years, Atalanta do not have anything in the trophy cabinet to show for it. Perhaps losing in last season’s Coppa Italia final to Lazio was as close as they will come.
Yet this is a team who have defied the odds time and again under Gasperini. They begin their cup campaign next week against Fiorentina, and having made it to the latter stages in the last two seasons, they will believe that they can do so once more this year.
A trophy would be a fitting way to round off a remarkable period in the club’s history. It would be hard for rival fans to begrudge them some silverware. However, it is not an absolute must.
Atalanta’s fans already have memories that will last a lifetime from this season alone. Whether that be watching their side demolish Udinese 7-1, being one of the thousands of supporters who welcomed the team home in the early hours when Atalanta reached the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time, or witnessing Alejandro Gomez and co. embarrass AC Milan 5-0 in the final game of 2019. Each will have their favourite moment.
As the final minutes were played out on Monday, with Atalanta starting 2020 in style, winning some silverware did not seem important. Instead it was a time for the home fans to treasure as they watched their side play football that they could only have dreamed of less than four years ago.
This is a team that deserve to be appreciated for what they have become. Many are starting to realise that. For those who have not, there is still time. This Atalanta side are only getting better with every passing week.