When you watch Atalanta play, it is hard to look past their outstanding front three. Josip Iličić has been in the form of his life this season, Alejandro Gómez remains a delight to watch with his quick feet troubling defences on a weekly basis, whilst Duván Zapata has turned into a goalscoring machine in the past 18 months.
There is a reason why Atalanta are the most entertaining team in Italy right now. There is a reason why they have netted 10 more goals than the next highest scorers in the division. If one of the trio fail to fire, you can be pretty sure that the others will step up to the plate instead.
Yet what if we do look past that front three? Who else stands out in this side that continue to improve and challenge the best, despite having such a limited budget to play with compared to their rivals?
If you watch Atalanta regularly, you will be drawn to their wing backs. Who are these players making such aggressive runs into the opposition box, scoring goals and creating chances at will? One of them has made the left wingback slot his own this season, taking his game to a completely different level. Robin Gosens’ role in the side continues to develop and he is now arguably the best in his position in the league. It has been some journey for the 25-year-old.
The waiting game
Gosens joined Atalanta in the summer of 2017 for less than £1m from Dutch side Heracles Almelo. It did not seem a particularly significant signing at the time, and his opening season in Bergamo did little to change that initial impression.
He was an unused substitute in 17 of the 38 league games during the 2017/18 campaign, often playing second fiddle to Leonardo Spinazzola. His only consistent run as a starter came in the final month of the season when Spinazzola missed out through injury.
Gosens registered just a solitary goal and an assist in that first season, and even with Spinazzola returning to Juventus at the end of his loan spell, there was no guarantee that Gosens would be trusted to fill his boots when the next season got underway. He was yet to show his true worth.
Developing the partnership with Papu
Having experienced a fairly average first year in Serie A, Gosens approached the second season in positive spirits. When asked in pre-season if he believed he would get more chances to start in the upcoming campaign, he responded: “I hope so, now I have the opportunity to do it”. He was no longer prepared to wait in the shadows.
In order to get more game time, it was clear what he needed to do. Much of Atalanta’s game is based around giving the ball to Iličić and Gómez in the final third. The pair can then be trusted to make something happen, with their ability to operate effectively in congested areas of the pitch proven over the years. Down the left-hand side is where Gómez, affectionately known by supporters as ‘Papu’, plays. Gosens would have to build a relationship with Papu if he was to make it at Atalanta.
The partnership had not blossomed straight away, and Gosens admitted as much.
“At the beginning with Papu it was difficult, but now we understand each other better both on and off the field”, he said. Gosens believed their relationship was improving, and his tally of three goals and two assists in Serie A in 2018/19 supported that. Meanwhile, Papu also produced more goal contributions than in the previous campaign. The pair were getting the best out of each other – progress was being made.
Although his second season had bettered his first, Gosens was still not a stand-out performer for Atalanta yet. Could his third season see him make a decisive breakthrough?
Indeed it could. In 22 league appearances so far this season, Gosens has netted seven goals and provided five assists. He has also been able to do the business in the big games, scoring against Juventus and Inter, and setting up goals against Lazio and Roma. When Atalanta have needed him to produce against their main rivals, he has done just that.
Coupled with being defensively solid, Gosens’s obvious attacking threat has made him the complete modern-day wing back. With Atalanta also flourishing in Europe, making the quarter-finals of the Champions League, Gosens has been able to show his ever-evolving skill-set on the biggest stage. In just two short years, Gosens has gone from being an afterthought to one of the first names on the teamsheet.
Will he stay or will he go?
The season is on hold for now, but that has not brought an end to transfer speculation linking Gosens with a move away from Atalanta this summer. He is said to have attracted interest from across Europe, with Inter, Chelsea and Lyon all reportedly chasing his signature.
Can Atalanta keep hold of him? They have had to bid farewell to some of their best players in recent seasons, with the likes of Roberto Gagliardini, Franck Kessie and Bryan Cristante joining their domestic rivals. It would not be a complete surprise to see the same thing happen again. The acquisition of Lennart Czyborra in January, a direct replacement from Heracles Almelo once again suggests that Gosens could be on his way.
Yet if Atalanta can hang on to Gosens, it could be more significant than any new signing. The wing back is going from strength to strength, and his best may still lie ahead.
Papu, Iličić and Zapata are undoubtedly the driving force behind Atalanta’s progression in recent years, but Atalanta should not overlook the importance of their rising star. They will do well to keep him – right now, there is no one better around.