FEATURE | The Papu Gómez situation: What next for Atalanta’s wantaway playmaker?

Alejandro “Papu” Gómez’s situation at Atalanta continues to flare up with every passing day. Following a breakdown in his relationship with manager Gian Piero Gasperini during a game against Midtjylland in the Champions League, Gómez became a rather divisive figure in the La Dea dressing room. There was a supposed split, with one side of the dressing room supporting Gasperini and another supporting the talismanic Argentine. Amidst these differences, the Atalanta board took a rather appropriate decision in getting rid of the player instead of accepting the manager’s resignation.

Following this sequence of events, a lot has happened to show how determined La Dea are to part ways with Gómez. The player himself has publicly expressed his dissatisfaction to the club and manager that have made him the global star that he is. As much as it is an escalation that was avoidable, he could have dealt with it better – without behaving in an impertinent way.

Gómez was a reliable player at Catania and was one of their better performers during their stay in Serie A. He did have a decent reputation when he made a switch to Metalist Kharkiv too, but at the age of around 26 while at Ukraine’s third-best club, it isn’t easy for a player to make a mark. Gómez did help Metalist qualify for the Europa League in his sole season there, scoring three and assisting six times in the 2013/14 campaign – but it was hardly a case of him setting the league on fire with his abilities.

Having arrived at the Gewiss in the summer of 2014 when before Atalanta had Gasperini at the helm, it was a toil for Gomez under Edoardo Reja and Stefano Colantuono. La Dea had finished 17th that season and the Argentine contributed to only six goals in the league. Under Reja in the 2015/16 campaign, Papu was goal-shy Atalanta’s highest scorer with only seven goals. Gasperini’s appointment and innovation in the 2016/17 campaign took Gómez’s tally to 16 that season, helping La Dea to a fourth-placed finish in the league – ahead of Vincenzo Montella’s Milan and Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio.

In many ways, La Dea’s and Gasperini’s unique system has brought the best out of Gómez’s abilities. The numbers show that. The way their wing-backs, centre-backs and midfield players combine with Gómez in an ultra-attacking system allows him options to pass to and use as decoys to operate closer to goal. The focus on the left side is also crucial and it allows Gómez a lot of possession and freedom to dictate play from the inside left role. He can pick out Duván Zapata or Josip Iličić through his threaded through-balls, go past people and take shots on goal.

Gómez never had this license and freedom in a unique system in his previous clubs and it is highly unlikely that he gets it at his future club too. On the flip side, it may be easier for La Dea to get a player like him and even otherwise, Matteo Pessina hasn’t done a bad job and Ruslan Malinovskyi remains a reliable option. Aleksey Miranchuk is yet to be fully integrated into the team as well. Atalanta are yet to lose even once when Papu hasn’t been in the squad since their 4-1 win over Roma.

Atalanta’s xG per 90 minutes has come down from 2.15 to 2.00 this season, but considering how Miranchuk is yet to start a game, it is a promising sign. It could well improve once the former Lokomotiv Moscow man starts playing regularly once Gómez leaves.

As for the Argentine, there seems to be no shortage of parties that want him. The likes of Inter, Juventus, Lazio and Milan have been linked with the 32-year-old, but more recently it has been stated that La Dea aren’t looking to sell Gómez to Inter or Juve unless a sensational offer arrives. Milan consistently seem to be following him and foreign options could also be open for him. Having said that, Gómez may not be able to reach his Atalanta level at any other club.

Keeping in mind that the 2019/20 campaign was Gomez’s best at Atalanta, it will be important to consider some numbers from that campaign. While using their predominant 3-4-1-2 with Gomez as the chief creator, they generated the highest non-penalty xG per 90 minutes of last season in Serie A with 1.95, and overperformed on it by as much as 14 goals. Iličić and Luis Muriel were the highest overperformers. Gómez meanwhile, generated an Expected Assists tally of 0.33 but got 0.51 assists per 90 minutes – exceeding his xA by quite a bit largely because of the overperformance of the finishers.

Over the last three seasons, Gómez’s numbers for carries into the final third have increased and so have his total ball carriers per 90 minutes. Over this period of time, his ball touches have also increased – a sign of how with the passage of time, the play has been centred more around him than others. In fact, Gomez had 105 more touches than any other player at Atalanta in the 2019/20 campaign. He had as many as 1234 touches in the final third and the second-best player in this regard was Iličić, who was far behind with only 770.

This suggests that Gómez is at his best when everything goes through his preferred left side and everything goes through him. Otherwise, his production and output will reduce more than we think. That is the factor which will make it tough for him to find the perfect club after Atalanta.

Inter and Juve don’t really play a style of football which relies on overloads from wide, and both of them have pure forwards playing in the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 respectively. Inter are usually about balls from wing-backs to Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, while Juve are more about playing the ball quickly through the lines from the back. Inter do have an attacking midfield dilemma right now involving Christian Eriksen, who looks set to be on the move in January, and the Nerazzurri will hunt for potential alternatives this month or in the summer.

Having said that, the system under Antonio Conte is more pragmatic than many at times and Inter’s best creators are either the wing-backs or Romelu Lukaku himself. The deeper midfielders get more touches on the ball than the two forwards and the advanced midfielder is meant to have a good workrate while tracking back. Not having as much of a hunger to track back is one reason why Eriksen hasn’t been used much by Conte and Gómez could face a similar situation at 32.

Lazio, on the other hand, rely on quick transitions from central areas and from deeper midfield and their two forwards offer different things. Ciro Immobile is the pure goalscorer while Joaquín Correa is a runner from advanced midfield. Felipe Caicedo offers the option of holding up play to bring others into play. While they do deploy Luis Alberto as their chief chance creator and their wing-backs motor forward often, the Spaniard gets more touches and passes in a deep-lying midfielder role and he is tasked with setting everyone through on goal.

Out of many, Milan happen to be more left-centric than other teams because of Théo Hernandez’s constant marauds forward and Rafael Leão’s tendency to drop in centrally as an inverted winger. Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Ante Rebić and Leão have generated the highest xA per 90 tallies for first-team regulars, ahead of Théo and Jens Petter Hauge. They usually prefer keeping their right side more compact and they’re more fluid down the left, playing to the strengths of their best left-sided stars. 

As a result, Théo, Çalhanoğlu, Leão and Rebić are top four in their team for carries into the final third, and just behind Zlatan Ibrahimović in terms of touches inside the final-third. That is the sort of fluid setup which can suit Gómez and considering how left-sided Çalhanoğlu can be, he can be an effective rotation option for him. Otherwise, if the Turk doesn’t sign a new deal, he can be a decent replacement for him too.

His numbers may never be as high as they were at Atalanta because of the uniqueness of their system and he may seem like half a player as he did at La Dea. But now that the inevitable exit is on the cards, perhaps Papu has come to terms with compromising his statistical importance as a global star. It would certainly happen, but choosing a new club presents a dilemma in itself.

Kaustubh Pandey

Statistics used in this article were sourced from fbref.com


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