Atalanta’s ascent in Serie A is a result of homegrown talent
In terms of salaries, Atalanta ranks 15th in Serie A. On the field, however, it’s been a different story for the provincial club, which has relied on homegrown talent to become the best team in the Italian league over the last seven rounds.
After gaining 19 out of a possible 21 points since Sept. 26, Atalanta has rocketed up the standings to fifth place to make qualifying for Europe a distinct possibility.
The Bergamo squad has won four straight and achieved three consecutive clean sheets in which it has outscored the opposition 70.
“We’re on a fantastic streak but the most important thing has been the way we’ve been playing and that the squad and players have been improving continuously,” Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini said.
Gasperini’s job was at risk when Atalanta lost four of its five opening matches, but club president Antonio Percassi’s faith in the coach has proved decisive.
Atalanta features nine homegrown players on its first team — the most in Serie A — and regularly uses them.
Players like 22-year-old defenders Mattia Caldara and Andrea Conti, 21-year-old striker Andrea Petagna — all members of Italy’s under-21 squad — and 22-yearold midfielder Roberto Gagliardini, who was given his first call up to Italy’s senior national team this month after only nine Serie A appearances, are in the team.
Then there’s 19-year-old Ivory Coast midfielder Franck Kessie, who first spent time on the youth squad after arriving in January 2015. He leads the team with four goals this season.
“It’s a matter of pride for us and for the club,” Gagliardini said of the widespread use of homegrown players.
Added Caldara: “We’re friends before we’re teammates.”
The youth movement was on full display in Atalanta’s last match, a 3-0 win at Sassuolo in which Caldara and Conti scored and Gagliardini provided the assist for the opening goal by Alejandro “Papu” Gomez.
The victory over Sassuolo was significant because it gave Atalanta bragging rights as the league’s top provincial squad.
Sassuolo set a club record by finishing sixth last season to qualify for the Europa League, an achievement Atalanta would like to emulate.
In its 109-year history, Atalanta has spent 56 seasons in Serie A — more than any other club which has never won the top division.
Its only major trophy was the 1963 Italian Cup, besides six Serie B titles. Atalanta also reached the Cup Winners’ Cup semifinals in 1988 while competing in Serie B — one of the best performances by a non-first division club in a major UEFA competition.
The club has also had its troubles, getting docked six points in 2011-12 for a widespread betting and match-fixing scandal that ended the career of club captain Cristiano Doni, who was arrested.
Atalanta was also docked two points the following season but it managed to avoid relegation from Serie A on both occasions.
With a population of 120,000, Bergamo is a mid-sized city that is considered part of the wider Milan metropolitan area, which made a 2-1 win over Inter Milan last month especially sweet.
Gasperini, in his first season at Atalanta, was hardly given a chance at Inter, where he was fired after five winless matches in September 2011.
Bergamo attracts many Milan residents for its airport that is home to low-cost airlines and the club is also a relatively low-cost affair.
Atalanta, which pays its players a total of 24 million euros ($26.5 million) per season, is level on points with fourth-place Lazio, which pays its players more than twice as much.
In July, Atalanta sold Marten de Roon to Middlesbrough for 14 million euros ($15 million), a year after paying Heerenveen 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) for the Dutch midfielder. That helped Atalanta earn a 6 million euro ($6.5 million) profit in the offseason transfer market.
“We’re enjoying the moment and it provides us with extra motivation to continue along this path,” Gasperini said.
Having helped launch the careers of players like Roberto Donadoni, Christian Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi — plus current AC Milan standouts Riccardo Montolivo and Giacomo Bonaventura — Atalanta has long been a starting spot for players who later achieved greatness.
And with coaches like Marcello Lippi, Cesare Prandelli and Antonio Conte making stops in Bergamo, it’s also been on the road to managerial success.
The club’s current fortune will be tested against Roma on Sunday and in games against Juventus and Milan — the top three teams in the standings — before the holiday break.
“We’ve got a Tour de Force awaiting us until Christmas but we’ve got enthusiasm,” Gasperini said. “So let’s see where it takes us.”