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How Atalanta gave Italian football a fresh identity on the European stage

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How Atalanta gave Italian football a fresh identity on the European stage

While Atalanta came close to eliminating Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund in their Europa League Round of 32 fixture, there were positive signs to be taken away from the Italian’s fairytale run.

The Nerazzurri can build off this successful tournament run, knowing their attacking style of play made life difficult for some experienced European clubs. “Every game we played was on par with the opposition or superior to them, whether English, Spanish or German,” Gasperini told Sky Sport Italia. “These games have helped the players grow and earn European experience.”

Last week, the Bergamo club played with a never-say-die attitude, showing character when they made a comeback to turn the scoreline into 2-1 in the space of five minutes. Losing 4-3 on aggregate after Thursday night’s 1-1 draw in the second leg to the BVB may seem unjust for Atalanta’s heroic effort, however, other Italian clubs can learn one or two things about La Dea’s playing style. With most Serie A clubs placing a large emphasis on defence, Atalanta’s attacking mindset gave calcio a new look in Europe’s second-tier club competition.

The team’s direct approach to games indicated they were not hesitant to play a distinctive brand of football from the rest of the Italian pack, as it almost paid off against an experienced Borussia Dortmund outfit. Over the last two weeks of UEFA Champions and Europa League fixtures, there were mixed fortunes on how the Serie A teams represented Italian football in Europe.

Excluding the Lazio and AC Milan victories, and Napoli’s casual approach because of Scudetto commitments, the attitude that AS Roma and Juventus displayed in their Champions League games highlighted the primitive mentality of calcio. After both Roma and Juve captured the lead in their respective games, they both sat deep in their own half, encouraging the opposition to build attacking chances. Reverting to the catenaccio (door-bolt) system caused the Bianconeri and Giallorossi to pay the price by conceding decisive goals.

Whether Atalanta took the lead or fell behind in any of their Europa League fixtures, the Nerazzurri ensured they continued to press high and played their entertaining style of attacking football.

After Atalanta’s fourth-place finish in last season’s Serie A, the provincial club couldn’t hold on to emerging star players Franck Kessie, Andrea Conti and Roberto Galiardini. By securing their highest finish in Italy’s top flight since 1948, the Orobici secured a Europa League spot after a 28-year absence, with the desire to continue this fascinating journey under manager Gian Piero Gasperini. With calcio TV pundits who tipped the Bergamo outfit to struggle after the departure of some key players last summer, the northern Italian club only proved their doubters wrong.

By drawing a tough group in the Europa League with formidable opponents Lyon and Everton, this only motivated Gasperini’s men to use their attacking flair – showcasing an unorthodox side of calcio Italiano.

Gathering four wins and two draws in the group stages, this propelled an undefeated Atalanta side to a first-place finish in group E – a feat that no La Dea fan expected to see. Ending up with 14 points and scoring 14 goals was not formed by luck as the Italians picked up emphatic 3-0 and 5-1 wins against English opponents Everton – a Premier League team listed in this year’s top 20 richest football clubs. With the Italians embarrassing the Toffees, this silenced the British media’s views on Italian teams playing boring football. Earning a pivotal victory and draw over French opponent Lyon made this Atalanta side a serious contender.

It’s no secret that Atalanta’s investment in youth and Gasperini’s utilisation of the 3-4-1-2 formation have built the club into one of Italy’s brightest teams. This is a side that thrives off playing wide football, deploying Leonardo Spinazzola and Hans Hateboer as wing-backs crossing the ball to find Papu Gomez and Josip Ilicic. Bryan Cristante – on loan from Benfica – holding the central midfield, has been an outstanding replacement for Franck Kessie. The 22-year-old Italian has helped to string short passes to frontmen Gomez and Illic and also being a clinical finisher in the air during set-pieces. The fact is Atalanta are demonstrating they are the future of Italian football – being an organised side who can balance between defence and attack.

Atalanta’s underdog run in the Europa League might have ended, but it has given Italian football a new hope and identity. The Nerazzurri are shifting Italian football away from this catenaccio system, ensuring they carry on playing a high-pressing brand of football – an identical way to Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli. Nevertheless, the Bergamaschi can rest assure their overachievement has made the Serie A and their country proud.

@ItalianFD

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