After another summer of losing integral pieces such as Andrea Conti and Franck Kessié, Atalanta has remained a mainstay in the top half of the Serie A table due in large part to Josip Ilicic’s play.
Ilicic was born in Prijedor, Yugoslavia (what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina), but spent his youth career in Slovenia playing for both NK Triglav Kranj and NK Britof. He later made his professional debut with SC Bonifika, a club that no longer exists, at the age of 19. Standing at 1.905 meters and equipped with a rocket of a left foot, he was scouted and then purchased by Slovenian top league team Interblock.
The Slovenian found success with Interblock, scoring 12 goals in 55 matches, but was part of their relegation campaign in 2010. Deemed too talented for the Slovenian second division, he was then picked up by top league powerhouse NK Maribor. He immediately impressed with his new club, notching a brace versus Scottish club Hiberian in a UEFA Europa League qualification match. Shortly after, Ilicic scored another goal in a Europa League playoff match versus Italian side Palermo. His time with Maribor was short-lived, as the Sicilian side was dazzled with his performances and secured a transfer for him.
Palermo was where Ilicic began to make a name for himself in the European scene. He scored his first goal for the Rosanero in only his second match, a home fixture versus the reigning Italian champions Inter Milan. He continued his successful debut season in the Italian top flight with other goals versus powerhouses such as Fiorentina, Juventus, and Roma.
A large part of Ilicic’s success came playing alongside Javier Pastore in Palermo’s midfield, and the Slovenian’s performances dropped after Pastore’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain in 2011. His talent was apparent however with 20 goals in 98 appearances, so he eventually transferred to Fiorentina in 2013 where La Viola hoped to get more out of him by surrounding him with more talented players.
The midfielder scored six goals in his debut season with Fiorentina, but his most success came in the 2014 campaign where he scored 10 goals and finished as La Viola’s joint top scorer. He managed to score 29 goals in 105 appearances in Florence.
Desperate for reinforcements after a successful campaign in which they qualified for the Europa League, Atalanta made a move for Ilicic in the summer of 2017. The Nerazzurri reportedly paid a paltry 5.5 million Euros for Ilicic’s services, and it’s safe to say that the move has panned out brilliantly for both the player and the club.
In 37 appearances, the Slovenian has already racked up an astounding 14 goals and nine assists in all competitions. Ilicic prefers to play in the attacking midfield, typically behind a striker, and with his skill set it’s easy to see why. His physical frame makes it difficult for opposing defenders to dispossess him, which carries over to his uncanny ability to find open attackers with crisp and accurate passes. He has created a total of 55 chances in 27 league appearances thus far, but his dribbling skills, set-piece abilities, and powerful left foot allows him to force his way onto the score sheet.
Ilicic sees most time on the pitch in his preferred position in the center of the attacking midfield, but his versatile style of play has created success in Atalanta’s 3-4-1-2 and 3-4-2-1 formations. He has scored a goal positioned as a right forward and has two goals and an assist in the center of the attacking line.
The Slovenian recently went on a cold stretch from February 18th to March 14th where he only notched a single assist in five matches, but he silenced any critics with his hat trick and man of the match performance versus Hellas Verona this past weekend. It’s clear that Atalanta captain Papu Gómez is the heart and soul of the Nerazzurri, but Ilicic’s consistent play is what really keeps the attacking flowing and dangerous.
Atalanta currently sits at seventh place in the Italian Serie A table, six points behind the in-form AC Milan in the last UEFA Europa League qualifying spot.