With great power comes great responsibility. Atalanta have been considered dark horses ever since Gian Piero Gasperini’s arrival in 2016, but their heroics from last season mean that La Dea quickly outgrew that tag and must accept their new status.
Atalanta’s third place finish from last year not only secured Champions League qualification, but also means they can no longer be considered a surprise package. Finishing above the likes of Inter, Milan, Roma and Torino, as well as qualifying for Europe in each of their last three campaigns, simply means that Atalanta are now one of Italy’s top teams.
However, becoming a part of that elite group comes with a certain burden, as the Orobici can no longer hide behind the low expectations, which has been one of their biggest advantages so far. This means that if Atalanta want to keep their place among Serie A’s elite and their dignity in the Champions League, they need to step it up.
The Bergamo-based club did a terrific job of keeping almost all their best players, as top scorer Duvan Zapata, club captain Papu Gomez and the mercurial Josip Ilicic have all remained at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia.
In fact, the only notable departure from last year’s team was Gianluca Mancini, as the highly rated centre-back joined Roma in a deal that could reach up to €23m. It is no surprise that the Giallorossi decided to bet on the 23-year-old defender, as he featured 35 times for Atalanta during the 2018-19 campaign and even scored five goals, often demonstrating maturity well beyond his age.
Although Mancini was an important player and one who fit perfectly in Gasperini’s tactics, Atalanta seem to have enough depth at centre-back, so his sale was understandable. This means that the departures are not the reason why La Dea seem to be lacking for the challenges they are about to face in the upcoming campaign, as the issue comes from who they brought in.
Luis Muriel has been Atalanta’s most expensive and arguably most important acquisition so far this summer, as the Colombian striker arrived from Sevilla for €13m. The Orobici struggled badly in the rare cases that Duvan Zapata was unable to start last term, as Musa Barrow’s lack of experience proved that the 20-year-old is still some way off playing a key role for the team.
Muriel gives Gasperini plenty of options, as the 28-year-old is a deadly finisher and possesses an abundance of pace. This means the former Fiorentina striker can not only serve as the much-needed back-up for Zapata, but could potentially partner him too.
However, just like Ilicic, Muriel blows hot and cold, which could create problems for Atalanta, especially considering that Gasperini’s men will be competing on three fronts.
Ilicic has undoubtedly been one of the most important players for La Dea, as even his impressive record of 12 goals and seven assists in 31 Serie A appearances can’t fully encapsulate how brilliant the Slovenian was when in the mood.
Ilicic and Papu Gomez have arguably been Atalanta’s only creative forces in the Gasperini era and they have done a terrific job, but with both now being on the wrong side of 30, an alternative is needed.
The Orobici become very predictable if one of their two attacking midfielders is missing, as despite being a valuable option, Mario Pasalic just can’t offer the same vision, quality and flair.
Ruslan Malinovskyi has so far been Atalanta’s only notable midfield acquisition, as the 26-year-old Ukrainian joined from Genk for €13.5m. However, despite being a good passer, Malinovskyi has mainly featured in a deeper midfield role for most of his career, which means that it’s hard to see him stepping into either of Ilicic’s or Gomez’s shoes now.
The Ukraine international seems more an alternative to Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler, as he is good at circulating the ball and possesses an impressive engine, which means he could be useful for stretching the opposition’s defence and building the play from the back.
Atalanta are currently short of at least one wing-back following Timothy Castagne’s knee injury. The Belgian is a versatile player who can feature on both flanks and is expected to be out for around six weeks.
This means that Atalanta’s current reliable wing-back options are limited to Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens. Considering how important the position is for Gasperini’s tactics, the Nerazzurri might pay dearly if they don’t bring in another quality player before the end of the transfer window.
Atalanta did brilliantly to keep the core of players that brought success to the club during the last few seasons, but failed in finding enough quality reinforcements. Considering their current transfer dealings put them at a profit of almost €27m this summer, why haven’t they reinvested that in the squad?
It really seems that Atalanta are refusing to admit that the expectations towards them have increased for the 2019-20 season. The issues at wing-back, lack of alternatives of Ilicic and Gomez and even the absence of another reliable striker, who can rotate with Muriel and Zapata up top, all indicate that Atalanta do not look ready to compete with Europe’s best at this point.