Atalanta's Serie A success
Gian Piero Gasperini has gotten more than ever imagined from players like Duvan Zapata. Alessandro di Marco/EPA.

Some players and coaches spend entire careers searching for that special “click” with a club, a flourishing that stems from the right system, personnel partnerships, off-field groundwork or any combination of those. Knowing how to capture these special connections and then sustain that evolution is where organisations move from “flash-in-the-pan” to a new norm.

Atalanta are enjoying one such period of persistent progression under Gian Piero Gasperini, up to third in Serie A and hoping to set a new record finish in the top flight for a second straight season.

The club and its boss have earned extra plaudits for the manner in which they’ve pulled off that feat, an achievement that may not have been possible with a squad harboring any sense of entitlement.

Gasperini and his side are on the cusp of setting a new attacking blueprint, with a wage bill dwarfed in comparison to any of their immediate peers and only the 13th-highest in Serie A, according to Gazzetta dello Sport:

When adjusting for market value, which takes into consideration the increases to player price tags as a result of their remarkable form, Atalanta’s squad is still only ranked seventh among Italian clubs (via Transfermarkt).

The Bergamo outfit has found an unlikely cast of indispensable players, such as Robin Gosens, signed from Heracles for less than £1 million in 2017 but now one of the leading wing-backs in Europe, and Dutch compatriot Marten de Roon, recovered from Championship side Middlesbrough to once again cement his spot at the heart of Atalanta’s midfield. Then there’s veteran forwards, Alejandro “Papu” Gomez and Josip Ilicic, both 32 but playing the best football of their careers. All are proof of Gasperini’s ability to identify the traits he sees as necessary to construct a winning team.

Any disparity in pay off the field hasn’t been apparent on it. La Dea have resumed what will likely go down as the best season in their 113-year history following the coronavirus, having advanced to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League—and are on the verge of qualifying for next term’s campaign as well.

It’s that kind of underdog appeal that’s played a substantial role in lifting this team to play beyond the sum of its parts. Gasperini has developed a reputation as a taskmaster in training, to the point that his methods were said to be the cause of Martin Skrtel’s exit only three weeks after arriving at the club in August 2019.

However, it’s this commitment to edifying his players and the recruitment of roles and personalities—not people—ready to learn his ways that’s led to results beyond their means in Bergamo.

Atalanta have already matched the club’s record of 21 wins in a single Serie A season and are just one off the league’s existing record of 94 goals, via OptaPaolo:

Gasperini’s managerial craftsmanship seems all too obvious now he’s established at Europe’s upper table, like an encroaching vehicle in the rear view above a sign reading “objects may be larger than they appear.” His achievements look more like a patchwork than a synchronised story of continued successes, but the hallmarks of a lurking mastermind are apparent throughout.

It was after leaving Juventus’ Primavera setup in 2003 that Gasperini first made his mark as a first-team manager and got Crotone immediately promoted to Serie B. He then guided Genoa back to the top flight after taking over the team in 2006, even leading the Rossoblu as high as fifth in 2009, their highest finish since 1991 at the time and a mark they’ve yet to beat since.

Now caught up with the major players and keeping a steady pace, the 62-year-old is enjoying the longest post of his coaching career and appears to have the trust of Atalanta president Antonio Percassi.

It’s almost 10 years since Gasperini called time on the ‘other’ big posting of his career to date. He spent less than three months at the Inter Milan helm in 2011 and failed to win any of his five matches in charge, sacked before the intricacies of his favored 3-4-3/3-5-2 setup were allowed to take hold at the San Siro. Despite a seeming embarrassment of riches that comes with leading a "top-tier" club, these same factors also create many challenges for managers. Personality clashes with players already at the club, requirements to target specific players regardless of their fit, and increased pressure from the boardroom are some of the many factors that work against the manager’s paradigm.

That isn’t to say Gasperini hasn’t evolved or improved since those fated days in Milan, however. On the contrary, Eurosport’s Siavoush Fallahi recently remarked upon the stark contrast between that Gasperini and the one we see leading Atalanta today:

A few remnants are left over from the team he inherited when he first moved to Bergamo in 2016. Gomez and Rafael Toloi remain part of the setup while Mattia Caldara is back at his boyhood club following an intermission via AC Milan. That same level of turnover isn’t to be expected with the likes of Juve or Inter, where the level of investment made in some players (see: Cristiano Ronaldo) makes it difficult to overhaul entire squads.

Gasperini has come to revel in forming his own world-beaters from the ground up, a tactic requiring patience that makes him ill-suited with many elite clubs that are inexperienced in delayed gratification. Atalanta’s restrictions and scouting work has paid dividends in tandem with the coach’s preference for seeking players with the potential to suit his system:

Not every club is built for such long-haul vision after all. Gasperini’s Atalanta thrives on the entire organism, never relying on one player, whereas a certain side at the top of Serie A have earned some criticism for leaning too heavily on key individuals.

It’s worth noting Juventus—who still sit six points ahead of their nearest challenger despite losing four times this season, joint-most among the leaders of Europe’s top five leagues—has been criticised as a weak squad by the Bianoneri’s own standards of the past decade. Were it not for Ronaldo—who has 28 goals in 29 Serie A games this season—along with Paulo Dybala and fellow top performer Wojciech Szcesny, the map to a ninth successive Scudetto would have been riddled with more ticks in the loss column.

It’s a hopeful thought that a club exists that is prepared to accommodate Gasperini’s methods on a larger scale, should he ever feel the need to step outside his current setting. A team like Manchester City or Atletico Madrid could appeal when either Pep Guardiola or Diego Simeone step aside, but then it needs the players (and, in turn, the board) to buy in and show faith, too. It’s here the coach will always find pushback at the top rung of the soccer ladder from those who demand an immediate return.

Gasperini is still yet to win the first major trophy of his career, but should results continue improving with each year, he might find himself lifting silverware soon enough. And given his success in building the club from the ground-up, his best bet is likely to remain in Bergamo, transforming a Serie A after-thought into a titanic power.