Italian football has this reputation for being boring, defensive, entirely dominated by one team and the others all simply roll over for them. None of that is true in 2020. Well, alright, so Juventus are on track for a ninth consecutive title, but even here it’s far from a comfortable victory parade. Atalanta, Sassuolo, Hellas Verona, even Bologna and Lecce, are all part of the new breed of Serie A club. Unapologetically provincial, but with the mindset of a potential giant. It’s like Zdenek Zeman’s Foggia spawned children without the laissez-faire attitude to defending and copious cigarettes.
So much used to be made of ‘respect’ in Calcio. There were all these unwritten rules about not going beyond 4-0, as it was belittling your opponent when they were already beaten. You had to respect the big clubs like Juve, accept your role of sparring partner and hope to grab a point by defending stoically against the inevitable onslaught. That simply isn’t the case anymore and Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta are just at the forefront of this movement, by no means the only ones. They are grabbing the headlines after setting up a Champions League quarter-final with Paris Saint-Germain and securing their status in the competition for next season, too.
La Dea are shattering scoring records as well as opposition defences, netting at least six in four different matches, a record in Europe’s top five leagues this season. The only other Serie A team in the last 60 years to have reached 93 goals in a campaign was Napoli with 94 in 2016-17, but they are on track to comfortably crush a Century. The last Italian top flight team to score 93 goals after 33 rounds was Milan on 101 in 1950-51, which was before Gasperini had even been born. These are historic figures and worthy of celebration, so it’s no wonder they are inspiring others.
The most direct inspiration, of course, is Ivan Juric, who was Gasperini’s player at Genoa and later his assistant manager. Hellas Verona don’t always get it right, but they have the same approach as Atalanta and it has put this newly-promoted club mid-table. If they had some better centre-forward options available, they could easily have challenged for a Europa League place.
Juric summed up the new Italian approach after the 2-2 draw with Inter. “I don’t like being defensive, getting increasingly pinned back and crushed. I get bored and irritated. I honestly prefer to risk a heavy defeat than play like that.” I am so glad that Hellas replaced their city rivals Chievo Verona in the top flight this season, because the former darlings of the neutrals had become a painful carbuncle of Calcio, forever just happy to be one point above the relegation zone, even if it meant only really trying in the games against those around them in the table. Good riddance to Donkeys treading water.
Sassuolo have just extended Roberto De Zerbi’s contract and this makes them absolutely the team to watch next season. They’ve got more of a Zeman style about them at the moment, as shown by three different 3-3 draws against Inter, Verona and Juventus since the restart alone, but they’re still at the early stages of the project. This is where Atalanta were a couple of years ago and, like the Bergamo boys, this is a provincial club with smart economic principles and a bold vision.
Let the defend and counter brigade go down, bring up the record-breaking Benevento and make Serie A the home of spectacular, attacking football. The more Atalanta succeed, the more they will inspire others to follow suit. It’s already happening with Bologna and even Lecce, who I really hope don’t get relegated, as Fabio Liverani at least does try to take the game to the big clubs and play good football, even if it’s usually undone by poor finishing and defensive errors. If you’re going to go down, at least go with a fight, an identity and respect above all for yourself rather than the over-rated opposition. Mark my words, Atalanta are just the beginning.