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Old dog, new tricks - how Gasperini went from 'sad and depressed' to Italian football's 'magician'

Atalanta’s Champions League fairytale simplifies the superb work their manager has accomplished in recent seasons.

Image: SOPA Images

‘GASPERINI SEI UN MAGO’, is the headline at the very top of today’s Corriere dello Sport.

Given Atalanta’s remarkable Uefa Champions League achievement last night, you probably don’t have to be a fluent Italian speaker to get the gist. 

Four straight group defeats and still they ensured qualification to the knockout stages of a competition they’re featuring in for the very first time. Only Newcastle, back in 2002, managed to do the same. 

But, the story shouldn’t just be reduced to that because under Gian Piero Gasperini, the club – a perennial also-ran in Italian football circles – has enjoyed a spectacular few seasons.

Only back in the top tier since 2011, Atalanta were always mid-table at best. But Gasperini – a figure so highly-regarded after a superb time at Genoa but who was then brought to his knees following ill-fated stints at Inter and Palermo – has revitalised everything.

His first campaign, 2016/17, saw the side finish, extraordinarily, in fourth place, ahead of the likes of Lazio, Milan, Fiorentina and, perhaps most deliciously of all for Gasperini, his old employers at Inter. they scored 21 more goals, conceded six less and ended up with almost thirty more points than the season beforehand. His favoured 3-4-3 meant Alejandro Gomez found the net sixteen times in the league, more than doubling his figure from the previous season. It set the blueprint for Gasperini, who was rediscovering himself.

He’d made his name at Genoa, with whom he’d finished fifth in 2009. But the switch to Inter was a costly one. In the midst of transitioning from Jose Mourinho’s incredibly-successful tenure, many were called and few stuck around. Rafael Benitez, Leonardo, Claudio Ranieri, Andrea Stramaccioni and Walter Mazzarri all tried their luck before Roberto Mancini managed a degree of stability, sticking it out between November 2014 and August 2016.

Gasperini’s spell was mortifying. From five games, he failed to win any of them: a particularly unwanted Inter record. And when he tried to pick up the pieces at Palermo, things got even worse.

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He was hired by volatile owner Maurizio Zamparini in September 2012, fired the following February, rehired a few weeks later and then fired again after two games.

Afterwards, he spoke of being sad and depressed during his ‘hellish’ time there, especially given he’d lost both his parents in the space of twenty five days. But later in the year, there was a sort of homecoming and Gasperini was back at Genoa, where he’d remain for three seasons – getting them as high as sixth in 2015 – effectively building up his spirit and confidence.

But Atalanta has been revolutionary. His second season there saw the team finished seventh but there was a run to the Coppa Italia semi-finals and qualification to the Europa League knockout stages. Last term, buoyed by the 28 goals scored by Duvan Zapata, Gasperini’s side managed to secure a third-place Serie A finish. There was disappointment in the Europa League play-offs (defeat to Copenhagen) while a Coppa Italia decider against Lazio ended in a 2-0 loss.

However, the superb work continues.

The reaction to Atalanta’s Champions League progression has been largely expected – ‘How does a team lose four games from six and still qualify for the next stage?’ But it forgets the bigger picture. The mere fact that the team is there to begin with is a minor miracle. 

For Gasperini, it’s some welcome rehabilitation and a reminder that a good coach doesn’t become a bad one overnight. 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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