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Succeeding Gasperini: profiling the next Atalanta coach

The romance, heart and spirit embedded within the marriage of Atalanta B.C and Gian Piero Gasperini is almost immeasurable.

Here is a team that were perennial strugglers in the Italian top flight. ‘Queen of the provincial teams’ perhaps, but Atalanta had been in no position to consistently challenge for titles since the 1960s.

Gasperini changed everything when he arrived in 2016. He too had yet to build a winning reputation after a dismal spell at Inter Milan in 2011. Five years on, La Dea are in their second Coppa Italia final in three years, with successive Champions League campaigns to boot. The football is exhilarating and exciting. Each player performing above their station to form a cohesive, drilled unit of grafters and entertainers.

The Italian’s contract expires in 2022. Whilst it is likely he will trigger the clause to extend it a further year, Gasperini is now sixty three years old. Be it through retirement, or taking on one last challenge outside of Bergamo, it is wise for the club to consider the options to carry forward his work.

This piece will aim to highlight the realistic candidates that could work to a similar beat, and build on Gasperini’s remarkable tenure.

What are we looking for?

The Atalanta squad is a beautiful melting pot of characters, abilities and skillsets. To have challenged for the Serie A top four as they have, and reached the quarter finals of the Champions League, is a stunning achievement given the calibre of their individual players.

Each are valuable to this attacking, thrilling setup, without there being many individual stars. With Papu Gomez’s departure in January, the team is more reliant than ever on the collective ethic than the singular talent.

A coach that can work to form, or improve, players under an identity is therefore paramount. Similarly a coach who has worked at bigger clubs, or with a reputation so glowing that it would attract interest from said clubs, will be discounted. For all their achievement, and the club’s development of its infrastructure, it is still a small fish swimming with sharks. A coach expecting to bring in marquee signings will not fit the bill of a club with the eleventh highest wage bill in Serie A.

With the collective system so integral, a coach that has favoured a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 will also be beneficial. This squad of lesser parts has been assembled under the image of these systems, so attempting to pull away from these would likely be detrimental. Gasperini also deployed a high, man-to-man press out of possession that is unusual for Italian sides. This is not essential in the search, but equally could be a deciding factor when comparing.

  • a coach looking to build a team, not littered with individualists
  • a realistic CV to be attracted by the club
  • favours 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 (bonus if they use man-to-man pressing

Candidate 1: Franck Haise

Current job: RC Lens (France)

Age: 49

Nationality: French

If Atalanta’s rise from Serie A underperformers to league contenders has lost its novelty, then RC Lens’ story this year is certainly eye catching. That they scraped their way to the French top flight by a single point only adds to the intrigue.

The club hired Haise in February 2020 as caretaker manager, with the young coach taking charge of only two league fixtures before the league was suspended. Lens were one point ahead of third placed Ajaccio at the time of the suspension, promoting them to Ligue 1 for the first time since 2014/15. Whilst fellow promoted side Lorient sit one point above the relegation spots, Lens bask in the heady heights of sixth place.

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Haise has overseen this trajectory, winning twelve and losing just eight of their twenty eight league games. Only five teams have scored more than their forty four goals, conceding forty one in the process.

The Frenchman has preferred a 3-4-1-2 this season, although has preached pragmatism over ideology and a willingness to adapt. Off the ball, his Lens team bare many similarities to Atalanta. The wing backs are fast and aggressive, and allowed to face up opposition wingers one on one. Whilst his current midfielders are prone to leaving the wing backs too isolated and endangered, Atalanta’s midfielders are brilliant at covering ground centrally and wide. Such improvements would only be beneficial to his use of the system.

Lens field an attacking midfielder-come-winger in Gael Kakuta behind an attacking pair. Leading the goal scoring and assist charts for the side, his role is very much a Papu Gomez type one. Shifting between the lines, coming in from the wings to become a sole central operator, it is a notoriously hard position to defend against. In his time in Bergamo, Gomez made the role his own, and put him among Italy’s best creators. The use of Matteo Pessina in such a role could mirror both Kakuta’s success, and fill the creative hole left by Gomez.

Haise is very inexperienced, and whilst Lens are thriving this season, it might take a longer period of success to warrant a move to a Champions League club. That said, he has demonstrated a tactical bravery that is paying off, and a liking for Atalanta’s favoured methods in and out of possession.

Atalanta have shown that fortune favours the bold and brave. Plumping for a coach such as Haise should not be sniffed at given their penchant for the unexpected.

Candidate 2: Gerardo Seoane

Current job: BSC Young Boys (Switzerland)

Age: 42

Nationality: Swiss

When searching for a new coach, clubs must consider how translatable the work of a candidate can be from their current job. It of course does not need to be a perfect template. But seeing comparable features within a body of work can only bode well.

Gerardo Seoane has experience of succeeding a successful manager. He was hired by Young Boys in 2018 after Adi Hütter left for Eintracht Frankfurt. Hütter had brought the club their first Super League title in over three decades, dismantling the moniker of the club being perennial bottlers. As he has at Frankfurt, Hütter implemented a high pressing, aggressive system. From the outset, Seoane swore to carry on the philosophy.

Young Boys are on track to win their fourth successive title. With eleven games remaining they are seventeen points ahead of Servette in second place. Long gone are the days of Young Boys being the laughing stock of Switzerland. Seoane deserves great credit for building on the work of Adi Hütter. The status that comes with ‘ideology’ managers that carry a system with them wherever they go, perhaps makes this type of work seem simplistic or basic. However, it takes a coach confident in his abilities to adapt to a squad’s formula and tweak it to continue its success.

This would likely be the case in Bergamo. The squad are adaptable, yes. But it is also a machine that has been fed and watered to play in the Gasperini way. A coach such as Seoane, pragmatic and aware of the capabilities of his players, would fit the bill well.

Seoane’s sides are deadly quick in the transition, exploiting the opposition’s possession shape to counter. Similarly they press high and force long balls to be played for the centre backs to mop up, and restart the possession phase. This too mirrors much of Gasperini’s philosophy. One imagines he would find great joy in this at Atalanta, with the likes of Rafael Toloi, Christian Romero and Berat Djimsiti all composed ball players that can turn the ball over and progress attacks from deep.

The Swiss coach is no stranger to taking on the big job. Taking on the Young Boys job after Hütter’s reign was no small task for a coach with only one full season’s experience. This too would be a huge step up. However his willingness to learn from his successors, and signs of a conducive style to Atalanta’s, could make Seoane a clever appointment. Potentially the next chapter of Atalanta’s Swiss heritage.

Candidate 3: Pellegrino Matarazzo

Current job: VfB Stuttgart

Age: 43

Nationality: American

In a recent Twitter thread, Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae explained why the rumours linking RB Salzburg’s Jesse Marsch to the Celtic head coach role should be tempered. He explained that coaches developed under a German styled infrastructure require clear top-down visions of improving the entire institution. The academy must function, there must also be clear directives and communication between coach and technical director.

Such criteria make Atalanta a club of more German similarlity than typically Italian. The academy is thriving, and churning out remarkable talent to finance the future of the club. The recruitment has been smart, seeking out players of varying ages to fulfil specific roles within the side. No individual bigger than the collective.

This could prove a tantalising project for a coach such as Pellegrino Matarazzo. Matarazzo worked as assistant to Julien Nagelsmann at 1899 Hoffenheim before joining VfB Stuttgart in 2019. The club are a German institution, but found themselves in the second tier and fighting for promotion. Having guided them back to the Bundesliga within a year of joining, VfB have flourished back in the top flight.

They play a whirlwind brand of attacking football, underpinned by a technical but disciplined midfield pair. They line up in a 3-4-3, but in truth it becomes more akin to a 3-2-5 when attacking. Right wing back Silas Wamangituka is a devastating weapon, trained as a forward but playing in an unorthodox wide role. Matarazzo’s use of him here affords him the room to build up electric straight line speed, and motor into the box undetected.

It is a unique role, but one that can be seen in Atalanta’s Robin Gosens. Gosens is a physical and strong defender at left wing back, but it is his attacking stamina and quality in the final third that set him apart. Hans Hateboer too has revelled in this licensed attacking role on the right given by Gasperini. It takes a special kind of coach to identify such traits in players such as Gosens and Wamangituka.

He demands his forwards and wing backs to press incredibly high and force turnovers. This largely targets forcing the ball wide, turning it over with one of the wingbacks before squaring across goal for a simple finish.

Matarazzo is already being touted for the big German jobs. He personifies the modern German ideals in a coach and it would be a surprise to see him leave the Bundesliga. That said, Atalanta’s structure, league and European competitiveness, and their embedded tactical thrust, are an attractive and sensible step for a coach of his experience. Arguably the ideal successor to the great Gasperini.

The next Atalanta chapter

Three young, and quite raw, candidates to fill the boots of one of Italy’s wiliest coaches. All would make intriguing, appropriate and realistic options for the club. These are the principles they are accustomed to. Rather than look above their station, or change path after one of their history’s greatest periods, Atalanta are a growing entity. Building off the back of their youth production, quality of attacking football, and remaining sustainable.

The next coach should fit these principles, and Haise, Seoane and Matarazzo certainly do. Some may already show a liking for the Atalanta way in playing a high tempo, hard pressing 3-4-3. Ultimately however there are other factors to be considered when bringing in Gasperini’s heir. That adaptability, and humble appreciation to rinse potential out of a modest squad, is paramount.

The end is by no means in sight for Gasperini. It is anticipated that he will extend his contract again, taking his tenure towards the decade mark. He has earned that much, and his work has shown no sign of decline even in the face of player sales, a global pandemic, and the redevelopment of the Gewiss stadium.

Atalanta will be a tantalising prospect for many a coach to approach. Each must respect the traditions set out by Gasperini, whilst carrying forward a style that remains among Europe’s most exciting. The level headedness, and self awareness show by the club in recent times makes it likely that the next steward of Bergamo will follow suit.

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