Speaking in the build-up to this past weekend’s round of Serie A fixtures, Andrea Stramaccioni vowed not to underestimate his latest opponents, telling reporters at his pre-match press conference "I have tremendous respect for Atalanta, they are doing very well and have many players of great quality."
By the full time whistle at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia however, Atalanta had managed to triumph over an Inter side who had previously won on all ten of their away trips this term. That they did so not by ‘parking the bus’ in the style of so many of Serie A’s provincial sides, but by taking the game to the bigger club in a manner many on the peninsula appear incapable of dealing with.
There were any number of perfectly valid reasons for Inter’s struggles, most notably the loss to injury of both Walter Samuel and Andrea Ranocchia - two thirds of the back-line that has been central to their revival under the impressive Stramaccioni. They were also coming into the game just three days after their difficult away trip to Belgrade in the Europa League and only a week on from an emotionally draining victory over rivals Juventus.
Using a 4-4-1-1 formation that sees Maxi Morales tuck in behind German Denis, Atalanta attack quickly from wide areas, making numerous crosses for their Argentinian target man to make his own. It is a simplistic approach but is devastatingly effective with Inter joining Udinese, Milan and Napoli as scalps already claimed by the Bergamo side who now sit as high as sixth, looking down on some much grander names.
That they have done so whilst once again overcoming a points penalty for their involvement in the CalcioScomesse match fixing scandals is further testament to the superb job being done by Stefano Colantuono and a vastly talented squad of players. Indeed, without last season’s six point deduction they would have finished in ninth place despite having only just won promotion to the top flight, enhancing their reputation as ‘Queen of the Provinces’.
Witnessing his most recent performance, it is hard to look beyond Denis as the key factor; his two goals were vital to their success, while his all-round display made him nigh on impossible to deal with for the makeshift Nerazzurri defence. Limited to just three shots – all of which he placed on target – he also added three key passes with 96% of all his passes finding team-mates, while also winning four aerial duels.
That is just over his seasonal average of 3.8 per game, a major factor in Atalanta’s team average of 17.6, the third highest total in the league. It also sees Denis rank behind Alessandro Gazzi of Torino (4.2) among all players in Serie A to have made more than five starts, testament to the dominance he enjoys in the air. Monday’s papers were full of speculation that Massimo Moratti wanted to once again bid for the former Napoli striker, but Denis himself was focused only on the present, stopping only to say;
“I’m only thinking about Atalanta, I’m not concerned about the future. The important thing to focus on is surviving with this club.”
While questions will be asked over the penalty, his other strike was far more simplistic, a tap in after some great play from another player drawing admiring glances from many clubs, midfielder Luca Cigarini. He is continuing the great form he showed last term and making a major contribution on both sides of the ball, surprisingly leading the league with 1.3 blocked shots per game while his 66.5 passes per game trails only Cagliari’s Daniele Conti (69.1) and of course Andrea Pirlo (80.2).
He has completed them at a rate of 78.9% while making an impressive 7.1 accurate long passes per game, also adding two goals and an assist, including the unlikely winning strike at San Siro in the 1-0 victory over Milan. His crossing (1.4 accurate crosses per game) has been a major feature in their attacking play and overall he has continued the excellent form discussed in this blog last season.
Other players have stepped up however, most notably Morales and left-back Federico Peluso, with the Argentinian midfielder chipping in with a goal and an assist, while his willingness to drop back and defend has seen him add 2.3 tackles per game for the cause. The much coveted Peluso has drawn admiring glances from around the peninsula, trailing only Cigarini (3.8) with 3.1 tackles per game and leading the side with 2.4 interceptions per appearance. His form has been rewarded with an Italy debut against England and he is once again in the Azzurri squad this week following an injury to Mimmo Criscito.
Of players to appear more than 5 times for Atalanta this season, only Cigarini and Morales have made more than Peluso’s 30.5 passes per game, and his willingness to get forward and supply crosses has helped open up the pitch. Behind him, goalkeeper Andrea Consigli has also impressed, making 46 saves and managing four clean sheets. He made a stunning save from a Rodrigo Palacio header this Sunday, adding to a catalogue of equally great stops this term which have seen Milan linked with a move for him.
If they can collectively continue this rich vein of form he will not be the only one drawing attention to the club for the right reasons. With their most iconic player, Captain Cristiano Doni, effectively banned for life for his own involvement in the betting scandal, a new breed of player have risen up to put the Queen back on her throne and once again allow Atalanta to make many more echo Stramaccioni’s kind words.