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Lampredotto with the frenemy: Nick Pacchioli of Atalanta Passione gives us the scoop on la Dea

It’s always good to hear from someone who knows what they’re talking about, especially on this website.

ACF Fiorentina v Atalanta BC - Coppa Italia
Two completely normal humans doing completely normal human things.
Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

One of the joys of the internet is that it shrinks the world, bringing you into the orbits of people you’d have otherwise never met. That’s especially great because it put us in touch with the brilliant Nick Pacchioli. As the man behind the excellent Atalanta Passione (also on Twitter) and part of the AtalantaPOD, he knows more about la Dea than just about anyone and was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule of watching his team not shoot its own feet to chat with us.

Viola Nation: From my end, this seems like business as usual for la Dea, as third place feels pretty standard by now and a Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid was frustrating more than inevitable. Things always look different from the inside, though, so what’s your take on Atalanta’s season so far?

Nick Pacchioli: In a year that’s been one of transition, there are still very few reasons to complain. The early exit to Madrid was painful, but not really a shock; and Atalanta is still first in Serie A goals - albeit they have not demonstrated some of the furious goal scoring they did last year. And only1 point plus a tiebreaker advantage away from Milan in 2nd place it’s difficult not to be happy with the results in the league - especially with Papu and Ilicic either in another country or barely featuring for the last few months. Earning Coppa Italia hardware at the end of the season would be icing on the cake for what has really been an epic run that has not necessarily struck midnight for the club.

VN: The other standout story for yall this year has to be Papu Gómez’ acrimonious departure. That was pretty sad to watch because he’s such a character and added so much to the team, but it seems like Gian Piero Gasperini and company haven’t missed a step without him. How (if at all) has the team changed in his absence, from both a tactical and an emotional perspective?

NP: The Papu saga is still so bizarre, but with his departure, the rest of the club still showed fortitude, and didn’t let the drama affect their play on the pitch. With some minor tactical tweaks, Atalanta barely missed a beat without Papu. And while Papu can sometimes uncork a piece of magic to beat a very tight low block, the club seems much more balanced. Matteo Pessina is the unsung hero of the post Papu era. Lining up as a trequartista, he is anything but a classic trequartista. Not as technically gifted, he’s just a workhorse upfront, consistently leading the club in distance covered and is an essential component of the offensive press. He also has excellent movement, and often winds up in very dangerous positions. His next step up is to be a bit more selfish and look for shots on target when he’s in the opponent’s box, and he could elevate his contributions even more.

VN: The obvious follow-up question here is about Gasperini. He’s obviously a brilliant manager, but do you agree with the sentiment that his system is the star more than any of the players? He’s (in)famously prickly and not particularly popular in Florence for some hmm firmly-stated opinions, so I have trouble looking past that sometimes; is there another, warmer side to him, or is that just how he is?

NP: An excellent question that could probably be the length of a thesis paper. But in a nutshell, I’m of the mindset that Gasperini and Percassi’s brass scour Europe not only looking for players that could fit into a tactic, but mentally can adapt to professional life in Italy and Bergamo. So more than anything I think it’s more to do with the manager and underlying philosophy that elicits success rather than players with unseen untapped potential. Especially in the top tier of sports where any minor advantage can make a huge difference, since all top players besides the elite of elite are really within sniffing distance of each other, sometimes you just need that X factor to get them over the hump - and I really think that’s the Percassi Gasperini project that has been ongoing for 5+ years now.

Such a high percentage of the squad grew up outside of Italy, and finding not only technically gifted players but ones who are resilient and adaptable has been the greatest success of this administration. Malinokvsyi and Miranchuk are two good examples. Coming from two Eastern Bloc countries with very insular football (besides Shakhtar of course), going to Italy has/had to be a whirlwind for them (1M+ euro/year definitely helps!), but Malinovskyi has become a key cog in the wheel already, and Miranchuk has shown flashes of brilliance amid all the early struggles he’s had (passing of father, COVID, and injury).

VN: Part of why Atalanta keep rolling on every year despite selling 3 or 4 important pieces every summer is the world’s most effective club infrastructure. Not that Fiorentina would have any interest on this topic, but how does the club keep on finding such good players, both for the senior side and for the youth teams, year after year? Is it Gasperini? Is it the Zamagna-Sartori-Costanzi axis? Is it blood sacrifices? Is it some combination of those?

NP: Besides an annual suni sacrifice to Saint Alexander of Bergamo, there’s a lot to dive into here on why Atalanta unlock talent like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Granted not all of their moves workout; as Caldara will probably go back to Milan, none of dePaoli, Mojica, nor Piccini worked out on the wings, and we are still TBD if Lammers, Sutalo, and Bellanova (on loan at Pescara) will amount to anything.

But even with Atalanta’s moves that don’t work out, they tend to be low risk medium/high reward. No dropping insane $30M+ on players that have a huge transfer bill to live up to. Ultimately I feels it goes back to finding the right type of player (not just technically but personality wise that can excel in the team). A few months back I had the luck to speak with a Bulgarian gentleman and huge Atalantino who had the fortune to visit Atalanta’s youth training facilities in Zingonia (link here). One of the biggest takeaways from our conversations was Atalanta’s steadfast mentality in recruiting and developing players that fit a certain mold. Everyone buys into the project and they don’t sway from it, no exceptions. The one example that stands out in my mind is developing and seeking out a goalkeeper. He must be 1.9m, good with his feet, and be able to dish out a long pass. No exceptions... Even if worldbeater 1.7m Jorge Campos comes through the youth system he’s not becoming a goalie. I like this strategy as it minimizes second guessing; would’ves, could’ves, should’ves; and gives scouts and youth development a very clear picture of what to look for in a player. To me this clearly laid out plan, and everyone executing to it is what has allowed Atalanta to continuously punch above its regional weight.

Another one other things I noticed with my non scouting eye is the size of Atalanta’s wingbacks. None of them are under 1.8-1.82m, and it clearly seems that the brass want taller wingbacks, especially when a wingback fullback is quite often one of the shorter players on your club. This ties back to the same strategy of seeking out a goalkeeper, wouldn’t be surprised if the same happens on the wings.

VN: Narrowing the focus a little bit, Atalanta have a few absences to cope with. Matteo Pessina (illness) and Hans Hateboer (ankle) ruled out. With that in mind, do you see any big changes for the Bergamaschi in this one?

NP: You unfortunately informed me of the Pessina COVID absence, as I didn’t realize he was caught up in that wave with the other COVID positive players. Hateboer has been out since January, so Pessina is going to be the biggest miss. Given the potential of Atalanta looking to go heavier in attack, it would not surprise me to see Malinovskyi slotted centrally, and Ilicic put out on the right side of the attack. Pessina is a big miss with all the little things he does up front. Though he might be a bit redundant putting in a workmanlike press against an opponent that will probably sit a little deeper and try to absorb pressure.

VN: Who’s been particularly good for Atalanta this year (and this is where you rub some salt in Viola wounds)? Who’s been particularly good over the past few weeks? Conversely, has anyone been underperforming?

NP: While he’s been a bit pedestrian the last two matches, Cristian Romero has been the rock in the center of the defense Atalanta has desperately needed. Aggressive and with a lightning quick first step, he looks perfectly suited for Gasperini’s man marking defense and he’s making the option to buy loan agreement from Juve look like a no brainer. More recently, we are scratching the surface of a Ruslan Malinovskyi coming out party. Last year he was known for his thunderous left foot. While he still possesses the thunder boot, his passing since the turn of the year has been excellent, simultaneously being a Papu replacement (while no one could ever be a true Papu replacement!), and making it easier to ship off an aging Ilicic. He’s facing the goal a lot more using his vision to pick apart defenses. The second goal in the Udinese match perfectly describes what he can do with a ball at his feet. He was La Dea’s MOTMonth for a reason in March, I just hope he can continue it for the rest of the year

Conversely, Josip Ilicic looks to be slowing down a bit. On his day, he’s still unplayable, and he has made mincemeat out of Roma, Benevento, and Milan this year. Unfortunately these games are becoming more infrequent, and it feels like you need to roll a hard 4 or 8 to get one of his world class games [ed. note: we’re doomed]. With Malinovskyi taking the reins, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ilicic shipped out at some point. Especially if the small rift between him and Mister is true, and Milan really wants him.

VN: Cosplay as Giuseppe Iachini for a moment; if you need to go grab a hat, feel free. What can you pick out as a weak spot for Atalanta? Which, if any, matchups or areas of the pitch do you think you can exploit? How many times are you going to shout, “GIOCA, GIOCA?”

NP: 100% being beat on the counter. It happened twice versus Udinese last week, and guys can still flail around like headless chickens sometimes when trying to sprint back in defense. If Venuti/Caceres/or however lines up on the wings can exploit the space that may be available from Atalanta wingbacks too far up the pitch, Fiorentina can put itself in a good position to test Gollini. O/U 180.5 Gioca shouts or 2 every one minute!

VN: Alright, I’ve avoided it long enough. Let’s do the prediction thing. What’s the final score, who gets the goals, and what’s the overall pattern of the match? You know, besides carnage.

NP: I went 3-1 Atalanta last week against Udinese, and I’m feeling a similar scoreline this week. I’d say a cagey first half with an Atalanta goal around the 37th minutes from Duvan. Vlahovic pulls one back early in the second half, and then Atalanta ices it with a Muriel substitute goal and finally a banger from Malinovskyi.

I answered some questions for Nick as well, so here’s the view from the other side if you’re interested. Otherwise, let’s all agree that Nick is great and should stick around no matter how grumpy Gasperini gets.