When people talk about clubs who have managed to develop a system that consistently brings through talented players, they’re usually referring to the big continental giants whose success stories are well known; teams like Barcelona, Ajax, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.
There are, however, other clubs who are just as successful – perhaps even more – at developing players but whose work gets far less recognition because they do not have the same platform on which to showcase their results.
Atalanta is one of those clubs. When in 2011 the CIES Football Observatory ranked clubs by the number of players whom they had produced and who were playing top flight football across Europe, Atalanta came eighth, the highest placed Italian side on the list and ahead of a lot of continental heavyweights whose investment far exceeds theirs.
Yet, outside of Italy they are virtually unknown something that is partly down to the fact that except for a Coppa Italia won in 1962 they have never registered any success at national, let alone international, level. This anonymity is also caused by the way in which their model works which, stripped down, essentially equates to this: bring a player through, give him room to develop, sell him, plough back the money into the system and bring the next one through.
It is an efficient and self-sustaining model that has seen the club develop into the biggest ‘provincial’ side in Italian football, something that is a success in itself. Of course, the fact that their young players keep finding room in the first team – something that the regular sale of top players ensures – is one of the reasons why they are so good at it; players simply get the opportunities that they wouldn’t necessarily get elsewhere.
What this is not, however, is a strategy that allows whoever is managing the side to build year on year. There are years that are better than others (and, conversely, some which are worse than others) but long term success is unlikely.
That is something that is accepted and embraced. Fans might not enjoy seeing one good player after another getting sold so that they can fulfil their potential elsewhere yet they’ve come to realise that this strategy has allowed them to progress beyond many other clubs as well as giving them occasional joys of bloodying the noses of the big sides.
It is a system that works well for them. Yet it is also one that is always in danger with predators lurking everywhere.
Whereas other Italian clubs have traditionally given Atalanta time to develop their players, making their moves only after they had played for the senior side and proved that there was more to them than potential, English clubs aren’t that patient.
Over the past decade, Atalanta have lost three of their brightest talents – Samuele Dalla Bona, Vito Mannone and Jacopo Sala – to Premiership clubs as soon as these players were out of school. There could be more losses along the way with fifteen year old Christian Capone being rumoured to be interesting Liverpool.
With Atalanta receiving little or nothing for these players, the risk is that their whole model can be ruined. The simple truth for them is that they need to generate certain amounts in transfer fees to keep on funding the whole system, something that is unlikely to happen if their brightest prospects are stolen away before they’re anywhere near reaching full maturity.
Unfortunately, there is little that they can do. Their best option is to point at the lengthy list of players that have managed to play at the highest level thanks to the education and opportunity that they got at Atalanta. It is a strong argument and, hopefully, one that will ensure that the list keeps growing longer.
The Atalanta Production Line
Atalanta have always been proficient at developing players with the likes of Gaetano Scirea and Antonio Cabrini – both of whom would go on to become Juventus legends – as well as Roberto Donadoni coming through the ranks.
Yet the club really pivoted its attention on to youth in the late eighties, providing Italian football with some of its finest players. Here are some examples.
Spotted as an eight year old, he would make his first team debut ten years later at the start of a season where Atalanta where in the Serie B. His talent immediately came to the fore and he promptly became a regular helping the side to promotion. The following season he would retain his place in the side and, even though Atalanta would go on to finish last, he had shown enough for Fiorentina to move in and sign him.
Having initially started out at his home-town side of Pergocrema, Tacchinardi was signed by Atalanta and placed in their youth sides. In 1992 he made his first team debut and immediately caught the attention of Juventus who would sign him before he made ten appearances for Atalanta. It would turn out to be a wise choice as Tacchinardi would go on to form one of the best midfields in Europe.
After progressing through all the youth ranks at Atalanta, Donati made his first team debut at the start of the 1999-2000 season going on to make 20 appearances as the side successfully battled to get out of the Serie B. He would play even more the following year (26 appearances) in the Serie A convincing AC Milan to make a move for him.
Pazzini was in the same youth side as Montolivo and, like him, made his first team debut in 2003-04, scoring nine goals as Atalanta won promotion. The following season he found goals a bit harder to come by yet, even so, he wasn’t allowed to finish the season at the club because by January they had received an offer from Fiorentina that was too good to refuse.
Of the players on this list, Morfeo is perhaps the least known yet he was a supremely talented player who perhaps should have made more of his abilities. Spotted by Atalanta as a fourteen year old, he made his debut at just 17, scoring three times in nine games. Despite Morfeo’s contribution, Atalanta were relegated that season and, strangely, he would only play a bit-part role in the following season as they successfully won promotion back to the top flight.
Once there, Morfeo would get a starring role scoring eleven times in thirty appearances. Having survived relegation, Morfeo opted to remain at the club but injuries restricted him to 26 appearances (and five goals) as Atalanta were relegated. That summer he moved to Fiorentina.
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