Atalanta are unbeaten in 2023, having drawn with Spezia and come from behind to beat Bologna. These four points are most welcome when you consider the three-match winless streak La Dea embarked on heading into the World Cup break.
To say Gian Piero Gasperini’s side have turned a corner however would be disingenuous. The return of Jose Luis Palomino has brought further chaos and errors to the defence, and whilst Atalanta play the second halves of matches with the gusto of their 2019/20 pomp, they start too meekly to assert themselves on the opposition.
One highlight has been the emergence and growth of Rasmus Højlund. The Danish centre-forward was brought to Bergamo with an eye on the future, and the eventual fading of Luis Muriel and Duván Zapata. With the former sidelined with injury, and the latter physically declining at a startling rate, the 19-year-old has stepped up to make the position his own.
A fading star
The backdrop to Højlund’s rise and recent promise has been the notable regression of Duván Zapata. The Colombian has struggled with fitness for the best part of two seasons, and despite having the long winter break to return in peak shape, Zapata was substituted off early against Spezia, and rushed back to face Bologna.
The power and ferocity that defined Zapata’s game look to be depleting. An explosive acceleration from a standing start, a propensity to bully and tussle with defenders, and a willingness to burst into wide channels were all hallmarks of one of the best centre-forwards in Serie A over the last six seasons. The 31-year-old is yet to display any of the above in abundance this campaign.
It is not to say that the decline is permanent. Zapata is a fearsome competitor, and a player beloved by Gasperini. The coach has his own responsibility to shoulder, rushing Zapata back on multiple occasions to lift a stagnating attack. The year-opening away trip to Spezia was the latest example, but a home meeting with Cagliari in February 2021 saw Zapata hurried back from injury and substituted minutes after coming on.
Luckily for Gasperini, there is a new face to alleviate the dependence on an ageing Zapata.
Goals of the highest calibre
There was so much to admire about Højlund’s strike in Bologna. Atalanta had just equalised through a vicious Teun Koopmeiners thump and were in the ascendency. Jeremie Boga had drifted centrally from the right, and eyed a threaded pass between the retreating Bologna defence.
Højlund began his run gently, on the shoulder of left-back Charalampos Lykogiannis. As Boga moved further into the Bologna half, Højlund continued his path to take him between Lykogiannis, and centre-back Jhon Lucumi. The centre-back stepped out to meet Boga, and with a pocket opened up behind him, Højlund exploded into space to receive Boga’s pass. The young forward did the rest, taking a weightier touch than he would have liked but dinking the goalkeeper effortlessly.
However, his goal earlier in the week against Spezia was even more impressive. It even embodied shades of the might Zapata in its force and power. Receiving the ball with his back to goal, Højlund’s first touch rolled the ball into space and away from the centre-back. His second chopped back inside, and his third went back the other way to maraud past the same player. The final flourish was a low, hard finish across goal to beat Petar Zovko. Physically, Højlund is already belying his tender age and bullying Serie A centre-backs.
There’s more still to come
It is difficult to statistically profile Rasmus Højlund on this season alone. He has started only five Serie A matches and accumulated just 589 league minutes, so the sample size to assess is limited.
However, the impact made by the centre-forward in those limited minutes is highly impressive. It also shows he is understanding and even elevating what Gasperini and Atalanta can use their centre-forwards to do.
The aforementioned ageing of Zapata, and the propensity for Luis Muriel to get lost in matches where he is needed for all 90 minutes, has left a gaping whole in central attacking areas. Højlund is more than meeting the need for a physical presence there. His 6.42 touches per 90 minutes in the attacking third place him in the 88th percentile of centre-forwards, showing he is receiving the ball plentifully, and involving himself in the construction of attacking moves. His 8.40 received progressive passes backs this up, and places him in the top 5% of centre-forwards.
The confidence gained from three goals in his opening 13 Serie A appearances will likely see an increase in his shot taking too. His 2.60 shots per 90 minutes falls short of the figure typically taken by trigger-happy Gasperini forwards, but that is again to expected when averaging just 45 minutes per appearance.
The minerals are there for an explosive, elite-level forward. One that can ease the transition from the old guard to the new, but also revitalise Atalanta in the short term.
Objective: Feed Højlund
Atalanta’s impressive start to the season has faded quickly, and been replaced by a gloomier atmosphere at the start of 2023. Gasperini’s tinkering and toying with systems has left little of the essence that made his teams so exciting. They are relying on the individual quality of individuals such as Teun Koopmeiners, Ademola Lookman, and Rasmus Højlund to offset systemic problems.
With Lookman only a loan signing, and Koopmeiners attracting Premier League interest, the successful integration of Højlund might just be the most important project in Bergamo. The excitement surrounding the young Dane is rising, and going some way to soothing the angst felt about the team’s general direction.
Gasperini must use his unique touch to grow Højlund as he did Zapata, and the rest may just take care of itself.