Comeback kings Atalanta leave more questions than answers despite unbeaten start to 2023 after win at Bologna

Another comeback was needed from Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta on Monday as they dug in to win away at Bologna, but there will be concern about how they are starting games of late.

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STADIO RENATO DALL’ARA (Bologna) – Character, spirit and grit are all easy buzzwords to use when a team earn a comeback win or point, even more so on the road, but it’s hard to immediately think of those words in association with Atalanta despite picking up four points from trailing positions in each of their last two Serie A outings. La Dea fell behind early on before completing a turnaround to win 2-1 away at Bologna on Matchday 17.

It didn’t even come as a surprise when Riccardo Orsolini, an ex of Atalanta, put Bologna ahead within five minutes at the Dall’Ara, and their was little on show from the visitors in the opening 45 minutes that would have suggested a comeback was on the cards. The script was the same at Spezia in their first game of 2023 though, then trailing 2-0 – and lucky not to be three behind – before mounting a late comeback to draw 2-2 in Liguria.

In Emilia-Romagna it was A fine long-range effort from Teun Koopmeiners that sparked them into life before a delicately dinked Rasmus Hojlund finish put them ahead by the hour mark, and that was to be how the scoreline stayed. 

Atalanta’s Hojlund and Ruggeri embrace in celebration. (Photo: Getty)

Slow starters

Atalanta looked like a real force to start the season, with a draw against champions AC Milan and a win away at AS Roma punctuating good form against the so-called also-rans of Serie A, but what was most surprising about their bright start was their defensive solidity. They hadn’t fallen behind in a single game until Sassuolo went ahead in Bergamo on October 15 – and the Nerazzurri came back to win. They then fell behind again at Lazio and lost in their next outing, and even conceded twice to Lecce before getting a consolation goal in a surprise November defeat. 

In their two games played since the turn of the year, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side have conceded first to both Spezia and Bologna, and on each occasion, they’ve had to dig in after half time to make up for horrid first-half performances. They were two down against Spezia and drew, and were one behind in Emilia-Romagna and came back to win. 

If they are to have serious ambitions of pushing for the Champions League, or even the Europa League, their poor starts to games need to be addressed, although they have been good at coming from behind in much of Gasperini’s time in charge. 

Gian Piero Gasperini and Jose Mourinho greet each other before Atalanta face AS Roma. (REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo)

A spark from a different source

In four of Gasperini’s first five seasons in Bergamo, Atalanta were consistently performing above themselves – evidenced in qualifying for the Europa League and Champions League knockout rounds. Now into his seventh campaign and with their strong start fading fast in the memory, that’s no longer the case. 

Looking through Atalanta’s squad, you would need to make a good argument to suggest that the group of players under Gasperini’s disposal should be fighting for a top-four finish, but those are the standards he himself has set and, as a result, many have come to expect of La Dea. 

But despite being early leaders alongside Napoli, Atalanta’s form had fallen off a cliff in late autumn and not even a prolonged mid-season break has helped them get back to their early-season best. Coming into Matchday 17, Atalanta had six fewer points than they had at this same stage last season – only Fiorentina (-7) and Hellas Verona (-17) have worse records compared to 2021/22.

Now, Atalanta aren’t winning games due to their style or Gasperini’s approach, but it more seems to be by individual moments or by simple having a couple of players of a caliber above what their opponents can boast. On Monday, those moments of real quality came from Teun Koopmeiners and Rasmus Hojlund.

Koopmeiners and Hojlund’s strikes allowed Atalanta to claim three important points and their first win of 2023, putting an end to a rotten run of form that had seen them fail to win in five of their previous six outings before the trip to Emilia-Romagna. 

Now on 31 points, Atalanta sit level with Lazio and Roma and three points off Inter in fourth. 

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