How AC Milan and Others Have Benefitted from Atalanta's Production Line

Blair Newman@@TheBlairNewmanFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2016

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 30:  Giacomo Bonaventura of AC Milan celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Pescara Calcio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 30, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Following a 1-0 defeat against AS Roma on Monday night, AC Milan welcome Atalanta to the San Siro on Saturday with the aim of returning to winning ways.

Usually, this fixture would be viewed as a probable three points for the Rossoneri, though this is certainly not the case ahead of the upcoming clash.

Atalanta have been the surprise package in Serie A in 2016-17 and sit in sixth place with nine wins from 16 games.

Among their scalps this season are traditional silverware challengers Inter Milan, Napoli and Roma, and they have also recorded impressive victories over the likes of Torino, Sassuolo and Genoa, all of whom are considered contenders for a top-six spot.

Montella's Milan face Atalanta on Saturday.
Montella's Milan face Atalanta on Saturday.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Consequently, Milan head coach Vincenzo Montella must prepare his side well for what will be a tough test. He will, however, have to make do without one of his key players in Giacomo Bonaventura.

The 27-year-old creative midfielder has been one of the Rossoneri’s most consistent individual performers in recent years. He is also one of several within the squad to have ties to Atalanta after coming through their youth system before moving on in 2014.

On Saturday, Montella will also be without his captain, Riccardo Montolivo, another player who graduated from the Bergamo club’s academy. Even the 31-year-old’s replacement in the lineup, Manuel Locatelli, 18, spent a couple of years with La Dea before joining Milan at 11 years of age.

The influence of Atalanta’s youth system will be keenly felt this weekend by both sides. However, this influence doesn’t stop there; it can be felt far and wide, throughout some of Serie A’s top clubs and beyond.

Bonaventura joined Milan from Atalanta.
Bonaventura joined Milan from Atalanta.Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images


Atalanta's History of Youth Development

The San Siro just happened to be the location for one of Atalanta’s greatest triumphs. On June 2, 1963, they faced Torino at the famous stadium in the Coppa Italia final. They won 3-1, securing their first and only major trophy in the process.

The foundations for that success were laid down over a decade prior. On June 17, 1949, the club’s youth team won their first-ever title with a victory over Lazio. Among the prospects in their starting lineup that day were Battista Rota and Livio Roncoli, both of whom went on to become key players for La Dea.

Both were in the club’s 1962-63 squad, though they were absent for the cup final win that season. Ironically Roncoli, nicknamed "the Pharmacist" because of his degree in pharmacy, was forced to miss out through injury.

Other academy graduates did take part, however. Indeed, Atalanta’s defence for the 1963 Coppa Italia final was made up almost exclusively of their own youth products, including Piero Gardoni, Franco Nodari and Alfredo Pesenti; the latter is now considered one of the finest players in the club’s history.

In addition, the three goals that ensured the victory were scored by another former youth-team player, Angelo Domenghini, who was perhaps the first of their graduates to achieve renown beyond the peninsula.

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A versatile attacker capable of playing on the right wing or up front, Domenghini had real pace, a good touch and was an astute finisher. And, one year on from his cup final hat-trick, he joined an Inter side then coached by Helenio Herrera.

He would play a vital role for the Nerazzurri, helping them to win the Scudetto, the European Cup and the Intercontinental Cup in his first season before going on to make well over 100 appearances and scoring 50 goals for the club. He also represented Italy 33 times, finding the net on seven occasions.

Others would follow in Domenghini’s footsteps over the ensuing decades.

Gaetano Scirea came through Atalanta’s youth system in the early 1970s and made over 50 first-team appearances before joining Juventus in 1974, where he established himself as a libero of supreme intelligence and class. Equal parts ball-winner and ball-player, he would win seven Scudetti with the Bianconeri and establish himself as one of the greatest defenders in Italian football history.

Early on in the next decade, Roberto Donadoni would break through into La Dea’s first team having been nurtured by the club since the age of 17. Starting off in Serie C1, he helped them to two promotions before moving to Milan in 1986, where he became an icon.

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The Production Line

Antonio Percassi has spent almost all of his footballing life with Atalanta. Having been developed by the club as a youth, he played over 100 times for the first team. However, after a short two-game spell with Cesena, he retired from playing at the age of 25 in 1978 to focus on business interests. He would return to Atalanta as president 12 years later.

One of Percassi’s most important decisions was to hire Fermo "Mino" Favini, a coach and scout who had previously worked with Como, in a bid to overhaul and improve his club’s own youth sector.

The process of hiring former players as youth-team coaches was also under way, with future Italy national-team boss Cesare Prandelli taking charge of the club’s Primavera in 1990. These decisions would bear fruit almost immediately.

Over the following decade, a steady stream of outstanding young talent would come through Atalanta’s academy, starting with intelligent midfielder Alessio Tacchinardi, who moved to Juventus in 1994. Creative midfielder Tomas Locatelli left for Milan one year later, while gifted trequartista Domenico Morfeo moved to Fiorentina in 1997.

Tacchinardi (right) in action for Juventus.
Tacchinardi (right) in action for Juventus.PATRICK HERTZOG/Getty Images

The Zenoni twins—Damiano and Cristian—also broke through in the mid-1990s. The former would remain until 2005, though the latter would move on for Milan in 2001. He would be joined in this move by Massimo Donati, then a 20-year-old midfielder seen as one of the brightest prospects in Italy.

Goalkeeper Ivan Pelizzoli, attack-minded right-back Marco Motta, clinical finisher Giampaolo Pazzini and utility man Simone Padoin also left Atalanta for bigger things in the early 2000s. The former three went on to play for Italy, while the latter was a member of the Juventus squad that won consecutive Scudetti between 2012 and 2016.

When asked by UEFA.com’s Paolo Menicucci in 2005 what was behind the success of Atalanta’s youth system under his watch, Favini talked of a desire to prioritise player development over points.

"We really like the way Ajax deal with young players," he said. "They don't care about results on the pitch, they are only interested in showing all of their youngsters how to play."


Today's Generation

The effects of Atalanta’s youth development are still felt today, and not just in Bergamo or Milan.

While Favini has left the club, top-level players continue to move on having come through the academy, including Torino midfielder Daniele Baselli, Sassuolo shot-stopper Andrea Consigli, Napoli forward Manolo Gabbiadini and West Ham United striker Simone Zaza, who is on loan from Juventus.

Zaza has struggled with West Ham.
Zaza has struggled with West Ham.Clive Rose/Getty Images

Indeed, of the 28 players called into Giampiero Ventura’s most recent Italy national-team squad, three began their careers with La Dea.

When Atalanta meet Milan on Saturday, the core of their lineup will be made up of young, homegrown talent. These individuals have underpinned the team’s remarkable form so far this season.

Marco Sportiello, 24, has been one of the more reliable Italian goalkeepers in recent seasons and has regained his starting spot after an injury to Etrit Berisha. In front of him, 22-year-old Mattia Caldara has established himself as one of the most exciting young centre-backs in Serie A with some composed displays.

Andrea Conti is improving as an attacking force at right wing-back, while Roberto Gagliardini brings nous, sound passing and energy to the centre of midfield. Both are 22 years of age, and the latter was called into Italy’s senior squad last month.

Caldara keeps tabs on Inter's Mauro Icardi.
Caldara keeps tabs on Inter's Mauro Icardi.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Just as Montella has done at Milan, Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini has made a clear decision to focus on the quality coming through his own club’s ranks. With his idealistic desire for high-tempo play, he sees promise in the notion of building his team on impressionable, youthful foundations.

"It can be done because the club is serious, the structures ideal, the fans passionate, and I have already seen interesting players in the youth sector," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t the Guardian's Paolo Bandini). "The project is clear and focused on those players in the academy."

Atalanta have a history they can be proud of when it comes to developing footballers. And, if their latest crop and the words of Gasperini are anything to go by, they also have an exciting future ahead.


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